An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 story (Pt. 1)

The 1975 Peugeot 604 – smooth, refined and viewed as something of a failure. Today we begin a series taking an unusually close look at the 604’s life and times.

(c) auto-forever

Motor Sport (April 1976 said that “one member of the test team summed up the 604 as a professional car. This takes some explaining because all cars these days are professional or are supposed to be. But one gets the impression that Peugeot engineers never say ‘assez bien‘ but keep on working until each feature is, in their eyes, absolutely right. One may disagree with some of the car’s features but if so it will be because someone at Peugeot actively disagrees with one’s point of view not because they could not be bothered.” 

And Autocar’s view in November 1975 was that the 604 was “a Mercedes-class saloon [from] this top-grade French manufacturer…”  High praise in 1975 but today, the car is nearly forgotten. The Peugeot 604 has left almost no traces in automotive and popular culture. This puts it ahead of many cars that have been entirely forgotten. Why exhume it now? The 604 is, as I hope to show, an important failure.

In many ways the 604 is not an object that seems to call for further scrutiny now that most have rusted away. But the car, I would argue, deserves reconsideration. That is because the old adage that we can learn from our mistakes applies here. Those errors made by Peugeot’s simple-looking large saloon reveal as much as when one looks at the attributes of the winners to which it lost out. A closer study of the car’s press archive can illustrate some of the trends in European industrial, cultural and social history over four decades.

Why isn’t France the producer of Europe’s most prestigious cars? Why would a trend to value the quantitative over the qualitative determine the cars we drive? A reading of the 604 as a design object points towards answers to some of these questions.

From the first reviews in 1975 to the last ones in the mid 1980s, the 604 received consistent praise for its ride and its handling. In 1976 Peugeot was held in such esteem that Motor Sport called the firm “a top grade manufacturer“. The most remarkable comments came from Car which in 1980 viewed the 604 as having a ride quality better than the newly launched Mercedes Benz S-class.

Long past its best, Car still continued to include it in tests against similar large saloons. Car’s support should have mattered as the magazine was influential in changing the tastes of British drivers by favouring well-engineered drivers’ cars over the often cynical products created by cost-driven manufacturers.

But despite this critical support, Peugeot sold only 300,000 examples of the 604 in ten years. Nearly none remain today. Peugeot no longer market a comparable saloon in the highest size class. Their last attempt was launched 13 years ago to general indifference (though CAR again approved of some versions of that car too).

From being a Mercedes rival in 1975, Peugeot is today matched by firms from Korea in terms of esteem, quality and price. The 604 was thus a serious car from a once serious maker. Its fate had consequences which Peugeot still can’t manage to deal with today.

In the next instalment we will examine the background to the 604’s genesis.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

35 thoughts on “An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 story (Pt. 1)”

  1. I agree that there is much to be learned from failures as well as successes.

    I look forward to Part II.

  2. The Peugeot 604 is, I think, something of an enigma. A refined and handsome car, it was perhaps too understated and discreet for its own good. When sales in the early years failed to match expectations, I think Peugeot rather lost interest in it. Over its decade in production, the 604 received little in the way of updates. The only bodywork modification was to the fuel filler flap, the shape of which was changed from circular to rectangular in 1980, a presumably expensive and peculiar revision.

    I always liked the 604 and it reinforced my perception of Peugeot as a cut above the mainstream manufacturers. One detail that jarred somewhat was the side rubbing strip, which always looked a bit “aftermarket” to me (possibly a late addition to the otherwise beautifully smooth flanks?) In particular, the way it intersected with the front wheel arch was not quite right.

    Looking at pictures of the 604 today, it’s still a fine piece of work. Proportionally, it might suffer a little from the decision to use the doors from the smaller 504 (with different window frames) as this makes the cabin look slightly short in proportion to its overall length, particularly the long tail:

    It’s a very minor criticism and the issue, if there is one, is nowhere near as acute as on the contemporary Alfa 6:

    In the case of the latter, the wheelbase also looks a little short, exacerbating the issue

  3. My only experience of a 604 was being whisked by a lady taxi driver (complete with stringback gloves) from Nîmes airport into central Montpellier in total comfort, and too fast for me to read the vineyard owners’ names.
    It excelled at precisely this task, with easy rear access and a huge boot.
    If one didn’t run to a chauffeur to take you from your Paris plane at any of a dozen southern airports for your château holiday home, this was the next best thing.

