An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 Story, Pt. 9

It’s time to round off this short examination of a much-respected, iconic car.

(c) carjager

The 604’s particular failing, being composed of elements from a cheaper, older design, was not unique. There were other cars which attempted to make something rich out of what might be considered lesser ingredients. The main difference, which dignifies the 604, is that Peugeot made a very good job of this expediency.

People rather liked the car and it sold decently (153,266 units in total) until the 505 arrived, which itself was partly made of 604 components. The 604 is therefore unique in the pantheon of sow’s ear cars. The Lincoln Versailles of 1977 was based on the US-market Ford Granada and is a legend in the lore of marketing cynicism. Ford wanted a smaller Lincoln to compete the with more agile, compact European sport sedans that were beginning to attract smart American customers. It failed.

The 1979 Alfa 6 was (partly) based on the Alfetta of 1972. It failed. Alfa tried again with the 90, which was definitely based on the Alfetta. It failed. In more recent years PSA repeated their mistake in 1999 by basing the 607 on the 605 of a decade earlier, a car which both failed to even exceed the ride quality of its predecessor or to secure Peugeot a firm place in the middle rank.

Finally, Citroen failed to make a go of the C6 which was derived from the Peugeot 407. The 604 thus exemplifies an important lesson. A new market demands completely new iterations of chassis design and a convincing engine range. This is a lesson Peugeot (or PSA) have failed to learn on three occasions, four if one includes the Citroen C6.

The 604 provides a lesson in what not to do when trying to enter a new market. Peugeot’s calculation that a car based on the 504 would be good enough to rival Mercedes failed. A serious saloon can not be derived from a model underneath it in the hierarchy of the brand’s model range. The 604 cost more than buyers were willing to pay for the quality they offered.

It was too expensive to compete with Ford, Opel and Renault but not sufficiently well-made to draw buyers from the German brands. The 604’s sterling ride and handling could not compensate for the lack of choice in powerplants, however silky and refined that V6 was. And, as years went by, Peugeot didn’t invest in the car. Each year it spent in Peugeot’s range, the 604 lost future customers as well as existing ones.

Peugeot also felled their own car by offering a model almost as big and capable for much less money, the 505. The exterior design fell just on the wrong side of the line separating banal from restrained; while vehicles from Ford, Mercedes and Volvo were all nearly as reserved, each car had other more clearly visible merits to draw customers.

The interior of the Peugeot is, especially by today’s standards, appealing for its spaciousness and for the lush, alluring design of the seats. But right in front of the driver was a dashboard concept that never seemed resolved. The second iteration merely tidied up the theme and used new materials but was not enough to satisfy buyers.

As a cultural object, the 604 represents the moment when France fell out of contention in the competition to offer a prestigious, serious and capable car, one which would build Peugeot’s reputation as a maker of cars for the upper strata of Europe’s social hierarchy. It symbolises France’s relative decline and the ascendancy of Germany as a powerhouse of engineering and performance.

Source

The advantages the car had were primarily subjective, in a world increasingly focused on objectively measurable ones: top speed, roadholding and acceleration. The absence of the 604 today is quite telling, evidence of a change in the values of European drivers, a sign of the primacy of the quantitative over qualitative and evidence of a nation’s changing status.

Looking at the brands that succeeded in dominating the market and the types of vehicles they produced is less than one half of the story. The other part is the forgotten visions of alternative approaches to prioritising the design of large passenger vehicles. Had the world been slightly different, engineering progress would have focussed on comfort and the pleasure of conducting a car. And the 604 would have begat a long line of respected but modestly reserved cars that offered superior comfort and superb steering.

Author: richard herriott

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

48 thoughts on “An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 Story, Pt. 9”

  1. I think that this is a very fair summary. And the fate of the 604 illustrates, to me, that a vehicle manufacturer can get a lot of things right and still have poor sales if they get just some of the details wrong.

    I guess the risk of falling down on a few key details is what drives the “benchmarking” concept, which has the effect of driving all the vehicles in a segment to a mechanical, structural and format sameness.

    And then, with all the vehicles basically the same, the incentive becomes to use shocking design and outre styling to attract some attention and differentiate from competitor vehicles.

    1. Yes and no, or at least worth discussion. Benchmarking is (surely) a matter of quantified parameters. And one can still have qualitative variances. I am not an expert on the “science” of benchmarking though. I presume the art is identifying which parameters matter and focusing on those. To contrast with the LS400 we were discussing, Peugeot did not understand or could not properly match the aspects of their competitors that appealed. Lexus quite obviously benchmarked everything.
      Your point underlines that only benchnmarking will make for sam-cars and I had not considered that as a substitute for invisible difference, the pressure increases on form-giving to make the claim “this car is different”.
      I could go back in time to Sochaux and warn Peugeot about the 604 I´d tell them to provide more engines (2.0 petrol, a 2.2 petrol and a 2.3 diesel at least), investigate the state of the art in rust-proofing and redo the IP and the seat runners.

