Today’s photo from the archives goes back to 1960s France, where somebody’s looking for directions to the next winery behind the wheel of a Peugeot 204. Like the wines of famous Côte-d’Or vintner Jacques Seysses, the 204 was a forward-thinking product full of innovations from what was a traditional world.
Almost everything about the humble 204 was a radical break from tradition for Peugeot. The Sochaux Lion was known for its conservative, durable cars and traditional engineering – as exemplified by the contemporaneous 404.
But underneath the image of tradition, Peugeot was experimenting not only with Citroën-like suspensions (Peugeot’s oleopneumatic setup, in testing for years, never made it to production) but also transverse engines and front-drive like BMC, Fiat, and Simca.
The 204, initiated as “project D12” in the late 1950s, became Peugeot’s first front-driver and a landmark car for the Lion brand. It was on the vanguard of a new generation of small cars in many ways. It followed BMC’s very successful ADO16 cars (introduced 1962) and the then-new Autobianchi Primula (introduced 1964). All three would be major milestones in the gradual shift towards space-efficient front-drivers.
At the time, Renault was also going front-drive, but hued to the traditional north-south setup for the R4 (introducd 1961) and R16 (1965). But it was domestic competition that in part spurred Peugeot to take action.
Developing the 204
As Sochaux graduated from the 202 to the 203, and then to the 403 and 404, engines and bodies grew larger and the cars gradually rose in tax class and price, if only gradually.
Peugeot only made medium-sized family cars, but with the advent of the 8CV 404 there was room for a car below in the domestic 6/7CV class, a big volume sector for Renault and Simca, with Simca’s Aronde having been a direct 203 competitor. So it was that under VP Maurice Jordan, Peugeot initiated a study for such a car in the late 1950s.
It took nearly eight years to design and in the early phases, conventional thinking was thrown away in favor of a very space-efficient front-drive, transverse layout similar to BMC’s Mini. Like the mini, the gearbox was mounted below the engine, in the sump and shared oil with the engine. All were four-speeders and would be until production ended in 1976.
It drove equal length driveshafts, with the front suspended by MacPherson struts and used front disc brakes – a first for Peugeot and a setup that ensured amazing stopping power in what was a light and small car.
It was powered, at first, by a lone aluminum SOHC 1,130-cc four. The “XK” (no relation to the famous Jaguar) engine, as it was called. Like the car, the XK was also a brand new design.
The engine would go on to have many more variations as the XL and XR, including diesel versions, well into the 1980s. The first Diesel, a 1,255-cc unit, was added in 1968 and enlarged to 1,357-cc in 1973. When they were new, the little XLD and XL4D engines (respectively) were some of the smallest diesels in the world. They were meant for utility work and until 1974 they were only available in wagon and van versions of the car.
The entire drivetrain was amazingly compact and light.
Like most front-drivers of the era before front-drive configurations became more standardized, it had some unusual features. The engine had a weird little fanbelt that stretched around the block and twisted as it went to power the fan that cooled the tiny radiator. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for longevity, but the 204 was as solid as the more conventional Peugeots when it hit the showroom.
La chanson de Jacqueline
The 204’s styling was done by Pininfarina in coordination with Peugeot’s internal styling department led by Paul Bouvot. Bouvot is sometimes credited with the design and definitely worked on it, but the 204 also bore the unmistakable imprint of Battista Farina, and looked a great deal like a slimmed down, short version of the 1961 Cadillac Jacqueline concept car.
The Jacqueline, named for Jacqueline Kennedy, was built on a Cadillac Eldorado Brougham chassis. The 204 was teeny tiny by comparison, but the lines worked very well. The 204 looked like a Peugeot and did not look anywhere near as radical as the technology under the skin.
It debuted as a sedan in April of 1965, with other styles following. The wagon (er, Break) debuted that autumn, with the shorter Coupe and Convertible following in the spring of 1966, finally capped by a two-door van variant (fourgonnette). The van was essentially a wagon without the two rear doors and with a cargo area in place.
These days, it’s the relatively rare coupe and convertible that get all the headlines. Back in the day, the vast, vast majority of 204s were sedans and they were workaday vehicles.
The 204 was not fast, with just 53hp, but it was as solid as the other Peugeots. It was also a bit austere inside – but very spacious. For a car only 157″ long, it had as much room as the larger and heavier Simca 1300 and Renault R10, which served it well even if the trunk was tiny.
Sales gradually ramped up and the diesel engines and other refinements were made. The largest changes came in 1969, with the shifter moving from the column to the floor and other various running gear updates. The 204 changed very little over its life in part because a larger version – labeled the 304 – debuted late that year.
The 304 was essentially the same car with a slight body stretch (mostly aft of the C-pillar) and a bigger engine at 1,288-cc. There was also a twin-carb 304S, which made the 304 coupe and convertible much hotter numbers as their bodies essentially stayed the same. Indeed, they essentially “graduated” into 304s as the 204 versions were dropped in 1970.
The car presaged many later trends, but pretty much stayed frozen in 1969 thereafter. The pair of front-drive Peugeots had greatly boosted the company’s sales volume and the 204 had become the best selling car in France by that year – a position it held until 1972 when the Simca 1100 dethroned it.
The 204 was not exported to North America, though the 304 briefly was in the early 1970s (as was the Simca 1108/1204 – neither found wide acceptance here). Indeed, the 204 on the whole seemed to be a mostly popular within France – almost three-quarters of production were for the French domestic market, with smaller sales in West Germany and the Low Countries.
1.6 million 204s were made into 1976, by which time it had been superseded by the newer 104 – a supermini in the modern mold and the basis of much future Peugeot (and Citroën) thinking. However, the bones of the old 204/304 were partially recycled into the new-in-1977 305, which ran into 1990.