An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 Story, Pt. 8

And so we turn to the matter of the 604’s image and fate.

Image: weilinet

The 604’s history reveals how the buyers of the 1970s were less constrained by expectations of brands. What one notices in the reviews from the time of the 604’s launch is that there isn’t a single mention of image. Today motoring writers have internalised perceptions of what constitutes a desirable car: it is what others might also desire.

Even if a particular model is objectively deemed to meet measurable expectations one can find remarks to the effect that the car lacks image, or the brand has insufficient appeal. Quite simply journalists now would never put a large, powerful and luxuriously equipped Peugeot into a test with similar vehicles from established prestige marques simply because it isn’t deemed to be a prestige brand.

But in 1977 Car compared the 604 to competitors from Mercedes and BMW, a test the 604 won quite convincingly. There were no caveats. A modern reviewer would almost certainly be under compulsion to write: “But the Peugeot name is associated with far smaller and cheaper cars than are made by the German brands. For this reason, we find the Mercedes is a more convincing prospect than the Peugeot. When one is spending the kind of money asked for by Peugeot for their saloon, the knowledge that the badge is adorning cars costing a third of the price will certainly be off-putting“.

Modern consumers are expected to look not only at the car itself, in isolation, but to consider some entirely derivative and relative parameters that do not detract from the product’s inherent characteristics. The reader is invited to take into account what others think about the car too. This points to an inconsistency.

Objective aspects such as top speed and acceleration are more highly weighted than subjective parameters like ride and comfort, but entirely secondary and external factors such as image are sufficiently important to decide a car’s acceptability in comparative tests. Of course, the underlying reason for this inconsistency is society’s status sensitivity.

(c) Bestcarmag

If the 604 had an enemy, that enemy was its stablemate. The Peugeot 505 saloon and estate arrived 1979 and immediately slashed the sales figures of the 604. The brief for Peugeot’s engineers could almost have been to make a cheaper 604 and use lots of 604 parts. A look at the measurements of each car shows that the 505 was just two or three percent smaller in most dimensions (you’d have to measure them both to detect the difference).

The prices were more clearly unlike each other, very much in favour of the 505 which in its mid-range guise was 30% cheaper than a 604. The range topping 505 STi was still a noticeable 16% cheaper. Visitors standing in the Peugeot showrooms would see immediately that the 505 was a more modern car, inside and out. It even looked more clearly like a Peugeot than the 604 did, despite attempts to make the cheaper car look a bit less opulent.

It has nearly no chrome and the tail lamps seem crudely simple. When viewers studied the 505’s well-resolved dashboard they would see no sign of 1973 which was very much living history inside the 604. The difference was that the 505 ‘s interior was designed wholly under the supervision of Paul Bracq, from start to finish; for a brief moment Peugeot had a state-of-the-design dashboard design.

Injection moulded interiors didn’t come more neatly ordered than the 505’s. It was coherent and well-detailed and still looks good today. Car thought it had a “freshness that is surprising”. Oddly Car also thought Peugeot buyers would miss the “distinctive ramp arrangement of the [604’s] front seats runners”.

Presumably this was a joke, as this feature was only ever criticised in review after review. Rear legroom in the 505 wasn’t as extensive but most driver-buyers didn’t care too much about this. It was as if the 604’s younger and much prettier (though very slightly shorter) sister walked into the ballroom. All eyes turned to her.

Of more general importance, there was another serious oil crisis in 1979 and this must have further dented the appeal of the 604 which only came with one large engine. Other makers of large cars had smaller powerplants to fall back on: Mercedes had its diesels and tardy 4-cylinder petrols, Renault had the 4-cylinder 20; Ford could sell its Granada with a four cylinder 2.0 litre and a small capacity V6 of 2294 cc and many others.

What the record shows is that for reviewers such as Car, the 505 STi was a natural competitor for the Granada 2.3 GL. In a 1979 test they even noted the dimensional similarity of the 505 and Granada. Thus if car test results are transitive (which they are often not) the following falls out: that a 505 competes with a Granada in 1979, and that a 604 competes with a Granada in 1983 means the 505 and 604 are competing with each other.

The strategic mistake Peugeot seem to have made is to have designed the 505 to be a bit smaller than the 604. Had it been 3% larger and available with the same engines it could have been a 605. Peugeot could then have gone on to occupy the place now taken by Audi in the ranks of what LJK Setright called “the top cars”.

Sales of the 604 dropped from 25,000 in 1979 to 12,000 in 1980. By 1981 they were down to 7000 units. 1980 then was the year the 604 ought to have retired with full honours, to be replaced by a bigger car with a larger range of engines and more body styles. Instead Peugeot let the 604 soldier on for perhaps the same reasons that led Car in 1983 to include it in a group test. Some aspects of the car were still particularly good.

