Sochaux Goes Avant.

It all started here.

Factory shot of Peugeot 204 berline. Image: automacha

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.[1]

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.

1961 Pininfarina-Cadillac Brougham Jacqueline.(c) : banovsky

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.

204 Break. Image: newsdanciennes

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4] 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.

Further reading:

A meditation on Pininfarina’s 1960 styling tropes.

The Peugeot 204 as reviewed by legendary scribe, Archie Vicar.

[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] A three-dial instrument pack from the Coupé replaced the original Sixties-style ribbon-speedo.
[4] 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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

43 thoughts on “Sochaux Goes Avant.”

  1. Very interesting post, Eóin. What a lovely, petite design, the 204. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in the metal, though, but in the photos the only criticism I have is that the rear looks a bit droopy and small. When I look at that front end with so much presence, I kind of expect more from the rear. I guess it’s the result of that resistance to the hatchback from that period, because I think this car would have looked perfect as one, maybe as a smaller interpretation of the Renault 16, for example.

    I can see how the 204 seems like a bit of a dead end, and I think that idea extends to the styling as well, since that front end concept was not used again in any other Peugeot.

    1. Good morning Cesar. That’s a good observation regarding the apparent front/rear imbalance. The 204 saloon does appear to diminish in scale from front to rear. It was an issue that the 304 attempted to address with its longer tail, but it was only partly successful because the ‘shrinking’ started from the A-pillar rearwards. Here’s a comparative photo of the 204 and 304 side profiles:

      The issue was only apparent on the saloons. The estate and coupé variants were much better balanced.

      That said, the 204 was a tremendous achievement for Peugeot and really does highlight the compromises that afflicted ADO17 (awkward driving position, gearbox whine, awkward engine accessibility). As Eóin said, the 204 is ADO17 without the dogma and compromises. Moreover, the two manufacturers’ successor* models, the 304 and Allegro, went in precisely opposite directions. The 304 addressed the 204’s few weaknesses, whereas the Allegro was measurably worse than its presecessor. Here’s a nice photo of the 304, which looks like a 604 in miniature to my eyes:

      * I’m aware the 204 and 304 were made simultaneously.

    2. If you think a 204 has good engine accessibility you’ve probably never had the chance to work on one (or any other French car from the Sixties, because most of them were built that way…) .
      The only things that are accessible are the valve cover, air cleaner and oil filter.
      To get at the distributor you turn the steering to the left and reach behind the right side front wheel where there’s a hole in the inner wheelarch through which you get at the distributor- changing breaker points is real fun because you can’t see anyhting. When the starter is defective (a common fault) you unbolt it through a hole in the left hand inner wheelarch panel and then pull it out by reaching under the inlet manifold and pulling on the starter.
      There was a joke about French cars from that era that they made the car by putting the engine on the production line and then welded the body around it.

    3. I´ve never seen a 304 in the metal. It´s a perfect small saloon. What a tidy bit of work. The kamm tail looks great. In comparison Lancia´s similar-sized FWD cars are rather clearly gawkier (but I still love them). Nice ones start at 4000 euros, rising. Of course.
      This car is from a time when Peugeot was known as the French Mercedes. You can see that makes sense in the light of the careful conservatism of the 204 and 304, for example. They lost that feeling in the late 70s when the 305 and 104 came along – in part the cars looked less robust due to the sharper edges and also the way they did not get to grips with plastic interior trim as well as Renault or Opel or Ford did at the same time. The dividing line is the 405 and 205 period – fine cars but not French Mercedes.

    4. Cesargruf: Your observation regarding a hatchback 204 made me pause for a moment. What would that have looked like? Logically, the most obvious jumping off point would be to employ the silhouette of the 204 Coupé, although it would have required to have had the berline’s wheelbase and a suitably raised roofline for practicality purposes. In four-door (five with tailgate) form (albeit with a rather high load sill) it would have been in effect, an updated Austin/ Morris 1100 – (or an Autobianchi Primula, for that matter). On balance, better left as is, I reckon. Of course, one could also argue that the Break did that job…

      Incidentally, the 204 front end styling was suggested for the initial 504 proposal, but was evolved (at La Garenne I believe) into the definitive form, which was then re-used for the 304 as well.

    5. Here’s the early 504 prototype that Eóin mentions with the 204-style front end:

    6. Hi Richard. Interesting that you mention Lancia in the context of the 204. This 204 prototype has a front end that is very much like a contemporary Lancia:

    7. Another point worth considering as regards the visual taper towards the rear of the 204 was a prevailing sense, certainly within the French design community at the time, that in styling terms, front wheel drive ought to be emphasised by incorporating semi-enclosed rear wheels; a factor which then lent itself to this perceived tapering towards the rear. This is particularly evident in the styling study for the 204 that Daniel has appended above, which I also note employs the Pininfarina Jacqueline concept’s side scallop. I think it suits the shape rather well on reflection, but may have been deemed too flamboyant for Sochaux.

