French Polish

DTW makes the case for the Peugeot 404.

Image: Author’s Collection

Regardless of whether one is discussing art, cuisine, kitchen appliances, or indeed motor cars, definitives are tricky things to quantify. In the field of automobiles, applying such measures to specific marques comes fraught with even more difficulty, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that one ought not at least make the attempt.

When it comes to the products of Automobiles Peugeot, younger souls might ascribe the 205 as defining the latterday lion of Belfort. But une sacré numéro was in some respects, the anti-Peugeot, insofar as it reoriented the marque’s centre of gravity towards the supermini segment, when Peugeot had been, for some time, a resolutely middle order, middle-class offering.

The product which had first embedded this perception was introduced in 1960. The Peugeot 404 was no revolutionary, in fact it wasn’t even particularly novel, being based upon the underlying principles of the preceding 403, but was the car which perhaps did more to cement the idea of Automobiles Peugeot in the minds of motorists the world over.

The 404’s predecessor, introduced the same year as Citroën’s DS19, was very much Quai de Javel’s anthesis. Conventionally engineered, upright and so very solide, 403 was Sochaux’s first berline to be styled by carrozzeria Pininfarina, an association which would prove exceptionally fruitful for both parties over almost 40 years. Slightly smaller, and less upmarket than the Goddess, the 403 offered sobriety, respectability and a level of reliability and build integrity which resulted in over 1.2 million sold.

Five years doesn’t sound like a lengthy lifespan for a car dubbed l’increvable, and of course in true Sochaux fashion, the 403 continued well after the 404’s introduction, with production ceasing in 1966. But fashion and carbuyer’s tastes were nevertheless changing rapidly, and for the 403’s successor, a more sophisticated offering was deemed necessary – so much so that Peugeot management briefly contemplated a more upmarket version employing Sochaux’s own version of oleopneumatic springs.

Image: wheelsage

Orthodoxy prevailed however, and the 404 combined a good deal of this, but with a decidedly Bourgogne-Franche-Comté twist. So a combination of the new combined with carryover hardware, further honed and refined. And it was this latter aspect which lent the 404 such assured road behaviour.

New was its front suspension, employing long-travel, coil sprung struts. Retained was the 403’s solid, coil-sprung rear axle, linked to the drivetrain by a rigid torque tube, driving through a worm and pinion differential. Peugeot chassis engineers are believed to have incorporated an element of longitudinal compliance into the rear suspension, which alongside carefully calibrated dampers of their own manufacture, gave the 404 a combination of superb ride comfort and accurate handling which belied its on-paper lack of sophistication.

The 404 was powered by a 1618 cc (XC7) wet liner cast iron block, alloy headed in-line four, canted in this instance at a 45° angle. Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection became available as an option from 1962, and a 1948 cc diesel engine (beloved of the taxi trade) came onstream two years later. [1] The four-speed all-synchromesh manual or ZF automatic gearbox was operated throughout the model’s lifespan via a column shifter. [2]

Clothing the mechanicals was a body which to most European eyes appears not only familiar, but wholly derivative. Pioneered in production by Pininfarina’s 1957 Lancia Flaminia, the inhabitants of Corso Trapani subsequently reprised this essential theme innumerable times, most notably for the 1959 BMC mid-sized Farina saloon series, which the subsequent 404 most closely resembled. At first glance, the resemblance is uncanny, but closer scrutiny tells a different story.

While the British designs really never quite gelled and dated quickly, the Peugeot gained a timeless quality, one which allowed it such a lengthy lifespan. The key differences, while quite subtle, are profound. Firstly, the Peugeot’s proportions are so much better, with its longer wheelbase, cleaner flanks and shorter overhangs; not to mention the tidier, more linear and better integrated tail fins. And while the canopies appear similar, the 404 has a larger, less cluttered glass area, particularly the side DLO.

Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, the 404’s track widths are considerably broader, lending it a far more planted, more contemporary stance, whereas the BMC cars were saddled with tracks more akin to something from the 1940s. So while one could argue that Sochaux got more for their money from Pininfarina than Longbridge, one also has to credit Peugeot’s own stylists’ work and recall that those at BMC (Ricardo Burzi in particular), were a little over-fond of the baroque.

The result was one of the most elegant European saloons of its era, and while the outwardly similar Fiat 1800/ 2300 and aforementioned Flaminia were uncommon sightings outside of Italy, the 404 soon became a familiar presence right across the globe, rivalling Volvo’s 122 and Mercedes’ more upmarket Heckflosse in the world’s most durable motor car stakes. Building upon the enviable reputation of its predecessor, the 404 proved an immediate sales success, aided in no small manner by victories in the gruelling East African Safari rally, further underlining its ruggedness and durability.

