History in Cars – An Echo, a Stain

Age and entropy catches up with the 304. 

Following my return to the UK, I briefly toyed with the idea of a permanent repatriation to the old country, but London exerts a powerful gravitational pull and before long I was back into a new career in a new side of town. Now domiciled in suburban East London, I was closer to my tame Peugeot specialist, and with the 304 now back on the road (it had survived storage without mishap), we resumed our largely comfortable association.

The 304 had always been predominantly weekend fare, my daily commute into Central London being the task of either public transport or my own two-wheeled efforts. This, I convinced myself was justification for running an older car; not required for daily drudgery, I could afford the endemic risks without (much) recourse to the AA.

But old age was starting to steal upon the Peugeot. Still remarkably hale for its advancing years, pockmarks of rust were bubbling here, there and most ominously, underneath. Much as I harboured notions of getting the car properly sorted, there was never the money, the space nor the facilities. It was becoming clear that with each passing year, I was less of a worthy custodian. I did however carry out a little cosmetic bodywork, which tided up some of the more obvious signs of time’s passage upon its Maize yellow coachwork.

Having read in the classic car press that L’Aventure Peugeot had inaugurated a service where one could obtain a Certificate of Conformity for one’s classic lion[1], I asked one of my French-speaking colleagues at work to assist in drafting a letter of entreaty. Not long after, I received the document along with a rather amusingly phrased, but gracious letter from Belfort, confirming the 304’s authenticity and provenance.

Image: Author’s collection.

Never a particularly satisfying in operation, one changed gear in the 304 because one needed to, not for either the tactile or haptic pleasure therein. As time went on, the engagement of reverse became stickier, sometimes reluctant to release. And then it happened. En-route to join friends one roasting summer Sunday afternoon in 2000, I prowled the Camden Town side streets in search of a parking spot. Inching the Peugeot into a much-prized space, I selected reverse, which steadfastly refused to disengage. Jammed solid.

I elected to ignore the problem until later, in the somewhat naive hope that it might somehow resolve itself in the interim. No dice. The nice man from the AA couldn’t do anything with it either, so onto his flatbed it went, back to base, and the following day, relayed to MS Motors, who presented me with the grim diagnosis. Either a gearbox rebuild (try getting the parts) or a secondhand replacement. (Ditto) However, on the upside, my friendly mechanic had managed to free the linkage, so I at least had four forward ratios to play with, giving me a partly functional motor car to drive gingerly homewards while I weighed my options.

I really hadn’t intended to consider the matter for all of six months (I think that is more commonly known as procrastination), but that is how long I ended up driving the car in this diminished state. It wasn’t so bad really; I became quite adept at anticipation and as long as one avoided really busy areas, it was quite straightforward to find a parking space (multi-stories were best) that would allow a simple drive (or reverse-roll) out getaway. During that time, I never once got stuck. But the car’s usability had become dramatically constrained, and it was clear that unless this unsatisfactory situation could be resolved, the 304 was living on borrowed time.

Now as we know, only an expert can deal with a problem, so it was time to seek one out. In this case, there was only one person to turn to and his name was Darius – a name mentioned in hushed tones amid the 304 fraternity, in the South East of England at least. So with a certain trepidation, I made my way, having first obtained an appointment, to his Elstree holy of holies. No reversing required.

Darius quickly assessed my distressed 304 and confirmed what I already knew; this was a thoroughly sound car, requiring a level of investment that by this point was more than I was prepared to commit. The truth was that by that point, I had wearied of the almost constant fettling the 304 required. I was still besotted by its appearance, (and by how it made me feel driving it), but I was losing heart as its increasing dependency weighed upon me and my still-shaky finances. Also, I was far from convinced that it would pass the next MOT without expensive structural attention at keel-level.

It was time to find a more fitting keeper. Furthermore, a new rival for my automotive affections had entered my consciousness. Also bearing the Lion of Belfort upon its prow, this more up to date proposition was the 304’s diametric opposite in some respects, but the idea had taken root, it was (soon to become) available and I was ready for a change.

Darius tried his best, very generously offering me his workshop space, his expertise (and therefore no labour charge), should I elect to repair the 304. I was tempted, but while I could attempt certain DIY repairs with an element of confidence, I drew the line at something as intricate as a gearbox rebuild. I told him I’d think about it and allowing gravity to do the work of my missing reverse gear, I exited his premises and headed homewards. But in truth, my decision had already been made, and I suspect he realised that too.