    2. An equally elaborate marketing strategy would be necessary to differentiate the vehicles in that class, turning it into an exercise to see who has the most reputable and recognizable brand name. Those situations are a shame; people buy into the idea of something as opposed to purchasing a vehicle because of the ingenuity underlying its engineering.

    1. I think that where benchmarking falls down is where it tries to force inherently non-quantitative questions like the desirability of automobile interiors into a quantitative framework to give it a more “scientific” gloss.

      Then you end up with metrics like: square inches of soft touch plastics within reach of a 95th percentile male sitting in the drivers seat (I’m exaggerating, but not much. Apparently GM is now doing something of the kind).

      Some vehicle attributes are extremely important but are not amenable to benchmarking, although they still try. Another example: engine noise. The opposite of a rough, unpleasant sounding engine is a smooth refined engine.

      But the benchmarking process on NVH seems to have driven all the new vehicles to lower and lower engine noise levels. In part, I think because interior noise level is easy to quantify. And less engine noise gets quantified as an “improvement”.

      Vehicle external appearance is one of the most important vehicle attributes. How do you benchmark styling ?

    1. On the contrary, NRJ. This final article on the 604 very nicely sums up the problems it had, and the perhaps rather strange internal outlook Peugeot must have had about its place in the world. It just took a lot of articles to get to the finale, none of which gave the game way.

      And Mr Herriott certainly picked for criticism the most egregiously awful car Ford put forward in the 1970s, the US Ford Granada, an updated version of the 1960 Falcon, itself a tinny piece of structural work compared to Ford’s own British Zephyr Mk II of the times. To ladle on thick carpet, yards of Firflex, a vinyl roof and some styling geegaws as Ford did, and then run advertisements comparing the resulting cart-sprung dreck of a “Lincoln Versailles” to the Mercedes 280 (E-Class today) with a straight face made one wonder:
      a) if Ford actually thought its customers that dumb they’d believe the schmooze, or
      b) Ford was so out-of-touch it actually believed its own nonsense, or
      c) both

      Peugeot were hardly as cynical or stupid as Ford, and I’d have no trouble whatsoever choosing the 604 over the Lincoln, 19 times out of 20, the exception being if I was trying to impress the stiff-necked Dearborn MI Chamber of Commerce into buying my brand of giganto balloons for their Xmas Day Parade. Needs must, you know, when it comes to bizness.

    2. Hi Bill,

      Thank you for your reply. I was a bit harsh with the U.S 604 too but that’s because Peugeot, to this day, thinks that by virtue of being French the cars will sell on their own, even if they’re not adapted to the market. It’s this arrogance that we can also find in the DS case in China where 40 years later Peugeot did the same thing and thought the luxury association with France and Paris alone will get Chinese people to buy their cars in drove. The results: 300 cars sold in the whole of China in the first 6 months of 2019. In my opinion PSA tends to think it’s the customers that need to adapt to them not the other way around and we could already see that with the launch of the 604 in the united states.

      It’s like the 604’s headlights, they had to change them for the U.S market (sealed beam required I think) but the manner in which they’ve made the changes was really shoddy. The first U.S 604 didn’t have a proper grille to speak of, instead the quad lamps were just shoved in the plastic grille without any second thoughts it seems. Only when it was pointed out to them did they add a bit of chrome to jazz it up a bit.

  2. Richard, thank you for your excellent exposition of the 604, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a car that, for all its compromises, had a quiet dignity and elegance that is sorely missed in such cars today.

    What next? Might I humbly suggest the Talbot Tagora? This was the only car launched under the resurrected Talbot name and something of a heroic failure for me. Like the original Rover SD1 (before they chintzed it up) it was defiantly modern and minimalist and its interior dispensed with the “plushness” associated with cars in its segment.

  3. Great series thanks Richard. The styling is what interested me most. I think I once saw this car described as calm and elegant. I would have to agree.

  4. Very interesting, Richard, but I can’t quite agree with your penultimate paragraph. Quantitatively, a Merc 230 offered less than a 604 (slow, rough 4 banger, bare interior, everything else extra cost) but the MB was undoubtedly better built and the dealer service dedicated to the long term. These are the reasons it took Audi so much time and treasure to build a brand. Peugeot either wouldn’t or couldn’t invest for the long term, even to the extent of £10 of rust proofing wax per car (cf Audi’s galvanising). To win against an established brand you need to be both better and cheaper, have good dealers and to keep all that up for 25 years or so until people finally take you seriously. It is not a market to dip into half-heartedly.

