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