Absolute Bargains: Peugeot 406

People pay silly money for cars. Really silly. Personally, I can’t see the point in spending much more than a grand on a car so I’m very pleased that an all-time favourite of mine has fallen into my ‘affordability’ price range.

That car is the Peugeot 406 Coupe – a car which goes down as one of the finest efforts of the Pininfarina design studio.

Pininfarina designed 406 coupe

Cor, what a beauty!

Lovely isn’t it? An absolute triumph of simplicity. There’s not a line out of place and no gaudy details. Just clean, beautiful lines. They tried to repeat the magic with the 407 Coupe but just ended up with something ugly and inferior. The 406 instead references Vauxhall’s Calibra and says “we can do better.”

Basing the car on the 406 was a good start. Not an exciting car, but one with good handling, an excellent ride and a refinement that was lacking in a Cavalier or Vectra. The icing on the cake was the optional V6 engine though, a unit that delivers lusty performance and the sort of soundtrack that reduces a grown man to tears. I rate it as highly as Alfa Romeo’s marvellous V6 engine, though it falls down slightly against such esteemed comparison by not looking as beautiful under the bonnet. No reason for it to of course as most owners won’t even lift the bonnet!

Yes prices for this beautiful, competent machine are now falling below a grand. If that’s not great value, then frankly I don’t know what is.

Rover 75 – what did it do wrong?

A month and a half. That’s how long the Rover lasted. Was it a disaster then? Well, no, it wasn’t. The Rover 75 remains a very good, and wrongly slated example of what the British CAN do with a bit of investment and some actual build quality.

Rover estate diesel

Bye Bye Rover. Not my cup of tea!

The problem is though, the 75 is just too modern. It’s a right royal pain to work on, too many jobs are not DIY friendly and the overall driving experience is too modern too. I guess I just love older cars. Stuff from the 1980s and early 1990s represents absolute perfection to me. By this time, the car had advanced to the level that they were staggeringly competent, but they also were not overly complicated. That’s why the Peugeot 309 is the perfect replacement. No frills perhaps, but who really needs them? After all, electric windows require the ignition to be on (in most cases) which manual windows don’t. Hydraulic clutches are needlessly complicated. A cable is fine. Being able to heat and adjust the seats electrically might be nice, but think of the weight and wiring it adds.

Then there’s visibility. The Rover 75 feels like driving around in a 1970s supercar. The windscreen is like an arrowslit, but that’s generous compared to the view rearwards. Your neck muscles develop a good workout due to the amount of movement required to see around the enormous A posts. It had reverse parking sensors fitted – and it did need them!

Naturally, the driving experience is entirely devoid of sensation. That’s great if you’ve got 500 miles to do in 2 days, which I did, but those sort of trips are not a frequent thing. It’s a trade-off for sure. Relaxing or involving? You can rarely have both (I still reckon the Citroen BX is one of few cars to manage it).

Running a Rover can be horrendously expensive too. I must admit to not feeling that enamoured by the car when one owner explained how he’d spent about ¬£1800 on his in a matter of months, replacing both the engine and the automatic gearbox! Sorry, but I can’t justify that sort of expenditure on a car, especially one I’m unlikely to keep long enough to get my money’s worth out of.

The Peugeot on the other hand is proving much more likeable. I’ve already had another tinkering session with it and when you can actually get at stuff, it really is a pleasure.

Yet another new motor – Peugeot 309

It’s been a good couple of months since I last bought a car, so thought it was about time I had a change-around. The Rover 75 joined the fleet with perfect timing, proving just the tool for trips to Croydon, Sussex and Birmingham over the space of a few weeks. However, it needed a few things seeing to and risked becoming yet another project – the two Citroens are more than keeping me busy (and skint!) on that front.

Almost a Talbot

Ian's latest motor is simply delightful. Or is that simple and delightful? Maybe both

A deal was arrange that saw the Rover being swapped for a Peugeot 309 and some cash – the latter being handy as the BX is going in for Stage 1 of welding soon. The Peugeot is everything I love about older cars, especially compared to the Rover. Open the bonnet and you can actually see an engine and gearbox and from the driver’s seat, you can actually see out! If you suffer from claustrophobia, modern cars must be a nightmare.

The Peugeot has a 1254cc Simca-derived engine that is low on technology and high on torque. It even retains overhead valve gear, just like the Mini and the 2CV. None of this timing belt rubbish! No multivalve head either, and that means that the engine pulls well from low revs in just the way that modern petrol engines (and even some diesels!) don’t. Despite the low-tech engine, there is a five-speed gearbox. That’s about it on the toy count though. Keep-fit windows and steering and arm-stretch door locking and mirror adjustment will hopefully prove that there’s simply less to go wrong, while dashboard switches are restricted to just the hazard lights, heated rear window and rear fog light. Brilliant. I much prefer the low-tech life!

Yes, ok, perhaps on such a chilly day, I was missing the Rover’s heated leather seats, but I had a sunroof now, and it’s a clever one. A hidden switch operates a vacuum when the roof is closed, sucking it down to the seal to ensure a water-tight (and pretty air-tight too) fit. It uses the vacuum built up by the brake servo. Clever stuff – AND it still works!

