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