Children of the Revolution

The ‘Sixty-Eighters’ rocked France, yet one of its more illustrious offspring would become a bastion of more conformist values.

In a curiously prescient article for Le Monde in March 1968, journalist, Pierre Viansson-Ponté made the assertion that France was suffering from the dangerous affliction of ‘boredom’. During a period which French economist, Jean Fourastié coined as Les Trentes Glorieuses, the country settled into a period of political stability and economic prosperity, transitioning from a predominantly agricultural economy to a largely industrial one.

Rural France had decanted into the cities and its universities were brimming with the young and sexually frustrated, expected to behave in a similar fashion to that of their socially conformist parents. But students from Paris’ Université Nanterre, emboldened perhaps from a diet rich in Satre, Brel, and Dylan would no longer heed the paternalistic voices expecting rigid adherence to traditional moralities, and by the spring of that year were preparing to fight for their right to party, preferably without the restriction of clothing. Throughout May, widespread student riots across Paris precipitated a related but separate workers strike, the largest in French history.

Automobiles Peugeot had meanwhile built an enviable reputation throughout the postwar years for producing thoroughly engineered, robust and commendably durable cars of quality and an unmistakably bourgeois bearing, but timing is everything, and since Paris was revolting, the Sochaux-Montbeliard carmaker wisely elected to postpone the announcement of its newest and at the time, most upmarket model until the protesters had stopped burning cars and flinging pavé at the forces of law and order.

An indirect replacement for the successful and critically hailed 404-series, and since the previous model was so well-regarded, it was not deemed necessary to reinvent the wheel. Peugeot after all was a conservatively-minded, engineering-led car business, and while they had embraced front wheel drive for the more compact 204 of 1965, the 504 would retain its predecessor’s conventional rear-biased layout.

Peugeot were one of the few carmakers who really took suspension design seriously, especially when it came to the fine art of longitudinal compliance. The 404 was legendary for its well mannered road behaviour and elimination of road excited noise. The 504 was designed to further this cause, employing front suspension by McPherson struts and lower arms, and a fully independent system by trailing arms at the rear, with double action dampers of Peugeot’s own design and manufacture.

Intriguingly, Peugeot themselves admitted that the 504, while notably refined by contemporary standards, failed to match the standards attained by its predecessor’s less sophisticated suspension design and when the entry-level 504L was introduced in 1973, its rear suspension reverted to the 404 design of torque-tube rigid axle, where most rear wheel vibrations were damped by the forward masses of engine and gearbox, and was noticeably quieter in operation.

In keeping with marque tradition, styling was the responsibility of carrozzeria Pininfarina, the favoured proposal being attributed to Aldo Brovarone. Employing themes previously seen in a number of previous Pininfarina designs, from the 1961 Jacqueline concept for Cadillac, to Belfort’s own 204 Berline via BMC’s 1100 and 1800 saloons, the initial proposal melded these disparate visual elements with those of the pre-existing 404 model.

What is apparent however is that Peugeot’s own design centre at La Garenne carried out a good deal of work refining Bravarone’s basic theme, adding a more assertive and modernist nose treatment, as well as introducing more tension into the body surfaces – a development which in no small way enhanced the car’s stylistic relevance and ‘character’ over what would become a very lengthy production run.

The 504 was eventually introduced at the Paris Salon in September 1968, initially offered further upmarket than the 404 which continued alongside (until 1975). Fitted with a larger-capacity 1796 cc version of Peugeot’s long-running slant-four engine, the option of column or floor shift manual or ZF automatic transmission and critically acclaimed for its blend of attractive modern styling, excellent handling, accurate and responsive rack and pinion steering, superb ride comfort, refinement and build quality, the 504 was justifiably awarded European car of the Year in 1969.

1970 saw a larger-capacity 1970cc engine being offered, as was the commodious estate (Break) and three-row, seven seater Familiale. Designed as an estate from the outset, it differed considerably from the saloon beneath the skin. Altered aft of the B-pillar, the rear body of the estate combined longer bespoke rear doors, a stepped, raised roofline and a lengthened wheelbase. Eschewing the independent suspension of the saloon, the estate utilised a four coil live axle arrangement which was designed to be optimised in both laden and unladen states. Indeed, this side of a large Citroën, there was probably no finer estate car at the time.

The same year, a purpose-designed diesel version was added to the range, powered by a 2112cc engine, which was uprated to 2304cc in 1976 and this extremely durable and economical power unit would also see service outside the PSA fold in Ford’s Granada and Sierra models. Diesel-engined 504s would serve across France as taxis, and in the eyes of many, throughout the 1970s, the 504 would became France’s Strich Acht.

In addition to its homeland, series production of the 504 took place in Africa, South America, China and Spain, with knocked-down assembly reputedly taking place in as many as fourteen other sites Worldwide. The 504 quickly gained a reputation for durability and extremely long-life, with the bulk of third World production being of the more basic, live axled, diesel-engined models, which was augmented by the introduction of an even more rugged Commerciale pick-up version in 1979. The notable exception to this being the US, where a lack of sufficient site-specific proving meant that the normally durable 504 became something of an expensive and sluggish-performing liability.

