Wednesday March 27, 2019
‘Most people are shocked as they think it's a Morris Oxford at first glance, and then realise it's a French car - but they do think she's elegant!’. The residents of Eastleigh a) are clearly able to discern a car of elegance and b) can be forgiven for thinking that the 1963 Peugeot 404 owned by Ben Venis is a BMC product as they are near contemporaries, much the same size - and both have coachwork by Battista "Pinin" Farina.
In the mid-1950s Peugeot was planning a new family of cars that would augment, and eventually replace the 403. The design brief was that the resulting model had to look more contemporary than its domestic rivals.
Peugeot launched the 404 on 9th May 1960, and its combination of tried and tested running gear, the marque’s famed attention to detail and a certain understated flair -
made it the perfect car for the up-and-coming bourgeoise motorist.
The boot space was vast, there was enough room inside for six occupants, and the cabin was practical without being austere. The steering was by rack & pinion, and under the bonnet, there was a 1,618cc engine with an alloy head producing a top speed of 89 mph.
The list of appointments included reclining front seats, a heater and, unusually for the period, fresh air vents, and upholstery that was in ‘best quality vinyl coated fabric in delightful tones’.
The exterior colour schemes were even more appealing; an ivory 404 saloon cruising along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées is surely the epitome of early 1960s chic. On a more practical note, in the (unlikely) event of your Peugeot failing to proceed, the list of equipment includes a starting handle.
Ben had owned his 404 since Boxing Day last year – ‘it stood out amongst other classics that I was looking at, and it has some American style’. Yet, to a French motorist of the early 1960s, the Peugeot still looked far more respectable than the ‘voiture nouveau riche’ likes of the Simca Ariane 4.
Of other locally-made RWD saloons, the larger Renault Frégate was to cease production in 1960 and in many respects the Peugeot’s main rival was the 403. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the 404 is that it managed to expand upon the considerable success of the older model.
In terms of foreign competitors, the Peugeot competed with the Mercedes-Benz “Ponton” and subsequent 190 “Fintail”, especially with taxi drivers across the world. Other potential export market rivals were the Volga M-21 - Greece and Belgium were major export territories for the Gaz company - and two other Pininfarina designs; the Fiat 1500L and, of course, the Austin A60 Cambridge/Morris Oxford Series VI.
The British motoring press received the Peugeot with great enthusiasm, and in 1961 Motor Sport thought it ‘the result of a combination of many virtues, adding up to great individuality, although the quiet running and good performance from a mere 1.6-litres are amongst the 404's outstanding quality’. They also thought that the ‘body of the 404 is one of Farina's less startling stylings’ – i.e. it was respectably low-key in looks.
A little over six years later Motor rather brilliantly referred to the Peugeot’s ‘gum-booted refinement’. Any car that could win the East African Safari, one of the world’s most demanding events for any motor car, on no less than four occasions was more than able to cope with the demands of a Hampshire market gardener, doctor or vet. This newsreel of the 1966 rally will give an idea of the trials faced by the Bert Shankland/Chris Rothwell Peugeot -
Two years later, the victory of the Nick Nowicki/Paddy Cliff 404 was against a background of 85 out of the original 91 entrants being forced to withdraw -
Magazine advertisements informed potential customers that here was ‘one of the best-made cars in the world’ and indeed the 404 was renowned for its quality. However, asides from some residual antipathy towards “foreign cars”, one issue that did limit sales in the UK was that of the price.
You were more likely to encounter the 404 in newsreel footage of the Safari or on such films as The Comedians, Pierrot le Fou -
and The Day of the Jackal than on the road.
In France, the Peugeot was an everyday sight, be it in a cab rank outside of a railway station, serving as a patrol car with the Gendarmerie Nationale or simply taking the family on holiday to Languedoc-Roussillon, but to a British motorist, it was almost exotic. While an A60 would have set you back £883 10s 7d in 1962 import duties resulted in the Peugeot costing £1,335 12s.3d.
Over the years the range expanded to include fuel injection engine options, station wagons, a pick-up, a handsome coupe and an utterly exquisite cabriolet. The advent of the 504 in 1968 marked the beginning of the 404, and French production ceased in 1975 after 1,847,568 units, but the mighty Peugeot continued to be made in Kenya (a major overseas market since the 1950s) until 1991.
Worldwide sales reached 2,885,374 and Ben’s example hails from Belgium. He describes her condition as ‘average; she was restored in the late 1970s, so the 404 is looking worn now but it is still all there and solid.’
Today, there are just 24 404s still in use in Britain - https://www.howmanyleft.co.uk/?q=peugeot+404. As for the driving experience, anyone who remembers Peugeot’s of this era will remember the Z-shaped gate on for the steering column gear lever but Mr. Venis ‘loves it as it feels light and easy to use. I don’t find myself changing through gears much due to the torque, and it is just as enjoyable as my 2CV’s change’.
Perhaps most importantly, the fact that Ben uses a 56-year-old car for his daily commute to work is a testament to the quality of our Car of The Month.
For this year, Ben hopes ‘to get the Peugeot to as many shows as possible, I have entered into the really retro show in June up in Stafford, so that is a fair drive. I then hope to go to France with the car and my partner for a holiday in hope of tracking down some parts!’.
And by August the 404 will be primed and ready for a journey to the New Forest, the sliding roof open and Serge Gainsbourg singing La saison des pluies on the radio. Now that is true style.