An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 story, Pt. 6

Deep breath. I don’t think the 604’s styling has been given this level of consideration before.

Image: blog-moteur

Peugeot had a long standing relationship with carrozzeria Pininfarina, who prepared the basic design of the the 604. As was typical for Pininfarina, the design owed as much to other work they had done as it did to the character of their actual clients’ cars.

The exterior design was by what we might call the school of Paulo Martin, designer of the Fiat 130 coupé and Rolls-Royce Camargue. The record is not clear on the matter of authorship but a clear affinity among these cars can be seen in the angularity of the surface transitions and the flatness of the panels.

Proportionally, the silhouette announces the rear-drive mechanical layout, with a satisfying distance between the rear of the front wheel arch and the leading edge of the front doors. The a-pillar is angled downward such that its intersection with the plane of the axles is behind the front axle. The windscreen angle points down to the front axle, creating a pleasing theoretical conical form.

At the rear, the c-pillar sits directly over the rear axle. The result is a glass house that is located more towards the rear of the car. The balance is entirely conventional but well-handled. A long rear deck hints at a generous luggage capacity while the rear window is slanted so as to be more upright than the windscreen.

The result expresses sober formality, with very modest chrome detailing around the window frames and at the base of the doors. Unlike Mercedes, Volvo, Lancia and Rolls-Royce and many others, Peugeot did not have a distinctive radiator theme to develop (and neither did Renault or Citroen).

Lacking this cue, Pininfarina and Peugeot elected to give the 604 a frontal style falling on the wrong side of the line separating blandness from restraint. The grille is a set of horizontal slats framed by the powerful and effective oblong lamps. If there is a styling intention behind this theme it is to express stability and horizontality.

Image: momentcar

Nothing as dynamic as Alfa’s triangular grille or Mercedes’ imperial radiator could have fitted. The way car design works one either starts with a frontal theme and styles back to the boot or else one decides a upon a side profile and sees what works on the face. In the case of Peugeot, the side profile is decisively plain and what “falls out” is the stark face the 604 was eventually given.

A similar rectilinear theme can be found at the back: horizontal lamps and slight, delicate chromework. The only element of the car that could be called “styling” is a very subtle deflection of the wing line that is clearest over the front wheel.

The delicate hints of style in the 604 only make sense when one also looks at the 505 saloon from 1979 where the 604’s nuances are more clearly developed. All the same proportions and relationships are there in the 505 but one doesn’t have to look for an hour to see them. The 604 is excessive in being unostentatious, a fine oxymoron.

One is left with the impression of the 604 being a screamingly reserved car whose single formal characteristic is angularity. This has the unhappy effect of suggesting that the coachwork is of thinner steel than to is be found on Mercedes; for a long time Benz radii contrived to suggest metal so thick that only big, round edges could be pressed.

1975 Peugeot 604. Image: The author.

What is essentially Peugeot is what is not there: decoration and adornment. Like Mercedes, Peugeot’s designs up to the 1970s were more the result of a set of engineering and manufacturing choices than of the work of a stylist. But Peugeot forgot to add that extra degree of finesse that is required to transform the plain to the attractively minimal.

It is an object lesson that for simplicity to look good a lot of manipulation is needed. Dieter Rams is wrong to say that the best design is the least design. It only looks that way. A lot of hard work is needed to making a car look as if natural forces and the laws of engineering shaped it. Simple, good design is highly contrived.

Author: richard herriott

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

16 thoughts on “An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 story, Pt. 6”

  1. The 604 looked very elegant from a certain distance and in the right colour. Friends of my parents had a very early example in a light metallic ice blue with a light brown interior – a very elegant combination.
    The car was let down by its heavy handed and crude detailing like the oversized bumpers, two piece headlamps (as opposed to twin lamps like BMW or Alfa) which looked like an afterthought and the kitsch rear with oversized rear lights and a large chrome panel between them.
    Very shortly after the 604 the rest of the Peugeot model made the big brother stand out like a sore thumb. Compare it to the 305 (similar silhouette but barely any chrome at all, much slimmer bumpers and finer and consistent detailing) or 505 (very little chrome, well integrated bumpers and finely resolved light units) and suddenly the 604 looks old and heavy.

    1. Good morning, Richard. An excellent analysis of the 604’s design, thank you. Your observation that the car’s angularity suggests that it is made of thinner gauge steel than its contemporary competitors, especially Mercedes-Benz, is spot-on. The stark and unadorned wheel arch cut-outs reinforce this impression. That said, I really like the 604’s self-effacing style, which stands in stark contrast to many current aggressive design tropes. The lack of a distinctive front grille does not bother me and it is to Peugeot’s credit that it didn’t succumb to the temptation to invent some baroque item to adorn its flagship.

      One detail of the 604’s design has has always looked unsatisfactory to me however, that pesky bodyside rubbing strip. Although undoubtedly practical, it looks like an afterthought. It fails to align with either the front or rear light units, and its downward deflection ahead of the front wheel arch looks uncomfortable, almost as though the car has suffered a minor front-end shunt that has distorted the wing:

      Does the rubbing strip cover a subtle horizontal crease in the bodyside or is it completely unadorned? I would like to see a 604 with the rubbing strip removed, to see if this improves its appearance.

