I have a vague memory of travelling in a white, Peugeot 504 estate taxi back in the mid-1980s. My main memory is that I was upset that the driver wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. It may have been the first taxi journey I ever took, as a child of no more than eight years. I’ve not really been anywhere near a 504 since. It was time to make amends! And yes, I did wear my seatbelt.
This particular example had, naturally, been used as a taxi on the island of Jersey. It came to the UK in January of this year, with crusty bodywork but sound mechanicals. It uses the Indenor 2.3-litre diesel that also ‘powered’ early Sierras and Granada Mk2s. It develops a whopping 71bhp at 4500rpm, and 99lb ft of torque at just 2500rpm. Fabulous.
I clambered aboard not really knowing what to expect. The 504 was legendary for its toughness, and it only went out of production in Nigeria a few years ago. It won the notoriously harsh Safari Rally in 1975 and the Moroccan Rally that same year and in 1976. Pretty impressive for a car that was hardly a ball of speed. The saloon had independent suspension all-round and could be specified with fuel injection, but the estate always used a tougher live axle, as did some povo-spec saloons. I guess I was expecting it to feel tough, rugged and a bit uncomfortable.
Settling in behind the wheel, comfort was the over-riding sensation. Big, soft seats are very typical of a French car of this era, as I know well from my Citroen exploits. Just think – a French estate of this era could be either a fantastically futuristic Citroen, or an entirely simple Peugeot. Either would seat up to eight passengers. The French did family cars in a big way!
The engine fired noisily into life. This is a proper old school diesel. A manual control alters the injection pump timing to allow smoother cold starting. Barely any throttle, ease the clutch up and I was away. I went slogging straight up a steep hill, but revs were not the order of the day. I very soon found myself in top gear (four speeds) with the prodigious torque ensuring good progress with barely any fuss. Don’t get me wrong, this was hardly swift progress, but it was very relaxing. The ride is superb and I began to imagine driving great distances with no bother at all.
As long as speeds aren’t too high. The gearing is rather on the short side, and a fifth gear would have been very desirable. The real surprise came when bends were encountered though. The rack and pinion steering is power assisted and, rarely for the time, it’s absolutely wonderful! There’s just enough assistance, not too much. Feedback is dulled down, but the steering has enough weight to it to make you feel confident about driving briskly and is nicely direct. Yes, there’s some bodyroll but it feels totally secure and surprisingly nimble for such an enormous car. The clattering engine becomes a dull hum once you’re moving too. It’s much more pleasant than I expected – something echoed by all who drove the car. Good brakes (all-disc) just add to the pleasantness and while gear changes are rarely required, the lever has a nice, precise action. Not bad at all for a vehicle over 30 years old.
It has become very rare to see such a marvellous car in the UK. There are two reasons for that. One is that they rust like you wouldn’t believe. The other is that a great number have been exported to Africa. Really, very little can touch a 504 for robustness. It’s incredible what they’ll handle. What I found even more remarkable is that they’re incredibly nice to drive too.