When you work in the motoring industry you get used to certain words like ‘game-changer’. Which, If you think about it, is really meaningless because every car company has been making the game changing car since they first set up the production line. Ford did it with the Model T, just like Mercedes did with the W123 and BMW with the E30 and Toyota with the AE86 and I could go on and on.
Employees have to believe it to justify their brand existence. Most importantly, the accountants have to believe it to come up with convincing excuses for the bank manager when their game-changer gets short-changed by a new game changer. It’s an endless pursuit of perfection.
Back when our parents were younger and you could feed a family of five on ten cents, you could go to a dealership and trade in that season’s harvest of potatoes for a brand new game-changer. And if you had any sort of classic taste you’d get the Peugeot 504.
To date its shape is as iconic as the rest of the period’s legends, but with added French panache. It’s handsome, not pretty, and while it may look prehistoric, it was produced in Kenya up to 2006.
Then, 27,000 units were made, most going to civil servants and the police station wagon version that roamed the roads of Kenya. Even today when I see the unmistakeable 504 visage in the rear-view mirror I tense up, before realising it’s 2018 and now sleuths drive around in Subaru Outback.
It had a heavy exhaust note to match its bulbous exterior and when you saw one, you got out of its way. Even the army officials had them in military green. This was a car that was respected. Peugeot (many Kenyans pronounce it Pujo), sold almost four million units globally, and to think that it almost never saw the light of day.
It was launched on September 12, 1968 in Paris, after a three-month delay due to industrial unrest. The workers wanted more baguettes or something. It went on to become the European Car of the Year in 1969 and locally came to be known as the Lion or the Marshall (the dealer).
Here was a 1.3 tonne car powered by a 79 horsepower four-cylinder engine and a four-speed manual. And yet, it was sublime. Actually, even by today’s standards, it’s hard to find a Japanese econobox that rides as comfortably as a 504.
The four cylinder was so good that when Peugeot replaced it with the 136 horsepower 2.6 litre V6, it was brought back into production four years later due to demand. This, coupled with the ride quality and intimidating presence, made the 504 an icon. It helped too that it never broke down.
I have an uncle who had one and he’d drive all around the country and when I visited his place last year, his seven seater 504 was still in premium condition, whiling time away in a timber and corrugated sheet garage.
While I have immense respect and admiration for the 504, it was never really my cup of tea. It looks sculpted and refined but a bit too gaudy and awkward.
The wheels seem microscopic like a body-builder who skips leg day. I prefer a sharp precision knife to a heavy butcher’s knife, which is what the 504 looks like in all its forms. Or so I thought until I saw the coupè (photo, above). While still recognisable as a 504, it lost a couple of doors and the result is a quintessentially French masterpiece.
The first time I saw one my brains instantly became spaghetti and my thoughts muddled. It was clearly a 504 but the headlights were shorter, which made it seem wider.
The bonnet chamfers lower, making it look more aggressive than the saloon and the coupè side profile is a mix of flowing perfection and practical use. Because it belonged to a dairy farmer, it was partly hidden under a load of napier grass on its roof rack.
But even at that moment I could appreciate how staggering the beauty of the 504 coupè was. I was even more impressed that it was functioning essentially as a pick up when it clearly has the looks to rival the Aston Martin DB5. That’s literally the Cinderella story.
While the standard 504 basks in global acclaim, the coupè stylishly lives a muted life. Just as good as any 504 variant, but by far the best looking of the bunch.