Well, it looks like 2013 is going to be another one of those years guaranteed to make me feel old. I’ve already drawn attention to the fact that this year sees the 20th birthday of the Ford Mondeo, Rover 600 and Citroen Xantia. Well, some pretty cool cars hit the big three-oh in 2013. Next month we’ll be going Maestro crazy in due deference to that car’s landmark, but I thought I’d sneak in this one for good measure; can you believe the car above was launched in 1983?
Yes, exactly 30 years ago, one of the five best small cars ever made – the Peugeot 205 – made its debut. On 15 February 1983, the world’s media was literally caught napping – the 205 was launched by one of the industry’s most conservative carmakers. The deux-cent-cinque was the latest in a long line of 2-series Peugeots, but what made this one so special was that it looked and felt right for its time, and was perfect for the buyers who grew out of their Renault 5s and into this.
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 Talbot Samba, Citroen LNA and Visa, 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.
The 205 was conceived to plug the gap between the 104 an the 305, and therefore 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). But it launched initially in five-door form, and just seemed that little but more mature, grown-up than the opposition. Style of course had something to do with the 205’s appeal, too.
The 205 was originally known internally as Projet M24, and it had been in development since 1978. It was designed to use the existing Douvrin four-cylinder transmission-in-sump drivetrains as well as a number of new engines in development – and was planned to work well with petrol engines spanning 954-1580cc (the 1905cc GTI 1.9 would come later) and three diesel power units.
The 205 was designed by a new in-house team led by Gérard Welter and its interior was done by Paul Bracq, whose family designs had strong brand identity. Peugeot also 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 range ended up consisting of the three- and five-door hatchbacks, the convertible, and a couple of rather well converted vans. Pininfarina did design a small estate version too, but that was never pursued by the company.
When it was launched, the 205 took a little time to gain momentum. Perhaps that’s why it failed to win the 1984 European Car of the Year award, coming a close second to the Fiat Uno. It was always a tough call to decide which of the two was the best at the time – but looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, I reckon the CoTY judges made the wrong call. But that’s happened several times in the CoTY.
Then, of course, there was Peugeot’s huge Group B rallying success with the 205T16 – two World Rally Championship constructors titles, as well as some amazing performances on the Pikes Peak hill climb. And finally, we come to the 205GTI, which ended up becoming the 1980s best hot hatchback of them all (unless you’re a Volkswagen fan). Offered in 1.6- and 1.9-litre form, it defined the era of cool combined with lift-off oversteer and rapid acceleration.
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 int today’s design mayhem. But 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.
Having said that, the 206, has now reached the eight million production mark making it the best-selling Peugeot model ever in the history of the Company. Who’d have thought it?