History in Cars – Brand New, You’re Retro.

Life with a Peugeot 304S – part two. 

Image (c) The author

Domestic bliss with my newly acquired, more comely automotive companion from Sochaux was initially tempered by the fact that there were other, less savoury matters to attend to, like disposing of the now good as landfill Fiat. A number of phone calls ensued before a man turned up with a flatbed, lifted the hapless 127 aboard, and twenty quid better off, Mirafiori’s errant son departed for the eternal. Of all the cars I’ve owned, I have never smoked one as morbidly close to the filter.

Meanwhile, the 304 continued to beguile, every journey an event, every destination a succession of benevolent glance-backs; could this Maize Yellow vision of loveliness actually be mine? But roseate glows aside, there were also practical considerations to consider. I needed a new exhaust, and in those pre-internet days, it was not the job of a moment to procure one. But through the auspices of the owner’s club I found a supplier.

Having driven out to their depot in Coulsden, Surrey, I discovered that ‘yes we have one’ actually meant the one they held in stock was for a 304 estate. Figuring it could be modified to fit, and with little real alternative, I took it.

Home, which sometimes doubled as impromptu workshop. Image: (c) The author

Shortly after, one late November evening, as I nursed the still-cold 304 through the Camberwell side streets, the battery warning light ignited its lambent alarm: Trouble. Leaving the engine running, I found a torch, lifted the bonnet and quickly discerned the problem. I wasn’t going anywhere – the alternator drive belt had snapped.

This, as aficionados of the marque will attest, was no ordinary drive belt, being a round the houses job, à la Corvair. While capable of home maintenance, I had neither the toolset, the facilities, nor the manual, but I really had no choice, so having limped back (fortunately it happened quite close to home), there the 304 sat until I got all of my ducks quacking. The belt itself was no problem – a quick trip to an Old Kent Road motor factor – while another into Foyles bookstore[1] on the Charing Cross Road brought forth a Haynes workshop manual.

The convoluted drive belt arrangement is evident in this picture. Image: Curbside Classic

Thus armed, along with a set of axle stands, I set to one miserably cold, overcast afternoon. With freezing fingers, the hours ticked monotonously by; each time I thought I almost had it, the serpentine routing would slip through my already numb fingers. Reading and re-reading the manual until the words were dancing in front of my eyes, I was clearly missing something obvious. Disgusted with myself, I left it and went inside to thaw out.

It was the best thing I could have done. Upon resuming, I soon recognised I had neglected to sufficiently slacken off the lower tensioner. Almost losing the retaining nut down the nearby curbside drain, and with trembling hands (only partially through the intense cold), eureka! A few adjustments on the tension and the 304 ran like a watch. I was, I have to admit, ridiculously pleased with myself.

The exhaust proved less of a success. The cut-down replacement was very much a shoehorn fit and while fine at moderate speeds, at the motorway limit, an intense boom would permeate the cabin. I stuck to A-roads and made a mental note (a) never to darken the exhaust fitter’s door again, and (b) to get it sorted at some point. But as the car very rarely left the Capital, it hardly ever troubled me.

London remained very much a driver’s city during the late ’90s, so I took the 304 virtually everywhere; its handy size and nimbleness making it the ideal urban companion; distinctive enough to be admired[2], yet not sufficiently flash to draw unwanted attention. Upon more prosaic errands, the hatchback, deep boot (the spare lived beneath the car) and folding rear bench made it a practical one as well.[3]

I loved driving it; the engine’s refined timbre, the supple suspension, the view over the wingtops, the glow of the instrument lighting (my most vivid memories are of driving it at night); the reflection of its elegant Pininfarina lines in the nocturnal storefronts. The fact that it drove like a modern never failed to impress – what a revelation it must have been when new.

One of its out-of-London forays led to a further drama. Cruising Northwards on the M11, another warning light flashed danger upon the instrument panel – this of a far more ominous nature – water temperature. A glance at the gauge: DEFCON 1. Wisps of steam began drifting upwards, so following an emergency diversion onto the hard shoulder, I cut the engine, calculating that the residual momentum would get me to an exit ramp.[4]

Fortune was smiling upon me that day, for almost immediately one hove into view. Not only that, but it was for my intended destination. Better still, Duxord RAF museum, being literally adjacent to the motorway slip road, meant I could slip the Peugeot straight into the carpark. I didn’t even have to get out and push.

