The Peugeot 504
This is perhaps the greatest world car you've never heard of. And by 'great' I mean in both history, performance, and popularity worldwide. Though it began production in Europe in 1968 and largely ended there in 1983, it was still being produced in some form in Argentina up until 1999 and in China until 2009. Anyone who has traveled to Africa in the intervening time has probably seen at least a few and probably ridden in one: it was an ideal car for low-resource areas with poor roads and probably most often acted as one of the innumerable taxis throughout the developing world.
As for me, I first became aware of the 504 when working in Egypt in 1988 -- celebrated here as one of the Great Cars of Egypt already -- and there were still many of them running around that country on my latest journey there in 2012. Many of the owners there absolutely love them and, though they've been banned for use as taxis in recent years, they are still occasionally visible (barely) as such, and there are always the privately-owned 504's driving around to enjoy.
So why is the 504, lauded as the European Car of the Year on its introduction and in production throughout the world for some 30 years, not more well known in the US? Why isn't it right up there with the Volkswagen Beetle as a Famous World Car? Quite simply because it never sold all that well here. It was, especially in the sedan version, pretty goofy looking and not exactly a 'performance' car. And perhaps unlike the Beetle it wasn't quite goofy (or cheap) enough to appeal to the young and hip. As a matter of fact, if you've seen one at all, it was probably being driven by a college professor at ten miles below the speed limit and college kids weren't trying to stuff as many people into them as possible.
Which is kind of sad because it really is a car worthy of not only Lust but also respect.
The suspension was what gave the 504 its most vital driving characteristics: MacPherson struts and coil springs in front and semi-trailing links in the back with either coil springs or a live axle. With the rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes front and (depending on the model) rear, it made for a very fine handling car, suitable for touring the countryside or navigating the urban jungle. The suspension also had incredible travel and, together with a fairly high ground clearance, made it perfect for the rough roads around much of Europe and also in the developing world. It is worth repeating the summary of the car by Autocar magazine in its review of the initial 504:
"It is when one brooks clear of urban areas that the Peugeot really shows its mettle as, literally, a grand touring car. The performance figures speak for themselves, except to say that they are achieved with little mechanical fuss or effort. . .We place it among Europe's finest touring cars. [source]"
On top of (or rather, under) all that, the frame was incredibly strong, as was the body which was also equipped with an early form of crumple zones. As I mentioned in the Egypt post, the steel in the Egyptian version at least was very thick and hitting it with a hammer would most likely damage the hammer before the sheet metal. Even in recent times, this is a handy feature when cars are expensive to own and resistance to minor (and even major) dings is desirable.
Speaking of sheet metal, the styling of the 504 differed quite a bit from the 404. As with the 404, the majority design was by the Italians at Pininfarina. It looks quite distinctive even with the relatively smooth and clean lines overall. Probably its most distinctive feature is the trapezoidal headlights which give it perhaps a more 'muscular' appearance, although I described it as 'rakish'. I've always preferred the wagon/estate version of the 504; the sloped trunk of the sedan just seems out of place and almost makes it look 'broken' in my view. But the wagon seems perfectly balanced front and rear especially with the slightly sloping profile of the car. Still, especially in sedan form it was very. . .distinct, shall we say, from other European offerings in the late '60s and '70s.
I've seen very few of these in my lifetime outside of Egypt. There are quite a few 505's running around my neck of the woods (Seattle), but the only 504 I remember seeing was parked in a driveway. . .near the university. The 505 still took many of its styling cues from the 504 -- including those rakish headlights -- but was toned down somewhat and much of the powertrain and suspension were upgraded for the more performance-oriented markets of the 1980s.
Despite its somewhat goofy demeanor, I think the 504 deserves to be better known. Any vehicle that was produced for 30 years and used worldwide deserves at least a modicum of respect, if not admiration. Even by non-academics.