      Dave’s photo of the 505 above neatly illustrates your point about Rams. It looks deceptively simple, but the lipped wheel arch treatment, concave bodyside groove and alignment of the rubbing strip with the front and rear bumpers are all “contrived” to give it a more substantial look than its larger sibling. The upright rear vent treatment that allows the C-pillar to flow seamlessly into the rear wing is also exceptionally clean and adds strength here too.

      The later 505, with the wraparound rear bumper and blacked out window frames, is even better:

    2. And here’s the 604 minus that rubbing strip:

      It reminds me somewhat of the Pininfarina Fiat 130 Opera:

    3. The rub-strip on the side has a black element on which a chrome bead is mounted. Where the black part meets the front wheel cut-out it creates two “blips” such that the wheel arch arc seems to have two nibbles taken out of it. The strip should have stayed well-clear of that edge. The version without is cleaner in that regard.

    4. An observation on the side rub-strip. Perhaps it was added to help disguise the carry-over doors from the 504, (which were for the most part unadorned). I think a rubbing strip was available as an option, but comparatively few 504s had them – in Europe at least. Furthermore, owing to the fact that the 604 was aimed squarely (at the scoping phase at least) at the US market, a rub-strip may have been deemed necessary – given that the US distributors would probably fit one anyway. Okay two observations – both possibly erroneous.

    5. Here you see the source of the 604’s doors, including the rearward inclination of the shutline above the rear wheelarch. It’s just that the 604’s wheelbase is ten centimetres shorter and the doors were cut accordingly and the wheelarch lip was removed.

      The solution of the door cutting into the wheelarch is cheap and nasty. Mud gets thrown into the gap between the door and the wheelarch, making you filthy when getting in or out of the car and the door very quickly starts to corrode from behind.

    6. The more I learn about the 604, and its shared components with the 504, the more it reminds me of the first generation Cadillac Seville. That was also a luxury car heavily based on lower cost car underpinnings.

      You could argue the engineering and design merits of the Seville, but unlike the 604, it was a big sales success. That was still in the era when GM engineering and design could deliver cars the market wanted.

    7. At that time there certainly were worse cars than a 504 to base a semi-luxury vehicle on. Think of ox cart chassis Opel Rekord D/Commodore B and you immediately see how good the Pug was. Flimsy world record corroders Audi Type 43 100/200 weren’t much better than the Opels, just not as antediluvian.

      The more I look at it the more I get convinced that the 604 originally was planned as a super de luxe version of the 504 – a suspicion confirmed by some comments to the latest contribution on the 604 here a couple of days ago.
      Take this side view of a 504 and you immediately see how little they could do about the silhouette trapped by the use of the 504’s doors. There wasn’t much they could do except straightening out the boot lid and crafting on a longer nose and giving it a more upright rear window.

    8. A 1970s Nova is certainly a more unpromising platform for a luxury car than a 504. Cadillac ended up adding about 600 pounds in weight over the V8 Nova, so a lot of structural changes were required.

  2. Re the oversized bumpers and lights, wasn’t this the era of safety standards where these were required ? Before manufacturers designed these requirements into the structure.
    I ran a 604 while in the UK and don’t recall unsightly oversized bumpers could the photo be a USA export or has memory failed me.
    Saab 99 is another design that could be said of.

    1. Here’s the 604’s US version to demonstrate whar a truly absurdly large bumper looks like:

    2. Fully agree with Dave on the significance of doors’ shape/proportion
      to the overall end result. This is a textbook example of just how
      vital the doors’ / DLO styling is – almost like a cradle from
      which the entire styling emanates.

      To digress, that is also the answer to why even the slightest
      mistake in the positioning / design of door handles can
      properly compromise an otherwise credible design.

  3. Looking at the rear view of the 604 caused me to notice something that has changed in the decades since, and not for the better. The 604 has large and distinct rear indicators that are approximately the same size, and therefore as visible, as the rear/brake lights. Compare this design to the modern equivalent where on many cars – VAG models seem to be especially bad – the indicators are seemingly afterthoughts, dwarfed by the brake lights when lit. It appears that designers today have taken a collective horror at the idea of visibly orange indicators and have adopted instead a kind of all-red appearance where indicators and reversing lights are relegated to having to shine their light through a covering of red or reddish plastic.

    1. Indicators are for cowards.

      There are zillions of regulations defining the area that has to be lit by an idicator as well as its brightness and colour to make sure it gets seen. It doesn’t matter whether an idicator lens is clear, amber or red as long as the indicator is amber when in use and its area is large enough according to regulations.
      What’s really stupid are Audi’s ‘active indicators’ where the amber light is moving horizontally and transporting a non-information.

  4. Especially on the facelift alloy wheels the 604 reminds me a lot of the GAZ Wolga, still a common site in Russia and other former soviet countires. Did anybody else get that impression?

    I also used to be of the naive conviction that a car like W201 Mercedes was a simple arrangement of 3 boxes. Well, it really isn’t. Once one starts studying in detail, it’s actually a very carefully crafted, sophisticated shape.

    In keeping of that spirit, I think what Dieter Rams meant was good design is “as little design as possible”. In that sens, it turns out, the 604 is a bit too little design. A W203 Mercedes definitely a bit too much of it. A W201 (for example, there are other cars too, of course) gets it just right. Nothing to add, nothing to take away.

  5. Hi,

    I just realised how the Rover P6 reminds me of numerous Peugeots , a mix of 404, 504 and 604

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