Following an enjoyable few hours viewing historic aircraft[5] I returned to the car, topped up the radiator and gingerly headed London-wards. It was slow going with one eye on the temperature gauge, entailing a number of pitstops to bring the needle back from peril. One reconditioned radiator later and all again was well.

To be fair to the car, most of the problems I encountered were age-related: the alternator needed reconditioning at one point, the starter motor another time. (Motto: Always park on a hill when you have an old car.) But having found a reliable, honest and for London, inexpensive Peugeot specialist in East London’s Forest Gate[6], the car was well cared for.

Image: (c) The author

But the question you are all pondering is whether my life was rendered less of a Jarvis Cocker kitchen-sink drama by dint of the 304’s advent? Well, not quite, but then as we all know, such matters do not necessarily change for the better just because you’ve got some new threads. But even if life hadn’t necessarily altered materially, my thrashings and flailings were somewhat better tailored.

Towards the end of 1997, I took up an offer from a friend to spend the winter at her bolthole in New Zealand’s South Island. I wasn’t enjoying my job, or to be honest, much of my life in London by that stage, so I figured, what the hell. I quit my job, put everything (including the 304) into storage, and spent four memorable months on a ten-acre small-holding in Middle Earth.

Having departed Auckland 24 hours before in 30° C heat, I found myself wondering what the hell I was doing back at Heathrow one leaden-skied March morning with little to show for myself but a trove of memories, a store of regret, a heap of debt, and a mustard-yellow Peugeot, languishing in a South-West London lock-up.

Better go fetch it out then, hadn’t I?

o0O0o

The final episode will follow shortly.

[1] Foyles bookstore was an anachronism, with a labyrinthine layout, forbidding staff and a Byzantine purchasing methodology. I had to take my Haynes manual to the counter at the Transport section, obtain a paper invoice, go down to the ground floor and pay, then return with the receipt. Only then was the book handed to me. Despite the wilful eccentricity, it was a wonderful place to linger. Today, it’s just another book store.

[2] Apart from one evening in Notting Hill Gate when parked up next to my brother’s DS 23 Pallas. They made quite the pair.

[3] The 304’s rear compartment was surprisingly spacious and became involved in a number of home-moves (not all mine) while in my tenure.

[4] Fortunately, I caught it in time – the engine was unharmed.

[5] Highly recommended, aviation fans.

[6] A classic London ‘railway mews’ garage with trains into Liverpool Street station constantly rumbling overhead. Squeezing in and back out was always something of a test of nerve.

Brand New You’re Retro was a track from the 1996 album Maxinquaye by Tricky – a record, alongside Pulp’s His n’ Hers, I had on rotation on the 304’s cassette player at the time.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

31 thoughts on “History in Cars – Brand New, You’re Retro.”

  1. That’s a lovely story Eóin. For some reason I was thinking about driving at night, before you mentioned the glow of the instrument lighting and your most vivid memories were of driving it at that particular time. What color was the dash lighting of the 304? I imagine it to be green, very different from the 605 nanometer of my E92.

    New Zealand doesn’t sound too bad either. Wanderlust is kicking in again.

  2. A nice story about a car I remember quite well from the time when it was new.

    The annoying exhaust sound you mention was a characteristic of many Peugeots of that era. Peugeots had a very individual exhaust design with a silencer sitting immediately at the manifold, only centimetres from the engine. On many Peugeots (the 304 was presumably one of them) the end silencer had to be fitted with its mounting rubbers under heavy tension (the exhaust pipe seemed to be too long so the rubbers were stretched) and if it wasn’t, the exhaust made loude booming noises at medium speed.

  3. My early childhood memories are if having my style cramped by the parents willful 305 1300. Even in my earlest memories it’s white panels were already filigreed with more rust than a Mercedes Sprinter, yet it can’t have been more than 3 years old at the time. Low point was the AA man battling for hours to fit a new fan belt somewhere on Romney Marsh one holiday. A generation on from the 304 (And more generically European looking than it’s somehow very French predecessor), it still had the round-the-houses fan belt and possibly alternator arrangement.
    It was the last in a long line of Pugs for Mum and Dad, after that they went VW, immaculate, never showed their age but bleak inside compared to the Peugeot so gaining but also loosing. On the 305 the instruments were green at night I think. By the way I see that 304s also had the same oblong clock as the 305. I always liked that detail, much better than the ladies-cocktail-watch thing that Biturbo’s had.