    I also saw one at Calais, where M, Corporate Boss had indeed been chauffeured, and transferred with all cases, and Mme and her little Yorkie, into the waiting Daimler for the Brit onward journey.

    Mercs have this tied up now, but couldn’t be better. A Thesis might, but my Kappas fell short in the comfort department, if not in speed.

  4. I dare to contradict Autocar and do not think that Peugeot’s engineers polished every detail until it was precisely what they wanted.
    There are far too many glitches in attention to detail for this to be true.
    Look at the nasty universal switches for electrical functions that are identical to those of nearly every other French car from the Sixties and early Seventies from Simca 1000 to Renault 30, look at the cheap solution for the rear door that is part of the actual whelarch cutout and has road dirt thrown into the panel gap between door and innter wing as a result. And that’s before you consider the crap of an engine this car came with which had no power and plenty if thirst – and different valve timing for the cylinder banks and different valve lift to compensate, the strange carburettor setup with one single choke carb connected to the throttle pedal and a double barrel carb operated by linkages and vacuum membranes, something no garage ever managed to tune correctly with the result of even greater thirst and even less power and even more NVH.
    Compared to the dimensionally nearly identical W123 it was an attempt but it wasn’t enough and Peugeot had nothing to compensate unlike Renault who sold the R20 to people not wanting an R30.

  5. Thanks for coming back to DTW as an author with this very promising series, Richard.
    We have discussed this car several times here, and like you, I found that it’s one of my secret favourites. Having seen some of them in earlier years (one of them in New York City in 1996, sadly a very run down example), I can’t really remember my last sighting of one. And I still lack the experience of entering or even driving one.
    I’m looking forward to getting more insight on the history and the impact of this wonderful vehicle, although I know that it will hurt even more to face the fact that I don’t own one of them.

  6. Nice to have you back, Mr H. And an excellent reach back in time.
    Did many of those 300,000 make it to Blighty for I cannot recall ever seeing one. Or is that for future parts of the story? Which is eagerly awaited.

    1. A neighbour of my parents in Dublin, who owned a travel agency, bought one in the mid 70’s, in a metallic brown colour that was very fashionable at the time. It was a pretty rare beast in Ireland and looked rather stately as he drove it off to work in the morning. Unfortunately, he chose to replace it with an Opel Commodore C, the unhappy mutant Rekord E with the Senator front end.

    2. Sorry, I should have added that I heartily share the sentiments expressed by Simon and Andrew, that it’s a pleasure to have you back in the author’s chair, Richard. Looking forward to more!

  7. I stumbled across this unique beauty, which I believe is real and not Photoshopped:

    I think it’s sad that this handsome car exemplifies everything that doesn’t sell today: a formally styled two-door coupé from a non-premium manufacturer.

    1. Daniel, I think perhaps that is a photoshopped image, although I can’t say for certain. Regardless, I would consider it a very desirable car indeed if it exists. I’ve owned quite a few 604s over the years, and I’d love to have a coupé version of one of my favourite Peugeot models.

    2. Another shattered dream!

      Actually, the “real” car is still a fine looking thing in a good colour.

  8. The side rubbing strip is for the taxi work: station car park spaces are still rather narrow today.

  9. Now, here’s another oddity I unearthed:

    Despite appearances, it’s not yet another Leyland Lynx or Triumph Broadside prototype, but the late 70’s Peugeot E27 coupé concept, intended to be a flagship model for a push into the US market. Unfortunately, I don’t know any more about it.

    1. That coupé is rather odd. The rear seems to be taken from an Alfasud. The B-pillar and window trim are of the graceless kind, probably this impression is exacerbated by the gaudy colour. Nothing on this car says ‘Peugeot’ to me.