The 1983 test led Car to conclude there was still no clear superiority overall among their trio which included the Ford Granada 2.8 and the all-new Volvo 760. Buyers thought differently and only a few thousand felt compelled to put a 604 on their driveway that year. Car decided  the 604’s ride quality stood above its peers, along with its brilliant headlamps’ capacity to shine.

It did note that the 604’s body rolled too much during cornering. Since this was the same car that in 1975 had barely perceptible body roll, standards had clearly changed. In their conclusion, the 604’s downside was the messy dashboard and the lack of exterior aerodynamic accoutrements. The performance and economy were also now relatively poor.

However, the difference between the 604 and the best in the test, the Ford Granada, was only 1.2 miles per gallon. The Ford still knocked back gas at 18.5 mpg and the Volvo was only marginally better than the Peugeot, being 0.8 miles per gallon more frugal, despite it weighing a lot less than the French car. What would have tipped the test for the Peugeot were an update of the PRV engine to match Volvo’s speed and a wholesale revision of the dashboard.

That didn’t happen. The 604 ceased production in 1985. Its replacement didn’t come until 1989 and it was a genuinely mediocre proposition. Even if Peugeot didn’t lose money on the 604s they sold until 1985, they lost customers. At precisely the point that Peugeot launched the 505, Peugeot ceded the upper middle market to Volvo, Saab and Rover not to mention losing customers to Mercedes and BMW.

Peugeot never recovered. Their next hit was the 205 which cemented their place in the automotive firmament as a maker of small, fragile if economical cars.

In the final instalment we shall reach a conclusion about the 604, it’s life and times.

Author: richard herriott

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

38 thoughts on “An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 Story, Pt. 8”

    1. Angel: points awarded for raising the intellectual game today at DTW. “Mimetic desire” was not a term I was aware of but puts a name on a phenomenon I had vaguely sensed but not articulated. To put a slant on the concept, there is also the notion of mimetic repulsion, guessing what others don´t like and calling it a norm. The text-book example is when the car company delivers a test car in a more idiosyncratic combination of colours and the journalist devotes 10% of the review to jeering at the choice, as if it´s a built in feature. Such a detail is not wortht the ink – it matters because such comments are a drip, drip, drip reinforcement of certain values which lead us to the tyranny of black, grey and charcoal and silver metallic.

    2. Can we put the blame squarely on journalists for this state of affair ? Perhaps they’re just following what society dictates. I believe most people would snub an orange S-class after all.

    3. I wonder how that program went for the Insignia, the one where they offered any colour you’d want, allowing you to match the car’s exterior colour with a favourite pair of shoes or your tie. The Insignia is a large car too but I have the feeling not many customers took up that option.

    4. Individualisation programmes for one-off paint options are offered by the German makers at horrendous cost. Opel probably wanted to mimic this, ignoring the completely different clientele of their buyers.
      I remember an Audi RS4 with pearlescent lilac exterior combined with yellow leather inside which sold for less than half its purchase price after eighteen months.

    5. Hi Dave,

      The Insignia’s Exclusive program still exists apparently. I’am adding an orange and a green Insignia to keep Richard quiet for a little while (Bonus, it’s an Opel!). I’am also adding a link to the customisation page if anyone has nothing better to do than configure an Insignia they will never buy.

      That reminded me of a horrendous thing I keep seeing lately in my natural habitat: the camouflage paint. This godforsaken trend seems to have taken off around here and its mostly Audis that sport the hideous and naff paint job.

    6. That Opel programme is great! I’m gonna have to play with it. It’s even a car I could imagine buying if I had to have a new one – either this or a 508.
      Nice colour on the lower one, but the orange would have to be brighter for my taste.

    7. I agree in your hate of camouflage paints. I haven’t seen any Audis sporting this, but at least one BMW. What I don’t understand: if they don’t want to be seen, why do they at the same time install these incredibly loud exhausts?

      Actually I don’t even think it’s Audi or BMW who started this. Matte olive seems to have been fashionable for small Jeeps and Fiat 500 for a few years now.

    8. When Jack Baruth bought a lime green Audi S5, many internet pin-heads were outraged that anyone would choose such a colour combination, and mad at Audi for actually building it !

      People compete for prestige, and want what others think is “prestigious”. If someone like Baruth comes along and deliberately violates the “serious autobahn cruiser” image of their favourite social-signaller, why, the rage of the status compromised arriviste knows no bounds !