A year after the launch of the berline, the Pininfarina designed and built 404 Cabriolet and Coupé were introduced. These pretty and considerably more expensive derivatives were inspired by the carrozzeria’s 1959 Cadillac Starlight concept.

A year later saw the debut of the Break, 7-seat Family and Commerciale versions. This long wheelbase estate model employed a novel double coil spring assembly for the rear suspension to cope with the vastly increased payloads and facilitate a flat, unimpeded load deck.

Ubiquitous everywhere – from Nairobi to Nantes, from Brisbane to Boston – be it as taxi, a loadbearing African pickup, a fast, nimble fuel-injected middle-class saloon or a family holdall, there was a 404 for almost everyone. Famously, Enzo Ferrari is documented as having been an owner, as was US Mercury astronaut, John Glenn, much to the amusement of his fellow starmen.

In 1968, Peugeot introduced the 504, another incremental evolution of time-honoured practice, and as before, the seemingly eternal and unchanging 404 continued alongside. European production ceased at Sochaux in 1975, with over 1.8 million built. But licenced production would continue in Africa and South America until 1991, with the pickup still listed for sale until 1988. In all, over 2.8 million 404s of all types were built worldwide, many of them still in active service in some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable.

Throughout the 20th century no other car which bore the lion of Belfort upon its prow did as much to embed the values which Peugeot came to be lionised for: fine engineering, contemporary style, excellent build quality and superb longevity and durability. Was the 404 the definitive Peugeot? It’s tempting to argue that it was. Certainly no subsequent Sochaux product truly embodied all of its virtues – it’s now unlikely any ever will.

[1]  The diesel powerplant was inclined at 20°.
[2] Some US-spec and late-era South African-assembled versions came with the 504’s powertrain and floor-mounted gear linkage.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “French Polish”

  1. Great article. These were assembled in Ireland until 1979. I can remember as a car obsessed child thinking how incongrous they looked on 1979/80 number plates. It’s amazing how much neater these look compared to the contemporary BMC cars.

  2. Good morning, Eóin, and thank you for a nice reminder of what is for me the quintessential Peugeot. I’ve always been amazed at how Pininfarina got away with selling essentially the same design to Peugeot and BMC. I wonder how much each manufacturer altered Pininfarina’s proposal to make it their own? ‘Baroque’ is an excellent adjective to describe BMC’s efforts, particularly the early Austin Cambridge with its Wurlitzer inspired tail lights.

    In contrast the 404 is a model of sobriety. The lack of quarter-lights in the doors and the really near treatment of the trim surrounding the recessed rear window make the 404 very much the better resolved and cleaner of the two designs.

    BMC put a huge effort (and cost?) into different nose and tail treatments for the multiplicity of different versions needed to satisfy their rival dealerships, effort that would have been much better employed in lifting the quality of the underlying car to Peugeot levels of durability and reliability.

    Is it my imagination, but in the photos above does the 404’s panels look smoother and better aligned and the shut-lines look tighter?

    1. Judging by the photos I have to agree about the shutlines, Daniel. There’s a 404 Coupe in the parking garage in my apartment building. Would love to share a photo, but the car is under a cover, so not much to see there.

      The only Peugeot in our family was a 504 GR. My dad bought it new when I was six years old. He enjoyed the space, comfort and roadholding but the engine didn’t live up to Peugeot’s reputation of solid engineering and longevity. It never ran smooth when you wanted to drive a constant speed, causing the car to vibrate. It was fine under accelerating or when you lifted the gas. The dealership was unable or more likely unwilling to fix the problem. Furthermore the cylinder head wasn’t attached to the engine block properly which meant the head needed replacement three times in a three year period covering only 60,000 kilometers. Needless to say the car was traded in and we never had another Peugeot again.

  3. Lovely article, Eoin, on a really lovely car. These 60s Peugeots blended visual style, engineering integrity, durability and assembly in a fairly unique way, for a mass market product.

    Re: the BMC Farina Cars. There is no question that the 404 was light years ahead of the everyman Oxfords and Cambridges, but I must confess to a long-standing admiration for the six cylinder cars. This is especially true in their Mark ii guise. The Austin A110, Wolseley 6/110 and Vanden Plas 3.5 and 4.0 Princess were beautifully built cars that were fairly restrained and unpretentious in their styling, despite the huge price premium they commanded. Much could have been acheived with that hull, had they been better engineered, and not built for a class of person that was rapidly disappearing in an age of the Rover or Triumph 2000.