    Lexus showed how it could be done, by aiming the LS400 straight at the S class and being both better and cheaper (especially in the US – they didn’t seem to try that hard in Europe, comparatively). The subsequent problem seems to me a lack of that focus; IS taking on BMW, LS against MB = confused brand.

  5. Mercedes W110/111/112 were a successful example of luxury car W111 300 SEL sharing the same body with low rent W110 190Dc (albeit with a shorter nose). The result was an overdose of chrome to differentiate the top of the range models from the cheap ones.

  6. The author probably won’t thank me for this, but this series has lent me to wonder if Peugeot might have been better served by simply offering a top of the range V6 version of the already well-regarded 504, as they did with the Coupé model. After all, this car was already viewed as a superior product, if not quite to Mercedes levels of production engineering quality, but at least a cut above. Would they have conceivably have sold less? In doing so, Peugeot could have saved themselves a lot of money in development and production costs and with the later advent of the 505, have cemented their position as the next rung down from Sindelfingen. Perhaps then, and only then go for broke with a full-house flagship.

    But of course, hindsight, counterfactuals etc…

    1. Good point, Eoin. It would have been a lot easier to make the 504 a sixxer. Reasons not to? It had been on sale for a long time, perhaps. So, maybe Peugeot thought a new exterior was in order. It did not pan out.

    2. Eóin, I think you’re onto something there. By the time the 604 was launched, the 504 was looking rather dated, mainly because of its tall front end and kinked boot. The centre section of the body was smooth and perfectly contemporary. A revised tail and raised front and rear bumpers (to reduce the visual depth of the grille) would have brought it right up to date. Time for a play on Photoshop…

    3. Here’s my alternative reality Peugeot 604 (or 505?):

      Modifications to the 504 are limited to a new, higher but slightly shorter tail end and contemporary plastic bumpers and side rubbing strips. Would this have sold as a top of the range Peugeot with the PRV V6 engine?

    4. Daniel, good work on the 504. It looks like Peugeot’s own 190E 😀
      Thanks Eoin for your time writing the articles.

    5. I’m not entirely convinced by how much the 504’s appearance had dated by 1975. From my recollection, it was still considered an up to date, well proportioned and I might add, desirable car around that time. To my thinking, what the putative flagship 504 would have required were larger, more modern looking bumpers (something akin to those of the 604 would probably have been fine), some additional brightwork or a rub strip to garnish the rather basic looking flanks, a revised nose treatment (for differentiation) – again something more along 604 lines might have worked. At the rear, perhaps a triple stripe tail lamp treatment would again provide a little visual lift, although some subtle badging and twin exhausts might have sufficed. Inside, the cabin would have required enhancement, but again, I don’t think major surgery was required. After all, by the mid-70s the 505 was only four years away, so why go to all that trouble and expense. In my view, the 504 thus emboldened would have held the fort rather well – on this side of the Atlantic at least. The US would have remained a bit of a sore point I fear.

      I would point out NRJ, that this series of articles are Mr R. Herriott’s work. I can (by contractual obligation) only take credit for those with my own name attached. But thank you anyway…

    6. Eoin,

      I know Richard wrote it, who doesn’t by now ? I was only following the herd and thought I’d thank you for your hard work lately.

    7. Here’s a few more relatively low cost modifications to update the 504:

      A horizontal vent in the C-pillar, bright trim on the door sills and indicator lenses in the corners of the front wings as part of a mildly revised front end. I’ve also returned the boot to its original length, to emphasise the horizontal lines.

    8. Hi, Eóin. I’ve just seen your comments. In my alternative universe this was the 505. It incorporates the updates you suggest, plus the revised tail which, I think, makes it more impressive. As you suggest, Peugeot would not have bothered with the 604 but would have settled for a market position above the mainstream but below Mercedes-Benz. I envisage my 505 as (in today’s terms) E-Class sized for C-clas money.

      NRJ, I’ll take your comment that this looks like “Peugeot’s own 190E” as a compliment, thank you, as that what I was trying to achieve!

  7. A most enjoyable and insightful series. Thank you. I think now there is no-one in my circles or neighbourhood who can speak with more authority about the 604 than I having absorbed your words.

  8. A fine series – so pleased you published it. It reads very much as a labour of love that has matured over a number of years.

