Time for a suspension of disbelief.
Hydropneumatic. Whenever this word is mentioned among those with even a fleeting interest in cars, the word Citroën usually follows. And with good reason; this much praised suspension system was an indispensable factor in cementing the double chevron’s reputation for ride comfort and Avant Garde engineering.
It is a little known fact however that competitor Peugeot (in those days known, in contrast to Citroën, for conventional and proven engineering) would nearly introduce its own version of hydropneumatic suspension in the 404.
Starting in 1953, Sochaux engineers worked on a hydropneumatic suspension system which was installed in a few secret 403 prototypes. In 1957 Peugeot management, doubtless spurred on by the spectacular introduction and resultant publicity storm around Citroën’s DS 19, decided that the new suspension would be made available as an option for the upcoming 404 model, under the name Oléopneumatique.
The Peugeot system differed from Citroën’s in that it was a closed circuit system with a continuous pump as opposed to an open system. Two versions were planned: one for use only on the rear axle, and one for all four wheels.
The idea behind this was to offer buyers a range of suspension methods when choosing a 404 while also allowing the more traditionally inclined Peugeot customers to stick to the tried and tested coil springs if they chose.
As did Citroën before, Peugeot encountered numerous reliability issues with the new-fangled technology. Still, Sochaux was confident that these teething problems would be eliminated by the time the Oléopneumatique was to be installed in production cars.
The 404 Oléopneumatique on the testbed.
The 404 was introduced in 1960, with the Oléopneumatique option planned to be presented for the 1962 or 1963 model year. However, in late 1960 Peugeot CEO Maurice Jordan ordered the suspension (no pun intended) of the project, even though nearly 200 million Francs had already been invested and several pre-production vehicles were already undergoing real world testing.
Why? Naturally precautions had been taken to ensure that the Peugeot system would not violate Citroën’s intellectual property, but even so, Jordan was wary of legal trouble with the double chevron and the unwanted publicity that might come with it. On top of that, marketing-wise there was every reason to expect Citroën to portray the Oléopneumatique as a copy of their work even if it did not actually infringe on its patents.
The most salient reason however is of a more strategic kind. With the common market to become a reality a few years later – 1968 – Peugeot was seeking an alliance with Citroën, the latter being in the stronger negotiating position at the time (some years later it would be the other way round).
Negotiations took place, and one of the concessions Peugeot was forced to make was abandoning the Oléopneumatique- in vain as it would turn out because the alliance would come to nothing.
In 1966 François Gautier succeeded Maurice Jordan as CEO, declared no further interest in the Oléopneumatique and cancelled all further development – and that meant the end of the road for Peugeot’s attempts at challenging Citroën’s famous Hydropneumatique.