Marketing Hype Gone Mad as Peugeot Evokes Memories of its Classic 504
By Andy Bannister
French company Peugeot is attempting to hark back to its distant past as a pioneer of big seven-seater estate cars with the revival of its classic 5-series tag on its latest MPV, to be known as the 5008.
After a couple of decades in which the company’s complicated numerical model-naming system has avoided anything new beginning with the number five, Peugeot says its latest model deserves to be seen as a modern successor to its classic 504 and 505 models.
The model might logically be called 508, but the company’s range has proliferated to such an extent that it now uses two zeros for some of its more “niche” models, hence this medium-sized MPV will be known as the 5008 when it goes on sale next year.
Other two-zero models from Peugeot include the disastrously unsuccessful 1007 – a severely overpriced and clumsy-looking city car with sliding front doors – and the company’s first SUV, the 4007, a disguised version of the Mitsubishi Outlander with a particularly unattractive gaping grille.
Millions of people around the world have fond memories of Peugeot’s 504 model, in particular, so in theory reviving the spirit of the 5-series vehicles might be a smart move for a company which seems to have lost its identity in recent years.
A quick glance at what is proposed, though, shows that unfortunately the claims about the inspiration behind the new name is PR hype of the worst kind.
OK, so the new car is a seven-seater, so there’s that one solitary nod to the extremely versatile old Peugeot estates of yore. However, the 5008 is front-wheel-drive, unlike its 5-series predecessors, and on closer examination is nothing more than a warmed-over version of the C4 Grand Picasso MPV from Peugeot’s funkier sister division, Citroën.
That’s not a bad thing in itself – the C4 is handsome and successful – but the 5008 will do nothing to persuade European buyers that Peugeot is a distinctive and innovative marque in its own right.
Once, not so many years ago, Peugeot had a reputation for making vehicles which were a cut above the products of its great domestic rival, Renault.
As well as producing roomy estate cars for large families in the days before MPVs had been invented, it was particularly known for its comfortable and well engineered middle-class saloons that could be bracketed with the products of Saab, Audi or Mercedes.
That reputation particularly rested on the first of the 5-series cars, the 504, which first appeared in France as an 1800cc four-door saloon in the politically turbulent year of 1968. Radical it certainly wasn’t, but it would go on to become one of the best-selling and longest-lived French cars ever.
While other cars from France were often acquired tastes, the 504 was conservative enough to appeal at once to a wide audience. Its styling was reserved, with the company’s trademark trapezoidal headlamps and a slightly odd (but inoffensive) drooping tail.
Inside it was a fantastically comfortable and roomy place to be, with a cosseting ride and a feeling of solid quality. In 1969 this was confirmed when it was voted European Car of the Year.
Two years later the estate car version of the 504 appeared – an immensely practical vehicle in conventional five-seater form, but with a seven-seat version (known as the Familale) which really stood out in the market place.
It wasn’t just in Europe that the 504 shone. It was exported to, and often assembled in, many unlikely parts of the globe, but was a particular hit in Africa, and not just in the former French colonies.
The car’s huge suspension travel made it ideal for rough African roads, and assembly was soon underway in Kenya and Nigeria, while the 504 also showed its reliability by successfully rallying in Africa.
It would be no exaggeration to say the model mobilised large parts of Africa, with unfeasibly large numbers of seats crammed into some estate versions which could allegedly carry 14 people.
At the same time as conquering Africa, Peugeot also found time to woo wealthy buyers back in Europe with coupé and convertible versions of the 504, which featured simple, elegant bodies by Italian styling house, Pininfarina.
Made in very small volumes, and latterly with a V6 engine, these were extremely desirable GT cars of their day.
After a decade of success, during which various diesel versions had been introduced a petrol-engine 2.0litre injection model, the TI, the 504 was beginning to look a little old in Europe and America. Peugeot was ready to respond, and the second of the 5-series models was put into production.
Launched in 1979, the 505 would sell alongside the 504, and was intended to preserve the best of the old model, but cloaked in a more expensive-looking body.
It was typically understated, with a long, smoothed-out line that was possibly a little too bland for its own good. The estate car version was bigger, more practical and more successful from a styling point of view, and had a minor cult following until examples started to rust away in damp north European climates.
The 505 was even the subject of a moderately successful (for a while) sales push in North America, where its looks were considered more saleable than those of the rather frumpy 504.
Time wasn’t as kind to the 505 as its predecessor, however. The car lacked universal appeal and faded fast in the face of ever more intense competition, despite a misguided attempt to go upscale with a V6 version. While the simplest 505s were a fair success in developing countries, many customers there were still perfectly happy with the cheaper, simpler and unburstable 504.
In the event, the older car managed to outlive its intended successor. In Europe the 504 ended its days as a successful pick-up, surviving in that workmanlike form until 1993 and being virtually the lone European competitor against the onslaught of small trucks from Japan.
The saloon and estate 504 also lived on beyond the boundaries of Europe. In the protected market of Argentina, where it was manufactured until 1999, many saloons ended up as cherished taxis on the streets of the capital city, Buenos Aires, sharing space in traffic jams with many other relics from a previous era produced long past their time, such as the Ford Falcon and Fiat 125.
In was in Africa, though, that the 504 was – and still is – most appreciated. Kits from France were assembled in Kenya until 2004, and Nigerian production lasted two further years – an ungainly-looking version to local specification, with four round headlights.
Today’s 5008, by comparison, is light years ahead in technology and no doubt a competent enough car in its own right. My guess, though, is it will last five or six years and then be utterly forgotten.
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