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.
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.