    This is what sets this site apart, for me. Eoin, Richard, and Sean in earlier days, treat us to well researched writing, with informed opinion and insight, all undertaken by both the mind and the heart.

    Some of us pitch in every now and then – which is great and adds to the richness of interest and opinion – but, tribute to the founding fathers, if I may call them that, and especially to faithful Eoin who keeps the DTW flame alive. Chapeau!

    1. SV, that’s very kind of you to say and gratifying to hear. Thank you.

    2. Very happy to second S.V.’s compliments. DTW trundles on, as good as ever, and still proudly uninfluential!

    3. But it influences us Richard! I’ll agree with S.V. too. Thank you one and all, your efforts do not go unnoticed, particularly Eóin . Where do you find the time?

    4. What they said. Thanks for the enjoyable, entertaining and educational reads.

    1. I’am wondering if I ever saw wipers for round headlights on another car before.

    2. That’s a new one to me. I’m not sure it isn’t more handsome than the regular US market version with its quad small rectangular headlamps.

      As to wipers on dual round headlamps, how could you have forgotten this British beauty:

      The wipers were fitted with brushes rather than rubber blades, to cope with the changing curvature as they swept across the lamps.

    3. I never noticed the Rolls had them, they’re better integrated on the British car.

    4. I wonder why the Swedish market 604 had round headlamps? Cars sold in the US market before 1983 had to be fitted with standardised units from a choice of four; two circular and two rectangular, the smaller circular and rectangular units were for dual headlamp designs, the larger for single headlamp designs. The thinking behind this was that replacement headlamps should be available for every vehicle at every gas station. The advent of plastic lenses that were much more resistant to stone damage made these regulations redundant.

      The Swedish market, as far as I am aware, had no similar restrictions, so the round units on the 604 are a puzzle. Answers on a postcard (well, a post) please!

      P.S. There’s something of the Aston Martin DBS in the 604’s front end, don’t you think?

    5. Headlamp wash/wipe was mandatory in Sweden from somewhere in the Seventies. That’s when Saab got their rod operated mechanism.
      Hella and Bosch had standard products for round headlights that were used on BMWs:

      Peugeot would have had difficulties in finding a wiper suitable for the very elongated lamps of the 604 and probably the usual suspects of Cibié, Marchal and Ducellier didn’t produce such stuff at all, then it would have been the logical consequence to use the Hella/Bosch wipers with circular headlamps.

    6. Hi Dave,

      The more you know. I guessed it had to do with the Swedish weather and some sort of local law perhaps. They had to invest in a new front end and they probably sold 20 of them in the end. That picture above seems to be the only one in existence showing the round lights. I read the other day that, even though it sold a miserable 300 units per year in the USA it was still its first export market !! that tells you roughly how many they must’ve sold elsewhere.

    7. Hi Daniel,

      I didn’t have the DBS front end in mind so I had to check. Yeah it’s kinda similar. If you squint your eyes walking through a Swedish snowstorm maybe.

    8. I’ve never seen a picture of a Swedish 604 before and didn’t know they made one with round lamps.
      These lamps might be standard parts from an electro equipment manufacturer, the only unusual thing is the large distance between the lamps and the location of the wiper’s axis between the lamps rather than at the bottom like the BMW in the picture above. The wiper mechanism could have been made simpler that way – the BMW’s was incredible complicated with wiper blades that could rotate relative to the arm but were spring loaded to bring them back to their starting position…

    9. Ah, that’s the answer then. Thanks, Dave.

      NRJ, ok, so it’s just me then (as usual!)

    10. I like that Swedish version. It must be something to do with daytime running lights? Or were the legendary 604 lamps still not good enough for Sweden? I suppose the round lamps might have been considered old-fashioned. They work me, in part because one of the first cars I really noticed (after the DS and TR7 when I was a small child) was (1980s) BMW and its double-lamp set up. That looked authoritatitive to me. The 604 with double lamps has a similar power.

    11. Thank you Dave. It had its qualities but the narrow track really made for an odd demeanour, like it was bow-legged or something, and the exposed bits under the car looked messy.

      [video src="https://i.imgur.com/Kg0Biok.mp4" /]

    12. Just one more thing, The GIF is taken from a promotional video (or a sort of old-fashioned advertorial ?) for the launch, presumably made by Peugeot, btw. So you can’t even say “oh that’s an old battered 604 in the video”. It was factory-new.

      The video is in French but it’s the most calming thing to listen to.

    13. I’m seeing Buick Riviera and Rover P6 in that round-lamped 604, which suggests it would have looked a bit dated in 1975.

      Still much better than the US version; these small rectangular lamps make it look like a Japanese car, and not one of the better ones of the time.

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