Progress is quite swift too.¬† While the acceleration is boosted by much lower gearing than the Rover – 60mph has gone up from just under 2000rpm to getting on for 3000 – the engine is undeniably lusty for its size. Low weight helps. No toys keep things from getting heavy. That’s just as well as the unassisted steering was a bit of a shock to the system. After so long driving cars with PAS (I don’t include the Mini and 2CV in this as they’re proper old in design terms!), it’s unusual to once again be able to feel what the front wheels are doing, and feel the steering load up as cornering speeds increase. It’s good though. Much more reassuring. It stops you going too far with chucking it around, as you have a much better feel for when you’re going a bit too quickly – though the bodyroll alarms you as well. The ride is firm, but very composed. It doesn’t crash over bumps, but it’s also good in the handling department – typical French then really. It was also nice that it wasn’t a rattling nightmare of cheap interior parts. The Mk1 was, but this one feels nicely together, especially given the fact that it has clocked up over 120,000 miles.

There are some minor issues to sort out – the ignition timing needs checking, the speedometer cable needs connected up and the wiper blades are horribly smeary – but as a winter hack, it couldn’t be more ideal.

Some history for those who haven’t fallen asleep yet. The 309 wasn’t meant to be a Peugeot at all – which is why it doesn’t fit into the -05 numbering of the time (ie 205, 305, 405 etc). It was actually developed as a replacement for the Talbot Horizon, and was known as the Arizona during development. That’s why this one has a Simca engine as Simca was absorbed into Chrysler Europe, which Peugeot took over (applying the Talbot badge to what had then become Chryslers). At almost the last minute, Peugeot decided to kill off the Talbot marque and decided to badge the Arizona as a Peugeot. 309 was chosen as all the other -05 codes had already been taken. It will be interesting to see what Peugeot replace the 308 with…

Citroen BX Cambelt Change

Changing a timing belt or cambelt was a first time experience for me. I’ve owned and worked on 2CVs for years, but they don’t have timing belts, radiators, water pumps or a transverse-mounted engine. That latter factor makes changing a timing belt on pretty much any modern car a big challenge. The end of the engine is inevitably jammed up against the inner wing making access tricky. This job rates quite highly on the Knuckle-scrape score.


It's a poor pic, but it does show how tight the access is! That's the crankshaft pulley just visible

As you can see, there is about an inch of clearance between the end of the engine and the inner wing in the case of the BX. The timing belt runs through the top engine mount though, which means it has to be removed. That allows you to jack the engine up/down to get a little more clearance  Рvital if, as in this case, you also need to replace the water pump.

The biggest challenge with this job is undoing the 22mm crankshaft pulley bolt. With a friend using a large stick to hold a knuckle bar onto the bolt, we wedged it in place by using a scaffold tube. Operating the starter motor then undid the bolt. It’s a tricky operation and dangerous if there’s a chance of anything sliding off. Be careful. A cordless impact driver might be a more sensible way to undo it. If you have access to one…

You then lock the engine using a hideously difficult-to-locate hole in the engine to lock the flywheel, and three 8mm bolts locking the camshaft and diesel pump (two bolts here). After that, removing the belt is fairly easy, though slackening the tensioner is very difficult. Access is poor and you can’t actually see the adjuster nut – you have to feel for it. I had to rope in a friend to push against the tensioner spring while I loosened then tightened the adjuster.

Old and new

Quite obvious which one is new!

With the belt off, the water pump could be replaced. This was simply a case of unbolting it and removing it, though you do need to take time to carefully scrape away any remnants of gasket from the engine. The impeller seemed slightly smaller on the new pump but asking around, this wasn’t thought to be a problem. It’s probably just a design change during the life of the vehicle.

The pump was fitted and I could set about getting the new belt on. This is a bit fiddly, but an extra pair of hands from that trusty friend helped again. Make sure you re-fit the crankshaft pulley BEFORE turning the engine over, and also make sure you remove all of the bolts that lock the pulleys and crankshaft in place.

We turned the engine over twice and attempted to refit all of the locking bolts. They all went in, suggesting everything was in the correct place. It was time to start the engine! Aside from a bit of smoke (the glow plugs are not healthy) she started up and ran smoothly. Excellent! We didn’t run her for long as I hadn’t yet added coolant. I was going to fit a new radiator fan switch but instead opted to use a coolant flush on the engine. I’ll change the fan switch when I drop this cleaning coolant later on. As you can see from the water pump picture, the waterways are clearly quite gunked up!

Use height

Using ramps to raise the radiator height

Bleeding the cooling system can be a challenge. The trick is to ensure the heater is on and use ramps to ensure that the radiator is the highest point in the cooling system. This will encourage air towards the radiator. Squeezing the coolant pipes also helps, including the heater pipes. You must be VERY careful doing this on a BX as your arm gets very close to the hydraulic pump belt. Make sure your sleeves are rolled up! By squeezing the pipe and letting air out via the bleed screws on the thermostat and radiator, you should be able to get a nice, toasty heater and remove any air leaks. Do keep an eye on the coolant level at all times, as it will drop as you remove air and release the bleed screws.

With the BX, you have rather a trust in faith as there is no temperature gauge. Where fitted, keep an eye on it during a test drive and hopefully that’s job done!