So there I was, sitting on the sofa, realising it had been too long since the last blog post, and ruing the fact nothing of any consequence had happened since my little field trip to Circuito de Monsanto. I picked up the iPod and started flicking back through the photos, and within twenty seconds had rediscovered this – an immaculate Peugeot 504 I stumbled across in the heart of Lisbon’s historic quarter.
There is a widely held belief that anywhere in Africa, you can get spare parts for only two models of car. One is the Mercedes S-Class, the reason being that every African dictator drives a long-wheelbase version of Stuttgart’s biggest barge, complete with blacked-out windows. The other is the Peugeot 504 – not because any dictators use them (although Margaret Thatcher’s son once entered the Paris-Dakar Rally in one, which is pretty close), but because there are so many of the things knocking around.
Old French cars are not renowned for the quality of their fit and finish. But real car buffs know that once all the bumpers, door mirrors, hubcaps and other non-essential items have fallen off, they go and go and go. When I was younger, deconstructed Peugeots were the vehicles of choice for the artisans of the Black Isle. Potatoes got carried cross-peninsula in a 305 Van that had a maximum speed of 18mph. One of my friends and his four siblings were taken to school in a seven-seat 505 Wagon held together with green string. The local builder mixed up liquid cement in the loading bay of his 504 pickup then drove it to wherever he was working. Even my 106 ended its days as a car for driving round fields feeding sheep after a critical and expensive failure robbed it of all but its bottom two gears.
The reason for the prevalence of old Peugeots in Africa is probably a combination of colonial legacy and mechanical simplicity. In a chapter as part of Daniel Miller’s 2001 book Car Cultures, Jojada Verrips and Birgit Meyer chronicle the exploits of a Peugeot 504 taxi in Kenya belonging to a gentleman named Kwaku. Kwaku’s car, named God Never Fails, is kept running through mechanical ingenuity, resourceful body repairs, and sheer luck. Repairs of this nature using locally-available materials are possible, I would suggest, as a result of the uncomplicated (and thus tolerant) engineering underpinning the car. After all, would you fancy trying to do a bit of DIY repair on a Citroen’s hydraulic systems? Or fight your way through an Audi 100’s circuitry? Thought not.
In spite of what I said above, though, this car seems in pretty good nick, probably because it lives in an urban part of southern Europe and as such is not exposed to harsh winters or chaotic road conditions. Historic Peugeots may be tough underneath the skin, but like most non-German cars of the 1970s and 80s, they are as susceptible as anyone else to a bit of the old tin worm – which may explain why one never, ever sees Peugeots of such vintage in the UK any more. That’s a shame, because given the Paris-Dakar history I think a 504 station wagon would make a really nice alternative choice for historic regularity rallies. Let’s not forget that these things also acted as management cars for Peugeot-Talbot Sport during the Group B days.
Here’s one final thought for you. As a marker for how basic these old Pugs were, my 1996 106 was fitted with an engine whose design dated from 1982. Looking at the ‘GRD’ badge on the tailgate, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find exactly the same engine model hiding under the bonnet of this estate car. If that’s the case, then that black thing under the wheels most likely isn’t a shadow. It’s a pool of oil.