  10. I think I once saw one as a rusting hulk in the yard of a specialist Peugeot breakers in the Yorkshire Dales but as most of it was covered in plastic sheeting or rotted away there was only a slight something [And it wasn’t the bonnet leading edge number badge] about the nose to suggest that it wasn’t a 504 coupe. Apart from this they only exist in my memory from television as team cars in the Tour de France and a car chase role in a Bond movie, “For your eyes only” perhaps? My parents used to take me to France in the days when France still felt like a foreign country and I never saw any there either, so I’m surprised they found 30,000 buyers a year.

    In pictures it looks heavily slab sided whilst the flattened rear wheel arch and long tail suggest a car who’s style must have dated quickly. XJ’s could get away with the wheel arch and tail and may have been the inspiration but the 604 can’t. Maybe in the metal it looks more accomplished. Photo’s of the cabin invariably show brown nylon seats and a brown cheap looking dash that from memory were exactly like my parent’s down at heel 305. It doesn’t even have the attractive oblong clock that the 305’s had.

    You can get an impression of quality from the feel and weight and sound of fittings but you have to get the punters in the car first, it can’t be conveyed by brochures, so breaking through into the top league is doubly difficult without an established reputation. Lancia and Rover; who I can imagine as Peugeot’s “Bourgeois” contemporaries pre quality nose-dives, had made luxury saloons in their past. Peugeot hadn’t.

    1. The Mercedes W123 had a similar combination of long boot and flattened wheelarch as the 604, but was much more baroque overall. Mercedes got away with that until about 1985…

  11. Total sales of the 604 were only half of that 300,000 mentioned in this article, if you believe the resources of the internet.

    Don’t know where I read it, probably CAR, but the story going around about Peugeot in the early 1970s was that they made their own dampers from scratch. Great precision was supposedly employed in their manufacture, because Peugeot had found that commercial shocks were nasty imprecise variable things that their craftsmen rejected as inadequate for the job. Great story, but Koni would no doubt not have agreed, and instead of beavering away at making their own at great cost and investment, surely Peugeot would have saved a franc or two buying quality outside supplier jobs in the first place before dunning the sector.

    The problem with this car, and the Renault 30 and Volvo 260’s was that 90 degree V6 PRV lump. Odd firing, valve/cam problems, gluey languid response, they were highly expensive alloy units of no particular merit. Yes I know the story about the original V8 and the energy crisis. In 1979, Chevrolet produced a 60 degree 2.8l V6 in lightweight thinwall iron with only pushrods that made mincemeat of the PRV nonsense, as well as the Ford Essex and Cologne lumps. The 1980 Citation looked like a Renault 30, wasn’t well made in the tin, but with the new V6 compared to a 262 Volvo and Renault 30 I had experience with, it stood to attention when asked and had a lively and eager throttle reponse. Then they made performance versions. Likely it was literally a quarter of the cost to make compared to a PRV V6, and variants were made for 30 years. Sometimes old European manufacturers believed their own propaganda and made duds while protesting the opposite was true. The 604 cost a fortune when sold in North America. I saw one or two, but for the money people just bought Mercs and particularly 3 litre BMWs instead. Why bother with French cars that turned into rolling wrecks in a couple of years? And with completely awful repair and spare parts networks to boot that were not helping the cause.

    At least the 604 looked half decent in a gawky upright way, but styling is but one aspect of a car’s design and execution. One is supposed to be buying a durable consumer good, so the mechanicals need to be examined as well. Or we’re reduced to train or aircraft spotting with a touch of class.

  12. Thanks for the responses.
    Yes, the engine is the weak part of the 604 story and nobody has yet come up with a reason for Peugeot´s refusal to put any of the other available engines into what was very likely an engine bay derived from the 504. The Douvrin engine can´t have been so bad because a good number of non-stupid companies used it of their own free will.

    (I wrote this 604text about 8 years ago meaning for it to be one of ten chapters of a book on saloon cars (a surefire worst-seller). Various other things got in the way such as shopping, housework, a PhD and writing too much other stuff instead. I thought it might be nice to put the text up here as the paper version is unlikely to be forthcoming. If however, any other nine of you wish to write up 8000 words on a saloon car from 1950 to 1985, please write a draft and maybe the book can move forward again.)

