Although eclipsed by the hugely successful 205, the 104 was a highly competent design that served Peugeot and its sister companies well for sixteen-years.
Mention Peugeot Supermini in the company of car enthusiasts of a certain maturity and their minds will immediately turn to the 1983 205, the delightfully attractive, practical and sweet-handling car that, for many, was the definitive 1980’s B-segment hatchback. In 1.6 and 1.9 GTi form, it was also the definitive hot hatch. What is not as readily recalled, however, is the success of its largely forgotten predecessor, the 1972 Peugeot 104 and its PSA siblings.
Prior to the launch of the 104, Peugeot design was the very epitome of sober conservatism, with understated but well-engineered saloons and estates, and attractive but unflashy coupés and convertibles. The company had ventured into transverse engines and front-wheel-drive with the 204 and 304 siblings, but their conservative exterior appearance belied the engineering innovation within. The 104 would be the company’s smallest model and the first two-box design that was not an estate, but what was becoming known as a Supermini.
Except that, like the Fiat 127 that preceded it by a year, it was not a true Supermini in that it had a conventional boot-lid instead of a hatchback(1). Peugeot was, allegedly, concerned about the impact a hatchback 104 might have on sales of the existing 204 estate, hence the decision to go with a boot instead. The Fiat would get a hatchback in 1972, but the Peugeot would have to wait for four years before receiving the fifth door for which it was so clearly designed.
The 104 was credited to Paolo Martin(2), Chief of Styling at Carrozzeria Pininfarina. It was a neat and quietly handsome design, with hints of the 304 and 504 in the front end, where the leading edge of the bonnet sloped upwards over the headlamps(3). A deep scalloped feature line ran along the flanks, visually lengthening and lowering what was quite a tall car.
The 104’s design proved to be quite versatile and Peugeot produced attractive prototypes of both a three-box saloon and an estate version. Sadly, neither made production, again presumably for fear of cannibalising sales of the 204.
The 104 was built on a new platform with a wheelbase of 2,420 mm (95¼”) and overall length of 3,600 mm (141¾”). It was powered by a new all-aluminium 954cc four-cylinder engine with a chain-driven overhead camshaft. The engine was co-developed with Renault and, in enlarged 1,218 cc form, would power the 1976 Renault 14. An unusual feature copied from BMC’s Issigonis-designed cars was a four-speed gearbox contained within the sump and sharing the engine oil. The engine was canted backwards towards the front bulkhead at 72°, allowing the spare wheel to be stored above it.
The 104 was a pleasant car to drive, with a good balance between its comfortable ride and decent handling. The only serious complaint was an intrusive whine from the transmission, a characteristic the 104 shared with BMC’s transmission-in sump cars. Passenger space was generous, a consequence of its relatively tall build, but most reviewers remarked on the absence of a hatchback limiting the car’s versatility.
The 104 range was expanded in 1974 to include a three-door version. This variant was all-new from the A-pillars rearward and was literally a coupé, with 190 mm (7½”) taken out of the wheelbase and 317 mm (12½”) out of the overall length. This seriously compromised rear seat space and, although this version now had a hatchback, access was limited by a high loading lip, which lost the booted version’s bumper-level sill between the rear lights. Although sharing the 104’s model designation, the three-door was what would be now called a city car rather than a B-segment Supermini.
With 204 production ending in mid-1976, Peugeot finally gave the four-door 104 the hatchback it needed to make it properly competitive. Unlike the coupé, the five-door model’s hatchback opened down to bumper level between its newly enlarged tail lights. Its folding rear seats made it much more versatile and commodious. A larger 1,124cc engine was offered, while the smaller engine was detuned to improve economy.
The 104 proved to be trustworthy and mechanically reliable in service. It was, however, not the easiest car to work on, thanks to its unusual engine installation, which made the top-end difficult to access. This caused some skimping on regular maintenance, which led to warped cylinder heads and blown head gaskets. The rustproofing was of poor quality and many 104s were rotten while still mechanically sound.
1978 saw the addition of plastic bumpers in place of the steel original items on all models while the five-door received the larger trapezoidal headlamps from the coupé. Subsequent revisions introduced further enlargements of the engine to 1,218cc and 1,360cc, but little otherwise of note. One retrograde change was a final facelift in 1982 that saw the trapezoidal headlamps replaced by smaller rectangular units that no longer fitted the space as neatly.
By now the 104 range was being pared back in preparation for the launch of the 205 the following year, after which only cheaper entry-level models would be offered until its demise in 1988. That should have been the end of the 104 story, but it also served as the basis of three desperately needed new models for sister companies Citroën and Talbot.
When Peugeot took over control of Citroën from Michelin in 1974, the double-chevron’s range comprised the 2CV, Dyane, Ami, GS and newly launched CX, with the SM and DS in the process of being phased out. The three smaller cars were largely iterations of the same basic design and shared a 2,400 mm (95”) wheelbase. The 2CV still possessed a certain eccentric charm but the Dyane and Ami just looked anachronistic by the mid-1970’s. There were two yawning gaps in its model range, a mid-sized model to sit between the GS and CX and a competitor in the fast-growing supermini class.
When the takeover was announced, Peugeot went to some lengths to assure all concerned that there would be no dilution of Citroën’s distinctive heritage and identity, and no sharing of designs. This assurance, like so many battle plans, did not survive first contact with the enemy, which was Citroën’s threatened bankruptcy. New models were needed as a matter of urgency to boost sales, and Peugeot looked to the 104 to provide a much-needed stop-gap model.
It was the three-door 104 coupé that would be the basis for a new Citroën, to be named LN. Instead of the 954cc Douvrin in-line four, the LN was given the 602cc air-cooled flat-twin from the 2CV. Cosmetic alterations were limited to badging and a new grille and headlamp arrangement. Circular headlamps from the Dyane, together with their distinctive ‘quartic’ bezels, replaced the 104’s neat rectangular items. The 104’s indicator and sidelamp units were relocated from below the bumper to sit vertically outboard of the headlamps. The arrangement looked rather homespun and ill-fitting. Inside, a single-spoke steering wheel was the only Citroën-esque touch.
The LN was launched in July 1976 by a visibly defensive and uncomfortable Citroën PR team. It was very sparsely equipped, lacking headrests and even a radio. It was marketed on the basis of low prices and cheap running costs, and sold reasonably well, particularly in southern Europe.
The LN received a significant upgrade in November 1978 when it was given the larger and more powerful 652cc flat-twin from the recently launched Visa model. It also received a new name, LNA. In December 1982, the LNA was given the Douvrin 1,124cc inline four, with the smaller 924cc version offered as an option in some markets. There were trim and equipment upgrades but the LNA continued to sell primarily on price. It remained in production until 1986 when it was succeeded by the Citroën AX.
That would not be the end of the 104’s usefulness to the wider PSA group, as we shall see as we continue this series.
(1) The 1972 Renault 5 was not a definitive supermini either in that it had a longitudinally mounted engine in Mk1 form.
(2) Martin’s other production palmarès included the handsome Fiat 130 Coupé, the avant-garde Lancia Monte Carlo and the unfortunate Rolls-Royce Camargue.
(3) This detail would not be fully appreciated until the 104 received larger trapezoidal headlamps from the 104 Coupé in place of the square originals as part of its 1978 facelift.