Keith Adams tells the story of one of the most influential small cars of all time – the Peugeot 205.
Launched in 1983 to reinvigorate its maker’s fortunes in the supermini sector, the 205 ended up becoming France’s most popular car before being widely copied by rivals during its 15-year production run.
Peugeot 205: The car that rebooted its maker
One should never underestimate the impact the Peugeot 205 made on the automotive scene during its production run. Larger than the average supermini at launch in 1983, the industry grew up to meet it and, for Peugeot, the 205’s style defined the next generation of cars – paving the way for its transformation from conservative manufacturer of solidly-engineered saloons to industry pacesetter.
We’ll go further. Although the Peugeot 104, 305 and 505 were well-respected cars, and sold in decent numbers, they didn’t have the mass appeal of their rivals.
The Renault 5 was entrenched as France’s best-selling car and the financial benefits of that were clear to see. Once established on the marketplace, the 205 proved to be a substantial hit both at home and in export markets – and that made the company cash rich, funding an ambitious expansion of the entire PSA model range.
Peugeot had, of course, been a front-runner in the supermini sector: the 104 was an early entrant into the market and had sold reasonably well. It also sired a number of offspring including the Citroën LNA, Citroën Visa and Talbot Samba, and clearly had some influence on the Renault 14. And yet, it never really caught the imagination of the cool people who craved chic city runabouts.
Yes, it went on to sell 1.6 million in its 1972-1988 production run, but that achievement was dwarfed by what followed. However, rewind to the mid-1970s and the biggest issue was profitability for Peugeot. Although the company offered a range of cars that spanned the 104 to the wonderful 604, all were dwarfed in terms of sales by Renault, which offered a wider range of cheaper-to-build cars that enjoyed better economies of scale, thanks to wider component and platform sharing.
The associated costs of its Government-encouraged takeover of Citroën (to form PSA in 1974) were also playing heavy on the company. What it needed was a new and big-selling car to take on and beat the Renault 5.
Projet M24 is born
Originally known internally as Projet M24, the new model was conceived to plug the gap between the 104 and the 305 and be cheaper to build than both. As such, it was always going to be a little larger (3705mm) than the established supermini norm at the time, so epitomised by the Ford Fiesta (3648mm) and Renault 5 (3540mm).
Development kicked off in 1977 with the project ramping up from early 1978. It was designed to sit on the 104’s platform and use the existing Douvrin four-cylinder X-engine and transmission-in-sump drivetrains as well as a number of new engines in development – and was planned to work well with petrol engines spanning 954cc-1360cc. The 1580cc and 1905cc GTIs would join the programme later, as would the three diesel power units it would eventually use.
Suspension would echo the intelligent all-independent set-up that would end up being used across the Peugeot range. and which debuted in the 305 Estate. That meant MacPherson struts up front and trailing arms with torsion bars at the rear. What made this layout so clever was just how compact it was, giving minimal intrusion into the luggage area.
According to the excellent Car Design Archives, styling went in two directions initially. The Peugeot Design Team, led by Design Director Gérard Welter, worked on an organic proposal (below, in a more refined form), while Pininfarina initially began with a more angular design (above) which incorporated elements of the Peugeot 305 and upcoming 505 as well as the Chrysler Alpine. The Italian design would eventually evolve into something more organic and closer to Welter’s proposal.
In October 1978, and in a remarkable turnaround for Peugeot, the Pininfarina design proposal was dropped in favour of the Welter-led team’s theme after a design shoot-out (below). Considering the Italian styling house had been solely responsible for Peugeot’s design direction for decades, this was a big decision. But the latter had a packaging advantage – the spare wheel was moved from the engine bay to under the boot floor, resulting in a lower bonnet line and a sleeker set of proportions.
Pininfarina didn’t have a chance, really. With this decision made, over the course of the next 18 months the Peugeot 205 rapidly evolved into the streamlined and aerodynamic shape we know so well today, with the final styling signed off in early 1980. Aerodynamics were very important, and much work was put in at the Pininfarina wind tunnel to get the drag coefficient down to 0.35 in production form. That compared very favourably with its late-1970s competitors, although rivals such as Fiat (with the Uno) would end up beating that figure.
The plan was that the new model would be launched as a five-door, but the three-door version was developed in parallel, which explains why it ended up being so well resolved in its own right.
The interior was put together by Paul Bracq’s team, which came up with a pleasing and airy place for the driver and passengers. It also incorporated a dashboard that could be altered according to trim level, which was very much ahead of the game in the late 1970s.
