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Like nothing you’ve ever seen

Peugeot 604

28/08/2013 07:38 |  Comments: 

Managing director

Well-known in Totalcar-circles for being able to draft in huge wads of dough in impossible times, we all tolerate Tibby’s sick jokes and horribly nasty remarks day to day. On better days he doubles as a writer too, but his articles always guarantee a hoard of trolls arriving. Never being able to decide between Citroens and Merc’s, presently he owns a Merc. And a BMW. And he bombs us with ads of hydropneumatic Citroens daily. Has a wife and two small children.

Having been invited to Peugeot’s 200th Anniversary celebrations I knew straight away which car I’d lust to drive if given the chance.

Some of us here, at the editor's office drive super rare vintage cars like others buy loo paper. Alas, I am not one of them (I'm looking at you, Csikos). For me, the chance to get behind the wheels of a 604 is a life-long dream comes true. I love this car, nimble yet chubby, proud to be boxy but not in a Volvo way. This is a blithe French car, an iron curtain blowing playfully in the wind. A Pininfarina masterpiece, no doubt. I remember drooling over one of these as I was riding the night tram home in the early 90's. It was used as a taxi cab and I fell in love with it. A diesel one, most probably. I recall all my girlfriends at that time had to endure my ravings about this car as we paced the streets at night. Look at that shape: it may be obsolete now but the French have forgotten how to build a proper full size sedan. The 605, a successor of some sorts, is but a sorry excuse for a large car. It's like an Irish pub in Eastern Europe with bricks molded from drywall, versus the Brazen Head in Dublin. No competition, really.

Standing in front of a 604 with the keys in my hand and a permission to drive I still had to pinch myself hard to see if this was real. There is no such thing as a 604 anymore. In a market as vast as Germany I could only find three cars for sale, one in a hopeless state of decay and two others going for a price too high to see from the clouds. Which practically means the 604 is non-existent, all gone like its cousin, the Talbot Tagora. But here in the town of Sochaux, population 4500, I found just as many 604's. There was one in a dealership, on sale for €3500, another one parked just outside the Peugeot museum, going for under €5000, and this one, my dream ride to be – strictly not for sale.

Before I continue, wouldn't you like to know just what the heck the 604 is?

Thought so. The 604 is a luxury sedan launched in 1975 and doomed for a slow but certain death in the face of the ensuing crisis. Little over 150 000 units were manufactured until the end of 1985 – it means a mere 15 thousand cars a year. It looks like a proper car, you know, the kind preschool children draw: a box with rounded off corners, sort of like a bar of soap left soaking overnight. It has a proper front, a proper middle part and a proper rear – 470 cm of Peugeot. This was supposed to be Peugeot's return to the luxury car market – the first attempt being the 601 before WW2 – but it was no smooth sailing.

For one, there was this thing with the engine. The PRV (a.k.a Douvrin V6, named after the factory it was produced in) was a truncated V8. Peugeot started off designing and engineering a V8 but then taxes went up, just as fuel prices, so they decided to stop two cylinders short of the target. They were not the only ones to do so in those days: the Maserati V6 came to life the same way – it is the engine powering the Citroen SM. Because Peugeot changed no other details except the cylinder count, they ended up with a mildly underpowered (145 PS), midsize (2.7 litres) engine which sounded funny and guzzled gas like it was the end of the world. Up until 1998 this strange engine was planted in all sorts of Volvo, Citroen and Peugeot models, even the DeLorean. Jointly developed by these companies, the 2.7 V6 debuted in the Volvo 264. Later on it received a turbocharger for the Renault 25 V6 Turbo and the Renault Alpine A610. Bored up to 3.0 it also served in the Safrane and the Laguna. It died on the 15th June, 1998.

But let's go to the brand itself. Peugeot was present in every niche and corner of mobility, from bicycles to large trucks, from cars to vans, not to mention their scooter line-up. Everything except luxury vehicles! We are talking 1975 and the luxury car market is dominated by one vehicle: the Mercedes W116, driven by John F. Kennedy, Jr., Frank Sinatra and the like. BMW had a single try at the market (apart from the Baroque Angel, the 501 of the post-war period) but the E3, launched in 1968 and axed seven years later, was anything but overwhelmingly successful. Its successor, the E23 (also known as 7 series) made it to the ranks of fame but at this point it was but a concept. And then there was the Fiat 130, another mind-bogglingly boxy car, already stepping down without ever making it. Mind you, I have never seen either a Fiat 130 or a BMW E3 in person. And of course there were the Brits, Jaguar and Daimler.

So there I was, waiting for the car an hour or so, patiently getting over the fact that all the Chinese and British journalists kept Bogarting it. But I persevered and finally triumphed.

