An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 story, Pt. 3

In part 3 of the Peugeot 604 story we consider the market of the mid-1970s.

1975 Peugeot 604

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.

Author: richard herriott

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

18 thoughts on “An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 story, Pt. 3”

  1. I think it is easy to forget that the likes of BMW and, in particular Mercedes did not sell smaller, cheaper days in the 70s. So, I think a reason why the cars you listed had that ‘Fererro Roché’ factor was that they were all aspirant models from manufacturers which would otherwise want to sell you something smaller and cheaper. Buying the cheapest Mercedes possible didn’t matter, it was still a Mercedes and looked much like something far more expensive.

    Strangely, until I read this, I had not realised that the 604 shared front doors with the 504. To be honest, I think until you really know something like that you would not go looking for it, or realise it therefore. Now I do know, my instinctive reaction is ‘that’s a compromise … I wonder what else they compromised on in designing and engineering that car’. In 1970, I don’t think people thought Mercedes had to make compromises like that, again making the perception that Peugeot were not a serious maker of Executive cars in comparison.

  2. Mercedes sold nearly two million W114/5s, Peugeot sold 3.7 million 504s.
    Mercedes sold 2.5 million W123s, Peugeot sold 153.000 604s.

    What happened?

    The 604 not only shared its front doors with the 504, it also used small parts like switches for electric functions that were standard parts from suppliers’ parts bins used in every French car at that time. If you’d payed for a 604 and found the same switchgear as in a Simca 1000 or Renault 4 you surely would have been disappointed.
    French manufacturers also never adopted the concept of a powerful engine as a comfort factor.

  3. This is a really interesting retrospective.

    Developing an upmarket model from lower cost underpinnings is always a risky proposition. Sometimes it works – like the Cadillac Seville. Often it doesn’t. Like the Lincoln Versailles, 1981 Imperial, Austin 3 liter … etc. etc.

    Also, there have been changes here in North America in road conditions compared to the 1970s. Road maintenance is now a good deal worse than it was then. In particular, California went from some of the best maintained roads in North America, to some of the worst.

    My impression is that UK road conditions have followed a similar trajectory. But not to such an extreme degree.

    As a result, back in the day, a comfortably riding car was less of an advantage than it would be now.

    1. The road quality is aninteresting topic. I hear similar opinions also from Germany, for example, and I have actually seen stretches of Autobahn with very low speed limits (80 or 100 km/h) installed because of poor road surface condition.
      That makes me wonder even more, why really comfortably riding cars like we had them in 1970s France and also some from Germany can’t be had any more today.

    2. The misunderstood and maligned Renault 14 was the perfect car for Ireland’s terrible roads in the 1970’s. I travelled in one from Dublin to Galway on a number of occasions and the comforfable seats and soft suspension were just perfectly suited to the task.

    3. Apropos the Renault 14, I have discovered that the history of that model in Ireland is now literally reduced to the R14 – there being just a single one known to be left on the road.

    4. There is an argument lurking there somewhere about road quality in the so-called developed world being inversely proportional to public expenditure quota (and therefore: taxation) over the last four to five decades. Everyone complaining about road quality really should be in favour of higher taxes and more public spending.

    5. “There is an argument lurking there somewhere about road quality in the so-called developed world being inversely proportional to public expenditure quota (and therefore: taxation) …”

      On the contrary. In North America there is a very strong negative correlation between the level of gasoline taxes and road road conditions. Quebec and California have the highest gasoline taxes on the continent. And those two jurisdictions have the worst roads.

      Montreal is especially bad, even by Quebec standards. And, of course, there is a specific gasoline tax for the City of Montreal above what the rest of the province pays.

    6. I wasn’t talking about gasoline taxes alone. Your circumstantial evidence may be correct. As a proportion of GDP public spending (read: road maintenance) has been on a general downward trajectory for decades.

  4. At the time the 604 was in production, I had no idea that it shared those doors with the 504 and I doubt that the vast majority of potential buyers would have noticed, as they were pretty genetic looking and the overall look of the 604 was so different from its smaller sibling.