Prototype 205s were built and tested from 1981 and, because so much of the car’s packaging was already in use across the PSA range, it didn’t take long to get the programme up to speed. There were some marketing conflicts over naming – the initial thinking was that the car would be called the 105, but this was dropped because Peugeot’s Director-General, Jean Boillot, correctly identified the new car as being more upmarket than the 104 – a fact which explains why the two cars remained in production side by side until 1988.
Production began in Mulhouse in November 1982 with press drives taking place in Morocco in February 1983, following its public debut on 24 January 1983. At this point, images and range information were revealed to the press – a small range of five-door hatchbacks powered by petrol engines spanning 954cc-1360cc.
On to launch…
On 15 February 1983, the Peugeot 205 was fully launched, and it would be fair to say that automotive world was caught napping. The 205 was the latest in a long line of 2-Series Peugeots, but what made this one so special was that it looked and felt so right for its time, and was perfect for the buyers who had grown out of their Renault 5s and wanted something a little more grown up, without losing the undoubted appeal of small car ownership.
The model range reflected the wide choice that a typical European supermini offered by the mid-1980s. So, the entry-level was the 205 base model powered by a 45bhp 954cc Douvrin engine and four-speed transmission shared with the 104. Base price in the UK (when it arrived in October 1983) was £3895 with the most expensive GT coming in at £6145. For comparison, an Austin Metro in base spec cost £3899, and an MG Metro would set you back £5249.
The model range looked like this: Base, GL, GR (1124cc), GT (1360cc), GLD and GRD (1769cc diesel). Peugeot used the opportunity to quietly drop the 104 from the UK model line-up, although it would live on for a further five years in its home market, continuing its tradition of running new models alongside old ones in parallel.
What the papers said
The assumption today is that the Peugeot 205 exploded onto the new car market and blew the doors off all of its rivals. The reality is somewhat different – for instance, CAR magazine and the Peugeot 205 have enjoyed an on-off love affair. From launch, it acquitted itself well, and was well regarded, but hardly set the world on fire – LJK Setright’s beloved Fiat Uno was the class-leading, game-changing supermini of the moment, while the 205 was good, but not exactly great.
However, the influential What Car? magazine called it in favour of the Peugeot, concluding in its first group test against the Austin Metro, Fiat Uno, Daihatsu Charade and Vauxhall Nova: ‘Deciding between the 205 and the Uno is no easy matter. Both are closely priced, have broadly similar space and equipment, and both are highly attractive to look at. So, perhaps it’s a decision between the rounded, classical elegance of the Peugeot and the sharper, more chic boxiness of the Fiat.’
It went on: ‘For our part, we prefer the Peugeot for its beautiful body, its outstanding comfort, its sophistication and its excellent economy potential. If the 205 really is as reliable, cheap to run and easy to work on as Peugeot claims, it must be the surest winner Peugeot-Talbot has ever had on its hands.’
The French award-winning supermini
Praise indeed… It would go on to win the Car of The Year in the magazine’s April 1984 edition. Summing up, What Car? said: ‘The qualities that earn the 205 our Car of The Year title are the traditional Peugeot values of comfort, civilisation and refinement. But it’s far from traditional, for by bringing much of the smoothness and sophistication of bigger car into the supermini sector, Peugeot has helped the small car come of age and, with the Fiat Uno, have thus pioneered a whole new generation of “big” small cars.’
That result was reversed in the European Car of The Year, with the 205 taking second place behind the Fiat Uno in the 1984 awards. But it was close, with the French car taking 325 points against the Italian’s 348. Third? That was the Volkswagen Golf Mk2, with just 156 points.
Peugeot 205 on the road
In 2019 and to mark the launch of the 208, Peugeot arranged a drive from Mulhouse to Geneva in a fleet of heritage 205s in as-new condition, Writing for CAR, Keith Adams, driving a 205 GL, remarked at the time: ‘Handling is roly-poly, as you’d expect in a car with long-travel suspension and no anti-roll bars. But it’s tied down pretty well, with controlled damping that contains the 205’s desire to heel over quickly in bends, making it an elegant corner taker in the right hands.
‘The steering is weighty, but full of feel, and the long-throw gearchange is sublime, and utterly mechanical to use. But for such a lightweight car, the ride is astonishing – it lopes along beautifully, soaking up all the negative cambers, undulations and broken surfaces that rural France throws at it. In many ways, it reminds me of my Citroën GS – praise indeed, given how complex that car is in comparison.’
