Monday June 11, 2018
As the theme for this year’s Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show is “Built to Last”, what car merits this description more than the Peugeot 404? It is the sort of vehicle that you would encounter across the world long after its production ceased. From Tanzania to Caracas, the mighty Peugeot could be seen on taxi duties while vehicles of 10 or even 20 years its junior were languishing in the scrapyard. And, as can be seen from this spectacularly early 1960s launch film, the 404 was not lacking in that essential sense of chic.
Back in 1960, one of the 404’s major challenges was to live up to the reputation of the 403 (the two models were produced alongside each other for several years) as well as appeal to private and fleet motorists who mighty have chosen a late-model Mercedes-Benz 180 “Ponton”. The Pininfarina coachwork was low-key but contemporary, the four-on-the-column gearchange was easy to use once you had become familiar with its idiosyncratic “Z” pattern – and the engineering was of the utmost integrity. Two years later, Peugeot introduced the station wagon which was also available in seven/eight-seater Familiale guise; ideal for the driver who still feared the suspension and the FWD layout of the Citroën Safari.
In 1961 Motor Sport mused that the 404 saloon could ‘well exasperate less experienced or discerning drivers. For it is a highly individual motor-car’ and two years later a test of the Familale revealed why a 404 estate with three rows of seats was not destined to be a common sight in the UK; import duties inflated the price to £1,274 2s 11d making it far more expensive than a comparable Morris Oxford Series VI Traveller. But their review also summarised the Peugeot’s appeal – ‘Even if it paid the penalty of load-carrying by sluggishness, indifferent handling or noise, it would still represent an enormously practical vehicle. In fact, it is a delightful car to drive, and its length and seating capacity are never apparent to those in control of it’
For motorists of Africa, Europe, Asia and South America, this was the ideal formula and by the end of the decade you would find 404 police cars in the former South Rhodesia, heavily laden diesel-powered pick-up trucks en route to market in Rabat or business transport in Buenos Aires. A 404 scored a class victory in the 1961 East African Safari Rally and the event outright in 1963, 1966, 1967 and 1968.
At home, converted Peugeots frequently served in the Tour de France with capacity to carry several racing cycles. They were also fitted with special low-cut rear doors so that the competitors could be supplied with water while on the move. Meanwhile, for those drivers who craved their Bourgeois comforts, the 1961 “Grand Tourisme Super Luxe” offered leather upholstery and front carpeting while the Cabriolet and the Convertible were, put simply, just exquisite. In 1962 the 404 was even available with Kugelfishcher fuel injection.
1968 saw the debut of the 504 (more of which later this year) which was both Peugeot’s rival to the Citroën ID and the eventual successor to the 404. French production ceased in 1975 but their Kenyan operations continued building this unassumingly great motor car until as recently as 1991. The Peugeot 404 never had any claims to ostentation or head-turning; it simply marked the heights that four-cylinder family could aspire to – not least because from the outset, it really was built to last.