Peugeot: A story of fantastic successes and pitiful failures

Of all the great car companies and brands, one of the most overlooked is Peugeot of France.

As a brand, it is a bit despised in the UK and rarely bought in Germany, but who cares what those Europeans think?

The places where these cars have had the biggest impact are Africa and the Middle East. Come across any current or previous Peugeot owner/driver and he will either swear by his car or swear at it.

I happen to fall in this particular demographic, having had (and still have) one of the original 405s in my care, and I have sworn both by and at it. Repeatedly. I still do.

Locally, Peugeot’s problems started with the 504. The car was powerful in all its iterations.

The saloon, with its monocoque chassis, was very comfortable (and this unitary body construction led many to declare — sagely and quite wrongly — that the car had no chassis).

The estate had an enormous boot and the pickup could take a considerable amount of luggage and abuse and still hold itself together.

As such, the saloon became the car of choice for the discerning, aspiring patrician — bank managers and pseudo-senior civil servants who had their own offices rather than sharing.

The estate, on the other hand, went into service in the police force, transporting shadowy men in trench coats who subscribed to a discipline more stringent than the Boy Scouts, and as a ground-hugging passenger aircraft (memories of Crossroad Travellers and WEPESI bring about tears of nostalgia), while the pickup became the farmer’s friend, and nemesis to the Toyota Hilux. Good times.

The bad

But there were issues. A common adage went “A Peugeot will give you flawless service for 16 years, after which it will stall if the doors have not fallen off yet”.

Too true. Peugeots were near-perfect machines for the tasks they were assigned, but as they say, when it rains, it pours.

If and when mechanical infidelity reared its unsightly noggin, the problems came in droves, never singularly. I know, I have a Peugeot under my care.

The electricals were usually the first to act up, closely followed by the doors divorcing themselves from the rest of the car.

This is not just a garage myth, it actually happens. The driver’s door on my fickle 405 came off its hinges one day at a petrol station, and as such the fuel flap could not open, what with the central locking system being tied to every single orifice of the car other than the bonnet.

A well placed six-inch nail brought it back to position, but it had a slight sag, so shutting it involved some careful balancing of the door itself.

The nail made the pump attendant quip something about Jesus and crucifixion, but I felt I was the one being crucified here by a car I actually loved.

Rust was also a common problem for the 504 and the absence of a ladder frame chassis meant that the car was also structurally weak because when it was invented, strengthening monocoques was still a new field of research.

Several years of hard use would bend the car out of shape, meaning resale value was a joke. If you bought a Peugeot, you bought it for life. It is this car that gave Peugeot cars their bad reputation.

The 505 was not much different. It was slightly more comfortable and offered better fuel economy than its predecessor, but the typical Peugeot gremlins still haunted it.

And it was not as much of a looker as the 504. The estate version sported a toned down look from the 504 while the saloon was a bit drab to look at.

However, the introduction of turbos for some models in the engine bay compensated for the less pretty appearance and imbued these cars with an outstanding sprinting ability. The 505 was an early ’80s introduction, while the 405 followed it in the mid-’80s.

The 405 started life with a bang, winning several COTY (Car of the Year) awards between 1985 and 1989. That is how good it was at the time, and the reason I gambled with getting one.

It was designed by Pininfarina, the same studio that does Ferraris and Alfa Romeos, making it a dead ringer for the Alfa 164.

It was fast and comfy (I can attest to this), had sublime handling (either because of or despite its front drive chassis), the boot space was class-leading and its appearance was the best of any car at that time.

In fact, the model was (is) so good that it is still in production in Egypt and Iran, where it is sold not as a Peugeot, but as the Paykan.

As I found out (to my horror and to the detriment of my wallet) it was not immune to the same demons that haunted earlier Peugeots.

However, at the end of its production run, it ushered in a new era, the era of the reliable Peugeot.

A leap of faith

So far, it might be easy to assume from my story that owning a Peugeot from that era is not entirely different from a kamikaze mission — the motive is honourable but the end result is less than pleasant — but I assure you it is not.

It is more of a leap of faith. The best analogy I can come up with is getting into a relationship with someone you met at the bar: you never know where it will lead or what will happen next.

Just like in liquor-assisted romance, the good times are really good. There rarely had been an ugly Peugeot up until the 607, just like there are no ugly people in the bar after 2am — that is, until dawn breaks.

The brief period when the car is mechanically sound, you will love driving it. Then the problems start and you either bail out like me (I have had to ground the poor 405 after it almost bankrupted me), or stay on and persevere the vagaries of a bad relationship when true colours start showing.

