The aftereffects of Le Mans Classic has seen us all going somewhat Francophile this week. Buzzwords like “Avantgarde” and “Élégance” are thrown about as if only the French and stylish can ever be truly worthy. And that’s the downside, because this French “do-it-differently-just-because-we-can” attitude can at times be rather arrogant as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I too find the French approach to doing everything their own way, both amusing and even appealing. After all, I’ve often confessed to being utterly in love with the quirky Panhard 24CT, and if that’s not the very essence of French avantgarde and élégance, then I frankly don’t know what is. And who doesn’t appreciate a Citroën DS or for that matter the delicious SM? Anyone? – No, I didn’t think so.
But luckily not all classic cars of French origin display that air of arrogance. Some manage to be French in a much more subtle manner. They’re defined by that chic flair which immediately identifies them as French. They’ve got style and charm and yes, they’re still just a little bit quirky – in the best of ways. But they’re also humble, they don’t shout about their presence, and they will never judge. In my opinion, none do that better than the little Peugeot 204 Coupé and its facelifted successor, the Peugeot 304 Coupé.
Peugeot introduced its brand-new 204 model in April 1965. It was a ground-breaking model for them as it was their first front-wheel drive car. They fitted the all-aluminium 1,130cc OHC engine transversely in front, with the gearbox and differential located below the engine and utilising the same oil. This layout freed up significant interior space within the compact body. There was also independent suspension on all four corners and it was even the first Peugeot to have disc brakes (albeit only on the front axle). Build quality – as was typically the case for Peugeot in that time – was very high, fuel economy was excellent and handling was found to be good too. The model was immediately well received by both the press and the buying public, and went on to be the best selling car on the French market for several years.
In October 1966, approximately a year and a half after the saloon, Peugeot launched both the coupé and convertible versions of the 204. While the drivetrain and suspension was used unaltered from the saloon, the wheelbase had been shortened by almost 19cm (11 inches). The Pininfarina design retained the 204 identity by using the front of the saloon, but everything from the windscreen and back was unique to the coupé and convertible.
Especially the coupé has always really appealed to me. The roofline is low and flat, almost having a vague resemblance to roof-chopped American hotrods. That squared off roof leads you to beautifully raked C-pillars which have the slightest hint of flying buttresses leaving the rear window recessed into the practical hatchback, and there’s a distinct crease across the bootlid before it slants abruptly downward – a design cue which was emphasized even further with great effect on the bigger 504 saloon which was launched two years later. All in all it’s a thoroughly coherent and happy design. It has all of that fabulously French charm and character which just oozes effortless style.
In September 1969, Peugeot launched their bigger 304 saloon. They wanted to move up a market segment, but the 204 had such impressive interior space that they could use its centre section unchanged for the new 304 model. So while the wheelbase was identical to the 204 saloon, they merely treated the front to a complete redesign to heavily emulate the recently launched 504, and the rear overhang was extended by 13.5cm (5.5 inches) giving it a much larger boot and with it a more grown-up appearance. The interior was also brought up to date with a new dashboard and the use of more plastic. Mechanically things were largely left unchanged as well, though the engine increased in size to 1,288cc bumping power up from 53hp to 65hp. Finally, the 4-speed gearbox was given a floor-mounted gearshift rather than the column-mounted shift of the 204. The differences between the 204 and 304 were deemed large enough to keep both models in production simultaneously, so the 204 saloon soldiered on until July 1976.
Luckily though, when the 304 debuted as a coupé – and convertible – half a year later in March 1970, despite all the revisions made to create the newer and bigger 304, Peugeot and Pininfarina left the rear treatment of the original 204 coupé well alone. So it was only the new facial treatment, the revised interior, the slightly bigger engine and the floor-mounted gearshift which changed for the new coupé. Oh, and bigger, square rear lights in place of the 204’s slim oblong items. But while the saloon and estate remained available as both 204 and 304 simultaneously, the 204 ceased production as coupé and convertible when the new 304 came along. In March 1972, the ‘S’ engine sporting a twin choke carburettor and 10hp more was introduced first in the coupé and convertible. In this format, they remained in production until July 1975, after which it was only the saloon and estate which continued until the last 304 came off the production line in May 1980. In total, three and a half years’ production of the 204 Coupé saw just short of 43,000 examples leave Peugeot’s Sochaux facility, while the following five years and a couple of months of 304 Coupé production led to just in excess of 60,000 cars produced. While the bigger brother 504 Coupé was of course still in production, it would be 35 years before Peugeot again had a compact coupé in their line-up with the RCZ.
But whether an early 204 Coupé or a later 304 Coupé, both exude that chic elegance which we all associate with French classics. Yet rather than being arrogant and snobbish about it, they’re just cheerful and happy little coupés – and all the better for it. It’s probably easy to argue that the 304 is the one to have, as it has the bigger, more powerful engine. But to me at least, these coupés aren’t about power, so who cares whether it’s a 1,130cc or 1,280cc engine. It’s much more about being en vogue as you nip through town to your usual café or out to the coast for a bit of sunshine. For that, I choose the more elegant front and those sleek rear lights of the 204. Unsurprisingly, the dashboard and instrument binnacle of the earlier car is also a lighter and more elegant thing to behold. Regardless, either model – early of late – manages all their style in a thoroughly inoffensive manner. But I wonder whether – at least as a classic car – that has somehow turned into a shortcoming for them? Perhaps they are now too unobtrusive for their own good? It would seem they have been all but forgotten by most of the classic car world – at least outside of their native country. It’s such a shame too.
What say you dear reader? Do we need French classics to provoke us in order for us to fall for them? Or does the little 204 and 304 Coupé in fact hit the perfect balance of understated class? If so, does it deserve more recognition? Should every classic car enthusiast have one in his or her garage? Or are we now just getting a bit silly with our Francophile week? Should we give it a rest and write about 911’s and Dino’s?