An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 story, Pt. 2

In the last instalment we had a short introduction to this neglected car. Today we will take a deeper glance at the car’s inception.

Image: autoevolution

Of all the material reviewed for this essay, the text quoted at the start of the previous instalment was the most thought-provoking. Clearly the 604 was viewed as a credible car with a bright future ahead of it.

Today the 604 is remembered, if it is remembered, not for its refined solidity, the remarkable ride quality or, as Motor Trend wrote, its reordering of priorities around comfort, quality, roadholding and safety. It’s remembered for rust and listed as one of the world’s worst cars in Craig Cheetham’s 2006 book and its triumphs forgotten.

History is written to suit the winners, even if the winners didn’t seem to win at the time. In 1977 the 604 trumped the Mercedes 280E and BMW 728. The BMW was marked down for nearly everything including poor interior room, a poor ride and unsatisfactory design. But it survived its drubbing and evolved into a benchmark in the luxury car class.

The 280E was not as roomy nor as smooth riding. Its successors sell in large numbers by defining the standard for efficient executive transport. The 280E and its W123 sisters still survive as one of the most common older cars on our roads. And the winner of the test? The 604 sold in ever smaller numbers over its decade in production; few remain (perhaps 20 in the United Kingdom); and the standard it set was ignored because high-speed handling and relentless acceleration became the yardsticks by which luxury cars were judged.

In 1977 Motor Trend began their first test of the US-market Peugeot 604 SL with a discussion of what constituted a French car. In their opinion French cars, regardless of their price, cossetted the driver and the passengers. They concluded the Peugeot did this to excellent effect.

The magazine also focused on the high quality of Peugeot’s engineering and its conservatism which was of the commendable sort. In essence, in the mid 70s Peugeot was a marque which held a position in France equivalent to that of Mercedes in Germany. The following year the 604 beat the Lancia Gamma and Rover 2600 to the top of the podium in a Car Giant Test. So, at its launch and afterwards, the 604 looked like showing the way forward in defining the standard of a prestigious and competent large car.

The 604 did not spring from a vacuum inside Peugeot’s design office. Economic growth and general prosperity defined the period ending in the oil crisis of 1973. France experienced its trente glorieuse and at the time the 604 was planned it didn’t look like this prosperity was about to falter.

Economic growth was averaging more than 5% a year. Times were good for car manufacturers in Europe. French buyers and those in other countries began demanding more luxurious and larger cars to match their much improved living standards. They wanted something bigger and more prestigious than that which Peugeot was offering.

For Peugeot to neglect this market would have meant seeing customers deserting their 504s and heading to Mercedes showrooms for cars such as the W114 E-class, launched in 1968, or perhaps to see them consider the Citroen DS/ID.

So, taking the esteemed 504 as a starting point to begin their development, Peugeot designed the 604 as an understated, commodious and smooth-riding machine for a more affluent France. The 604 then came to match the conservatism of Mercedes combined with the DS’ legendary ride quality.

Another way to look at the 604 is to see it as an act of corporate patriotism and a chance for Peugeot to take the mantle of “presidential car” from Citroën’s DS. The generous rear accomodation with its comfortable seats and excellent legroom amply provided for the transport needs of the French head of state and other senior government figures. Valery Giscard d’Estaing offered his support, choosing the 604 as his personal car and being seen to do so. His appearance at Peugeot’s stand at the car’s launch must have cheered Peugeot executives.

A reference in fiction to a particular car is a useful way to associate common prejudices of the vehicle with that of a character in the narrative. The classic example is James Bond’s pairing with Bentley or Aston Martin. In real life this relationship is reversed: a public figure’s choice of car is of more significance to the manufacturer.

Thus Giscard’s preference for the Peugeot 604 says less about him and more about the car, that it is sober, serious but perhaps, flawed. The picture is muddied by the fact that the other famous face at Peugeot’s stand in 1975 was the renowned clown Achille Zavata. But again, we can read the clown’s respect for the car as reflecting his status and his professionalism, rather than his capacity to fall about and wear face paint.

Inasmuch as the association of the French president with the cars he chooses means anything we may arrive at the following estimation. Giscard seems to have preferred the 604 to the other two possible cars he had on his fleet, the Citroen CX and Renault 30. In A Concise History of France, Roger Price summed up Giscard as patrician and “a very orthodox Finance Minister”. And the Peugeot? Orthodox and patrician sums it up nicely.

One can also read the 604 as epitomising the kind of technocratic conservatism that Giscard himself proposed. His was the presidency of the Minitel, nuclear power and the TGV. But since the 604 was not especially revolutionary, much less so than the CX, one might wonder why he preferred it.

One simple reason is the link between Giscard and the Peugeot family. In the 70s the head of Peugeot, Jacques Calvet, worked with Giscard at the ministry of finance. In the 80s Calvet was the Peugeot family’s financial adviser. And the Peugeot firm itself, mostly distant from Paris and the French government, embodied solid conservative values, more so than Citroen’s radical visions and Renault’s reliance on the state.