    8. Thanks Eóin for your remarks and Daniel for the interesting pictures of the 504 proposals. I’m actually glad they tried something different at the end as the proposals look a bit fussy, well, in restrospective at least.

  2. Unlike BMC’s transversed engined models of that time that had their radiator at the side, Peugeot put theirs behind the grill, where it should be. However, they didn’t use an electric fan like today, but used a traditional fan belt that went through 90 degrees. Probably not the cleverest design, as we used to change them more often than traditional layouts, but a little quirk I like to find on cars. Great article by the way, thank you.

    1. Not only did the fan belt go round the engine they also mounted the alternator in a vertical position, using the pulley to get the belt around the corner.

    2. I love that belt quirk! First time I saw it I thought “What am I looking at??”. It looks so typically French. We just don’t have those kinds of quirky, country-specific engineering solutions anymore because everything is optimized. I guess that’s inevitable in an industry that is not only so regulated, but also mature enough that most of the technology has already converged into one optimal solution. Case in point is the 204 engine itself. No manufacturer would even think of doing it today, when the simple universal upright engine with transmission bolted to the back of it works so well and has economy of scale.

    3. Is that an alternator Dave – it looks more like a dynamo, which would still have been common in mid-sixties.

  3. A friend of mine had a 204 around 1977 or 78, great memories. I cut some foil stickers at his request (you can’t see the woman on the bonnet).
    (On the right the proud owner, I’m behind the camera, and a friend of ours on one of our more frequent trips to Alsace to buy cigarettes – guess the brand?).

  4. Thanks for your remarks Daniel and for those pictures. The two side views show an interesting detail. Thanks to the long wheelbase, the rear wheels are set so far back that the wheel cut-out on the door is small enough to allow a one-piece glass instead of that little fixed glass triangle typically found on rear doors (it’s probably got a name 🙂 ). That cleans up the greenhouse considerably.

    Those side pics also show a C-pillar that reminds me of the Mercedes-Benz W114/115. It’s only when you see the third picture that the resemblance is lost because the rear glass is flatter than that of the Mercedes. Speaking of the third picture, that is one charming looking car. I love that tone of blue and the chrome hubcaps; an understated elegance that makes me want to drive it wearing a hat.

    1. Hi Cesar. Those fixed triangles of glass are commonly called ‘quarter lights’, either front or rear depending on which door they’re in. 🙂

  5. Bonjour les amis.
    En France, la 204/304 était la voiture des gens conservateurs, sans fantaisie.
    Nous appelons ça petit bourgeois.
    Et pourtant, elle était réellement moderne.
    Dommage, la rouille et les programmes du gouvernement pour mettre ces voitures à la casse les ont fait disparaitre assez rapidement du paysage automobile.
    Aujourd’hui, quant j’en voit une, elle m’etonne car je la trouve petite en taille (comme la Renault 12) par rapport aux voitures actuelles de ce segment !

    Google translate :
    Hello friends.
    In France, the 204/304 was the car of conservative people, without fancy.
    We call it petit bourgeois.
    And yet she was truly modern.
    Too bad, the rust and government programs to scrapping these cars made them disappear from the automotive landscape quite quickly.
    Today, when I see one, it amazes me because I find it small in size (like the Renault 12) compared to current cars in this segment !

    1. You’re right about the size differences Alain. In fact, even some 1990s cars I find a bit puny when parked side by side with a modern equivalent. A Mk1 or 2 Clio for example, looks small and narrow parked besides a modern supermini. By the way, your posts are great for improving my French because having the translation below helps me understand how the phrase was constructed 🙂

    2. What a lovely looking little engine! Thanks for posting that cutaway, Dave. Compare this all alloy five main-bearing unit with hemi crossflow head to the BMC A-Series cast iron three main bearing lump with Weslake’s heartshaped pre-ignition and run-on after shut-off combustion chamber and the need to decoke after 30,000 miles, and wonder where the actual money got spent developing the Mini. Rzeppa joints, perhaps. and hydrolastic for the 1100.

      As for V-belts running around corners, and using the generator as a mid way course-changing pulley, the 1960 Corvair aircooled six did that for its cooling fan, of course, five years earlier. Old hat. Although I see no sign of Corvair styling in the 204 myself and find it gawkily French-looking, too long in the wheelbase and certainly no descendant of the svelte-looking 403 approach, no doubt the V-belt design of this Peugeot XK engine was a direct crib of the Chevrolet design. Why not, it wasn’t patented!

    3. How my comment appeared here rather than under the cutaway diagram of the XK engine Dave posted, I have not the faintest clue. If possible, Daniel, can you move it to the sub-thread where it belongs? Thanks.

    4. Hi Bill. As far as I’m aware, I cannot move your comment. If you would like to copy and paste the text as your reply to Tim’s comment above, it will then be in the right place and I’ll then delete the original, misplaced comment.

  6. Lovely article – highlighting a transition that has largely been overlooked. Capturing the flavor of the moment with the benefit of historical wisdom.