    1. Thanks for your comment Andrew. I agree as regards the A110. I should perhaps have made that distinction clearer in the piece. I was drawing comparison to the four-cylinder BMC saloons, which were more of a direct competitor to the 404 in overall size and engine capacity. If one looks closely at both the A55/60 versus the A110, there are very few shared pressings and proportionally, the larger car is light years ahead. A far superior car to its junior sibling as well, I believe.

      One of our DTW contributors was in the process of documenting the A110, but got side tracked by a spear of destiny. I remain hopeful he’ll return to the subject in due course. The same author also documented the VDP R, which you can find in the archive, should you be interested.

      One slight correction. I believe the BMC six was a three-litre, not a 3.5…

    2. The 404 and Westminster are much closer in their surfacing and details, apart from the odd over-windscreen peak on the BMC cars:

      The Westminster is a far larger car than the Peugeot, and is better proportioned than the middle-sized Farinas. It also benefited from a longer development period, and lessons learned from the over-hasty rush of the A40 and A55 Mk.II into production.

    3. A Vanden Plas 3.5 with the Rover V8, rather than the rotten Rolls Royce FB60, could have been a rather nice car. It would never have happened, given that The Rover Company couldn’t make enough V8s for their own purposes, and weren’t going to share them with BMC.

      Anyway, returning to the core matter, here’s a handy cut-out-and-keep comparison guide to the Cambridge and 404 dimensions:

      The 1959 A55 Mk.II sat on a very lightly altered A55 Mk.I platform, with the wheelbase unchanged from from the far shorter 1954 A40/A50. As well as the chassis upgrade, the 1961 rework eliminated the egregious excesses of the be-finned 1959 Cambridge which was closest in appearance to Farina’s original proposal.

      The dimensional comparison shows how little variation there is in ‘footprint’ between the Austin and Peugeot. It’s the wheelbase and height which make the difference.

    4. Thanks to both Eoin and Robertas for your stimulating replies! Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that the 404 was somehow in the A110 rather than in the A60 class, either dimensionally or monetarily. I only bring up the larger vehicle due to the obvious physical similarirites (despite the lack of shared pressings), and to illustrate that BMC was just about capable of producing a Pininfarina design without ballsing it up with gingerbread! That they were not capable of doing so without making damaging engineering and specification mistakes is another matter.

      I don’t want to cast any more aspersions against Harriman and his merry band than are justified, but I think there was a powerful feeling at BMC that the everyman liked stupid American baroquisms while the wealthy man wanted sophisticated minimalism. Excluding leaded joins &c. is there really any reason why the A55/60 couldn’t have had surfacing and detail design more akin to the 4-Litre R?

      Oh and Eoin, you are of course quite right about the BMC six, quite famously, being 3.0 in displacement. As Robertas perceptively seems to have realised, I was caught up musing about how the Buick engine might have elevated the car, and got my wires crossed. Anyway, sorry to digress so much, next time I’ll stick to the ‘star car’!

  4. The 404 and to almost the same extent the 504 definitely occupy the “quintessential Peugeot” drawer in my mind’s archive as well. In Holland, I remember the 404 to be especially popular with local doctors making housecalls ours had a dark green one.
    Much later, at the end of the 1980s, on vacation in Tunisia I was amazed at the preponderance of 404s there, often in use as a taxi. I took several rides in them (all were Diesels naturally) and more than a few still had the French taximeter -now disconnected as you had to negotiate a price with the driver- inside them, indicating that after their taxi career in France had ended many 404s continued their work in North Africa.
    I also saw a lot of 404 Pickups, these were made locally by a company named “STIA”. I have not been in Tunisia since but wouldn’t be surprised to now see pensioned off 505s or 406s plying the taxi trade nowadays.

  5. Lovely article – thank you, Eóin.

    Farina’s ADO 9 prototype is odd and I think it was cleaned up considerably by Dick Burzi. I would guess both he and Farina may have had difficult starting points for their assignments.

    One version of the Farina theme which I had almost forgotten is the Isuzu Bellel. Its name apparently means ‘fifty bells, fifty bells’. I think it’s a nice design, but the rear is a bit ‘busy’. There’s also the Alfa Romeo-related FNM 2150; both the Isuzu and FNM have been covered elsewhere in DTW.–cbA?iid=IedGTl8-QT2bgQFITj5o1A

    Finally, an oddity which I came across and is related, style-wise, is the Pininfarina Ferrarina 850 GT. Sort of an A40 Ferrari concept.

  6. Wonder if the 65-inch width of the Morris Oxford Series III would have been a better basis to carry over the Pininfarina styling language for an alternate Farina B (paired with if necessary larger 1.8-2.0-litre B-Series engines in addition to telescopic front dampers and parabolic rear springs plus anti-roll bars), must admit like the cleaner look of the Peugeot 404 though as with the existing Farina B dislike the prominent tailfins preferring the latter either being ditched entirely or much more subtle as on the 404 Coupe (along with the Gordon-Keeble and a few others that do not immediately spring to mind).