    1. Early 305s (with the around-the-corner fan belt) had BMW-style instruments that weren’t illuminated from behind but used small lights shining on them (in orange) from above, illuminating the whole instrument panel instead of the scales and needles only.

    2. Oh the happy hours I’ve spent, taking instrument panels apart to make them illuminate in green. The advent of green LEDs has made it easier though…

    3. That would have been difficult with this ‘active’ illumination from front which used white lamps with lenses made from amber plastic. A green LED as a light source would give wonderfully brown instruments.

    4. In this picture you can see the light sources above the rev counter and fuel gauge

  4. Good morning Eóin. I’m really enjoying your reminiscences of your early days in London, which remind me of mine a decade earlier, and the joys and pains of nursing an old, if characterful, car along. In my case the car was an MG Midget 1500. It was surprisingly reliable and only needed a new radiator during my tenure. The body, however, was another matter: pristine following a respray when I bought it, it quickly began to develop telltale bubbles in all the usual areas.

    Well done on your decision to up sticks to New Zealand for that winter. I’m sure you have great memories of the adventure, and my few regrets in life concern things I didn’t do, rather than the opposite.

  5. A lovely piece that nonchalantly explains how and why feel towards the car like to a mechanical pet. The images also lend delightful texture and take me back to the London I visited as a child, where Heathrow airport featured the strangest carpet and the clatter of FX4 cabs was everywhere. Thank you!

  6. When I moved the UK I brought a Peugeot 205 with me from Dublin. The only thing that went wrong with it was a CV joint (during 3 years of ownership). Eoin´s car sounds like it might have been a little more effort to look after. I notice now I look at it again that the car reminds me of a Marina coupe or an AMC Pacer: the front half of a larger car mater to the back half of a smaller one. The front could be a 504.

    1. At the risk of triggering what Mrs Merton used to call “A heated debate”, does the more petite looking 204 front end suit the rest of the car slightly better? Here are a couple of comparative photos:


    2. Given that the car was originally designed with the (slightly shorter) 204 nose, it’s not altogether surprising that the earlier car might look a little more cohesive. But in mitigation, the 304 is a car that rarely photographs all that well. I always struggled to find a really flattering aspect, yet in the flesh, it was a lovely looking thing – to my eyes at least. I would also suggest that as a piece of restyling, the new front end was well handled. (By the way, it was intended to reflect that of the 504).

      Another recollection: The fuel filler cap was a lovely chromed device. Mounted on a solid hinge, it had a delightfully mechanical action, which made every refill a tactile pleasure. But for heavens sake, don’t lose the key!

    3. Hi Eóin. I honestly think the difference in attractiveness is pretty marginal. One could plausibly argue that the more geometric front end of the 304 coupé is better matched to the angular glasshouse and is not too heavy looking for the deep bodysides.

  7. Freerk: It’s a long time ago, so memory is faulty, but I’d swear on oath they were green. Now that I think about it, another home repair involved removing the instrument binnacle to replace a blown IP bulb. Another trip to the motor factors; “you got one of these, mate?” They almost always did.

    Another time, I had the door panel off to fix a broken side glass regulator. Only managed a quick-fix repair – that one required workshop equipment.

    NZ was marvellous. I didn’t want to leave, but Visa said I had to (in both senses of the word.)

    Dave: You’re probably right. The exhaust system was distinctly odd. I recall getting an awful lot of it, when all I really needed was a rear silencer.

    Richard: Regarding the drive belt. It was far from straightforward to replace and was best approached from below, which gave batter access, but placed one at a distinct disadvantage. It is not a job to relish at any time, but carrying it out in the depths of Winter, at the side of a South London side street certainly made a tricky job that much more arduous. I recall recounting the tale to my brother’s French DS specialist. He gave his finest Gallic shrug and dismissed it as easy. I suppose if one wrangled Citroens for a living, it was. Nevertheless, I was crestfallen.

    Richard H: You are clearly taking belated revenge for remarks I made in the past about the XM. I have nothing against either Marina Coupés or AMC Pacers, but ouch.