  7. Having been prompted to look at both the 204 and the 304 in saloon and cabrio versions, it’s interesting how the 204 looks so visually-balanced as a cabrio whereas with the 304 cabrio, the boot goes on forever, making the cabin look too small, exactly the reverse of the respective saloons.

    I remember the 304 saloon from the 1970s, a lovely-looking, neat little sister to the 504 but we didn’t see many convertibles in the rainy drippiness of west Mayo.

  8. I think it’s quite interesting and telling that despite the French’ faiblesse for quirky like the 2CV, what they really wanted was dependable and reliable transportation even though it came with an air of petit bourgeoisie. From the mid sixties to the mid seventies, the 204 alternated with the Simca 1100 with being the best selling car in France. I find some sort of irony in that, like how GM tried to copy the Volkswagen with its Corvair down to the rear mounted engine, because that’s what they thought the buying public wanted. But what the public really wanted were cars that were dependable and reliable and built with quality, something GM hasn’t learned to this day.

  9. I always thought the “French Mercedes” thing applied to the 404 and 504 – Mercedes didn’t do FWD in those days, and when they did, they didn’t build them ‘like a Mercedes’….

    1. Oh dear, that’s not good. The roof is sloping downwards from the windscreen rearwards. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Cherry coupé, but the latter is less odd (which is something I never expected I would say!) Here’s the cherry:

    2. There’s a bit of a Skoda 110 coupé feel to it. The sloping roof is accentuated by the non-vertical B pillar don’t you think?

    3. I am in two minds about the Cherry. Yes, it´s not orthodox. But it´s also interesting and I am glad people did vehicles like this from time to time. I really ought to get a copy of Japanese Car Design which I believe Christopher was involved in. I will have to sit down while reading it – I find the surprising quality of Japanese cars often breathtaking and uplifting, in the sense one can get a sense of aesthetic joy from the the designs, especially the JDM-only products. I am still dwelling on the charming formality of a 1989 Mitsubishi Debonair.

    4. Hi Richard. With regard to the Cherry, I cannot imagine a mainstream European manufacturer ever signing off on those enormous C-pillars. A US manufacturer might have done so, as they were often more adventurous (which was easier with shorter model cycles).

    5. The rear visibility on that Frua coupe would be nearly as bad as most modern cars!

  10. Found those photoshopped images of how a Peugeot 204 hatchback could have looked, Peugeot did seem to be resistant to the idea of the 204 let alone the 204 and later 204/304-based 305 featuring hatchbacks unless there was some sort of Gentleman’s Agreement with Renault that preceded the joint-projects.
    Peugeot 204 hatchback
    Peugeot 204 hatchback

    In theory the 204/304/etc engine was capably of displacing as low as 1043cc though can understand why such a variant was never considered. It would be interesting to know if prior to the Peugeot 104, Peugeot ever looked at a sub-204 project during the 1960s similar to the Simca 936 prototype or the Renault 4-derived Renault 5.

    1. Goodness – very plausible images. Why did they not produce a smaller displacement engine, Bob? The French are not averse to a slow accelerating but frugal car (at all sizes).

    2. I think Peugeot made the right call by not producing a hatchback version (at least, not one like this) alongside the ‘Break’ estate. It would have been the same length (ish) and the only practical difference is a reduced capacity (and less regularly shaped) boot because of the sloping rear window. It’s also a moot point as to whether or not it’s any more attractive than the break . Personally, I prefer the appearance of the latter:

    3. These cars scream “French way of life” in a good way. If you want to visualise one in use, read Patricia Highsmith´s novel “Ripley Under Ground”. The later 306 has much the same feeling as did the intermediate 305 – though the 305 is a little more brittle-looking.

    4. richard herriott

      Cannot say maybe it was too underpowered even for the 204? Essentially a hypothetical 1043cc Peugeot XK engine would combine the 75mm bore of the earlier 1130cc unit with the 59mm stroke of the later 1127cc unit.

      Going from entry-level to a higher spec engine, find it difficult to believe someone never attempted to install the larger 1290cc XL and 1472cc XR engines from the 304 and 305 (or even a 1472cc XR unit from the 305 into a 304).

      Daniel

      Can see what you mean with possible overlap between a 204 hatchback as seen in photoshopped form and the 204 Break estate, maybe a long-tailed approach for the 204 saloon and estate as seen on the later 304 could have resolved things slightly?

  11. The only benefit in having a smaller-engined 204 would be to bring it into a tax class one cheval vapeur down. Which means around 950cc (it’s more complicated than that, but if there was a supervening need it was do-able).

    Peugeot were not averse to that sort of fiscal trickery – refer to the203-replacement 1290cc 403 Sept, an ignominious end for a truly excellent car.

    Simca made a 944cc 5CV version of the 1100, but it didn’t find many takers. I imagine that Peugeot could sell every 204 they had the capacity to build, and put the profits to good use to develop the 104 .

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