If there's one car manufacturer that frustrates me more than any other, it has to be Peugeot. You see, when I was growing up Peugeot had an almost unrivalled reputation for building affordable cars for ordinary people that were stylish and very good fun to drive. If that sounds easy enough to you remember that these were the dark days of cars like the Vauxhall Belmont and Ford Orion.
When the company bosses asked it's engineers to give them a Golf-rivalling hatchback they came up with the 306, which looked like a hatchback but drove like a sports car. When they asked for a basic saloon car to be sold to sales reps, they gave us the 406 which, if the reaction to my last DRIVETRIBE article is anything to go by, is much loved even today.
But then it all went horribly wrong. The 307, the 5008, the 607. They were all utter garbage, cars that felt as though they were built by a company that really couldn't be bothered anymore. A famous car show summed it up perfectly when they staged a fictional board meeting where the Peugeot bosses decided to build "La voiture horrible!"
Since then though, there have been signs of hope. Little flashes of greatness that this once great car maker has started to get it's mojo back. To celebrate, I thought I would take a walk down memory lane and take a look at some of the cars that made Peugeot great.
We won't be doing the 205 GTi though, not because it isn't brilliant, but because there's really nothing much left to say.
Peugeot 201 C - 1931
I'm starting off gently here. The Peugeot 201 may look exactly like every other vintage car you've ever seen, but it is important for two very good reasons.
Firstly, when it was launched back in 1929, it became the first Peugeot model to employ the zero-in-the-middle naming policy that is still in use to this day. Prior to this Peugeot cars were given a 'Type' number for internal use, like an E39 BMW for example, but they were marketed by the power rating of their engine. The predecessor of the 201 for instance, was called the 5CV. Which literally translates from the French as 'five steam horses." Yeah, I think 201 is better too.
Perhaps more important though is that with the introduction of the facelifted 201 C in 1931 the old Pug became the first mass-produced car to be equipped with independent front suspension. It may not sound like much, but it made a big difference to the ride and handling of the car. Compared to the motorised ox-carts that went before the 201 C was a revelation and therefore deserves more credit than it actually gets.
Peugeot 504 Cabriolet - 1969
Has there ever been a more elegant car than the 504 Cabriolet? If you're wondering, the answer is no. There has not.
The 504 Coupe that sired it was a handsome thing in it's own right, but when the Cab was unveiled at the 1969 Geneva show it simply oozed understated class from every angle. Despite the adoption of fuel injection for the two-litre engine, the 504 was no sports car. In fact it was derived from the original 504 that went on to become legendary in Africa and then throughout the world for it's rugged durability and ease of maintenance. Even today there are 504's still running daily with well over a million kilometres on the clock.
It's the drop-top version that's really special though. It may not be as unbreakable as the saloon on the Namibian High Plains, but on a balmy summer afternoon, pulling up outside a little cafe on the streets of Montparnasse, nothing else will do.
Peugeot 405 Turbo 16 - 1988
The late 80's and early 90's were the period that could be described as 'peak Peugeot'. This was the time that they just seemed to be able to do no wrong. The cars were great, and the sales figures were soaring after the company had found themselves in financial trouble a few years earlier.
It didn't take long for Peugeot to turn their attention to motorsport, and rallying in particular. They had already had success with the 205 T16 in Group B before the series was banned after the tragic deaths of several drivers and spectators during the 1986 season. With this experience in the bag they decided to have a crack at the famously gruelling Paris-Dakar Rally.
The car they came up with is the one you see here, the 405 Turbo 16. To be honest, apart from the headlamps, I doubt that any of the components on this car were shared with the (also rather good) 405 road car. It only had two doors for a start, then there was the rear clamshell that lifted to reveal a fully tubular chassis, in which nestled a heavily turbocharged four cylinder engine.
The Turbo 16 was officially rated at a staggering 650 horsepower, but Ari Vatanen, the Finnish WRC champ who piloted the 405 to victory in the 1989 and 1990 Paris-Dakar rallies, has suggested that power was closer to 800 bhp. Not only did the 405 Turbo 16 monster the most famous rally on Earth twice, it also smashed the record at Pikes Peak on two separate occasions and held the title for six years after.
Peugeot 106 Rallye - 1993
This is purely a personal opinion, but the 106 Rallye is my favourite car that Peugeot have ever made. It was a genuine homologation special just like the Escort Cosworth and Lancia Delta Integrale, but instead of being designed to fight for the World Rally Championship title, the Rallye was a road-going version of Peugeot's challenger in the sub-1300cc class.
That meant it featured a special 1294cc version of the standard 106's 8 valve engine with a higher compression ratio and a racier cam profile that meant it delivered the bulk of it's impressive 100 bhp between 5400 RPM and the 7200 RPM limiter. On the inside, the 106 Rallye was pared back as much as possible. There were no luxury items like electric windows or central locking. Compare this to a contemporary Fiesta XR2i which may have had five more horsepower but weighed in at 918 kg, nearly one hundred kilos more than the featherweight 825 kg Pug.
It was a combination of this lighter weight and the rev-happy, exuberant little engine that made the 106 Rallye such a hoot to drive hard. It never had the power to get into any serious trouble with, so you could pin it everywhere with abandon and chew the coat tails of cars costing three times as much. The chassis, steering and brakes were all judged to perfection, and it's high time this total gem of a car stepped out from the shadow of the 205. I'm not going to say that it's better than a 205 GTi, but it's as good as. Praise doesn't come much higher than that.
Peugeot RCZ - 2009
It was a little bit of a struggle deciding which car should get the last spot on my roster of five great Peugeots. When you delve into the history books, it's surprising how many genuinely good cars they have created, especially when you consider the rubbishness of recent years. However my final space has really got to go to the car that showed us all that Peugeot might just be emerging from the wilderness, the RCZ.
I think we were all quite surprised when Peugeot pulled the covers back on this striking coupe back at the Frankfurt motor show in 2009. They had wowed us with an RCZ concept a couple of years earlier but nobody really expected it to reach production. It did though, and the world is a better place for it. Not least because of the RCZ's chiselled good looks, in profile it's every inch the baby super-GT.
Interestingly it was based on the stodgy old 308 hatchback, which made it all the more surprising that the RCZ was a genuinely nice car to drive. Ignore the worthy-but-dull diesel engines and choose a petrol model and you'll have an affordable sports coupe with enjoyable handling that really does feel special. Or if you want a really fast ride, there's always the RCZ R, with 270 horsepower on tap the 'R' lays claim to the title of world's most powerful 1600cc car. It's fast, and furious too. A challenging car to drive quickly, but one that rewards you if you master it.