Age and entropy catch 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, 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.
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 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.
But above all, they have a car that was loved.
 A birth certificate, so to speak.
 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.