As Mr Editor Kearne said in his introduction to this month’s theme, compromise is inevitable in the motor industry. The trick is knowing where to apply it and where to not.
Ask any industry accountant and they will tell you that making cars and making money aren’t natural bedfellows. Margins are often small, the customer base fickle and, with relatively long development and production runs, like an oil tanker, once committed you don’t change direction easily. Of course there are exceptions, companies who through a combination of prudence, intelligence, excellence or maybe just fashion, are able to make a healthy profit, year after year, and even swallow up a few of the lacklustre performers in one or more of the above categories whilst they do.
In a recent article in The Automobile, the highly respected motoring polymath Karl Ludvigsen describes Peugeot in passing as ‘one of the world’s most fastidious car makers’. Much younger readers might find his words a complete surprise and for older ones they will be a reminder of how far that company has fallen, for he was not, of course, referring to 21st Century Peugeot. However that is a fair description of Peugeot before they lost their way. Beneath their conservative skins, their engineering had integrity, they didn’t just aim to match what their competitors were offering, getting away with as little as they could. Yet what made them really special is that, unlike another ‘fastidious’ maker, Lancia, Peugeot were also financially astute. They made decent money.
Back in the Sixties and Seventies, to have called Peugeot ‘The French Mercedes’ would not have been fanciful, though arguably it might have been rather underestimating them. For Peugeot were making quality engineering available at far more affordable prices than Mercedes and, in many cases, in cars that were nicer to drive – even in the rudimentary world of diesel engines, a Peugeot 404 Diesel was far preferable to the leaden Mercedes 180D and its immediate successors. And these weren’t just cars for French doctors to drive on short trips between villages, with a local mécanicien readily available to tinker with it should something go wrong. They were cars that sold and sold in Africa because they could be trusted to keep on running. I remember a 404 that my parents hired in 1964. At a glance, it was familiar to me, with a similar Pininfarina styled look shared with my mother’s old Wolseley. But whereas that BMC car had discredited itself once too often the year before, wheezing itself to a halt half way up a Devonshire hill, the Peugeot just let you know that it was solid. From the threaded rack fittings built into the roof, down to its bolt on hubcaps, you knew it wouldn’t let you down.
Peugeot really were the finest advertisement for French bourgeois values, and you can imagine that there was a fair amount of understandable self-satisfaction in the stiff-suited Sochaux boardroom when, in 1975, they took full control of Citroën. It must have seemed the victory of pragmatic integrity over high-minded, uncompromising idealism. So what went wrong?
As Western workforces became more expectant of a decent income and decent labour conditions, the cost of production rose. Yet the same people, as consumers, did not expect to pay more for their cars. And so, inevitably, corners were cut. For many years it seemed that, of the French manufacturers, Peugeot knew exactly which corners to cut, and which to stick to. This was a matter of intelligent compromise. So when my Mum got a 504 Estate in 1972, the engineering integrity remained. But engineering is not the same as manufacture and, excellent though that capacious Peugeot was, it wasn’t flawless. Bits of trim came loose and you could see where Peugeot’s accountants, always lurking in the background, were making sure that the books stayed well in the black. Yet it was a totally acceptable compromise because the rest of the car was worth it and, to put it into a financial context, comparing UK imports pre EEC, in 1972 an Opel Record, a very unambitious car, sold for £1,530, just £79 more bought you a Peugeot 504 and you’d have to pay £1,000 on top of the Peugeot’s price to get an entry-level Mercedes 220.
Jump another 12 years to 1984 and I am sitting in my three year old 305 Estate at traffic lights between Kentish Town and Camden Town. They turn green and I move off, make to change from first to second and find myself coasting in neutral holding a gearstick in my hand, totally free of the car to which it once belonged. Two years after that, at around 70,000 miles, with the fabric of both driver’s and passenger’s seats worn through to the underlying foam in places, I loaded the car one day and its rear suspension just kept sagging until the silencer touched the road. Welcome to the unacceptable compromise.
Much of that 305 could be traced back to the 1965 204, Peugeot’s first post-war entry into the smaller car market. With distinctive and tidy Pininfarina styling, an aluminium OHC transverse engine with gearbox in sump, independent rear suspension and front disc brakes it was universally praised. But, in a more cost-critical sector, Peugeot would have struggled, not to make a good car, but to make an competitively priced one. They were helped to some degree by national character since, unlike its exact contemporary, the conceptually similar and also admirable Triumph 1300, its home grown market did not demand grand timber trim and deep carpets. Inside, like many French cars of the time, it was comfortable but austere, a criticism that worked against it more in the UK than in France where it became a big seller. But as the 204 was supplemented by the 304 on the same base, and the 304 was replaced by the 305, Peugeot would have been aware that, for many customers at that level, fastidious engineering did not command a premium. Yet, for a company that once refused to buy in shock absorbers since outside manufacturers could not achieve the valving specifications they required, they were not going to skimp on mechanical specification. It’s obvious that savings could only be achieved elsewhere.
I claim no prescience here. At the time I didn’t view my bad experience as a sign of Peugeot’s long and uneven decline. Indeed, I still came away with good memories of that car’s basic abilities and Peugeot were still to excel in the future on certain levels with certain models. We even bought another Peugeot, a 405, for work, which seemed a bit more robust, and I recommended a 306 to my Mum to replace a Golf. Unfortunately she accepted my recommendation and, even allowing for a mother’s rosy view of her offspring, I don’t think she has ever considered my views on the world of motoring seriously since. Because, although that car was all the things in the ride and handling department that magazine journalists promised, my Mum also viewed it as essentially rattly, insubstantial and unrewarding; and I can’t really differ from her opinion. Corners had been cut and she didn’t enjoy the compromise one bit.
It’s hard to chart Peugeot’s fall from grace chronologically. Admittedly they reacted badly to it and went through a particularly dire period of styling which might have been avoided. But much of it was possibly inevitable and outside their control. Maybe fastidiousness under the skin just isn’t appreciated any more and the world of old-school Peugeot has been turned inside out. Fastidious co-ordination of interior plastics and fastidious cross-stitching of upholstery is what sells now. Today no everyday car is going to dump you into the ditch, unless you are very silly or unlucky, so however much engineering you throw at it, your car is never going to rise that far above the rest. Peugeot’s former correct but austere bourgeois values belong to a lost age. So why bother?
I looked at a new 308 the other day. Compared with its immediate predecessor it is a more attractive proposition and I’m sure I’d be happy to rent one. But, were Mrs Patrick still in the market for a new car, despite Peugeot UK describing it portentously as ‘The Ultimate Hatchback’ I can’t think of a single thing that makes it special. If it cost £79 more than the equivalent Opel, which would I suggest she bought? Avoidable or not, Peugeot lost that sweet spot of compromise and will probably never find it again.