    9. Angel: you´d think the man had defaced the Mona Lisa, not specified his private property in accord with his taste. It´s not even as if his private property was some priceless antiquity either. It was a car, made in the hundreds of thousands. And the annoyed people would never see it. The whole thing ran in their minds. And yet, somewhere in Italy a unique relic is probably disappearing into the rubble, in Ireland a farmer is bulldozing a neolithic monument and in Borneo a wasp is going extinct – outrage? None, just another detail in the sad advance of entropy. You could call that “whataboutery” which I acknowledge. Yet I think some people enjoy being enraged. In the end that paint job just does not matter any more than Barruth´s choice of sock or underwear on a given day.

    10. Richard: I guess it is one of those crazy things that gets some people irrationally wound up. I get that people can become annoyed if someone butchers a worthy car that is no longer in production.

      But the S5 was still being made !

      Baruth’s green one doesn’t limit Audi capability to build as many black and silver ones as internet paint-ragers were willing to buy.

    11. Bugger the Internet trolls…I like it!

      It’s far more interesting than the dreary and lumpy black paint with black wheels “stealth” combination chosen for so many A5 coupés.

    12. Hi Simon,

      I didn’t mean ‘Matte olive’ when I said camouflage. I meant the actual camouflage pattern. In fact 2 days ago I saw another one, an FJ cruiser this time. The picture is really bad but at least it’s mine. They’re not advertising anything, they look like they’re private owners.

  1. Isn’t that main picture of the 604 a die cast model ?

    Richard, you should know that I’am against showing a die cast model as the real car because no matter how faithful the copy is to the original it never reflects the true car. Back to work I’am afraid.

    1. …..mind you since this is the millionth part of the 604 story and we’ve already had loads of picture I let you off this time.

    2. NRJ: Richard ought not be targeted regarding the lead image. He’s entirely innocent. That was my doing. I would say however that if indeed it is a model, it’s a very good one. So much so, perhaps we ought to crowdfund a purchase of one in lieu of the real thing which has so far eluded the author of this fine series.

    3. Hi Eoin,

      Ok I forgive you too. Great idea about the 604 in miniature for Richard.

    4. Ok so that 604 is a diecast model. A very good one it’s true. It came out in october 2014 with 1250 units built and sold for 46 euro.

  2. The 505 could have given Audi’s shoebox Type 43 or BMW’s E12/28 a good run for their money if … – what exactly was missing from the 505’s package?
    It had modern engines that were light years ahead of the cast iron monsters from Ford or Opel or the crude EA827 derivatives from Audi, at least the saloon had a modern chassis like the BMW, it looked very elegant and was well equipped. It was relatively well made at least to Ford or Opel standards and it was good to drive.
    What it didn’t have was a wide variety of engines (and when it finally had the engines were the wrong ones like the old Chrysler lump or the PRV) and somehow French cars of its size had gone out of fashion even in France at the time it arrived.

    1. One of the subconscious reasons may have been the Peugeot’s ‘Mediterranean stance’ – its narrow track width, which made it appear less planted than German models.

      It was an open secret among car designers that the weak stance didn’t do the French/Italian cars of the time any favours, particularly the larger/more prestigious models, yet engineers were wedded to this set-up. At least until the Renault Twingo arrived, that is.

  3. I’m probably in a minority of one here, but my perception of the 505 is that, visually, it was not in the same “class” as the 604. The 505 was an excellent design and deservedly successful, but it didn’t have the formality or statliness of its (slightly) larger sister. One could easily imagine a black 604 surrounded by police outsiders, carrying a visiting head of state to the Élysée Palace. The 505? Not so much.

  4. Really enjoying this series about a car of which I was aware, but knew so little. I recall the 1983 test in Car (I’d just started to buy Car that year) and thinking that the profile and detailing of the 604 looked quite old-hat (I was 15, so forgive the immature perspective), lacking even a front bib-spoiler.

    I think I am in a minority of liking the 605, even if it lacked the more presidential looks of its forebear. That may have something to do with working for a very charismatic and fun Frenchman who had brought his V6-32 valve over to London and drove it like a complete madman between Royal Mint Court and Swan Lane two or three times a day. Happy (if scary) days!

    1. Hi S.V. Regarding the 605, you are in a minority of at least two, as I liked its design very much. I had the use of one for a month after my BMW 325i was rear-ended by a Volvo. It was thoroughly pleasant and comfortable conveyance, the polar opposite of the BMW. The interior, in various shades of brown and tan, was very different to the all black leather BMW and the light and airy environment was a pleasant change, which encouraged a more relaxed driving style.