The car itself seems made for Giscard: his elegantly tailored clothes (a French interpretation of the English gent) and suave demeanour chime with the imagery Peugeot itself used for its advertising. The castles and smooth lawns where the car was positioned look rather like the kind of surroundings Giscard might naturally have inhabited.

One could suspect the advertising was aimed literally at the man himself. If you wanted to signal that you preferred this vision of France or this self-image, then the 604 was superior to the command-economy Renault and Citroen’s wayward modernity. The car’s sobriety cancelled its expense. It is a vehicle that makes invisible the comfort of its driver and passenger, unlike a Jaguar with its large engines or Mercedes-Benz’s gothic chromed ornamentation.

All of these cultural references were probably lost on the American and British buyers. The advertising chosen for the US market showed a well-groomed couple driving their 604 through the gates of what one assumes is a French chateau but which might very well be an LA mansion or an upstate New York country club. For the class-conscious UK market, the nuances of Frenchness were all but unreadable.

Rather more likely all French cars were symbols of middle-class pretension, being seen as foreign versions of the unreliable vehicles made locally by Leyland, Ford and the Rootes group survivors. You chose French to signal that you had moved beyond white bread, beer and tea, perhaps above all that you had been to the Continent.

In the next instalment we will go back to 1970-something ….

Author: richard herriott

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

28 thoughts on “An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 story, Pt. 2”

  1. Valery Giscard d’Estaing and the Peugeot 604 really were perfectly paired: both were effortlessly elegant and self-assured, quietly confident of their position at the top of the social pecking order, and somewhat intimidating to all those below.

    Richard’s piece also highlighted the extraordinary richness of variety available to the luxury car buyer in the 1970’s: the tech-heavy and deadly serious German pair, undoubtedly intelligent, but lacking a sense of humour; the raffish, handsome, but decidedly left-field Italian with some murky secrets (a flat-four engine!); the cheerful and plucky Brit battling against its foes (mainly, the people who built it); the social-climbing Renault, sensible, obliging and polite, but somewhat out of its depth at this particular party; and the idiosyncratic Citröen, happy to crash the black-tie event in jeans and trainers. How dull and homogenized the present day offerings are in comparison.

    1. Completely agree on the latter point – it’s hard to believe these days that there were so many alternatives at this end of the market.

    2. How would the Talbot Tagora fit with this crowd, or would it be turned away at the door?

    3. You’ll find that the author of this piece has dwelt upon the Tagora at some length in the past and given both cars’ shared parentage, and Richard’s predilection for such waifs and strays, the Talbot would most likely be welcomed as a prodigal son…

    4. Hi Daniel, Richard, Eoin, gooddog and everyone else,

      I hope you’re all well. I was unexpectedly invited on the International Space Station for a few months hence my absence. Daniel, what a magnificent beard you have, I feel like I’ve seen God tonight. The 604 always reminded me of Laurel of Laurel and Hardy’s fame.

    5. Welcome back, NRJ! I was wondering what had happened to you, but now I know… You’ll have to elaborate on the 604 / Laurel association. Perhaps zero gravity has had some unforseen psychological effects?

      Regarding the Tagora, I think it would be the child of an illicit affair that everyone knows about but nobody ever mentions in polite company. There would be a sharp intake of breath, followed by silence, when it arrives.

  2. I just wanted to post my broader appreciation of this oeuvre of Richard’s. I have been aware (by implication) of its implied existence for years now and it’s a pleasure to read it here now, in all its glory.

    It’s hard to believe and even harder to accept that there may be only 20 604s left in the UK. That made me think, though, that I can’t remember the last time I saw one on the road, including the many visits that I have made to France over the last decade or so. I’ve written elsewhere on many occasions that the public gets the cars it deserves, unfortunately, and our sad, herding instinct towards everything German and increasingly over-sized in every dimension means that, all to often, everything at the margins gets squished into oblivion.

    One really would have hoped that the French could muster at least one decent and marketable executive-class saloon between them, but it appears not. The market is all the worse for it.

  3. “in the mid 70s Peugeot was a marque which held a position in France equivalent to that of Mercedes in Germany”

    I own a printed source in Spanish from 1970 that calls Peugeot “The French Mercedes”, due to the fit and finish and the quality of the Peugeots of the time.

    In Spain we did not know about smaller Peugeots until the 205, well into the 1980s. Previously, Peugeot only sold in Spain 504s and 505s, which were very serious cars at the time (as the dealer installed sticker on the rear glass of the 504 said “Peugeot 504, un coche muy serio”)

    1. Even German newspapers called Peugeot the “French Mercedes”.
      At that time all French cars had funny stickers on their rear glass “Peugeot fait confiance à Esso”, “Citroen plédère Total”, “Renault Elf”.

