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