The 1979 European market introduction of its closely-related 505 model replacement, saw the range trimmed back, prior to being phased out entirely from Europe in 1983, after fifteen years and around three million built. However, the 504 was nowhere near the end of its life, with Argentinian production lasting until 1999, while Nigerian and Kenyan assembly continued until 2006.

Built in a bewildering array of derivations and country-specific bodystyles, the 504 in all its forms proved not only to be one of the most durable cars Peugeot ever made, but perhaps the definitive car to bear the Lion of Belfort emblem. And while the later 505 improved the breed, most notably with more modern styling, it was never quite held in anything like the same degree of genuine regard as its more accomplished predecessor, either as a consumer durable or indeed as an example of the stylist’s art.

By June 1968, les événements de mai quickly faded as France returned to what it knew best. The strikers and student demonstrators largely went back to their posts and dormitories, the former having gained notable concessions from the French Government and the latter (arguably) having changed the very social fabric of the Republic.

While many of the children of the revolution would later become leaders of France’s administrative and political establishment, the 504 despite the coincidence of its birth, went on to have its status in France’s national consciousness solidified, embodying in eloquent if somewhat ironic fashion the rather more durable bourgeois values the Soixante-Huitards briefly rose up in defiance against.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

22 thoughts on “Children of the Revolution”

  1. The 504 was a lovely car. Peugeot seemed to have a habit of long production runs, and of continuing production of certain models long after they ceased production in France. I can remember as a car obsessed child, seeing quite a few locally assembled (in Ireland) 1979 registered 404 saloons. They must have looked extremely outdated by that point.

  2. Good morning, Eóin. A great write-up of a highly significant car, thank you. Your photo of the red, plastic bumpered car intrigued me as I hadn’t seen that facelifted version before. It turns out to be a late Argentinian market version and also had a quite distinctive reworking of the tail:

    I’m strangely fascinated by such facelifts, designed to keep otherwise obsolete models on sale in obscure (to us) foreign markets. Most are truly horrendous, often hilariously so, but this one is strangely alluring (or is it just me?) The frontal treatment, with the narrower grill and indicators in the bumper, actually looks quite neat and 1980’s contemporary.

    One aspect of the original design always looked slightly uncomfortable to my eyes, the break in the boot lid. I wonder if that was done to stop it looking too tail-heavy, but it must have compromised boot space significantly.

    1. The kink in the boot lid was there for aerodynamic reasons. It effectively created a Kamm effect tail with the air flow separating from the surface at this kink.

    2. I call bullshit on aerodynamics, it’s a fashion choice all the way. That kink is nothing but a fashion statement.

    3. That Argentine 504 facelift looks like it could be an Alfa of the early-to-mid-80s – I think the colour, the revised rear lamp and bootlid arrangement, plastic bumpers and lower door cladding, and wheel design give it a kind of Alfetta/ Giulietta look of that era. No?

  3. Even as a child the boot of the 504 baffled me. It and the Austin Princess stood out as curious-looking cars. I recognised the DS as being special but not wierd like those two. For all the millions made, few remain of the 504 which is despite its utility and driving quality. I don´t think they were all that less well assembled than Mercedes of the day but the W-123, for example, is still a common enough sight, as it the Volvo 240. Is it really just rust that killed them or is it the slight lack of romance?

    1. I think most of them were shipped out to Africa where they were extremely popular, but I doubt they lasted as long as all the 404s that also made their way there.

    2. Most French cars from that era are largely extinct because of several campaigns where scrapping old cars was subsidised.
      There are nearly no more Renault 16s left and 404/504s are gone as well. That’s turning into a real problem for collectors because there are no donor vehicles for used parts.

    3. Richard, I’ve been wondering intermittently all day exactly which car you meant by “Austin Princess”. Surely not this, an actual Austin Princess:

      Not this either, a (BL) Princess, briefly known as an Austin 1800/2200:

      Then it occurred to me: if must be this, the Princess’s predecessor, the Austin 1800:

      And yes, there’s the same boot lid crease as on the 504, which also looks strange to my eyes.

    4. Daniel: it was the Leyland wedge I had in mind. I really wanted my parents to buy one. I was very keen on its strange appearance (whereas the 504 just appeared strange).

  4. The dash looks remarkably contemporary – in form, color and material choice – and there’s something of a resemblance to the architecture of the E65 7-Series.

    Growing up in 80’s South Africa there were a couple of manufacturers that would skip a new generation model’s tooling costs and attempt a local, most often ham-fisted, facelift to extend a model life and keep pricing affordable. Ford and Mazda spring to mind for their acutely heinous attempts. VW’s Mk1 Golf-based CitiGolf on the other hand was an exceptional success.

    1. From the reading I have done, I get a strong sense that Peugeot, along with most French, Italian and British carmakers simply didn’t treat US market conditions and customer tastes with sufficient seriousness to properly compete there. With 504 sales buoyant across the known World, perhaps Sochaux felt they didn’t need to try so hard, perhaps they hadn’t realised the importance of carrying out a protracted series of on-site proving trials, or perhaps there was a degree of old World ambivalence towards the North American continent, but it does appear that what was clearly a fundamentally solid, well constructed car became a reliability nightmare in the US of A.

