It all started here.
Since its foundation in 1810 as a maker of bicycles and kitchen equipment, there have been many incarnations of automobiles Peugeot, but perhaps the first truly modern car to bear the famous Lion of Belfort emblem was introduced in 1965, bearing the 204 name.
Initiated during the late 1950s, the 204 came about owing to a perceived gap in the market below the existing 403 model (soon to be supplanted by the larger-engined 404). By consequence, Sochaux management deemed it necessary for the company’s future viability to gain a foothold in the rapidly growing 6 CV class, which was at the time dominated (in domestic terms at least) by Simca and Renault.
Since the restart of car production in the late 1940s, Peugeot had cleaved to a resolutely conservative product offer – medium sized saloons, coupés and break estates, employing traditional engineering solutions and layouts, albeit with a firm emphasis upon durability and quality of build.
But a smaller car would not only represent a new market for the carmaker, it would also prove much tougher to package effectively, especially if a conventional drivetrain were entertained; after all, a suitably downsized version of the existing layout would ladle excess weight onto a car which by necessity would not have been blessed with a surfeit of power.
New from the ground up therefore, the 204 would not only be an ideological shift for the pathologically prudent Belfort carmaker, but a massive commercial gamble. Wedded as they were to a methodology of iterative technical advance and lengthy production runs, the new small Peugeot needed not only to be future-proofed, but right first time.
Engineers are said to have investigated innumerable FWD layouts before reaching a conclusion – the 204’s gestation believed to have taken a Mercedes-like eight years. Peugeot spared little – the 204 receiving a brand new SOHC all-alloy 1130 cc engine. Reflecting BMC practice, as against the Giacosa proposal as espoused by Autobianchi’s Primula, the powertrain was mounted transversely, with the gearbox sited directly below; the four-speed transmission (driven by equal length driveshafts) actuated by a column-mounted shifter.
Technically then, the 204 was state of the art. The lightweight engine and front suspension (struts, lower wishbones, anti-roll bar) were mounted on a stout subframe to quell vibrations. At the rear, trailing arms mounted to a transverse beam supported the rear struts. Disc front brakes were standard and dampers were of course, Peugeot’s own.
Stylistically, the 204 was like all Peugeot berlines, a skilful blend of La Garenne and Pininfarina style. Working closely alongside the fabled Italian carrozzeria, the team under Paul Bouvot, Peugeot’s design chief, laid out the essential volumes and basic style, upon which the Turin atelier sprinkled its fairy dust. In the case of the 204 however, the dust in question would come with an added dash of glamour – in the form of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, the elegant First Lady to then US President, John Fitzgerald.
In 1961, Pininfarina, who enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Cadillac, premiered the Jacqueline coupé at that year’s Paris motor show, not only in the hope of nudging the US carmaker towards a continued working relationship, but also to suggest both to them, and the wider industry a fresh stylistic direction.
The Jacqueline concept was Battista Pininfarina’s 1960s statement car; a clean break from the previous landmark Florida concepts, a more modernist evolution of Corso Trapani style. Certainly, its influence upon European car design throughout the decade would be profound, if only because Pininfarina themselves reused so many elements of it, well into the following decade.
One aspect of both Cadillac and Peugeot was the size and scope of the grille – full-width grilles being nothing new at Sochaux, then or now. The 204’s use of trapezoidal headlamps fitted perfectly with the chosen nose treatment, which eschewed headlamp peaks for a flatter, broader appearance, lending a sense of visual width to what was a narrow, compact saloon. Some observers cite a nod to Chevrolet’s Corvair in the treatment of the 204’s flanks, and certainly, almost everyone was influenced by this bisected visual motif, but in this case, it was subdued.
At the tail, the Cadillac’s influence is again apparent, although the Peugeot lacks the overtly cut down fins of the concept, but the treatment of the bootlid and tail would be seen again and again later throughout the decade, both at Peugeot (the 504 and derivatives) and at BMC.
And it is to Longbridge in particular one is tempted to look when viewing the 204, both from a stylistic and technical perspective. Because it could reasonably be argued the Peugeot was BMC’s ADO16 series (1100-1300) executed to relative perfection.
Freed from the orthodoxies (and dogma) of its tyrannical Technical Director, not to mention his noted distaste for appearances, Peugeot was able to produce a more mature, rounded and finely honed product when it reached the public in Spring 1965 – a matter borne out by UK monthly, Motor Sport magazine’s veteran scribe Bill Boddy, who described the 204 in suitably glowing terms at launch, noting; “In comparison, other f.w.d. 1100s feel and sound like tramcars.” He would the following year describe the Coupé model as “An aristocrat among small cars.”
These qualities would be endorsed by the buying public, who took to the 204 in droves – in the home market in particular, where it lacked much in the way of compelling direct opposition, at least until the close of the decade. Autumn 1965 saw the spacious five-door Break estate’s introduction, while the following year, the pretty 2+2 Coupé and two seater Cabriolet made their debut. Later that year, a three-door Fourgonette van was also introduced.
Over its 11-year run, little apart from a few aesthetic details were altered. In 1968, the tail received its only major alteration, where the number plate was re-sited from a position bisecting the split rear bumper, being transposed between the redesigned and less ungainly tail lamps, bringing it into line with the Coupé/ Cabriolet. Bumpers were also enlarged slightly. Inside, the well finished but austere cabin received modified instruments and redesigned seats.
Technically too, the 204 remained largely unchanged. A 1255 cc diesel engine was made available for Break and Fourgonette models in 1968, this being enlarged to 1357 cc from 1973. Following the 1969 introduction of the larger (and larger engined) 304 model, the 204 range was rationalised, and with the 1972 introduction of the 104, the once best-seller became the victim of a leonine pincer movement.
The 204 had been France’s best selling car during the latter years of the 1960s, but by the middle of the following decade, it had become yesterday’s pain du jour. With over 1.6 million produced, the axe fell definitively in 1976.
The 204 programme may have represented a significant risk to Peugeot’s future prosperity in 1965, but it vindicated their careful and thorough approach through its commercial and critical success – not just its own, but that of the equally successful 304 range which carried on until 1980. The 305 which followed was heavily influenced by both it and the 304 – but larger than both, it suffered from being perceived as neither fish nor fowl. To a large extent, the 204 was never (directly) replaced.
Nevertheless, it initiated Peugeot’s foray into front wheel drive – a layout which would by the latter part of the 1980s underpin the entire car range. Some might suggest it to have been the most modern Peugeot ever. It was probably the bravest.
The Peugeot 204 as reviewed by legendary scribe, Archie Vicar.
 Curiously, for its final year on sale, UK-market 204s were supplied with a floor mounted gearlever. Home market cars however retained the column shift, right to the end of production.
 The similarities between the 204 and Lancia’s 1963 Fulvia are compelling. Both competed in overall size, swept volume and espoused a similarly modernist, yet austere aesthetic both externally and within the cabin. Both also exuded a decidedly upmarket aura, albeit the Lancia was a considerably more expensive product. A further comparison might have been Triumph’s similarly upmarket front-driven 1300.
 A three-dial instrument pack from the Coupé replaced the original Sixties-style ribbon-speedo.
 Believed to be the world’s smallest production diesel at the time. The larger diesel unit was made available for the domestic market 204 berlines briefly in 1975.