A ’60s summer in Paris leads to a search for a good Peugeot 404
Whether the subject is food, colors, or cars, I generally do not have favorites. What’s best is situational, and even then, subject to the vicissitudes of mind and mood. But when it comes to cars from the classic car era—roughly from WWII’s end to the first Arab Oil Embargo—the Peugeot 404 stands above all others. It’s partly the crisp, clean styling by Pininfarina, and partly the precise rack-and-pinion steering, then practically unheard of in the U.S. Then there’s the suspension, which took pothole-pocked Massachusetts roads with aplomb, even when negotiating tight curves. At a time when American station wagons came rattling out of the factory, this French estate was still solid in middle age.
We picked up the car in August, 1965, soon after arriving in Paris for the year. I have only the vaguest memory of getting the Peugeot—oddly, because I remember vividly eight years earlier, at age 4, going to the car store one chilly October night to get the new ’57 Chevy, and asking myself an existential question as I climbed around inside the car in the showroom: “Is this a good car or a bad car?”
But close my eyes, and we’re back on Boulevard St. Germain, or Vaugirard, or Raspail, the drivetrain singing its high-pitched song, the Michelins performing their gentle percussion as they cleave to the cobblestones. Or we’re driving one of the twisty two-lane country roads that were still that nation’s highways, to destinations from Chartres to Carcassonne. In either case, I’m riding shotgun, standing on the imaginary gas whenever we pass in my effort to hasten our return to the safety of our lane, or stomping the brake—to my father’s amusement—whenever some overtaking idiot cuts it uncomfortably close, but always watching the road as if I were driving, and noting the gear shifts, and feeling the road through that wonderful suspension. Mom, my older brother, Tom, and toddler Miriam are in the back.
In fact, we took expeditions most weekends, both within Paris, and all over France, and the following summer we toured Europe—3000 miles and six countries over two months. It was heaven, not only because the new car was so fun to drive vicariously, unlike the clunkers it had replaced, but because I was getting lots of attention from my workaholic academic parents, which under normal circumstances was a rare commodity. And despite my homesickness—I kept my watch on Boston time—it was otherwise a great year; the French I learned so easily carved a new dimension in my head, and I met my first (French) girlfriend.
Later, the Peugeot was the first car I drove legally—on my 16th birthday, from the RMV in Hyannis, where I acquired my learner’s permit, 35 miles of bliss to our summer house in Wellfleet. Another year and many happy miles passed before my parents sold it—which they did largely because they were afraid to drive it across the country when we went to Stanford for the next sabbatical.
All this history notwithstanding, my obsession with Peugeot 404s emerged only in the latter ’00s, with no clear trigger. Nonetheless, a clue: Soon after losing my last parent in 2002, I began having a recurring dream in which the ’57 Chevy, which had carried our family twice between Seattle and Boston, and which was celebrated and overrated in the family lore, would mysteriously and magically reappear after all these years, only to become irretrievably lost or stolen, like the minds of the patients in Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings. One night’s dream in the latter ’00s, the Chevy’s reappearance was followed by two other family cars that had preceded the Peugeot, and then by the Peugeot itself. Soon after that, I ceased dreaming of the Chevy, and I began missing the Peugeot in real life.
One day I searched eBay, finding three 404s: two decrepit sedans within less than a day’s drive of Boston, and one immaculate-sounding wagon in Germany, for just 2000 euros. Oh, would I have loved to drive that Peugeot back to Paris, and then on to Le Havre to ship it home. Instead, I went on eBay, and purchased a toy 404 wagon from France, which sits vainly on display in my kitchen.
I pondered the irrationality of it all. My middle-aged Honda Civic with 1.8 liters and five on the floor is far more competent than the Peugeot in every respect—competent enough to have been picked multiple times during the past quarter century as one of the ten best cars, along with the likes of Porsches, by one of the enthusiast magazines. “Love the one you’re with,” Crosby, Stills & Nash sang the year my parents sold the Peugeot. And I do love this car, as the little voice inside my head reminds me whenever I’m behind the wheel.
But the 404 is the girlfriend that got away, and I longed at least to drive one again. Either my love would blossom anew, or if reality failed to match the memory, I could return to lusting after Porsches. So I called Souza Brothers in Somerville, still the go-to place in Boston for Peugeot repairs. And, sacre bleu! They had a 404 they wanted to sell—a 1961. I could drive it.
I was excited just to see a 404 for the first time in years. Alas, that car had been desecrated. Some idiot, perhaps from the Monster Truck school of design, had stuck a scoop on the 404 that looked like the hood had sprouted a giant squarish wart. They put bling wheels—now filthy—on the car, and hung fuzzy dice from the rear view mirror. Bling wheels and fuzzy dice on a classic Peugeot—that’s like Smucker’s on your Brooklyn cheesecake.
It was a cold December day. Charlie Souza started the Peugeot, and we waited and waited for the needle to move towards the hot end of the temp gauge. Until then, I had forgotten how we’d frozen on the ride home from the ski lodge at Black Mountain, in New Hampshire, one frigid Sunday when I was 14, the engine never fully warming up. Eventually, Charlie put the Peugeot in gear, and we drove a couple of blocks. Then he said I could drive. I got into the driver’s seat, put her in first, and eased off the clutch and onto the gas.
I immediately felt a wonderfully familiar, yet long-forgotten quirk. First gear is so low in that car that at 8 mph she was singing the high notes, ready for second. I obliged, and we began moving. Now I was really driving a Peugeot for the first time in nearly 40 years. And now I was not: Within a block, she had sputtered and stalled out.
This story could easily have ended here. Charlie tried to get her going again, failed, and then walked back to the shop to get his brother, who knew the car better. Frank Souza eventually showed up, tried starting it, and then told me the fuel line was clogged by gasoline that had sat for too long. So I got to spend 20 minutes with Frank, pushing the Peugeot back to the shop. I mean, I get it. The joke was on me.
Nonetheless, I called the Souzas again in April, and they’d gotten the Peugeot running anew. I really drove the car this time, for four or five miles. The drive was less anticlimactic than pushing the Peugeot had been, but it wasn’t exactly a glorious reunion with a long-lost love.
For one thing, our Peugeot’s steering had been heavy, but precise and sensitive, with zero play. The ’61’s felt light and numb, like American power steering from the ’60s, even though it was unassisted. Our Peugeot had also had a well-designed interior, while the ’61’s was both run down from the years, and crude compared to ours, with exposed screw heads and other lack of attention to detail.
Finally, while I could feel in the ’61 a faint echo of the wonderful driving dynamics I remembered, including that marvelous suspension, it was as if the suppleness and agility had gone out of the car—as if the car had actually aged over its half century on earth. My gut has trouble with the notion that a car could have aged when the sheetmetal still looks so good—which despite the ’61’s other faults, it did.
Driving home in my wonderfully responsive Honda, I thought my longings might subside. But they haven’t. I felt enough of a vestige of something special in that superannuated ’61 to give my nostalgia-befuddled brain something to hang onto. A month later, visiting my siblings near Washington, D.C., while running, I spotted a Peugeot 505 and its owner. I stopped, and we talked. He told me about “the French Car Guy,” in nearby Takoma Park. That guy could find me a 404 to drive, he said.
I didn’t have time to pursue it—I had to drive back to Boston as soon as I finished my run. But next time I visit I’ll look up the French Car Guy, and see if I can get another test drive, one that will really transport me back to Paris in the ’60s.
Oh, who am I kidding!