    2. They still do Dave! I took delivery of a new Clio a fortnight ago and as I drove off down the road and looked in the rear view mirror there it is. ‘Renault Elf’. That transported me straight back to the 1970s and made me chuckle, I must say.

    3. I remember very well these stickers! The funny thing was when the Renault 11 came out, as the number 11 is spelt “elf” in German.

    4. These stickers were just as characteristic for French cars as horns with a friendly sound, yellow headlights and door locks that could be opened with a coin.

  4. “Today the 604 is remembered, if it is remembered, not for its refined solidity, the remarkable ride quality or, as Motor Trend wrote, its reordering of priorities around comfort, quality, roadholding and safety. It’s remembered for rust …”

    That’s always the killer. Visual indicators of quality (or lack thereof) will always trump merit in other areas.

    It’s like the obsession with panel gaps. There were plenty of worthy cars in the past with wide gaps, and plenty of current crappers with narrow, even, gaps. But it is an easy check that potential buyers can make.

    Saturn ended it’s use of plastic panels because they could not meet buyer expectations on panel gaps, even though the plastic panels had some big, long term advantages for the vehicle owners. In the showroom they fell short.

    1. Funny you should mention rust, I ran a 604 in the late seventies and was most impressed with it. I subsequently traded it for a totally unmarked immaculate low mile 280CE Merc that had rust festering deep in the bowels of the scuttle fresh air intake. This resulted in water collecting under front carpets and proved almost impossible to correct due to lack of access.

  5. Daniel,

    I was tested by NASA scientists and they said I was psychologically sound. You’ll have to trust the experts. I just think it looks like Laurel, maybe because of the odd proportions.

    Regarding the Tagora, my neighbour’s father bought one back in the days and I will always remember her face when I asked her about it. I said something like “hey, your dad bought a new car ?” and she replied, “yeah I know it looks crap but it was urgent”. I was shocked by her reply because I didn’t think it looked crap, I just thought it was an odd choice because I was aware Talbot was dying and people didn’t really buy them anymore.

    1. I really liked the Tagora’s styling. It was a properly modernist design both inside and out. Unfortunately, its stance was ruined by track that was two narrow for the body. This was, apparently, a consequence of using existing Peugeot mechanicals. This glassfibre styling mock-up shows how it should have looked:

      This is how it actually looked:

      It was also handicapped by the Talbot name, which didn’t have the cachet to support a car in the Tagora’s market segment.

    2. Yes the narrow track didn’t help the stance at all but it had a nicely designed interior I think. It still looks somehow modern today I think, and I didn’t know it had a one-spoke steering wheel just like Citroen. The name Tagora was very good, always thought so. It sounded confident and exotic. Everything the car wasn’t.


    1. Lovely, minimalist and strongly reminiscent of the Rover SD1.

      I remember Autocar explaining that the name “Tagora” was a synthesized word that meant nothing but sounded good in many languages and, more importantly, was not rude or obscene in an obscure foreign tongue! I think it was a very early example of such names, so worthy of comment.

  6. That’s really a nice dashboard, the citroënesque steering wheel was also unknown for me. I actually also liked the exterior appearance of the car, and to seven-year-old me, the narrow track apparently wasn’t too obvious. I liked its sharp edges which made it much more characterful than the bland Solara.

    1. Hi Simon,

      I just noticed that they wrote Talbot on the right-hand side atop the bonnet. This is unusual, I remember the Renault and Citroen logo also being on the right for a little while but I don’t recall the actual name brand name of a manufacturer being positioned there.

    2. Hi, NRJ. Yes, all the Talbot models featured that name badge on the bonnet. I guess they were trying to achieve maximum visibility for the new (well, disinterred, actually) marque:

      Poor old Talbot had quite a ragbag range of models to sell. The Samba was a longer wheelbase version of the short-wheelbase three-door Peugeot 104ZS with different rear-quarter bodywork. The Sunbeam was a stop-gap model developed in just eighteen months on the old RWD Hillman Avenger platform. The ancient Avenger itself was now on its third brand name, having previously been rebranded a Chrysler. The Horizon, Alpine and Solara were previously branded Chrysler or Simca. Only the Tagora was truly a Talbot and launched as such, although it was largely developed under Chrysler ownership.

    3. The Bahia special edition was iconic. It had a beautiful blue and those funky wheel covers.

  7. Ah yes the Samba, it was the cooler sister of the 104 and LNA. It had some good special editions if I remember correctly. Maybe they would still be here if it wasn’t for Peugeot. Peugeot has a knack for killing off the marques it acquires (Talbot Simca), dilute the brand (Citroen) or mismanage them (DS). It’s as if they view all their non-Peugeot brands as mortal ennemies that need to be killed off or put in their place in case they’d upstage the Mother Brand, Peugeot.

    1. I think they took the idea of the brand name on the right from Simca as some of their models had this particularity. On the Simca 1301 it looked wonky, you’d think it was assembled by blind people.

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