Driven to Waltz writes into 1977.
Whether it was Liz’s Jubilee, BL’s annus horriblis, the death of Elvis, the first space shuttle flight or the beginning of the Star Wars juggernaut, 1977 was a year of transitions. Even the music business reflected this, with Fleetwood Mac’s cocaine and divorce epic, Rumours topping the album charts while David Bowie (now off the white powder) offered the icy sheen of Low, a record which suggested a future (if not necessarily the future).
Meanwhile the auto business was still trying to make sense of a drastically altered set of realities and perhaps beginning to relax slightly, oblivious to the next incoming tsunami. The US had entered its so-called ‘malaise period’, the UK industry was in full-scale meltdown while in Europe (and Japan one assumes), pragmatic decisions were being made and new cars of merit were being introduced – albeit, cars we couldn’t write about last year and are only getting around to now.
Having introduced the new generation E24 6-Series coupe the previous year, the Bayerische Motoren Werke saw fit to launch the replacement for the long-lived E3 saloon series with 1977’s E23 7-Series – a larger car than its forebear with a more upmarket intent. Powered (in Europe) initially by 2.8 and 3.3 litre versions of BMW’s smooth-revving M30 in-line six, the E23 also gained a more sophisticated (if still somewhat wilful) semi-trailing arm rear suspension design with the habitual Bavarian struts up front.
Styled under the supervision of Paul Bracq, the Seven evolved the shark-nosed style of the earlier cars but its slab-sided appearance meant it lost the elegant grace of the E3, gaining a portly, rather self important stance. More assured was the interior style, BMW’s beautifully assembled, driver-focused cockpit winning praise from all quarters.
While opinions might have differed over its exterior style, views were a little more equivocal regarding its road behaviour, which left many critics scratching their heads. Neither as wieldy as the earlier car, nor as cosseting as its Untertërkheim rival, the Seven seemed neither fish nor fowl.
Worse still, the 1979 advent of Mercedes-Benz’s monumental W126 S-Class put the E23 decisively in its place, prompting BMW to give the Seven a quick rethink, some revised engines (including a mainland Europe-only turbocharged 745i model) as well as a host of suspension revisions, after which the E23 settled definitively into its role as second violin in the luxury saloon stakes, (third if you counted the Jaguar XJ, which comparatively few in mainland Europe did). The Seven remained the ‘driver’s’ choice, but until its replacement in 1986 there was absolutely no doubt as to the star shining atop the ziggurat.
Revolutions were never really Peugeot’s style, so the 1965 204 series was a highly significant car, both from a genealogical and commercial perspective. A massive seller for Socheax, the first front-drive Peugeot deepened the firm’s reach into what was primarily Renault’s market and in 1969 gave rise to the larger and more upmarket 304, which was sold alongside (until 1976). The 1977 305-series was intended to directly replace the latter model, but time-honoured marque tradition, saw it too retained – only being phased out completely in 1980.
Very much an evolution of the 304 concept, the 305 shared its technical layout and engines, using a variant of the 1290cc transverse XL powerplant and a larger 1472cc unit, dubbed XR. In keeping with the older model, the gearbox–in-sump arrangement was retained, as indeed was the curious ’round the houses’ drive belt arrangement, (which proved highly amusing to replace). Soon after, Peugeot announced a diesel version, using a new-generation, and for the time, highly refined 1548 cc compression ignition unit.
Tradition was maintained in stylistic terms as well, design duties falling to Pininfarina, who carried out a thoroughly neat, proportional and businesslike job. What it wasn’t however, was strikingly handsome, lacking a certain assurance of line which typifies the best of both entities. The 305’s long wheelbase however, while lending it slightly awkward looks, did allow not only for a spacious and airy cabin, but fine handling and as one had come to expect, a superb ride on Peugeot’s own brand of dampers.
Uniformally beloved by the motor press for its refinement, superb road manners and quality construction, the 305 was a big seller in its native France, but less so elsewhere, lacking the body and engine choices of its rivals – notably Renault’s popular 18 range. This was partly addressed in 1981 by the well-liked estate (and van) model, which featured clever horizontally mounted coil springs to obviate intrusion into the commodious load area.
The following year, a major facelift saw a new nose, influenced by Peugeot’s VERA concepts, a redesigned front subframe, a new, wider range of XU-series petrol engines with end-on gearboxes (offering five speeds for the first time) and a redesigned facia, placing the 305 (slightly) more upmarket. But with the in-house Citroën BX arriving the same year, along with highly credible rivals from Ford and GM, the 305 increasingly seemed a bit of an outlier.
Nevertheless, with total sales of 1,740,300* cars over a twelve year production run, the 305 can only be counted as a success. In pre-facelift form especially, a proper Peugeot; engineered and built with care and for a long service life. Largely forgotten now it may be, but the 305 was above all, a class act.
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Cars from 1977 we did write about
Author’s note: Owing to errors in the original text relating to the BMW 7-Series, this article has been amended. (See comments below).