    1. 204 and 304 instruments had green illumination and they included an ammeter showing alarming lack of charging current for most of the time.

  8. Great story telling (again) about a rare and lovely car … and a life, a time and a context.

    The most I ever attempted in terms of fixing a car mechanically was the accelerator cable on the Visa GTi – so I doff my hat to your efforts with the 304. The back-illumination bulbs of the centrally located panel of push-buttons on the Visa were a perennial issue and I kept a stock in the end (which I found in a tool-box in the garage the other day (the Visa left this shore in ’93).

    Looking forward to the final episode.

  9. Eóin, what a wonderful piece of nostalgia; Foyles and a 304 in the same article, chapeau! You certainly brought back memories of working on Mrs M’s Renault 4, 104 and 305 and being reduced almost to tears by the frustration of the seemingly willfully obtuse design. Fan belts seemed to be a Peugeot issue as a broken one caused severe overheating in the 305 and a crankshaft oil seal to fail in the replacement 505. And yes, I have vivid memories of fingers raw and unfeeling.

    A visit to Foyles was always an essential part of any trip to London, so easy to spend a morning browsing in it and then the convoluted payment method. I seem to remember reading that the complexity of this meant that there were considerable discrepancies between the value of books sold and the money received.

    A vote also for Duxford, after years of trying to organise a visit it definitely lived up to expectations with a few interesting vehicles among the wonderful aircraft.

    1. In the 204, 304 and early 305 the fan belt drove the water pump so it’s no wonder the engine overheated when the belt failed.

    2. Actually Dave, that wasn’t the case. While you are correct in that the belt also drove the water pump, the overheating incident happened entirely separately, (about 2 years later in fact) and was the result of a blocked radiator.

    3. @ Eóin: I referred to Barry’s comment.
      You were exceptionally lucky regarding the 204/304 engine’s notorious propensity to blowing head gaskets and the general vulnerability of the water pump whis liked to blow its shaft seal…
      There were a couple of 13-digit 204/304 spare parts numbers that Peugeot parts desk guys knew without looking in the parts catalogue. Clutch slave cylinder, water pump, ignition coil, head gasker (4 different thicknesses available).

    4. My apologies Dave. Agreed as regards being fortunate. When the car overheated, I was sure I had a really serious problem. Luckily the motorway was quiet, so my lurch to the hard shoulder was instantaneous, as was the engine shut down. I had no further problems with the cooling system once the radiator was replaced.

    5. There’s absolutely no need to apologise
      I’m just old enough to have worked on some of these cars replacing fan belts (the real trick is that you measure the tension by determining the distance of two vertical marks on the belt 100 mm apart in slack conditon but 102 under tension because otherwise you would kill the water pump bearings) or clutch slave cylinders until one owner decided to fit the 305’s cable operated clutch…
      I like(d) these caes for their non-racing coupe approach even if I most probably had an Alfa something at the same time.

  10. Dave you’re definitely correct about the water pump and head gasket on our 305.

    1. I replaced more than one head gasket on these engines because I liked spanner works as a pastime. You had to be careful to use the special tools to swivel the head because lifting it would have pulled out the wet liners and on 204/304s you had to boil the gasket in linseed oil before fittting…
      Just mad from today’s point of view but fun as a memory…

  11. Boil the gasket in _linseed oil_? Good grief. What on earth was the thinking behind such a procedure?

    1. This linseed oil procedure stopped when they changed the gasket supplier to Reinz. Reinz also had a patented core material for these gaskets (mats woven from stainless steel wire) which Peugeot hoped would reduce the number of failed gaskets. It worked to a certain degree – the number of head gasket failures dropped significantly but still was much higher than anywhere else. Making these Peugeot gaskets was a major pain in the backside for Reinz who made millions of gaskets from lawnmowers to Volvo Penta marine diesels but none of them gave so much trouble than the Peugeot ones.

    2. Maybe because linseed oil polymerises into a hard, petrol-insoluble solid after boiling? It’d be supple going on and then transform into a solid bonded seal.

    1. Eduardo: They should have been up my street really, but for some peculiar reason I never really got into Suede. Liked a couple of tracks, but never felt the urge to go out and purchase one of their records. I did see a very interesting BBC 4 documentary about them in 2019. Quite revealing.

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