I placed an ad in the owner’s club magazine, and awaited a response. I was less concerned by this stage at getting anything tangible for the 304 – what I really wanted was a good home. Sometimes the phone only needs to ring once and in this case, the caller was the prospective purchaser I was hoping for. I recognised immediately once the gentleman in question (along with his spouse, who seemed if anything more captivated) arrived to view the car that they were going to give my 304 the care it both needed and fully deserved. Priced to sell, we quickly agreed terms.

As I watched it depart, I felt a curious mix of emotions. Sadness, yes, but mostly concern. I hoped everything would be alright.

Time passes and from time to time the 304’s fate entered my mind and I would feel a pang of worry. Did it survive? After all, so many good cars end up dying, prey to that most dangerous of human emotions: good intentions. Not being someone who would carry out the detective work to find out (ignorance can often be bliss), twenty years elapsed before my brother, who (heaven help him) tracks the classic car hinterlands, sent me a photo, with the query; “is this by any chance your old Peugeot?”

And there it was – SPG 667M – hale, hearty and for sale. Turns out it had been restored in 2012, before being sold at auction in March of this year. Its new keeper has a car that in rarity terms is up there with some of the most esoteric exotica – in the five years I had the 304, I saw one other Coupé, and that was French-registered.[2]

But above all, they have a car that was loved.

[1] A birth certificate, so to speak.
[2] The more prized 304 Cabriolet was a more common sighting, if still a comparatively rare one.

Images, except where indicated: handh.co.uk

An Echo, a Stain is a track from the 2001 album Vespertine, by Björk.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

22 thoughts on “History in Cars – An Echo, a Stain”

  1. I read the penultimate paragraph with trepidation, I couldn’t bear a sad ending.
    It lives! That’s cheered me right up and a fitting end for such a rare car.

  2. much thanks Eóin for this triple treat.
    what a lovely car (never sold here in oz),
    and what a fine tale of delight and doubt
    and redemption. thank you.

  3. Good morning Eóin. A lovely story with a happy ending. I’m delighted to see that your 304 is still hale and hearty.

    I occasionally browse the MOT history to see how my former drives are doing, and feel a certain sadness when one of them appears no longer to be on the road. Here’s the current state of play:

    1990 BMW 320i Convertible – Deceased March 2020 after 30 years
    1993 BMW 325i Convertible – Deceased February 2016 after 23 years
    1995 Mazda MX-5 – Deceased July 2019 after 24 years
    1997 Land-Rover Discovery – Deceased May 2021 after 24 years
    1997 Mercedes-Benz SLK – Deceased November 2012 after 15 years
    1998 Jeep Cherokee – Deceased June 2014 after 16 years
    2002 Ford Ranger – Still in service after 19 years
    2002 Audi TT Convertible – Unknown (Registration plate changed)
    2005 Škoda Fabia – Still in service after 16 years
    2006 Porsche Boxster – Unknown (Registration plate changed)
    2015 Jaguar F-Type Convertible – Unknown (Registration plate changed)

    Obviously I’ve no idea what the cause of death was in any case, but the one that catches my eye is the SLK , which was cosseted and garaged for the first eight years of its life and had only 81k miles recorded on its last MOT.

    1. I occasionally do the same on the Dutch RDW site. I’ve only owned two cars before my current E92: A 1989 BMW 318i Touring and a 1998 BMW 318i. Both are still in service.

  4. An excellent article Eóin and what a story. I was quite worried about how it would all end.

  5. Lovely car in a lovely shade of yellow. Good to see it’s still on the road.

  6. A really beautiful story with a wonderful ending.

    But an ending that can only be reported thanks to the British rules of a permanent number plate on the vehicle.

    The feeling of recognising a previously owned vehicle and having been part of a history must be great.

    The first parts of the story reminded me a bit of when I owned a Karman-Ghia Type 34. At that time my wallet was way too small to make the vehicle a daily working item and I sought escape by looking for a new owner for the vehicle. The question of whether this vehicle survived is almost impossible to answer, even by a top detective, due to German registration regulations, as vehicles in our country (have to) get a new number plate when they are re-registered in another area and the old documents (thanks to the EU) had to be replaced by new ones.
    The same applies to the Peugeot 203 and the Ford OSI I once owned. Also, my former traces of history have been wiped out forever.