    1. Peugeot built about 1,100 604s with the Douvrin engine. These were exclusively sold to French authorities who wanted a prestigious car woth lower running costs than the thirsty V6.
      The PRV V6 engine is an enigma. Peugeot had shown that they were able to produce a gem of an engine with the 204’s which except for its healthy appetite for head gaskets was very good and very modern.
      The Douvrin inline four at least was frugal and smooth (and still ate its head gaskets) but the only thing you can say in favour of the V6 is that it was the first Peugeot engine with head gaskets that lasted more than a year. The fact that the two banks had different valve timing and different valve lift say enough about this engine.

    2. As far as engines are concerned Renault used the V6 within the context of other joint-projects with Peugeot, while Volvo originally planned to develop Redblock based 6-cylinder and V8 engines only opt to get involved in the PRV project on grounds of cost.

      Would have been fascinating to see how the PRV V8 could have evolved had it reached production, particularly whether it would have formed the basis of sub 3-litres and plus 4-litres variants. Seem to recall reading about 130 hp 2.2-litre PRV V6 prototype engines.

      On the Douvrin engine apart from being built in the same factory as the PRV V6, is there any other relation between the two engines?

    3. I don’t buy the story of the PRV V8 as long as I don’t see a Renault R40 or Peugeot 804 designed for such an engine. A V8 wouldn’t have made sense, particularly not when considering the French 33 percent luxury purchase tax for cars above 2.7 litres.
      The Douvrin inline four and the PRV are unmistakably Peugeot-inspired engine designs with aluminium blocks, wet liners and OHC with valves set at a V but that’s about all they have in common. Renault didn’t have anything like that at the time except for the R14’s X-type ‘suitcase’ engine that came from Peugeot anyway.
      The PRV would get even stranger with the 24V which is the only engine I know with balancer shafts in the cylinder head

    4. The Renault R40 project appears to be a proposed unbuilt replacement for the IKA-Renault Torino based on the non-English links below, though little mention is made of it receiving a V8.
      http://www.testdelayer.com.ar/industria/torino-r-40/torino-renault-40.htm
      https://boitierrouge.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/ika-renault-r40-le-crash-du-vol-varig-820-lui-couta-sa-carriere/

      The actual prototype which was to be the recipient of the PRV V8 was a joint project between Renault and Peugeot known either as Project H or Project 120 (1966-1968). From the little info that can be uncovered*, this joint project between the two manufacturers was to be launched in 1971, assembled in Flins and should have had a neutral brand common to both manufacturers. It was a large luxury saloon (foreshadowing the Renault 30 in terms of style) equipped with engines ranging from 4 cylinders and V6 to a V8. The oleopneumatic (e.g. Hydropneumatic?) suspension was also available as an option, the basic versions were equipped with Ampiflex suspension.

      The project was a victim of May 68 and a VAT increase to 33% on cars. The V8 (based from the Carjager link on the Peugeot 604) was intended for the US market as opposed to France though whether it would have survived the 1973 Oil Crisis is another matter. Only one of the expected engines ended up appearing, the V6 PRV, under the hood of the Renault 30 and Peugeot 604.

      *-Since some of the non-English language links (mainly the first two) have either disappeared or are behind a pay wall.
      https://driventowrite.com/2016/08/29/ashtrays-1976-renault-30-ts-v6/
      https://www.cairn.info/automobiles-peugeot–9782717819502-page-331.htm
      https://www.allcarindex.com/auto-car-model/France-Renault-Project-H/
      http://renaultconcepts.online.fr/prototypes/prototypes1.htm (broken French link)
      https://www.carjager.com/article/peugeot-604-apprentissage-difficile-pour-la-grande-berline-sochalienne

    5. The article in the last link is very interesting.
      “pour info, le V6 PRV n’est pas un V8 amputé, mais les deux moteurs étaient étudiés en parallèle sur une même base. ” The V6 is not a shortened V8 but both engines were to developed in parallel on the same base.
      The V8 came to nothing because the only participant in the PRV cooperation wanting a V8 was Peugeot who wanted a V8 equipped 604 for US sales but these plans were cancelled because of the oil crisis.

