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.
17 thoughts on “History in Cars – A Bottle of Evening in Paris Perfume”
You’ve either got or you haven’t got it….. you’ve got it! Looking forward to more
Great storytelling, almost Mick Herron-like at times in terms of evocation of London life. And a rare gem of a car.
LOOT, and a disintegrating A to Z which needs regular reassembly and is best carried around in a plastic bag: Eóin, you’ve carried me straight back to my early days in London, with its mesmerising glamour, excitement, temptations and endless possibilities.
Freed of familial responsibilities, my car of choice was a 1978 MG Midget 1500, purchased from a small used car dealer on a South London street, its freshly applied and still pristine white paintwork concealing, for a brief period, its underlying decrepitude. Despite its tendency to overheat, I loved it!
A Peugeot 304 coupé was always a left-field choice, so chapeau to you for going for it. Polos are for when one gets sensible and middle-aged. I hope they are still making them in 2040!
Already looking forward to episode two…
You describe a London now sadly gone, as is the London which pre-dated it when my late aunt’s Morris Minor MM-series (the low headlight one) convertible was one of less than a dozen cars parked in her Belsize Park street (one of the others was a Renault 750). That was in the ’50s; as the streets began to clog in the ’60s the artist who lived with her added an ex-LCC Daimler Ambulance (just like the Dinky Toys one) to the mix (he used it to transport his rather large paintings).
In more recent years the solid lines of expensive 4x4s were occasionally enlivened by a grey Porsche 365, a blue Fiat 500, a DS19 drop-top, my aunt’s Herald convertible….. But it’s all very different now and with no reason to venture into the Great Wen it seems, when viewed from the far more civilised North, another planet.
We Belsize Parkies were spoiled for rare exotica.
From Frazer Nashes, via B20GTs to an astonishing Arnoult-Bristol.
Eventully the Kamm-tailed Spider became so common it was considered an unimaginative let-down.
Retrospective congratulations to having owned such a fine car! These are examples of the rare breed of non-sporting comfort and style oriented coupés. These Peugeots were very comfortable for a car of that class.
A to Z? For me it was always the 1960’s National Benzole street map- complete with the actual route of London Underground tracks through the earth printed on for no apparant reason- it had a painting of the Thames at low tide with Millbank Tower or St Thomas’s Hospital on the cover.
My 1990’s memories of London’s traffic were that Alfa’s were almost commonplace, this was pre-156 and in the rest of Britain they were about as rare as Aston Martin’s or Maserati’s are now, the weapon of West London choice seemed to be kamm tailed Spiders. I suspected them and the equally common Mercedes R107 SL’s as being divorcee’s cars. Also I was always struck by the similarity between Routemaster bus grills and Rover P5’s.
A Peugeot 304 Coupé is the car I regret not buying the most, U Saw inte for sake in Sweden less than ten years ago. It was rolling but halfway between being a parts car and in dire need of restoration, the bodyshell showed severe rust issues. But it was so beautiful in its faded blue metallic. They wanted a thousand euro for it, and I didn’t have the time and room for it anyway, and a restored one is easily 15k euro. But I regret so much not buying it.
And another great story, written in polished words. I’m already looking forward to the second part to find out what happens next.
Your story reminds me a little of buying a car in the early 80s. I stumbled across a small ad offering a Karman-Ghia Type 34. Unlike you, I only believed (or wanted to believe) it was a gem. In summary, a faulty exhaust like on your 304 was the least of the problems with that car. I was able to get rid of the car after almost a year of drowning a lot of work and almost more money before the road authorities took it away.
Since I tend to act euphorically in automotive matters – to avoid the word “learning-resistant” – the next “gem” came around the corner a few years later in the shape of a Peugeot 203 – my contribution to the scientific proof that history repeats itself.
As for your original dream of an Alfasud Sprint, it may well be that a poisoned cup has passed you by. As you know, we own one from the first series. If you look up “pretty bitchy mimosa” in the Lexicon, you may see a picture of our car.
Yes, even in my/our vehicles there was always a road map and/or city map of the next bigger town. Even in the German provinces, it was an indispensable tool for getting from A to B. And you had to learn to read them. Even today, road signs in many areas are geared exclusively to the local inhabitants: not available, because not necessary. The rest of the signs seem to be set up according to a top secret random system.
Of course, you could ask a local in the pre-smartphone navigation era, but always assuming you understood what they were saying. (Even in the 90s, there was a joke going around in Munich about the friendliness of the locals, in which a stranger asked a local „how do I get to the Hofbräuhaus” and the local replied “If you hadn’t come here, you wouldn’t have had to ask”).
Ah the days of Loot and an A-Z. How else could you find your way around in London and I spent my early years living just along from Vauxhall. An excellent piece and already looking forward to the next instalment.
Yes, enjoyable nostalgia indeed.
However, I do not miss the haggling at the end of an evening with some random fella over a lift home… the car was often parked ‘round the corner’ and it was pot luck whether it was roadworthy or a death trap on wheels.
Then, just as you were dozing off, the driver would confess to being lost, and you would need to navigate from the back seat.
Good Lord, Mr Doyle, those monotone stills are almost as enigmatic your words, bravo. The gold version is comely, too.
Once again, I can’t ever remember seeing one of these on the road. On purchasing, you must’ve felt, as my dad used to say, like Lord Nuffield – who would be the French equivalent; André Citroën? Monsieur Renault? You get my point.
I’m really hoping for an even more uplifting part two.
For those not familiar with a world before sat-nav and google maps, the A-Z wasn’t confined to London – I have a Birmingham one somewhere as well. As for Loot, I’m in the dark – I was long gone from the smoke by the time Loot was conceived.
The rain washes memories from the sidewalk.
Excellent storytelling Eoin. It evokes great memories, like many others here, of what was a golden period (in retrospect) of my life and London life at that time. I remember the 304 well and the rear quarter always obliquely reminded me of Facel from some angles. It was always a lovely thing to drive, and a real ‘head turner’ especially in ’90s London when for me, owning a car was perhaps unnecessary but equally highly desirable. Your story has pulled me back to those days at that time when I could float around London in my DS23 on warm summer evenings to gigs at The Camden Falcon… a beautiful girlfriend beside me in a beautiful car, meeting beautiful friends in a city that had met me in a mutual embrace, or so it seemed. I was in love with them all. In those moments, I had everything. My youth couldn’t see it at the time unfortunately but the memories still remain.
I tended to use Loot more to look for a new place to live following various break up’s and the A-Z to find them. Oh the drama of youth. Great times in a great time in great cars. I shall stop now least I start drowning in my nostalgia.
So it was you who nicked my beautiful girlfriend.
My BM 2002tii was an electric performer, but stylish? Not so much.
Takes me back. I was lucky enough to own two 204 Coupes and a 304S Coupe many years ago. I always thought the 204 drove so much better, with lighter steering and a far sweeter column change. In fact what I will always remember about that 304 was its abominable floor change, I find myself grimacing now just thinking about it. Mine probably had a loose linkage or something but I believe they were pretty ropey when brand new.
Thanks for your thoughts on this Carl, and welcome to the site. I don’t think the gearchange in mine was necessarily abominable, but I would never describe it as pleasant. But then, I grew up with a Renault 5, FWD Fiats, followed by a less than 100% healthy Alfasud, so grappling with less than co-operative gearlevers became something of familiar territory I’m afraid. From memory I’d put the 304’s gearchange quality on a par with a mid-80s Citroen CX. You’d never swop cogs for the pleasure…
Ironically, the 304’s gearbox and gear selector plays a fairly major role in my ownership saga, but I’d best not get ahead of myself.