(first posted 6/20/2011) To understand Peugeot wagons, and the superlatives about to be heaped on them here, one needs to start with the basics: unlike almost every other post-war wagon, they were not just a sedan with a long roof. The Peugeot wagons (and pickups) essentially rode on their own unique platform/chassis, at least from the windshield back. With an extended wheelbase to accommodate three forward-facing seats, and a remarkable rear axle/suspension that had a load capacity (in the wagon) of over 1200 lbs without sacrificing any of that famous French ride, for over fifty years these half-car/half-truck Peugeots made a rep for themselves that has no equal. And in case you’re not convinced, here’s an example of what they were capable of:
Kids; don’t try this with Dad’s Audi Avant. That’s a 404 Pickup transporting two 404s, including the beautiful Pininfarina Cabriolet. The pickup shared the wagon’s beautiful alloy center-section rear axle, but did have leaf springs instead of the wagon’s four-coil rear suspension, and was normally rated at 1000kg, or 2200 lbs (over one ton). Admittedly, this one might be a tad overloaded.
We’ll look at some other examples of the Peugeot pickups’ beast-of-burden abilities,
or the burden of beasts, in the most challenging corners of Africa and China, where the last Peugeot 504 pickup was built as late as 2009. But let’s start from the beginning, instead of the middle.
The Peugeot wagon history starts in 1948 with the 203 sedan, Peugeot’s first post war car, and a completely new one at that. A modern unibody sedan, it had the first of Peugeot’s long line of classic four cylinder engines: iron block with an aluminum alloy hemi-head, valves actuated by pushrods.
The little four had all of 1290 cc and 42 or 45 hp. To put that in perspective, the VW bus of the time had 25 or 30 hp. It’s all in the gearing.
Here’s a picture of a 203 engine that was modified for rally racing in the early fifties, when the 203 began Peugeot’s long career in that sport. This on sports a ribbed alloy valve cover, a Constantin blower, and headers. The 203 smashed the record for the grueling Cape Town to Paris run, in seventeen days. That solidified Peugeot’s durability creds and its vaunted rep in Africa.
Some have suggested that Chrysler was looking this way when they designed their original 1951 hemi. Too bad they left the alloy heads off theirs. The Peugeot four would be developed continually but with the same basic configuration for some forty years.
In 1950, the wagon version of the 203 appeared on its 20cm longer wheelbase and seating on three rows, setting the standard that like the engine, would be improved for half a century.
There’s a decidedly American flavor to the 203; looks so much like a Chevy or Dodge, or? Well, its time to put Peugeot in perspective, in French terms, anyway. Like some other European countries, the French automobile industry had a decidedly “political” flavor to its manufacturers. Not necessarily political per se, but in a corollary in terms of being progressive or conservative.
Citroen and Panhard were clearly the radical progressives, and while we’re on the subject, I will say that the Citroen wagons based on both the DS/ID,
as well as those based on its successor the CX were undoubtedly the ultimate wagons ever, with their amazing hydro-pneumatic suspensions, fwd, and excellent space utilization, among other remarkable qualities. Ultimate, yes; the most advanced, memorable, innovative, complicated, challenging to keep running…you see where this is going. To be the greatest wagon in the world one has to consider that a true wagon is a utility vehicle, and needs to also be simple, rugged and fixable. The Citroens were the queens of Paris’ boulevards, but good luck trying to keep one running in Kenya fifty years later.
And we also have to give a nod to the Volvo Duett, which was praised here recently as the “Most practical Car In The World“. In may ways, Volvo’s approach to making the Duett was similar to Peugeot’s, although perhaps a wee bit less refined. The Peugeot’s four doors alone were a major advantage. Volvo went back to longroof sedans with the Duett’s successors.
Back to “politics”. Peugeot was always the most conservative of the French makers, sticking to their tried and true conventional RWD vehicles and a strictly evolutionary approach until; well, many wish it had stayed with them forever. The “French Mercedes” eventually strayed from its traditional roots, and today Peugeot is…something different.
To understand the Peugeot wagons, one also needs to understand their primary purpose. There were no small passenger vans at the time, just crude load-carrying ones. These wagons were comparable to the “station wagons” of America’s past, as originally used to haul arriving passengers from the train station to their hotels. Undoubtedly, that’s how many of these eight passenger “Familiales” were used, despite their name.
They were the functional equivalent of the Suburban in its early days, and the light vans and trucks that eventually killed it off.
Fold down seats in the second row gave access to the third row, not unlike the CUVs of today.
The 203 pickup version was also built on the wagon’s lengthened and reinforced chassis, and also started a long tradition indeed. The last Peugeot 504 pickup was built in China in 2009. Europe had no tradition of pickups being built with their own unique bodies, although that was largely the case in the US prior to pre WW2. The Peugeot is most directly comparable to the Australian utes, which also have passenger car front ends but sturdy rear halves. But to my knowledge, Australia didn’t build wagons on their ute chassis, at least not commonly.