To some (read: most) people, French cars are objects of ridicule and derision. But fifty years ago, a certain French car made its appearance and stubbornly refused to disappear. The mighty 504 certainly made an impression on Sivan Goren, but then she’s a little biased…
Picture it: Johannesburg, circa 1988. Three kids on the way to school with Dad in his yellow Peugeot 504 station wagon. While others were dropped off in the likes of the latest nippy Golf or the super-cool Opel Kadett, our hand-me-down Peugeot wagon was the cause of endless mortification. In my all-knowing, 10-year-old opinion it was big, it was noisy, it was hideous. And today? As far as I am concerned, you can keep your investment-worthy Porsche 911s and Alfa 105s – all I want is a 504, and preferably in a suitably revolting seventies shade of something. After all, what better to remind us of a time when French cars actually worked?
The Peugeot 504 made its debut in 1968 – 12 September to be exact – at the Paris Salon. As an interesting aside, Peugeot had intended to launch its new model in June that year, but this then had to be pushed out by three months. The reason for this? A modern-day version of the French Revolution that began in early May of 1968 and brought France to the verge of a coup. But back to our 504, which by now was gaining attention – so much so that it scooped the European Car of the Year title the following year.
In South Africa, though, the 504 only arrived in 1971. Although the initial models produced in Europe had been 1796cc 4-cylinder models, by 1970 the engine had been increased to 1971cc, and this was what the very first South African-produced 504s were given. The 504 GL, introduced in March 1971, was a four-door saloon with all independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. Its styling, like its predecessor the 404, had been developed in collaboration with Italian stylist Pininfarina and was neat and functional, yet stylish and aerodynamic too. At R3 408 it was not the cheapest of cars, but this did not seem to deter the South African public, who bought a total of 2 143 of these cars in their first year.
By 1972, an automatic version was added to the line-up, and in 1974 the station wagon (or Estate) was launched. The Estate was mechanically identical to the saloon except that instead of the saloon’s independent suspension, the station wagon got a live-axle rear suspension. In the stopping department, the Estate was equipped with drum brakes at the rear while the saloons had discs all round.
In April 1973, the 504 T.I. was released. Apart from being fuel-injected, this new model received a few extras such as a sun roof, rev counter and twin reflector quartz-iodine lamps. Fuel injection increased top speed to 161.4km/h from the standard 504’s 155.8km/h – a useful bit of extra punch. With the international Oil Crisis that began in October that same year, the more efficient fuel-injected model seemed to come at the right time and in 1975 an automatic version was also added. At R4 395 for a new T.I. in the year of launch, though, these models were pretty costly and only 683 sold in 1973.
But perhaps the 504’s most successful version was introduced in April 1976 – the more cost-effective ‘L’ range. In place of the previous 504’s 1971cc engine, a smaller 1796cc 4-cylinder engine was used. The 1800-L had trailing arm, live-axle suspension with coil springs, anti-roll bar and drum brakes at the rear. And while it had a smaller engine than the standard 504, it was also nearly 60kg lighter.
But where costs were really reduced was with the cutting of various ‘luxury’ items. Gone were the centre console and dashboard clock. The seats were plain vinyl with no stylish brushed nylon insets and the plush moulded carpets made way for practical rubber floor mats. Glovebox and trunk lights were left off – hell, even ‘luxurious’ reverse lights were deemed unnecessary and given the boot. But thankfully items that remained were the heater/demister, hazard lights, reclining front seats and driver door mirror.
This range was so popular that it continued right up to 1985, while the other models fell away in 1980. In the October 1978 issue, <<<CAR>>> magazine said: “Two years ago, Peugeot took the bold step of introducing a popular priced ‘L’ range based on the 2-litre Peugeot 504. It started with the 1800-L station wagon using the established 1800 engine, with a down-to-earth equipment specification which did not omit any essentials, and a straightforward live-axle rear suspension system in place of the big-engined 504’s sophisticated independent rear suspension. This was followed by the 1800-L sedan and shortly afterwards, the 1800-L Automatique. These three cars have had immediate acceptance by SA motorists, so much so that the Peugeot 504 range as a whole broke all sales records last year to break into the Top Ten listing with average sales of well over 500 units a month.”
And even to this day, this is a car that refuses to die. With its robust body, long suspension travel and torque tube drive shaft, it was durable and hardy – perfect for rough-terrain areas – and became incredibly popular outside of Europe in far-flung places including Brazil, Argentina, Australia and, of course, Africa. In Europe, more than 3 million 504s were produced from 1968-1983. But was this the end of the tenacious 504? Not a chance! Throughout the world, production continued under licence. In Kenya and Nigeria, assembly using knock-down kits continued into 2004 and 2006 respectively. If you consider that this car initially appeared on the scene in 1968, that makes it something like the car equivalent of Mick Jagger…well, as far as staying power goes, anyway.
Need more proof of just how tough this car is? Well, in 1983 Robert Hotz bought a demo model 1.8-litre, 504 station wagon for R5 500. From that time, he used it as his daily car. In 2011, the 504 hit the million – yes, million – kilometre mark. “At one stage parts became a problem, but I found somebody in Pretoria who had a workshop full of Peugeot spares – he even found me an indicator lever when the one in my car broke. The same chap also serviced the car during that time – every 10 000km or so,” Hotz said at the time. And would he ever sell? Apparently, even though he has had loads of offers, he would never even consider it.
I totally get it, Mr Hotz. When I do find that perfect 504 wagon, I will hold on to it too.