      My own recollections of the 504 was of it being a far more sophisticated car than the 404 that preceded it, fine car that it was – especially from a styling perspective. In fairness, the 404 probably suffered in my juvenile eyes from being tarred by the same stylistic brush as the risible and crumbling BMC Oxfords and Cambridges which littered Irish roads in the early ’70s. I always admired the 504’s styling and unlike a great many commentators, never found the bootlid arrangement to be strange or unsettling. It suited the car, and lent it a distinctiveness the later 505 for instance, lacked.

      Even though Peugeots were at one time regarded as being something of a French Mercedes, and were certainly perceived as being a palpable cut above the norm, they were not prestige cars. A major reason that Mercedes’ and Volvos tended to remain on the roads was that firstly, they were even more sturdily-built and secondly, were a good deal more expensive, more coveted vehicles, even in old age. Also the 504, like the 404 before it rusted with glee, which saw a lot of them to their grave.

      A counterpoint: During the mid-’70’s our next-door neighbour traded their Ford Consul (take that Mr. Gorfe) for a brand new 504 GL. Lovely car, in burgundy, with a tan interior. We were very impressed. The owner ran his own haulage business, and perhaps to save a few quid, had it converted to run on LPG. This proved to be a colossal error, as it would never start from cold. I recall so many occasions where his unfortunate wife would sit in the driveway churning the starter, only to give up and go back inside. She came to detest that car and rather unfairly was put off Peugeots for life. They eventually traded it in for one of the earliest Renault Fuego’s.

    2. I think what added to the problem in the U.S was lack of commitment for proper dealerships and servicing. When I ran a TR3 Triumph in 1960 the only agent we had carried Triumph, Sunbeam, MG, Alfa, Saab, Humber, Gogomobil, Isetta and Mini . This range probably changed yearly so servicing and parts were a nightmare.
      Only VW addressed this with one make commitment, proper service back up and thus was why they were so successful in winning over Americans while the rest faded away.

  5. Richard, the BL Princess is definitely a car worthy of further examination and analysis. Enormous inside and very comfortable (with a rear centre arm rest!) Unique wedge profile that distinguished it positively from its very conservative competitors. Nearly a great car, but let down by some poor detailing and the usual BL quality issues. The Montego that ultimately succeeded it (after its short-lived hatchback Ambassador evolution) was as dull as ditchwater by comparison.

    Even as a child, you obviously had an eye for good design!

    1. The last time I saw a Princess was about six years ago. You are right – what I noticed was the vast space and the sad fact that it was a set of niggles on wheels. As designed it was very original and appealing, as built it shambled. File under: BL, self-harm. I can´t think of another car that attracted my attention around then – the next one I noticed was the BMW 318, owned by neighbours who I imagine were what were later called yuppies. Then the Saab 900.

      I can´t claim any design sensitivity as child. It is my view children don´t have the cognitive maturity to understand what they see very deeply. However, a car shaped like the Princess would be markedly different enough to be noticeable for its formal qualities. I can´t say I would want to own one, even if it was well-built. Triumph´s P6 has my BL affections soaked up and it is a solidly conservative car. Or maybe a Toledo..

  6. This article rekindled memories of taking delivery of a metallic green US spec 504 while living in the suburbs of Athens back in 1970. The interior was brown as in the pics and the car was equipped with the optional ZF automatic which embarrassed itself within the first year by slipping in reverse position. Having owned smaller cars prior we found the 504 interior was very spacious and open plus the isolation from road bumps and engine noise could be compared with more expensive luxury models, very refined for a big four.
    While these cars were robust in my experience the ZF box failed too early and a few months later when collecting the car from NY port facing a 2k mile journey across the U.S it developed an overheating problem.
    Regardless of these negatives I still regard the 504 fondly and went on to own a 604 a number of years later.

    1. Psst Richard – tell him about the velour upholstery too. Go on, you know you want to!

  7. My dad bought a 504 estate in 1976, with three rows of seats. Me, being the youngest, was always the one sat in back. But I don’t think I had a problem with it (other than the hassle of getting in) there was plenty of room for an 8 year old, and I remember the seats being pretty comfortable.
    However our neighbour had bought the Princess – which I also thought looked fantastic – I nicknamed it the Concorde car, because I thought its ‘nose’ (bonnet) was like the droop-snoop of the Concorde. This was the first car I really noticed (other than a TR7). It wasn’t until the age of 14 when I next really looked at a car from styling point of view, and that was the Sierra, which I thought looked like a space ship.
    I don’t remember us ever having problems with the 504, and we had a 404 estate before that, which was also remarkably reliable for a early 70s car. After that Dad was convinced that Peugeots were the best car in the world. But by the time he had a 406, I think he realised that they weren’t what they used to be. For some reason he always felt that being able to pull away in second gear was a real plus in the 404 and 504. Not sue what aversion he had to first gear.

    1. Interesting because the 406 is a very robust, well-rounded car. I drive one regularly and it is a pleasure to use: quiet, spacious, refind, economical and with lovely ride and handling.

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