Today, we turn our attention to the 604’s cabin.
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vehicle exteriors, the ones that people think of when they think of a Mercedes (our image of these cars is four decades out of date).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.