Peugeot 404: prudence and toughness to counter the DS

Published on Friday, September 20, 2019.
Updated on Monday, October 7, 2019.

The Peugeot 404 continues today to be the queen of Africa where it can still be seen running as taxis in Ethiopia. Perhaps that is understandable in light of the numerous versions of the venerable French car that existed in response to a broad spectrum of purposes that Peugeot designed the varies models to satisfy but also because of its incredible robustness that has allowed so many of them to stand the test of time. Its fundamental qualities, that its successor the 504 would later inherit to maintain its market position, would eventually be lost to the Japanese. The 404 is emblematic of the great success at home and abroad that carried the Peugeot brand into the 1960s.

During the 1950s, far from the unconventionalities coming out of Javel (Citroën), Billancourt (Renault) or Quai d’Ivry (Panhard), Peugeot had a stronger balance sheet than the competition with a solid, classic and conservative product lineup. The 403 was not the most glamorous car but it corresponded with the demand of a large portion of the population who wanted above all a reliable, conservative automobile. With the 403, there were no surprises. It had sober styling with reliable and robust quality. Peugeot dared a little flair with the anecdotal cabriolet version, a real collector’s item today (thanks Columbo). 

Consolidating their winnings

With the 404, Peugeot wanted to apply a simple strategy: maintain market share and product quality while leveraging the reputation of the 403 and introduce some fantasy into the lineup. The arrival of the innovative Citroën DS in 1955 cast without a doubt a shadow over the ultra conservative 403, relegating it to a thing of the past. Certainly, the setbacks of the large Citroën and the time required by customers to adapt to its unconventional look and feel did not cause a market tidal wave but it did cause the management at Sochaux to quickly recognise the impending threat.

Usually cautious, the Peugeot family would therefore prepare for their competition’s offensive by making a tack in the opposite direction. However, the temptation was great to follow Citroën into a technological fight to the point of thinking about the oleopneumatic suspension, and even a V8. Soon, their strategy would appear obvious to them. No need for big marketing studies to understand that Peugeot’s customer base was quite conservative. Moreover, the worries of the early stage development of the DS confirmed that it would be wiser to remain cautious.

Renewed partnership with Pininfarina

The real novelty at Peugeot would be their quick reaction time. Noting the offensive coming from Javel, they did not procrastinate before launching the development of the 404. The design office, with the 403 model as the starting point, was happy to follow along the same principles of the 403 while seeking to build and improve upon them. The 404 would be reliable, solid, offering no major surprises. For product design, they chose to continue their partnership with Pininfarina, as used for the 403, yet this time Peugeot was willing to accept a little more fantasy.

Faced with the urgency to renew its lineup, Peugeot accepted the new project practically in the form of a first draft. Of course, the talented Pininfarina was able to accentuate the differences, but it is hard not to see the similarities between the 404 and the FIAT 1800/2100 for the sedan, just as the coupe and cabriolet versions of the French cars strongly resembled the Fiat 1500 and 1500S. While not identical, there is a distinct family resemblance between these cars. At that time however cross boarder sales between the different firms’ domestic markets were relatively minor so these similarities were less immediately noticeable to customers. Even today, many think that FIAT copied Peugeot, but it was the urgency of Peugeot’s situation that forced them to obtain as quickly as possible (and thanks to Pininfarina) a modern and assertive design.

The Peugeot 404 offered in its lineup an elegant coupe and an adorable cabriolet

Promising beginnings

In fact, Pininfarina would try to distinguish the French cars from the Italians: a less plunging front end, finer but higher rear fins and a slimmer overall profile would be enough to make the difference. This made a mix of French & Italian influences, but also some from America (similar to what SIMCA was doing at the time). The 404 cut away the massive roundness of the 403, without scaring the ‘provincial bourgeoisie’ (as was described Peugeot’s principle clientele at the time).

On May 9, 1960, Peugeot presented to the press its new sedan. It was elegant, refined (with its large windshield) while relegating its predecessor. However, the 404 carried on some basic principles: propulsion and rigid rear axle, as well as the gearshift on the steering-wheel, undoubtedly so as not to upset their faithful customers, already taken aback by a new design. Yet, Peugeot would redesign the front suspension to include coil springs and give this new sedan handling and comfort unknown on the 403.

Toughness is made a Priority

For the engine, the same strategy was applied: take the solid block of the 403 while improving the crankshaft, the linkage and introduce a new cylinder head. The displacement increased to 1,618cc with 72 horsepower SAE while inclined at 45 ° to the right. This block, reliable, enduring and relatively economical, stood out compared to the fragility of some of its competitors. 

On this strong base Peugeot would roll out its marketing plan. From 1961, the sedan received fuel injection, bringing the power of the engine up to 85 hp, while at the Paris Motor Show in 1962 were presented the rest of the 404 range: the very elegant coupé and convertible (both Pininfarina designs); and the station wagon for either the family or for commercial use. This was plenty enough to meet the demand, especially since at that time, Peugeot did not have a very large product range: it was not until 1965 that the introduction of the 204 came to supplement its big sister. In other words, the success of the 404 was absolutely crucial for the brand of the ‘Lion’.

Fuel injection and diesel

This new car was proof at the same time of Peugeot’s legendary prudence while being able to innovate: fuel injection was not common at the time and starting in 1964 the manufacturer would engage seriously on the diesel track, first with the famous Indenor XD 85 1.8 litre engine with 55 hp and then the XD 88 2.0 litre engine and 68 hp. Throughout the life of the 404, engine options would evolve: the 4-cylindre receiving a 5-stage crankshaft to increase output, with a normal carburettor, to 76 hp (then in 1967 to 80 hp) or 96 hp with fuel injection. In 1967, the 404 pickup was introduced, enlarging the platform’s reach with a wider commercial vehicle lineup.

The 404 Pickup was produced until 1989

The launch of the 504 at the end of 1968 did not mean the end of the 404. Sure, the coupe and the cabriolet 404 gave way to the new 504 versions (coupe and cabriolet) on the Pininfarina production lines but the sedan and station wagon (and especially the pick-up…) held on. Peugeot would continue to manufacture the 404 in France until 1975, limiting the option of motors to include a 1.5 litre 4 cylindre with only 66 hp.

International production

Production of the 404 did not stop altogether. Bowing out in France (the pickup came out of the catalog in 1979), foreign factories would continue to produce this French bestseller. From the 60s, the international potential of the Peugeot was revealed, and its international production or CKD (kit production) would extend into Argentina, Chile, Canada (at the SOMA factory), to South Africa, Nigeria, Malaysia, Rhodesia, Kenya and Madagascar (amongst even others). The last 404 would roll off the production line in 1989, almost 30 years after its launch.

In total, 2,885,374 units would be produced from the various assembly lines around the globe, while its legendary robustness would make it last even longer on the difficult African continent. Its reputation allowed the 504 to continue the tradition, until Peugeot gradually disengaged from these foreign markets. 

Today, if the coupe and cabriolet versions are rare and rather expensive, sedans, station wagons and pickups can be a good starting point for the novice collecter. Not to mention the nostalgia that provide these vestiges of a time gone by that we do not see much on our roads anymore. The cars of our childhood are making a comeback, and in spite of everything, do not forget that the 404 was the rival to the Citroën DS, the star today of most old car gatherings.

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