    6. Perhaps it was the case of the Renault-Peugeot Project H / 120 originally being intended to use the PRV V8, with the latter still considered for the Peugeot 604 project by Peugeot after Project H was abandoned prior to the fuel-crisis?

      Seems the Cairn link was an excerpt from the more recent late-80s editions of Automobiles Peugeot book by Jean-Louis Loubet on the joint-venture between Peugeot and Renault.

      The following French link mentions both the V6 and V8 shared the same bore and stroke at 2664cc and 3552cc respectively. – https://www.automobile-sportive.com/technique/v6-prv.php

      While the DMC DeLorean used a slightly larger capacity 2849cc PRV V6 that put out an emissions strangled 130 hp, it along with any other US-bound PRV V6 engines cars from Peugeot, Renault and Volvo does give a bit of insight as to how much a production PRV V8 would put out in US spec. However had Renault’s involvement with AMC amounted to anything in this scenario, it would have been fascinating to see whether a US market 2975cc PRV V6-based 3966cc PRV V8 could have been further enlarged beyond 4-litres via a similar bore and stroke from the 2068cc diesel and 2165cc petrol Douvrin 4-cylinder engines (or perhaps grow even larger).

  13. Another interesting article, I’m looking forward to read other parts.
    In fact, in all, Sochaux never made more than 153,525 cars from 1975 to 1985.
    And the very origin of the project E24 (funnily enough, same code as another « serie 6 » car, the big BMW coupe !) was very plainly a 504 evolution/replacement, according to Peugeot insiders.
    Since the 203, each new middle-range Pug was just slightly bigger and more powerful than the previous one. Hence the original idea for the 604 : a sort of plusher replacement for the 504, with a more conventional boot line, as the strange « fold » did not appeal to all.
    Meanwhile, there was another project, the « H ». It is a stillborn child of the Peugeot-Renault joint-venture that started in 1966. Two years later, the two french brands started the H project, a big V8 car that was conceived to replace the DS as the top end car of choice for french bosses, government and all.
    Both studied a very different body, a sort of big chromed R16, slightly gaudy for Renault and a very formal looking 6-lights, 3-box saloon for Peugeot.
    Too costly, the project was soon doomed, but not the engine. Volvo entered the deal, and the engine project was enlarged to V6.
    Meanwhile, the E24 project carried on, with 4 cylinder petrol and naturally aspired diesel options, just like the 504, as late as 1974…
    I’ve talked with an ex-Peugeot exec, and he told me that it was only at the very last minute that they’ve chosen to make the 604 as « the cheapest 6-cylinder european car », a very awkward motto. Quite silly, but it explains why the career of the 604 was so low-keyed : Peugeot did not believed in its chances as a true luxury saloon…

    1. Thierry Astier

      Thanks for the insight into the Renault-Peugeot Project H, do any images of exist of Peugeot’s version of Project H as appear to only find the Renault version is more commonly found online? Would be interesting to compare and contrast the Peugeot and Renault versions.

      Given the letter used in this jointly-developed Renault-Peugeot Project H Luxury car and the government involvement, one wonders whether any thought was given to reviving Hotchkiss as a neutral brand common to both Renault and Peugeot (or even had Hotchkiss in mind during the conception of this project)?