205 T16

While I was waiting for the 604 with a friend, a seasoned classic car photographer, we kept an open eye for the 205 TI 16. As luck would have it the two cars arrived at the same time. We had to choose – he picked the 205 T16 and promised to give us an account of what is was like. Here it is:

“If I had to make a wild guess I'd say roughly half of us were dead set on trying this particular vehicle, me included. I recall being a seventh grader and watching rally world championships with my buddies. Ever since then I have known no god other than Ari Vatanen and no car other than the T16. Of course later I realised that the Group B monster, first rated at 380 then 450 PS, had little or nothing to do with the popular city car except that homologation rules required that 20+200 street legal versions are manufactured. And one of those two hundred cars is now waiting for little old me. Right behind the seats, installed transversely, there's the 1775 cc turbocharged engine outputting 200 noble horses at 6750 rpm. Four-wheel drive, 6 seconds to 100 kph, ventilated brake disks all around, a body 13 cm wider than that of the GTI. Both spectacular and aggressive.

Unfortunately I was not allowed to drive the car. Understandable, as an inexperienced driver I would probably wipe out at the first corner with this infernal little car. Our journey is accompanied by all sorts of mechanical noises, hisses and creaks as the factory mechanic driving the car exits the roundabout with the door handles pointing forward. Throttle steering is the way to go in this pocket rocket. There is a lot of power sliding. This is not your momma's 205. We are heading towards the Peugeot fuel station located amongst the factory buildings. The driver opens the front lid revealing all the suspension tower braces and the spare wheel. Extreme? You bet. And that's why I like it so much.

I am escorted on my drive by a Peugeot employee, and he turns out to know quite a lot about the car. This specific one was bought used a few years back – turns out Peugeot didn't keep any 604's except for two of the long wheelbase presidential cars. This one only had a single owner and has run under 100K. A first generation model with fuel injection, manual gearbox, a sunroof, power windows, and servo steering, but no air-con. The wheels are the exceptions, those were taken from a second generation car. I told him my plans for the day – I sought to drive the 604 in and out of town, and then find a nice spot for the photo shoot. He'd move the car about while I'd be taking the pictures. He agreed and off we drove.

Leaning back in the supersized seat I see what affluent Frenchmen in the 70's could see – a vast expanse of a hood, and an instrument cluster that would be befitting an 18-wheeler.There are knobs and controls all over the place, their location seems to follow no logic. Designers of the era must have considered ergonomics a distant and hostile science. Stalk switches have traded places, putting the windscreen wiper on the left, and the indicator on the right. Ignition is located on the left and you turn the key the wrong way, away from you to start the engine and towards you to kill it. You either adapt fast or you will soon end up ruining the gear ring.

There are a few speed bumps on the way out of the museum grounds but the 604 traverses them like it is running on pneumatic suspension – which it isn't. It is unfathomably soft and plushy, leaving virtually no direct contact between the driver and the road. It is like an air mattress at sea. There is a bit of road grip but looking for traction is missing the point of the 604. Driving this car should be in solemn procession, with no sudden movements. Once you start hurrying things you'll start wiping when you should be blinking and vice versa – remember, the stalks are installed on the wrong side.

Switchgear for the side windows and the sunroof are located where modern cars would have their satnav screen. This panel is large enough for a couple switches. As soon as we clear the gates and drive out on the street it becomes crystal clear that, back then, expressions like ‘in a hurry' or ‘powerful cruiser' had a completely different meaning. With 145 PS on tap I need to work the gearshift diligently just to keep up with the traffic in this sleepy little town. One should not expect more than that though. Let me put it this way: it is not her athletic abilities that have made Adele so popular. This car is what you would call pleasantly underpowered. In other words: it could have used that V8.

With its dry weight of 1500 kg the 604 is one heavy beast. Wheelbase is a stately 280 cm, you could almost park a Smart between the two axles. One would expect enormous rear legroom and indeed, accommodation behind the 30 cm thick front seatbacks is plentiful. Think Skoda Octavia (though certainly not a Superb)

The interior is attractive. Not necessarily better in quality than any contemporary 504 but that is not saying much as the 504 has an attractive and high quality interior. This specific car sported leather upholstery, well kept. You could tell this car has received a lot of loving care. There is simply nothing better boosting your sense of space and comfort than a light toned interior.

So, like I said, this is a heavy car which means there is no point in revving the engine in the red. All you would get is an even quirkier engine sound. I try hard not to think of consumption figures. This thing is a guzzler. At 100 kph the engine runs at 3000 rpm – imagine this car on the highway. It is very similar to my old XM which could neither accelerate nor go fast. But the way the 604 fails to accelerate is just mesmerising. You just don't see these entertainingly lazy, amazingly unwilling vehicles any more. And yet, with its road manners akin to a warship, with the utter lack of response, the featherweight power steering, the womb-like seats, the silence and the perfect absence of NVH makes this an exceptional experience. This is a proper car. A car, as opposed to a mobility product. I wish I could live in the age when these things were born. I want one. Bad!

My favourite part is the nose. Just look at those yellow headlights. Maybe I should just buy me a grille with the lights?

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