    Regarding the dashboard and interior fittings, while the 604 undoubtedly used switchgear and other equipment from lesser models, the overall look was still smart and I’m not sure the average buyer would have been that sensitive to an underlying difference in quality:

    The contemporary Mercedes W123 dashboard and switchgear was certainly of higher quality, but still rather austere and hardly luxurious looking:

    I think the contrast in sales performance between the two cars was simply down to the perception of the two marques and the fact that the 604 sat at the top of a range of lesser cars while the W123 was an aspirational buyer’s entry ticket to what was widely perceived to be a prestige marque.

    To accuse the 604 of being a “Ferrero Rocher” car would be grossly unfair, since it was restrained and elegant, and certainly not tinselled. That raises the question as to what car would have been a suitable candidate for that unwelcome epithet: a Ford Granada Ghia, perhaps?

    1. These two pictures show an interesting detail.
      The Peugeot has seat belt locks attached to a piece of wire. The Benz already has them mounted to the seat and its belts already feature tensioners.

    2. Dave, if your point is to denigrate the 604 by illustrating how superior the W123 was to the Peugeot, I would also suggest that it was, certainly in passive safety terms, in advance of just about everything then on the market. And at the prices Mercedes was charging, it probably ought to have been.

    3. It definitely wasn’t my intention to gush over the W123 rot box with museum pieces under the bonnet.

      There was a time when Peugeot showed that they were able to make very respectable cars. Even the notoriously xenophobic German press declared the 404 the best car of its class (compared to BMW Neue Klasse, Benz fintail, Fiat 1800) and after a comparison of 504 TI and BMW 520 E12 they asked where all that so called progress was when a fully mechanical car like the Peugeot could everything as good as the electronic BMW.
      And yet Peugeot managed to produce a sales flop like the 604 and the interesting question is what went wrong.
      Maybe we should stop to see the 604 as a model of its own and take it as what it basically was, a long wheelbase 504 Super Luxe V6 (504 Prestige?). As a top of the range 504 version its sales numbers weren’t too bad.

  5. Was the Citroën CX really the same price as a Ford Cortina? I find that quite hard to believe. I always had the impression that its predecessor the DS was rather expensive to buy.

    1. I guess that there was a fair amount of overlap of their price ranges – both had qite a span between no-equipment base models and plush luxury, but the CX was clearly a class above (in spite of not offering a 6-pot option), and in average must have cost more.

    2. The better DSs like a 23 i.e. Pallas were very expensive, at least officially – dealers were very willing to heavily discount them. When the CX arrived it sat in a space below the DS in the model hierarchy with prices to match. Early CXs didn’t even have DIRAVI to make them cheaper. Only when the DS went out of production CX prices started to go up with versions like 2200 Pallas and DIRAVI becoming standard across the range.

  6. Building a luxury marque takes time, in modern times I can only see two contenders, Audi and Lexus, and Lexus only just so. It took Audi 30 years from 1965 to 1995 to really be a true contender. In the early 80’s, an Audi 80 was considerably more expensive than the competition without anything to show for it. The genius of Ferdinand Piech was his mission of infusing a level of perceived value to the cars to better represent the premium price the buyers already payed for the product.

    I remember my parents bought a W123 240 Diesel in 1983. At the time, the base level Mercedes was at least 25% more expensive than equivalent cars, and for the same money as the 240D they could’ve afforded a more aspirational car like a Saab 900 Turbo or a Volvo 240 Turbo. Or a Citroen CX or Audi 100 without a Turbo. There was a premium attached to some cars in those days which didn’t necessarily mean you got a more luxurious product, but it was also seen as a given the Mercedes was made of a higher quality and to a higher standard than the rest. And if you cross reference the W123 to any other cars of its era it is very noticeable where the extra money went, the Mercedes really was and still is the better car. And that would also have been painfully obvious to any buyers of the 604, you must’ve been a true Francophile to overlook that fact.

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