So, the 607. It was meant to be to France what Jaguar is to the UK — a homegrown product for government officials to run around in without having to gaze longingly towards Germany.

But the blatant plagiarism of the W220 Mercedes S-Class design language (and subsequent failure to resolve the swoopy lines into a properly pretty shape) did not win it many fans.

Its suspension was so-so, and then Peugeot went ahead and tried to make it clever by adding some complex gadgetry, and made it worse. The introduction of air suspension completely ruined what was a fallible item to begin with, and the 607 went on to suffer an ignominious death. No one will miss it.

Now the upside

Starting off with the 403 and 404, classics at the moment and fashion statements in their time, these cars are (surprisingly) still in service in small numbers if you look around rural municipalities, despite their age.

Enthusiasts might gush about the indestructibility of the Hilux utility, but the 403 and 404 pickups were harder to kill than a family of cockroaches on steroids.

And you cannot ignore Peugeot’s sporting credentials: The 205 Turbo 16 was a Group B monster that did not accept defeat easily.

The 405 Turbo 16 (T16) conquered the Dakar rally convincingly and then went on to claim a hill-climb record at Pikes Peak, Colorado in the hands of Finn Ari Vatanen. And who can forget the 206 WRC and its relentless chain of victories?

Away from motorsport, there has only been one definitive hot hatchback of all time, and that is the 205 GTI. Just like all software geeks aspire to be Steve Jobs one day, all sporting hatchbacks aspire to be the 205 GTI.

Originally, the VW Golf GTI was “it” but the Germans lost the plot and the French swooped in to show the world how to build a small car that is still a hoot to drive (ignore the cheap interior plastics and jumpy driveline).

Since then, France has incessantly churned out a succession of (really) hot hatchbacks, and not just Peugeots.

I had said the 405, towards the end of its production run, ushered in the era of the reliable Peugeot. Well, reliable is not exactly the right adjective. Let us say ‘improved’. And the improvement was drastic.

The 406 (it was originally to be branded 506) is downright pretty, again penned by Pininfarina, and is a less dear alternative to, of all cars, the BMW 3 Series (benchmark, yardstick, pace-setter, trend-setter, reference point: call it what you want, but the description is “the car to beat”).

The 306 is a driver’s car through and through, right down to the oil-burning versions that feed from the black pump.

The 206 is a lovely little number, and the 180 hp GTI version is geared in such a way that you can clock 70 km/h in first — insane.

Subsequent models are just as good, if not better: 207, 208, 307, 308, 407; all of them are good and as far removed from the flimsy products of the ’80s as one can possibly imagine.

Which brings me to the 508 and a firm called Eurysia. A quick survey among the general public reveals that many still assume Peugeot cars are sold and serviced by Marshalls.

They are not. Marshalls now peddles TATA vehicles (incidentally, TATA now owns Jaguar and Land Rover, but these two are sold by CMC. The motoring industry is a game of musical chairs, I tell you).

Also, a good number think the 406 or 407 are Peugeot’s latest offerings, but they are not. Peugeots are sold by a low key outfit called Eurysia, and towards the close of 2010 they made a small noise about the 508.

The 508 is one of the prettiest cars to come out in 2011, and one that I am dying to drive. The estate is also one of the most versatile cars available now, what with its boot space rivalling the hearse-like E Class estate, and this has got to be the best-looking station wagon outside of the shooting brake clique.

The manual gearbox — a man’s transmission of choice — is standard, its interior is second in beauty and execution only to Audi (and the company from Ingolstadt has the honour of making the best interiors ever. Forget Rolls, forget Maybach, and forget Bentley, Audis have the best interiors in the business, period).

So why are we not being inundated with promotions and ads glorifying the 508 and begging us to climb proudly back into Peugeots, like we once did two or three decades ago? I do not know. Over to you, Eurysia.

The children in the basement

Not all Peugeots were good in one way or the other. While some turned heads, others turned stomachs. In fact some were (and are) total garbage, the most notorious being the 309.

Poorly labelled (it came after the 305), poorly designed and poorly packaged, it was a poor performer that held its value poorly and was consequently poorly received by pundits, punters, and the press. It did not help matters that it was sold alongside the outstanding 405.

The 607, as described earlier, was another. Nobody knows what exactly was going on inside Peugeot’s head when they dreamed up this car.

Nobody still does. Also largely unloved is the 1007. It is hard to place: sized like a super-mini, designed to look like an MPV and it has a van’s sliding doors, through which both driver and passengers climb.

It falls in the same group as the Mitsubishi RVR: cars that are hard to place, trying to fill too many niches at the same time and as such fail miserably in all areas. Thankfully, I have not seen any on our roads. Yet.

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