    Quite like the facelifted Isuzu Bellel’s front-end, Isuzu also had the right idea for the rear despite the poor execution. Would the facelifted Bellel’s or even a 2150-inspired front have translated well on an alternate Farina B?

    1. Hello Bob,

      Peugeot did consider putting the coupé tail lights on the saloon, but decided against it. Some say it made it look too Lancia-like. They also toyed with lights similar to the ones in your post.

      I notice that the original Farina proposals got quite a tweaking by Peugeot, and that the second prototype had an aluminium foil on its rear – Farina seems to have gone through a phase of liking areas of aluminium brightwork.

      BMC cut the tail fins on some of its models, but only the Riley, I think, had reverse rake ones (and from the start).

    2. Hello Charles

      The Coupe tail lights are definitely an improvement over what entered production on the 404 saloon.

      The same with the Mercedes / Facel Vega like headlights.

      Rather intrigued by the modern looking front of this Peugeot 404 proposal, would it have paired well though with the rear of the Lancia Flaminia Speciale which the Bellel as well as Peugeot’s proposed rear for the 404 and 504 were attempting to carry over?

      Seems BMC and others could have made better choices in retrospect with their own variations of the Pininfarina styling theme.

    3. Good detective work, Bob. The Isuzu is new to me. I like the stacked lamps and the grille too. I presume that is the Isuzu museum – and up until now I had no idea there could be a museum with Isuzus in it. It´s such a non-marque kind of marque (with some notable exceptions). If Suzuki is boldly heterogenous, Isuzu the same but more so and without even one convincing car to call its own (the Vehi-Cross is sui generis).

    4. Just realized the styling of the proposed modern-looking front-end of the Peugeot 404 also brings to mind the Nissan Bluebird 410 (whose Pininfarina styling theme was soon adopted by the Cedric 130, President H150 and Sunny B10).

      Which means if it was conceived in the late-1950s by Pininfarina for Peugeot, than BMC with its less successful variations of Pininfarina’s styling themes really missed a big opportunity in being a leader rather than a follower in styling terms by not clothing their Farina models with more modern Pininfarina styling that (along with the FWD trio) would have allowed them to remain fresh over the course of the 1960s instead of persisting with cars whose exterior largely stems from the late-1950s to early-1960s.

    5. Hello Bob, yes, you’re right – Farina’s Berlina Aerodinamica range came about 5 years or so too late . They really progressed in their ideas between 1957 and 1967.

    6. Charles

      They did with a number of carmakers managing to benefit and allowing the likes of Peugeot to build cars that remained fresh over a long period of time (when paired with durable mechanicals, etc), not sold on the idea of BMC adopting the Pininfarina Berlina Aerodynamica 1800 and 1100 theme (understand they were poor in space efficiency) though there were other useful Pininfarina styling themes from which BMC could have embraced such as from Peugeot, Lancia, Nissan, etc from the 1950s to 1980s.

      Since BMC did carry over the styling of the Pininfarina Berlina Aerodynamica onto a Mini platform to create the unofficial Pininfarina 1000 Aerodynamica concept, the latter would have actually been better suited for an earlier production version of the Citroen Prototype Y later the Axel as its dimensions at least in length was said to have been similar to the Mini based Pininfarina 1000.

  7. Great cars, the UK 877Youtuber Hubnut recently drove a 404 and the BMC equivilant, and found the Peugeot a delight (BMC not so much). One oddity is the column shift where 1/2 are near the dashboard, and 3/4 near the driver. Every other column shift I have used is the opposite (including, I think, in the DS), but maybe it is more common in Europe?

  8. thanks Eóin, it’s always a pleasure to see a 404 on the road.
    I had one for four years, forty years ago, when I was a devoted
    motorcyclist but needed a taxi for the children. a lovely car
    on a winding country road, if frustrating for a boyracer doing
    the frenetic school run across Melbourne, cursing its timewasting
    column shift and axle tramp. but driven maturely and smoothly,
    a nice, dependable car with fine seats and superb visibility.

  9. Terrific article. Classic Peugeot designs seem to be one of my many blind-spots so it’s particularly enjoyable to read about one of their seminal designs.

    Interestingly, a shadow of that solid, middle-class-yet-a-cut above, image of Peugeot seems to persist today in the minds of non-car enthusiasts. A Dutch friend, who is no older than me, once commented en passant that Peugeot was always regarded as a sort of French Mercedes equivalent, at least in this country.

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