I reckon Sir Alec Issigonis would have approved of the Peugeot 104. There, I’ve said it. If I were to ask you to come up with the car that feels like a spiritual replacement for the original Mini, the chances are you’re not going to think of this one. But bear with me on this, because out of all of the 1970s superminis to hit the market, the Peugeot 104 feels most closely aligned to what BMC might have launched had it never been taken over by Leyland Motors in 1968.
The biggest-selling most popular superminis of the 1970s all have a stake in being considered as the spiritual replacement for the Mini. Not least the Metro… which missed out on being a 1970s supermini by ten months. However, although it adopted many of Issigonis’ engineering principles, not least its transmission in sump, brilliant packaging efficiency and fluid suspension, it probably wasn’t the car Issi would have wanted. After all, the BMC 9X had conventional suspension, even if it shared the Mini’s gearbox layout.
The 1970 Datsun 100A Cherry was an early supermini, even if Europe didn’t cotton on to the fact – but this clever little car showed the rest of the world that Japan was an engineering force. What about Dante Giacosa’s brilliant Fiat 127? It was a pioneering supermini and its layout would end up being adopted as the technical solution to small car packaging for years to come, but it is unlikely that BMC would have produced a car that shared its engineering. It lacked a hatchback for a couple of years, but Fiat acted quickly to sort that oversight. It’s a shame that BL didn’t learn from its lessons.
Then there was the Renault 5 – again, an interesting package, handsomely styled and brilliantly executed, but it really was a Michel Boué-penned rebody of the Renault 4. Nothing wrong with that, but with a longitudinally-mounted engine which was practically in the cabin, it was also a mechanical layout that Issigonis would have looked down his nose at.
Whither the Peugeot 104?
No, it’s easy to imagine that the Peugeot 104 was pretty much the car an Issigonis-led BMC might have built in the 1970s. Built as a small car to slot in the range below the underrated front-wheel-drive 204 saloon, the new 104 was a bold new direction from France’s most conservative car manufacturer.
It was brilliantly packaged and engineered. It was the first recipient of the X-Series of aluminium ‘Douvrin’ engines built by Française de Mécanique, and expanded over the years to become the default engine choice of Renault and PSA Group of companies. In the 104, it was initially available in 954cc form, and was clearly inspired by BMC’s front-wheel-drive solution by having its transmission mounted in the sump, but evolving the concept by canting back the engine by 72 degrees.
Like the BMC A-Series powered Mini and 1100/1300, this engine layout resulted in excellent packaging – and, although the 104 ended up being 50cm longer than the original ADO15, it benefited from additional interior room that was easily on a par with the ADO16, and the boot wasn’t too far off the British car’s either. Given the 104 was 20cm shorter than the BMC 1100/1300, that was quite an achievement.
Rather like a 1960s BMC car, the 104 was styled by Pininfarina. Paolo Martin was the Designer who penned this understated masterpiece, creating a functional small car that looked larger than it was. In another BMC link, he was also responsible for the Pininfarina Aerodynamica 1800 and 1100 concept cars – a pair of designs that you can imagine would have frightened Peugeot’s management to its core.
At launch in 1972, the 104 was a four-door saloon only. Like the Fiat 127 and Honda Civic (and the ADO16 before it), it was considered perfectly acceptable to create a small car with a small, letterbox-like opening for its luggage area. That thinking ended up being consigned to the rubbish bin as a consequence of the success of the Renault 5, which proved that a tailgate didn’t mean utilitarian sales. All of a sudden, a hatchback rear was the must-have for all the smartest city cars.
The 1976 facelift put right this situation. The 104 received a hatchback rear, thus expanding its appeal considerably. In addition, a shorter three-door hatchback was added to the range (and called a Coupe), and larger engines were added to the range, lengthening its legs and making it faster. Now, the 104 really proved its potential – and, although it never challenged the Renault 5 in sales terms in its home country, it proved to be a solid seller for Peugeot.
Well, I say solid seller – 1.6 million units were shifted during its 1972-1988 production run. Add in 1.2 million Citroen Visas (effectively a rebodied 104) and 270,000 Talbot Sambas, though, and that tally looks quietly impressive – call it three million in 16 years. Why the Peugeot 104 has been so overlooked in small car history is a bit baffling – perhaps its position in the shadow of the Renault 5 during its production run is the reason. Either way, it’s a good time to recall this excellent small car that was so clearly inspired by BMC more than 50 years ago.
So, why do I think that Issigonis would have approved of the 104, and would BMC have ended up building a car like this in the 1970s. A quick look at the BMC 9X looks like compelling evidence, doesn’t it. Maybe the 104 would have been a bit shorter under Alec (not necessarily a good thing), but it does rather feel like a modernisation of the ADO16 concept (transmission-in-sump transmission, great packaging efficiency and Pininfarina styling), scaled down to supermini proportions.
All in all, that’s another reason to mourn the non-appearance of the BMC 9X. How different history may have been if it had happened…