      Here’s a reminder of the 605’s handsome lines:

      The history of the 604 repeated itself with the 605: when Peugeot replaced the 405 with the larger 406 model in 1995, sales of the 605, which were never strong, slumped, and it limped on until 1999.

      Incidentally, did you work in Royal Mint Court? I ask because I also did for a couple of years in the early noughties, for a dot-com start-up.

    2. I was based at RMC in the early nineties – it was temporarily used as its HO by Barclays Bank. The boss in question was an ex-pat and given special permission to park his car on the cobbled forecourt, next to the front gates, purely because he was seen as a mad Frenchman and was not to be trifled with on the mere matter of where he could, and could not, park his beloved 605! He swore that the top of the range Pug was greatly superior to a 5-series of the same era and spec, and saw it as his mission to prove it on the streets of our capital. As a still-young and aspiring banker of the time, I thought he was magnificent! He must be well in his eighties now …

  5. It seems that the matter of size is a somewhat complicated one with the 604. Peugeot had, for a long time, the habit of superseding each outgoing model by a slightly larger one and only slowly phasing out the old one below. A line can be drawn from a mid-sized 403, going over to 404, 504, 505 and then 605 and 607 – thus jumping up twice on the ladder of hundreds. Similarly, a class below they started with a 204, increased it to a 304, and followed it with 305, 405, 406, 407 and 508. Thus, the larger models become obsolete after some time. The 604 had the problem of already being too small to be a serious contender for an S-class or 7er, much like the Senator that was also based on a smaller car. Then with the 505 this was even more accentuated, as Richard points out. But I also agree with SV, the design and execution of the exterior with its stately formality puts it above the line of ‘mainstream’ large peugeots (as does the six-cylinder-only dogma).

    Regarding the 605, I think it suffered from the same malady as the Alfa 166: a smaller, very good and successful design was blown up to a size that didn’t really suit it and became slightly out of proportion. While still a nice car, I think it’s not as nicely made as the 405, and anyway I’d always prefer the XM built on the same base.

    1. That chaning in numbering and scaling had the marvellous effect of making Peugeot´s top car have a badge from the class below or from a perceived smaller class, didn´t it? Or was just confusing. They needed a 2, 3, 4 and 6 and they should always has stayed in that order with no class jumping. The 508 is seen as a successor to the 407 and while it´s as bigger as a 5 series its roots are from a smaller car (if you pay attention to history). The logic to is is not clear even if there is one.
      The 605 is a neatly designed car – I don´t dislike it all. It is sharper than a 405, yes. It also looks more costly. However that difference is not enough and as Simon says, the XM made better fist of being a big, elaborate car with a lot of presence. Although stated at the time, the XM is visually a full class bigger than the BX – the affinity is there, I agree. However, you´d never mistake the two.

    2. My French boss (Jacques) had owned a V6-24 (sorry, I wrote 32 last time) XM before he had the 605. He liked the XM, but found it far less tied-down and therefore secure at high speeds.

      Style-wise, I too prefer the XM and also find it technically far more interesting. It would have to be a late Mk1, though – time enough for it to be one of those with the electrical gremlins sorted, but still sporting the nicer, more original interior and exterior style.

  6. Hi Simon,

    You can show us your finished Insignia if you go ahead with the configuration 😉

  7. I read a bit more about the 604 and it says that it sold a pitiful 300 units per year in the USA and except for Italy, Belgium and Germany it never sold more than a hundred per year in all the other countries.
    Here’s an advert for the USA

    Here’s a one-off hearse from atelier Barré with a Ford granada back !

    The U.S versions didn’t have a chrome grille at first

    Another peek at THAT bumper

    The 604 at the IAA 1977 (with a really cool 104 I didn’t know about towards the end)

    And finally the 604 in miniature we might buy for Richard. The other one is too expensive, Eoin wants to crowdfund but 3 people is not a crowd.

    via GIPHY

    1. Btw, in that first U.S advert it says Peugeot invented the station wagon AND the compact car ! The cheek of them.

    2. I thought that was too obvious an answer and was going to suggest this instead:

      Or, more likely, this:

      At least we’ve some ideas for your Christmas present, Richard.

    3. You really are obsessed with this car !

      I found this prototype of an FSO Warszawa and I think it looks strangely like a 604. Even stranger, the tail light look like the ones found on a 504 design proposal. The FSO preceded the 604 I believe so we can’t even fantasise about a Cold War spying plot.

      And this other one that looked like a 404 to me

    4. And there I was, skipping down to my local bookies to place a wager on it being a model of the Astra F.
      Disappointed… and out of pocket.

      (DTW would like to stress that it does not in any way endorse the act of betting).

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