An afternoon like dusk: The 604 story, Pt. 7

Today, we turn our attention to the 604’s cabin.

1975 Peugeot 604 dashboard

A great deal of attention is paid to the exterior of cars though the interior is where we spend our time as drivers and passengers. For the 604 Peugeot had, for at least some of the time, the services of Paul Bracq. In the 60s he oversaw some of Mercedes-Benz’s finest vehicle exteriors, the ones that people think of when they think of a Mercedes (our image of these cars is four decades out of date). They are chromed, formal, upright, solid and faultless.

It is ironic then that Bracq arrived at Peugeot too late to perhaps do more than refine the interior. The dashboard, unavoidably in front of the driver, is not a success. It is hardly a complete failure and, by several measures, one of the better attempts at an all-injection moulded dash outside of Germany at this time.

The Italians produced their worst ever vehicle interiors around the mid 70s, as they had no intuitive way to handle the form language of moulded plastic. Turning back to the 604, one can imagine how the first theme drawings had a certain architectural rectitude; in three-dimensional form they loses coherence when seen from any view other than that of the person sitting in the middle of the rear bench.

Overall, the design has a single trope: a succession of oblongs descending from the instrument binnacle down to the four window switches placed ahead of the gear stick. Seen from the driver’s seat, none of the main rectangles framing this array seem aligned. And small linear features elsewhere, such as the glove box’s upper edge and the adjoining feature line also don’t quite match up.

The perforations on the dash top (for the radio speaker) don’t relate to any other feature. It’s not that all of this is badly made but that optically the lines don’t achieve a harmonic arrangement. Compared to the W123, the dashboard appears fragile and haphazard. And the 604 dashboard distracts from the rest of the interior where great efforts were made to orchestrate the door-skins and seats.

The front door cards are models of their kind: simple and elegant where the aesthetic elegance harmonizes with an economy of parts that is as intellectually satisfying as a door skin can possibly be. The mismatch between the dash and the rest is thus all the more jarring; it is as if the dashboard comes from an entirely different set of designers, from a car from a different maker.

And yet, with very few exceptions, few motoring correspondents noticed this fact. It wasn’t until about 1983 that Car magazine observed that a comprehensive redesign of the interior was badly needed. For its first five years the dashboard’s not-quite-good styling failed to arouse the attention of the press in any way at all, other than that some noted that an engine redline was not marked on the speedometer.

Whether the prospective buyers saw any of these demerits is hard to know. Conceivably the answer is a tentative “no.” Most other 70s interiors were quite poor or at least unremarkable, as noted above. Design hyper-sensibility of the kind that leads one to notice switch alignments and millimetric details of craftsmanship did not escape the studios of car designers until the late 90s. Then car journalists of the more meticulous type appropriated the language of industrial designers. Russell Bulgin is the chief and perhaps only example of this fetish. It would be wrong to view the 604’s interior failings with the eyes of the modern consumer.

The interior was modern in one way, since it lacked any decorative wood. Even Mercedes had a wood option though Rover’s 3500 of 1976 also stoutly refused any walnut (at least until a sad remodelling late in life to satisfy British traditionalists). The French generally didn’t have a custom of using tree in their interiors and thus simultaneously the 604 is both modern and traditional.

The debate about whether to use wood inside a car hinges on how one imagines form and function are related. If function is understood in the tight sense of an object doing just precisely and literally what is asked of it, then wood has no place inside a car since it’s decorative. If one has a more expansive definition, then we can allow that wood is functional in that it serves to please the eye and, less romantically, attract buyers who don’t worry about the norms of the Bauhaus movement.

The absence of wood inside the car is entirely in keeping with the notion of the 604 as a comfortable but modestly efficient vehicle for cautious men of business and of administration. Semantically, the absence of wood also signals a regard for that type of modernity that had a narrow definition of functionality.

The restrained style of the car tried to express what one could call sober luxury. The car came in a range of sensible exterior colours unlike the CX. The most extravagant interior colour was a kind of warm orange velour but it was also sold with grey velour and tan hide. Nothing that would scare an accountant or the minister for finance. It was a vehicle intended as an efficient tool for senior corporate staff and government officials where comfort was a necessity but overt luxury was not.

Author: richard herriott

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

16 thoughts on “An afternoon like dusk: The 604 story, Pt. 7”

  1. Hi Richard,

    Thank you for this other installment. Iam starting to think that this story has more parts than the 604 had actual customers . Anyway, looking at the dashboard made me think that the top rectangular section facing the driver is shaped in a similar way as the headlamps, there’s even a hint of 504’s headlights to me.

    1. The Audi C2’s selection of interior colours came was the result of consulting work by interior architekt Paolo Nestler who hadn’t done any work in the car industry before. Nestler firmly believed in his ‘calm through colour’ theory and Audis suffered accordingly. The Audi 80 B1 Type 82 was similarly affected.
      The C2’s interior was also available in blue, green and dark red and the most remarkable characteristic was that no two trim items had the same hue of colour as can already be seen in the photo above where there are at least a dozen different shades of brown.

