It is said that you cannot buy style. I beg to differ.
It had been getting increasingly worrisome for some time now, but no, this time the gearlever was most definitely jammed. Having engaged reverse as I slotted the Peugeot into a Camden Town parking space one balmy post-Millennial Sunday afternoon, it hadn’t as yet dawned upon me that for the rest of my tenure, not only would I neither reverse this car, nor parallel park it again. The fact that the 304 was going nowhere – except nominally in reverse – had largely carjacked all further thought. That, and the question of what the loving hell I was going to do now?
Daily life with a classic car is neither straightforward, nor painless. My six-year stewardship of a 1973 Peugeot 304S Coupé certainly wasn’t, but as all penitents know, the price one pays for pleasure is more than usually exacted in varying degrees of discomfort.
Timing has never been my forte. Having emigrated to London just as the ’90s recession hit, the aftermath of the Black Wednesday financial crash ensured that belts would be worn a couple of notches tighter still, which my straitened automotive status only served to further underline.
Personal transport had up to that point consisted of a decrepit, rust-ridden, poverty-spec Fiat 127, bought for a pittance and driven like it was stolen – the Metropolitan Police never quite convinced of its road-legality. But by late 1995 it was dying; Turin’s slapdash approach to rustproofing and years of mechanical neglect (I did my best, but the damage to the engine had been done well before my tenure) meant that it wouldn’t see out the year.
I had taken to leaving it unlocked, in the forlorn hope that someone would joyride it into the next life. But no matter where I parked the stricken thing, it always looked as abandoned as I felt driving it.
Taking pity upon me and my shaky finances, my father offered a loan with the proviso that I got myself something rational, like a second-hand Polo. Nodding sagely as I metaphorically bit off his hand, the devil at my shoulder was whispering imprecations – and I was all ears. In retrospect, I’m certain he realised what I’d end up doing – he knew my form by then.
Meanwhile, with the funds burning a hole in my bank account, I set to finding a rust-free example of Naples’ comeliest coupé. But even by the mid-Nineties, Alfasud Sprints were proving thin on the ground – and decent ones thinner still. One late-October evening after work, I bought a copy of LOOT, pulled up a seat in a Clerkenwell EC1 hostelry, and scoured the classifieds over a leisurely pint of the black stuff.
Apart from a promising-sounding first-series Alfetta (a lucky escape if ever there was one), the A’s were not proving fruitful. Idly scrolling down the alphabet, I was pulled out of my reverie: ‘1973 Peugeot 304S Coupé. Excellent condition. Private sale in Wimbledon’. Inside the budget. My mind raced. I had seen photos, and by then the Cabriolet had already become something of a minor cult object around certain West London environs, but a Coupé? This I had to see.
Upon returning home, I rang the number, expressed an interest and arranged to view the car the following morning. Replacing the receiver, I stared at the address I had hastily scribbled down and thought – why not go now – forewarned is forearmed? Armed with a London A to Z, I cranked the 127 into what amounted to life and smoked South-Westwards.
At this point, a brief introduction to the 304 might be worthwhile. Based on the bodyshell and mechanical layout of the best-selling 204 model, the more upmarket 304 was introduced in 1969, catering to a growing, more affluent middle class customer. Technical changes were minimal, the primary (non-visual) difference being in swept volume, Peugeot’s sweet-running all-alloy XL3 engine upgraded to 1288 cc.
Since Peugeot had offered the 204 in elegant coupé and cabriolet versions, it was deemed logical to upgrade both to 304 specification – gaining the longer front end and revised tail lamps as the most obvious external changes. Unlike the saloon, no panelwork was altered aft of the A-pillars.
In 1972, both Coupé and Cabriolet were offered in S specification, which consisted of a twin-choke carburettor, which raised peak output to 75 bhp. Cosmetically, the S-models received a matt-black grille, revised wheel and wheel trim designs, a better standard of finish inside – rev counter, high backed seats – and a discreet S badge at the rear. Out of a total in excess of a million sold, slightly over 60,000 Coupés were built – a miniscule proportion of which were sold new in the UK.
It was a dark, chilly Autumnal evening, but I felt my colour rise as I drove slowly past the parked-up 304; it looked even better than I had hoped. Even under the sickly glow of the streetlights, I could discern that this was an original, unmolested car. I parked up for a closer look and my suspicions were confirmed. It was a gem.
I pointed the 127 homewards, its decrepitude taunting me amid the reflections of the shop windows. As I nursed the Fiat along the Thames Embankment, crossing Vauxhall bridge back towards Oval and Camberwell, my thoughts turned to magical thinking and the music of chance. How can I make this car my own?
To my mind’s eye, the Peugeot represented the catalyst that would change everything. My dowdy low-rent life rendered anew – more glamourous, better lit. I might not have the means, but by jingo, I could have the trappings. Sometimes a car can do that to you. And after all, where would I possibly find another?
The following day was a formality. A brief drive, a good poke around underneath – a blown exhaust and really nothing else untoward. I made a half-hearted attempt to haggle the asking price, but the seller could see how much I wanted it and rightly held firm. It was mine by the evening.
I couldn’t have been happier.
 LOOT was a weekly classified ads paper – basically the internet in printed, analogue form.
 The London A to Z streetmap was an essential for life in the capital in the days before smartphones and satellite navigation. At one time, everybody carried one – usually falling to pieces from over-use. Mine certainly was…
 The 304’s longer nose and tail styling was quite naturally courtesy of Pininfarina. Aldo Brovarone is believed to have been the designer responsible.
A bottle of evening in Paris perfume is a lyric from the track, Red Shoes by the Drugstore, from Tom Waits’ 1978 LP, Blue Valentine.