    Last week we sold our Alfa Romeo Spider, which had been in our possession for 31 years – it will spend the next time with its new owners in the Düsseldorf area. Over the years, however, the car has been so extremely modified by us to become a “one-off” that should it ever be offered for sale again, we will recognise it.

    Have I ever mentioned that I am very jealous that you drove a 304 Coupe (and in this wonderful colour)? But my daily revenge is when I get into our Alfasud Sprint. Ha!

    1. We need details and a photo, please Fred. The Alfasud Sprint is lovely!

    2. Gentlemen: Thanks for the kind words. I was so pleased to discover that the 304 has a new lease of life. I hope it continues to give pleasure for years to come.

      Fred: Back at you. I still covet a Sud Sprint. There’s one in my fantasy lottery-win garage. (Pre-facelift, Sprint Veloce, since you asked…)

    3. Here you go:

      Alfa Romeo Spider (series 4, 1990)

      The only one in grey, louvres in the bonnet, removed plastic sills, wider track at frontaxle becaus of disk brakes from TVR (twin-piston, ventilated discs), GTA-Wheels…

      …and this is the Alfasud Sprint

    4. Hi Fred. Thank you, both are just lovely. Red really suits the Sprint, but that blue-grey colour is unusual and delightful on the Spider.

      I’m happy to say that DTW has an Alfasud feature coming up in the near future. Stay tuned!

    5. The Alfasud Sprint´s a bit forgotten, isn´t it? They used to be common enough in Dublin. I´ve seen one in Aarhus in a decade. They made 110,000 of them in 12 years (so not a big seller). I have no impression of them now. I may not have read a review. A quick look at AutoScout shows good ones cost two arms and leg: try 13,900e to start with.
      Thanks, Eoin for this story. I have warmed to the car´s appearance. The rear is fetching and so is the interior. Peugeot don´t have a corresponding car now. I had a look at their range and the crossovers dominate quite a bit. The 3-digit cars feel like a minority. Nobody liked their last sportcar. On the one hand, I see Peugeot offering some rather ritzy cars like the 5008 which I feel is an impressive and rather dynamic looking shape. The 508 is growing on me – it has a very fluid and flowing impression (as if it´s blurred by motion). On the other, Peugeot´s sobriety and what the chaps in Autocar called professionalism is less apparent. My 406 is a totally serious car despite also being a worthless 20 year old item. The new 508 feels like it´s taking on the values of a BMW 4-door coupe which is not what I expect of a Peugeot. Still, Peugeot do well with their current formula: their cars are everywhere here.

    1. That’s unfair. Now my inner ear can’t stop hearing the buzzing exhaust sound and I can feel the laser sharp throttle response – and I eagerly wish my current Audi had steering feel as good as the ‘Sud’s!

    2. Gentlemen, meet my brother. He enjoys torturing both me and himself.

  7. This has been a particularly satisfying tale of a worthy survivor (the 304 – it always appealed), with the added bonus of a surviving Alfasud!

    I had not really appreciated how fortunate we are in the UK to still have our peculiar system of vehicle registration – although it was better before the dreaded GDPR stopped the DVLA from being able to reveal the full history of our vehicles when we requested it. I was able to ascertain that my 1953 Jowett Javelin’s first owner lived in Sheffield and kept it for 27 years during which time it changed colour; the second owner for 26 years, restoring it to original colour in 1984/5 (actually a full nut & bolt restoration). I am the 4th owner but so far have only managed 10 years….. And if I was looking for a more modern vehicle to compliment it, for what should be obvious reasons a sound Alfasud would be high on the list!

    1. Very handsome, that Sprint. Someone is missing a trick by not making a similarly sized mid-power but fun small coupe. Imagine a small 3 door based on the 208? Is lightness totally out of fashion? Alfa´s Mito is a cheery thing yet it is verging on the bulky. Although it isn´t any kind of a sportscar, I was delighted to hear the Baleno weighed under a ton. I suspect that means it´s probably very chuckable and at least not burdened with inertia.
      I found this glowing report of the 508 from the American journal Car & Driver:
      https://www.caranddriver.com/photos/g30675576/2020-peugeot-508-drive-gallery/?slide=16

  8. Lovely story, lovely car, lovely ending. And a teaser for the next round – unless I missed something there’s another lion story waiting to be told? Thanks Eoin for sharing this story.

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