What might have been…
Meanwhile, Pininfarina had seen the writing on the wall, and its longstanding relationship as Peugeot’s favoured design house had taken something of a dent when its design theme for the 205 had been passed over. Spotting a niche in the market, the Italian carrozzeria decided to have a crack at extending the model range’s appeal.
Taking the five-door hatch as a basis, it created the 205 Verve concept and displayed it at the 1984 Geneva Motor Show. Sitting on the same wheelbase as the standard car, additional length was added to the rear of the car, turning the hatchback into a remarkably pretty small estate car. The rear styling treatment was particularly neat, while the loading bay was unencumbered by much of the intrusions you’d find in rival models.
Unfortunately, despite its good looks, the estate version was not taken up for producton by Peugeot, although styling elements would make it into the later 405 Estate. The concept was at least revived in spirit by the later 306 Break and 206 SW models.
Model developments – and an electric version
The 205’s range would soon expand. In September 1984, the three-door version rocked up, expanding the appeal of the 205 by offering arguably cleaner styling and more youthful appeal. The new bodyshell had already debuted in the GTI version – which we’ll get to later – and, like the regular five-door model, was available in a variety of versions. The trim levels started with an X to differentiate them, aside from the range-topping XS sporting model, which equated to the five-door GT.
Peugeot 205 fans were treated to an all-electric version, which was considerably less usable than the current-generation e-208. It was powered by an array of lead-acid batteries stowed under the bonnet above the 30hp electric motor to offer a potential range of 86 miles and a maximum speed of 62mph. Acceleration was leisurely, with a 0-30mph time of 11.6 seconds. You could fully charge it in ten hours from your domestic power supply.
It was never offered on general sale, instead being trialled with various local authorities – with Peugeot discovering that the world was not yet ready for electric mobility, even within the confines of the city. The work put into this car would bear fruit with the 1990’s 106 Electrique, of which more than 3500 examples were built.
The fast Peugeot 205s
Launched in March 1984, the 205 GTI would end up being the most influential model in the range – and the one with the longest lasting legacy to this day. Powered by the brilliant new XU engine in 1.6-litre 105bhp form, it was pitched directly into the heart of the rapidly-growing hot hatch market, then dominated by the Ford Escort XR3i and Volkswagen Golf GTI.
As a GTI it was perfectly pitched. The 205’s elegant styling was beefed up with the 1980s-obligatory red pinstriping, bodykit and wheelarch extensions, Unlike many of its rivals, the 205 GTI wore this addenda perfectly. Performance was solid, but not as quick as the front-running Fiat Strada Abarth or Volkswagen Golf GTI – but its 0-60mph time of 8.7 seconds and maximum speed of 115mph were more than competitive with the Ford Escort XR3i. It was also usefully cheaper than its Italian and German rivals.
Rather like the regular 205, the GTI’s brilliance wasn’t always recognised from the off. CAR nailed its colours to the GTI, offering readers the chance to win one of three examples in 1984, but it was not without some reservations. In its first long UK drive feature, the esteemed LJK Setright, ‘Steady’ Barker and Ian Fraser were far from completely won over by its combination of hard ride, biscuit-tin build quality and hair-trigger high-speed dynamics.
Few would argue that the best was yet to come with the arrival of the 205 GTI 1.9 in 1986. Alongside the recently updated 1.6-litre (to 115bhp) the 130bhp 1.9-litre was a real firecracker – the 0-60mph dash was dispatched in 7.8 seconds and the maximum speed upped to 125mph. It also earned a reputation for being a bit of a widowmaker, thanks to well-documented stories of lift-off oversteer catching out less-than-skilled drivers. Today’s tyre technology has largely defeated that, though.
The buying public loved it to such a degree, that in the smartest circles, owners used to respond to the ‘what’s your car?’ question with a simple answer: ‘it’s a 1.6’ or ‘it’s a 1.9’.
In March 1988, the legendary 205 Rallye joined the range, following on from the previous Talbot Samba Rallye. Designed as a track and competition-focused 205, the Rallye was stripped to such as extent that it lost its radio, storage bins, sound deadening – even its rear ashtray. It gained bucket seats, red carpet and a three-spoke steering wheel and was powered by the crackerjack 1294cc TU engine developing 100hp. This short-run homologation special proved so popular that it ended up becoming a regular production model.
