In part 3 of the Peugeot 604 story we consider the market of the mid-1970s.
The market in the mid 70s was open to a wide variety of contenders in the upper price ranges. Opel in particular was just on the cusp of reaching what we now call the rank of “prestige” with its Senator saloon and Monza coupé. Lancia outsold BMW in the UK.
The mid 70s were also still a time of strong national markets and of far less global competition than today. However, the world of 1975 was not what Peugeot’s planners envisioned when the 604 programme began in 1970. Oil prices had increased markedly, making the 604’s thirsty V6 seem unattractive, the more so over time.
Its performance was good but not clearly very, very good. The autobahn network provided a demanding environment in which German vehicles were designed to operate. Cars which could perform competently in this setting could sell anywhere else, whereas vehicles designed for the French road network and French tastes lacked this exportability.
It was easy to explain an objective fact such as top speed and much trickier to convey the pleasures of a superb ride and excellent steering. Perhaps hardest to prove, French culture lost its position as a way of life to which people, especially the British, aspired. Italian culture suffered the same fate and their large, mass-produced cars have also failed to sell outside Italy (or sometimes even within it).
So, buyers like the image German design conveys and thus admire their cars the most. This is not to say though that German culture has ever appealed to the British – they know nearly nothing of German daily life or ordinary German people’s values. It’s that the effortless supremacy of their cars chimed with the status sensitivity of the British buyer. The expense of German cars was an attraction and signalled the owner’s success or even their seriousness.
The French respect good value and the 604’s relative affordability merely signalled to UK buyers that it was just not as good as it should be. Other large French cars also sold on value: the technically advanced CX was the same price as a Ford Cortina and the mundane Renault 20 and 30 reeked of Renault’s utilitarian ethic.
As a whole, French cars were not advertising the supremacy of French life but rather the French desire for modesty and effectiveness. In the class-conscious UK market this was poison. Putting all this together, one begins to see the 604 as a car for the late 60s prepared for a market with solidifying expectations that a luxury car should be fast and, as far as the UK was concerned, very definitely not French.
Recent coverage shows the end result of this shift in the way Frenchness affects a car’s perception. Martin Buckley wrote an article in Classic & Sportscar in January 2007. He sampled the 604 SL and Lancia Gamma. The article is not that revealing; it recounts the narrative of the 604’s lack of success in the market, of course. He declares that the car rides well and has nice slim pillars.
What is striking is his understanding of Frenchness and French cars. Buckley can’t resist noting that the impression the 604 has is of the car always “driving to the ambassador’s party with a box of Ferrero-Rocher chocolates in the glovebox”. This remark takes some deconstructing. It refers originally to an advertisement in which guests protest at the serving of some Ferrero Rocher chocolates: “Ambassador, with these Rocher, you’re really spoiling us.”
I’ll ignore whatever Ferrero were trying to do with the ad, which was produced in the 1990s. It is impossible to know if they were being ironic or not. What’s important is that somehow the ad has become a byword or shorthand for mild tastelessness or pretentiousness – after all, the chocolates are nothing special, not that expensive and the packaging is decidedly flouncy.
One can see where certain French cars such as the Renault 25 Baccara, Citroen CX Prestige (if you are uncharitable), the Rover 825 and even German efforts like the Maybach embody this kind of automotive kitsch. I think Buckley misunderstood the 604 by anachronistically associating the sober design with an advert from two decades later.
Ferrero-Rocher are indeed the chocolates of suburbia (semi-detached, with fountains and pink cobblelock pavements) whereas the 604 wasn’t. It was just too expensive and too plain. It had no wood-effect plastic, for instance. The Ferrero-Rocher cars of the 70s were the British ones with their mock-wood veneers and evocations of bygone days. At the time the 604 was a stark, almost austere vehicle which spoke of quality and efficiency but not excess.
Seen like this it was the perfect ministerial car or the car for the senior manager. It offered quality without self-indulgence. It seems striking that today the car’s Frenchness instantly connotes questionable taste. The car has been re-read in the context of dramatically changed perceptions of Continental luxury.
The cost of the 604 takes some explaining, sometimes cheap but not cheap enough. The car was more expensive than many of its rivals from the mass market makers such as Ford, Opel/Vauxhall, and Renault. It was usually within touching distance of Mercedes and BMW. So, in some respects it was too expensive (for those accustomed to Ford prices) and in other respects too cheap (for Mercedes drivers).
One would think the car should have been either a bit cheaper still or at least a bit more profitable for Peugeot. But it wasn’t either. It ended this way because the principles of the 504 design were used as a starting point for the 604. This saved some brainpower and development time but this built in unavoidable production costs and limitations. The front doors were the same as the 504, as were such components as the bulkhead and suspension.
Dating from 1968, the 504 saloon was in all likelihood a rather labour intensive car even by the standards of the mid-1970s. It is worth comparing the price of the Peugeot with Mercedes 230 (in 1978) which was about £9000 while the 604 Ti was just over £10,000. Admittedly, the Mercedes was slower and devoid of many of the comfort features that came as standard in the commodious 604.
Nonetheless, a nearly affordable sticker price must have been advantageous for Mercedes. Customers offset the lack of toys with the glittering presence of the three-pointed star on the bonnet. But customers forgot to offset the Peugeot’s less prestigious image with the superb ride and excellent steering which were ceaselessly praised in contemporary reviews.
With Peugeot’s engineering strategy one suspects that some forms of French rationalism came into play, one of them that kind of rationalism that is essentially and paradoxically irrational. This was the idea that since the 504 doors were so anonymous, it would not be a problem to use them on both the much-admired 504 and the bigger, plusher 604.
The engineers’ reasoning might have been that the customer would understand and respect this expediency. Though the use of carry-over doors was never stressed in period reviews, perhaps the multitude of buyers, especially those who already owned a 504 would notice this detail and resent it. Perhaps Peugeot calculated that using the 504 as a starting point would save more than it would cost to use the attendant production methods, but it did not.
Essentially, Peugeot’s rational practicality rebounded, leaving the car with higher production costs and a noticeable chunk of a cheaper car in plain view of the unconvinced customer.
In the next instalment I shall squint a bit at the engine tasked with taking the 604 to the fight for executive sales.