Mike Humble remembers yet another car that, not only once blessed the highways and by-ways of the UK, but seemingly travelled – the indestructible Peugeot 505.
It was car that not only marked the end of rear-wheel drive for Peugeot, but was also the last big French saloon to sell in decent numbers in the UK.
Room at the top
In today’s UK market, a big French saloon car ranks the same in terms of popularity as wearing a rubber verruca sock. No one wants them. the Renault Safrane and Vel Satis – both wonderful to drive – were quietly deleted from the range well before their production end; and when did you honestly last see a Citroën C6?… exactly.
Historically it was a similar situation – the Citroën CX combined the wonders of space age looks with a magic carpet ride, but never actually sold as well as its UK rivals; and Renault offered its underpowered 20 or overpriced 30, which was also rather unpopular. No wonder us Brits tend not to associate big French cars with thrusting executives in the fast lane.
But it wasn’t quite always like that. Peugeot was conservative in its approach to car building, but nevertheless its solid products sold well, and were respected. Models such as the 305 and 504 sold in huge numbers – and the latter was, and indeed still is, an extremely popular car in parts of Africa.
In the UK, the 305 and 504 were two pioneering diesels for early adopters, and could be regarded as the Skoda Octavia/Superb of their day. In other words, the car of choice for the discerning minicab driver. More likely than not, if you leapt from a train and into a taxi, you stood a very good chance that it would be a Peugeot 504 or diesel 305. The 504 was a tough act to follow, smooth riding, reliable and solid as granite, and was a conventional rear-wheel drive motor that was easy and cheap to repair. Think of it as the French Cortina, albeit rather better engineered.
The cavernous estate version was almost hearse like in size, and just like its Citroën counterpart, the CX Safari, was also available as a seven-seater. Peugeot went further, also offering a pick-up version which, continued to be built until 1993 in 2.3-litre diesel form. An old workplace of mine ran one, only rust eventually killed it – we couldn’t!
The 505 was introduced in the UK in 1979, but such was the longevity of the 504 the two models continued to be sold side-by-side until 1983. The underpinnings were heavily based on the older car, with obvious refinements and improvements. Looking at the new car with eyes half closed, the 505 had that familiar trapezoidal headlamp arrangement that marked it out as a ‘proper’ Peugeot. The 505 also had the same long-travel suspension, ensuring the Peugeot reputation for a cosseting ride remained undamaged.
Body styles offered were a four-door saloon and a cavernous five-door estate. Gone was the strange kinked boot shape of the 504 (a Pininfarina trademark shared with the BMC 1800/2200), as the new car took on a more traditional (still Pininfarina-styled) three-box form, which was on the elegant side of bland.
The 505 was another huge success from the word go – and just as with the 504, the 505 Break was offered as a seven-seater known in the UK as the Family. Engine options came in the form of the ‘Douvrin’ 2.0-litre four (later expanded to 2.2-litres), and the 2.8-litre V6 engine, also used by Renault, Volvo and… DeLorean. Equally as popular were the diesels in either 2.3- 0r 2.5-litre normally-aspirated and intercooled turbo form. Variations of these engines were also found in the Ford Sierra, Granada and Leyland DAF 400 van (Sherpa). Transmissions were either a three-speed auto or four-speed manual, with five-speed ‘boxes belatedly coming on stream after the 1986 facelift.
Both the engines and transmissions were bombproof, never any cause for concern, and readily capable of high mileages in all climates. I can vouch for the quality of these engines – and know of a 505 turbodiesel estate with over 250,000-miles on it, and still running… but only just. Capable of high-speed running for hours on end, the 505 gained a reputation for roomy reliability, but used values suffered as the trade viewed them as boring and old-fashioned.
Not that this presented a problem for Peugeot, as many owners bought them and simply drove them into the ground. Just like owners of Carlton estates or Volvo 200/700s, their owners loved them and kept them for years – besides, there was no offering from either Ford or Austin-Rover that could compete with the 505 for its practicality. Only the Granada came close, but the Peugeot was streets ahead in terms of passenger comfort and fuel economy.
The interior was either a hard-wearing tweed or velour affair, with optional leather highlighting interior build quality that was much improved over the 504. As with most French cars of that era, rust tended to kill them thanks to poor anti-corrosion treatment – a lesson Peugeot learned afterwards. Saloon production for the UK market ceased in 1989 with Breaks continuing until ’92.
Interestingly, the 505 enjoyed sales success down under in Australia with models for their market produced by Leyland Australia PTY from 1981-’83. Should you still have a desire to own one of these rugged cars, simply hop on an aeroplane to Nigeria – you’ll have no problem finding a young and fresh used example.
One thing is for sure, it will drive all the way back to the UK via any route you choose with no problems!