Opening the roof and extending the loadbay
Peugeot utilised the expertise of Pininfarina for the Cabriolet (and it’s probably from here, as well as because of its genuinely handsome styling, that the urban myth that the 205 range was styled by Pininfarina came from). the two-car convertible range was unveiled in March of 1986 with the addition of the CT and CTi (later to be joined by the CJ). Based on the existing XS and GTi models these two models again hit the cultural zeitgeist competing with popular ragtops including the Ford Escort and Volkswagen Golf Cabriolets.
There were also commercial XA and the XAD versions which joined the range in 1986. In addition you could also buy the more van-like Multi and dubbed 205 Fourgonette, which was sold in France only.
In 1987, the 205 received the brilliant TU-range of engines also used in the Citroën AX and BX, finally putting an end to the long-lived Douvrin X-engine, and an upgraded and higher-quality interior was ushered in. The 205 XS and GT were vastly improved as a consequence of receiving the same engine you’d find in the Citroën AX GT – and, for many, these cars represented the real peak 205.
Into the twilight
The 205 was facelifted in 1990. And so successful was its styling that other than some clear indicators and new rear lenses, the overall look was left unchanged. What the latter chapter of the 205’s life did usher in was a slew of special editions such as the the Gentry, Roland-Garros, Color Line and the range-topping GTX and 206 GTI 1FM model to name but a few.
Despite its advancing years, the 205 continued its winning ways, becoming the best-selling car in France in 1990 and in 1991 – the year that the 106 was launched, ushering in a two-pronged replacement programme alongside the 1993 306 range for what was known as the Sacre Numero.
Despite its advancing years, the 205 continued to be developed further. The model range was also realigned with desirable semi-sporting D Turbo go-faster diesel setting the pace as the market’s first DERV-powered hot hatch with all the mid-range torque you could ever want, a 0-60mph time of 12.2 seconds and a maximum speed of 108mph. This was at a time when a Ford Fiesta diesel struggled to beat 15 seconds to 60mph…
Time was catching up with the 205, though. In 1993, the addition of a catalytic converter dropped the 1.9-litre GTI’s power to 124bhp, while the much-loved 1.6-litre was axed. There wasn’t long to go, though – the following year, the 1.9-litre GTI was phased out as the range was narrowed to accommodate the 106 and 306. In the UK, the 205 quietly dropped from the price lists in 1996, with living on until 1998, when the line finally came to a halt, making way for the new-generation 206.
A lasting legacy
That was quite a run – and the Sacre Numero had become a legend in its own lifetime, even without considering its motor sport pedigree.
Lest we forget there was Peugeot’s huge Group B rallying success with the 205T16 (above) – two World Rally Championship constructors titles, as well as some amazing performances on the Pikes Peak hillclimb. And finally, we come to the 205 GTI, which ended up becoming the 1980s greatest hot hatchback.
No wonder the 205 went on to sell 5,278,000 units during its life – and why Peugeot had a devil of a job replacing it. In the end, the 106 and 306 never quite managed (although both were brilliant), so it wasn’t until the 206 that the legend was finally supplanted properly – except, as we know, that car marked the beginning of Peugeot’s descent into the design mayhem of the 2000s and 2010s. However, a measure of a car’s importance is how its rivals react to it, and the French company must have been very flattered when the Ford Fiesta Mk3 emerged in 1989 looking like an Uncle Henry-sponsored clone – but without the charm.
Those early lukewarm road tests really were an anomaly – and proof that sometimes customers know more than road testers. Here’s a car that grew into its skin to become of one the best superminis ever made. Rather like Alec Issigonis’s Mini, the Peugeot 205’s significance and sheer brilliance took time for us all to appreciate. Yes, the 205 really is that good.
Once it was up to speed, though, there was nothing stopping the 205 – it came a range of engines that spanned 954cc-1905cc, were fuelled by petrol, diesel or electric (yes, as mentioned above, there was an electric 205), and power outputs right up to 130bhp for the legendary 1.9-litre GTI. You could get it in three- and five-door forms, as well as in two flavours of vans. It ended up being spun into the larger 309 (it even shared its side doors), and then went on to inspire a generation of svelte-looking Pugs – large and small.
Today, it’s rightfully celebrated as a classic, and Peugeot is right to trumpet the 205’s achievements. More than that, though, the 205 was the true 1980s game changer – as it predicted a move to larger, more sophisticated superminis. It also proved that a car doesn’t need to be expensive or exclusive to be truly classless and accepted anywhere – just stylish and utterly fit for purpose.