      Audi cultivated a very peculiar interior style at that time, culminating in the C2 200’s particularly nasty seat trim with electrostatic fleece velour in psychedelic patterns including loose pillows for those in the rear.

  2. Good morning, Richard. Was the 604’s dashboard greatly inferior to many of its competitors? It certainly wasn’t as refined as Mercedes-Benz’s best efforts but was, as I recall, pretty similar to its other contemporaries. It does, however, get worse as you move down. That naff 604 badge and flimsy looking sliding heater and ventilation controls let it down, as do those plastic rectangles edged in silver paint.

    For comparison, Here’s the Granada Mk1:

    and the Audi 100 C2:

    Actually, that Audi dashboard is rather nice, a portent of things to follow.

    1. Morning Daniel. That Audi interior is nice and rather inviting, isn’t it? Not surprisingly the Granada’s looks very American. Don’t they look sparse by modern standards! It’s interesting to compare and contrast the 604’s unsatisfactory injection-moulded dashboard with the contemporary Citroën CX’s, with its adventurous semi ellipsoid forms and deep scalloping.

    2. You wouldn’t see many 2-spoke steering wheels in these car’s segments nowadays

    3. Looking at the Audi’s dashboard I was thinking that the brand’s current dashboards echo a little this aesthetic. The whole horizontal, rectilinear air vents thing for example. I wonder if these were horns in the same vein as the Tercel’s on the steering wheel of the old Audi pictured above.

    4. The slightly later 305 M1’s interior looked much better because it made proper use of the soft material’s properties:

      The 604’s interior shows some Peugeot characteristics of that time: fake seams on the interior door pulls, metal door openers, chromed ashtray surround.
      The Audi looks cheap in comparison with plastic door openers and nasty colours by Paolo Nestler.

    5. Hi Dave, I actually rather like the Audi’s minimalist aesthetic, although I’m not sure how durable that plain seat fabric would be in service. The plastic door handles are pure contemporary VW items. Interesting factoid* about the C2 100 interior: nothing was coloured pure black, not even the instrument faces, which were dark brown instead. The the palate of warm colours in place of black and chrome was meant to instil feelings of calm in the driver**.

      *Interesting to me anyway! I’ve mentioned it before, so apologies to those who are already aware of this little nugget.

      ** How different the archetypal Audi driver was back then!

    6. Hi NRJ. On the subject of two-spoke steering wheels on upmarket cars, yes, they are as rare as hen’s teeth. One notable exception, however, was the pre-facelift version of the current S-Class:

      Deeply disturbing for coulrophobics, don’t you think? It was replaced with a more conventional three-spoke item in the facelift.

    7. Very good find with the S-class. I forgot about it but I remember being surprised about the 2-spoke wheel on the Mercedes. Maybe they were going for a “retro/elegant” kind of look ?

  3. “The French generally didn’t have a custom of using tree in their interiors”

    Reading this made me think it’s surprising there isn’t a movement yet to protect those trees and a whole range of tree-free cars

  4. Back to the exterior styling I can’t help but think American tastes were taken into consideration, even though the 604 perhaps looks unmistakably Peugeot. The angular styling reminds me of U.S saloons of the same era.

    1. And I think there’s a lot of the Peugeot 504 and 204 Estates in today’s 5008, especially around the DLO

  5. Both the Granada and Audi leave the 604 in the dust. The Audi has a delightful tidines and robustness to it. Ford´s is also clean and satisfying – not especially American to my eyes. The 305 is a big improvement on the 604. To my horror these cars are also now quite expensive. The cheap car period has moved to the 1990s now. It seems any halfyway vgc car from the 1970s is worth tidy money, firm to buttery as John Coates would say.

    1. Hi Richard. The Granada Mk1 dashboard in my photo above is the later, post-facelift version with the instruments in a black nacelle under a single glass. The pre-facelift version arguably looked more opulent, if less modern (and more Americanized?):

      Ford hit its rectilinear stride with the 1977 Granada Mk2:

      This effort perfectly complemented the crisp exterior style.

  6. I initially thought the main problem for poor sales for the 604 was the interior, particularly the dashboard. The W123 Mercedes interior was clearly superior. But in North America that car was in a much higher price category. The real 604 competitors like the Volvo 264 and BMW E12 didn’t have wonderful dashes either, and they sold well.

    The use of wood in a car interior.

    I like wood in the interior, but for long term durability it is not a good choice. Wood has poor dimensional stability especially wrt humidity. And is also vulnerable to UV and high temperatures.

    The temperature and humidity changes for a car interior in winter in North America are very severe. In summer, the interior is subject to high levels of UV and very high interior temperatures.

    The UV effect seems to dominate. What I see across vehicle manufacturers is that the horizontal wood (which gets more UV) deteriorates faster than the vertical wood.

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