  14. I just don’t know about any Hotchkiss revival, I’m quite doubtful, but who knows anyway ?
    For H prototypes images, you’ll find a few in two not very well known french book, « les sorciers du Lion » by Dollet/Dusart, an interesting insight into Peugeot engineering department history, and « Renault, un siècle de tradition haut de gamme », published in 1992 for the launch of the Safrane. Jean-Louis Loubet talks about the politics of the H project in the Peugeot/Renault association in « Peugeot, Renault, Citroën et les autres », a very interesting work of a true historian.
    Anyway, when it comes to the PRV engine, I do not agree with Dave.
    The french 90 degree V6 is one of the most underrated engine ever made. True, the original launch versions were not especially impressive. But it is not the engine design which is wrong, just the way intake, carburetion and exhaust were made : the PRV was litteraly born with clogged nostrils !
    Later one, a few cars did show that it could be quite easily tuned to performance : already, with a very small work, the Tagora SX was good for 165 hp out of 2,664 cc. Danielson produced a prototyp of 505 V6 in 1982 that gave 195 hp for 2,849 cc and still only carburettors.
    With turbos, Venturi got 650 hp on track and 408 for road use…
    Moreover, the PRV became the engine of the fastest car in the Hunaudières straight : 407 km/h in 1988 (officially « 405 » !) with a WM prototype using a 900 hp PRV !
    Last but not least, that unloved engine was extremely compact (especially in length), much lighter than any german inline six tombstone and yet incredibly rock solid. And, with proper tuning, it could sing : a 605 SV24 sound almost as good as an Alfa with the Busso V6…

    1. Understand, also thanks for the references.

      Just the fact it was to feature a neutral brand as well as the letter used for project H itself together with its intended use (for the French Elite, etc), all appear to point in that direction. Had the H Project reached production cannot see either Peugeot or Renault wanting to build an all-new marque for Project H from the ground up (adding additional costs for a start-up brand), so the temptation is there for them to use one of a number of defunct prestige marques that has cachet both domestically in France as well as internationally.

      Would have to agree about the PRV V6 being underrated . Read of a 130 hp 2.2-litre PRV V6 prototype being considered at one point (not sure which marque or car was to receive the engine however), not sure whether there were any other experimental developments considered for the PRV V6 (such as diesel, 2-litre V6 Italian tax special, etc) or any other tidbits that are otherwise little known outside of France.

      A pity though the Pons Plan and other events (e.g. fuel crisis, etc) prevented French carmakers from producing their own domestic large sixes and V8 engines.

      Also heard of the Peugeot 404 being intended to receive a V8 during development (is it completely unrelated to the 1.6 XC engine given the latter was apparently tilted at a 45-degree angle?), with Citroen themselves looking at various Flat-6 and V4/V6/V8 engine projects for the DS, etc prior to acquiring Maserati. Not forgetting as well as the unbuilt Harry Mundy designed V6 for Facel Vega, which apparently displaced around 2.6-litres to 2.8-litres (other s claim it displaced 3-3.2-litres).

    2. Frankly, non of these 2.8 engines in late 1970s USA emissions trim produced much power. The Mercedes M110 twin cam, with fuel injection, produced all of 142 hp.

    3. Thierry Astier, thank you for bringing some proper perspective to the PRV debate! I have been driving behind these engines ever since I got my first 604, and the amount of misinformation and misunderstanding about them is astonishing, especially from the Volvo crowd. They were difficult to tune (I became expert in setting up the dual breaker point ignition system in the early ZM112 variants as well as the carburetors) and I think they suffered from a lack of technicians who understood them. The early ones did not tolerate dirty oil, but if you followed the oil change intervals and kept the oil clean, you would not have oiling issues in the top end. The biggest problem with the early engines was that they were intolerant of indifferent or incompetent maintenance practices. The later versions were far more forgiving.

      Quite apart from the PRV engine’s impressive performance credentials and very successful history, it is fair to say that the 604 would have benefited greatly from being updated with the later ZN3J even-fire version that Peugeot fitted to the 505 V6. Unfortunately that came too late for the 604.

      I am in the process of starting to build a 604 using a turbocharged and intercooled 3.0L PRV V6, as well as the Teves Mark II ABS system and the zero-offset front suspension from a late 505 V6. It will be a very special car once I’m finished, and most likely one of a kind. But my very first car was a 604, I’ve owned six of them over the years, and I have always loved them. They are wonderful cars.

    4. Hugh: Thanks for joining in. Lucky you for having got your hands on some of these cars and also having the skill to work with them. Alas I am dependent on mechanics for help. If you can do so, feel free to post some images. We´d be delighted to them. My one drive in a 604 was an all to short but memorable experience. The seating lived up the billing as did the super ride quality. Like its peer, the CX, the 604 is a car that you won´t forget driving.

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