Marking 50 years of the Peugeot 204

  • AFP
  • Updated: Apr 15, 2015 16:20 IST

The public may have been skeptical when Peugeot unveiled its first front-wheel-drive economical and affordable family car but it went on to become France's best-selling car for three years running and set the template for all fun Peugeots to follow.

The 204 should be seen as a recipe, rather than a list of interesting ingredients. Although it was the first Peugeot with front-wheel drive, it was by no means the first car to boast that feature. Patents for front wheel drive date back to 1898, and direct rival, Citroen has been building what it calls "traction-avant" models since 1934.

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Likewise, it wasn't the first car to mount its engine transversely rather than longitudinally in order to save space -- that innovation is what made the Mini such a phenomenal success when it launched in 1959 and what enabled the original supercar, the Lamborghini Miura to look so beautiful in 1965.

However, like a supercar, the little Peugeot was styled by Italian studio Pininfarina and unlike other innovative cars of the time, it bought all of these features -- plus other ingredients like disc brakes and independent suspension -- together as a single recipe for a small car that was spacious, fun to drive, economical, and good looking.

The first Peugeot 204 arrived at Parisian dealerships on April 22, 1965 but had taken eight years of development work in order to get there.

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And once the car was launched, the fine-tuning continued. The car was entered into rallies in Africa and competing vehicles were later shipped back to France, stripped down and studied. Lessons learned were incorporated into new 204s at the earliest opportunity.

And while the public was initially skeptical -- Peugeot's reputation at the time was for building big expensive cars -- people soon came round to its charms, and by 1969 was the best-selling car in France -- a first for Peugeot. The four-door sedan was joined in 1966 by a three-door coupe and by a cabriolet model and finally by a van, all of which enabled the car to retain the title of France's most popular car until 1971.

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By the time it was phased out and replaced by the larger, slightly more premium 304 in 1976, the 204 had placed Peugeot firmly in the mass-market and had helped to define the small-to-medium-size car segment.

The car's 50th anniversary is also a reminder of the French automobile industry's innovations in that period.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Citroen DS -- the first car with hydraulic suspension, transmission and clutch plus a ride quality that is yet to be bettered.

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Likewise, the Renault 4, the world's first hatchback, debuted in France in 1961. As for Peugeot, many automotive experts would argue that the 204's spiritual successor, the 205, launched in 1983, was the company's last truly innovative car.

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