We’ve shared some of 2021's most read posts in our Best of 2021. Now, we’re sharing a few that our staffers think are worth a second look. These are our 2021 Staff Picks.
The first thing he tells me is how he had to mothball this car until, by chance, he ended up in traffic next to a trained French mechanic riding a motorcycle who took on the project of getting this car in order, sourcing obscure year-by-year parts back from France until it was roadworthy.
That was what the owner, Jamie Kitman of Brief History of Gasoline fame, first told me about his 1965 Peugeot 404 Wagon. Not the dual shock absorbers in the rear for carrying heavy loads in serene comfort. Not the trim and perfect styling, the work of the same great Italian coachbuilder Pininfarina that did Ferrari’s great cars of the era. Randomly meeting a French guy on a motorcycle who could source and wrench on all the oddball parts for the car, without which it might never be on the road at all.
(Full disclosure: friend of Jalopnik Jamie Kitman keeps a joyous collection of wonderful classic cars. Here is his 1966 MG 1100 I drove, for instance. He invited me to drive his 1965 Peugeot 404 Wagon for a day’s drive out to PA. I had just finished rebuilding a 1973 Peugeot UO-8 bicycle, and couldn’t turn the offer down.)
Well, somewhere in there he also told me that he picked this wagon up for only a couple grand, an absolute steal for a car like this.
What am I supposed to do with this information? Am I to tell you the reader, that you should consider a 1965 Peugeot 404 Wagon for your next commuter car instead of a mid-2000s Subaru? What if you somehow don’t end up meeting a trained French wrench on a motorcycle in traffic, one who knows which parts from a 1964 404 don’t fit on a ‘65? What then?
It’s all kind of funny because this Peugeot does kind of feel like something a person could use everyday. Something that would brighten a person’s life in little, mundane, everyday ways.
It’s also funny because I don ‘t think I’ve ever driven a car that was so good at doing exactly what it sets out to do.
I drove this Peugeot on a classic car get together, driving out from outside New York City over to the edges of Pennsylvania. It’s about as short as a three-state drive can be around here, but it still meant a full day behind the wheel. The other cars present fit the bill for a day trip to twisty state park roads from the Hudson highlands over to the Delaware Water Gap. There were Porsches, MGs, two outstanding Lancias, and one oddball Ferrari. The Peugeot wagon looked more like a (rather precious) support vehicle than anything else.
Still everyone loved it, and were quick to tell me stories about how this car was “the queen of Africa” like its 504 successor and durable beyond compare. Four shocks in the back! I was reminded more than once. Indeed, these cars have a reputation among those in the know, as Curbside Classic elucidated some years ago:
To understand Peugeot wagons, and the superlatives about to be heaped on them here, one needs to start with the basics: unlike almost every other post-war wagon, they were not just a sedan with a long roof. The Peugeot wagons (and pickups) essentially rode on their own unique platform/chassis, at least from the windshield back. With an extended wheelbase to accommodate three forward-facing seats, and a remarkable rear axle/suspension that had a load capacity (in the wagon) of over 1200 lbs without sacrificing any of that famous French ride, for over fifty years these half-car/half-truck Peugeots made a rep for themselves that has no equal.
Somehow, the car itself seemed above its reputation. I looked at its bright, shining headlights, its eager face, and it said it only wanted to drive, to haul. I felt a little bad I didn’t have a family of nine to squeeze into it, luggage included.
Let me describe the fundamentals of this car, so that its practicality may be established. It is long but not large or unwieldy. It is 15 feet long, about two feet shorter than a new Honda Odyssey, but it still has three roomy rows of seats. It is also spacious but not wide. At a bit over five feet side to side, an original Mazda Miata doesn’t take up much more of a lane.
This ‘65 makes do with a 76 horsepower engine, which Club 404 points out sports a modern five main bearings. Surprisingly, it’s not anything you’d call underpowered. It only weighs 2,500 pounds unloaded, which is also about as much as a Miata, just the last-generation NC one.
It’s rear-wheel-drive and uses a four-speed manual transmission, as light and sweet, and crisp as anything else in the car. The wide steering wheel. The long column stalks. The click of the ashtray on the dash flipping up.
Amazingly this is a four-on-the-tree car, with the shift lever sitting around where your windshield wiper controls would be on a regular car. The pattern itself would be impossible to remember, but someone conveniently marked it out in sharpie on the steering column itself. First is down and towards you, where you’d normally find second gear. Second gear is up where third would be, third is directly below it. Fourth is up where fifth would be, reverse is where you’d normally look for first. It sounds more confusing than it is.
This is the real trick of the car. It’s not that it is practical. Plenty of cars can seat as many as it does, carry as much as it does. It’s just that none of them are as compact or as economical as this Peugeot. More than that though, none of them are as entertaining or as satisfying in each of its movements. The shifter in particular, pulling straight down for a two-three shift, is strangely sporty in such a practical car, especially with the engine so happy to run out to redline.
It’s not just that you have enough room to function as a small town school bus, it’s that you are also in a resplendent red-and-white interior, a sideways speedometer lazily gliding back and forth, the amp meter dancing at a stop light in time with the turn signal blinking. It’s charming just as it is functional.
It was hard to find fault with the car. The ride was so comfortable and serene, I hardly cared about anything. I guess the car didn’t like hanging out above 65 or 70, and it didn’t have air conditioning. It was also very much a car of its time in that it had more ashtrays than I could count but no cigarette lighter. Peugeot engineers assumed you had one on you, I guess.
It’s weird to encounter a car this good at what it does and so impossible to own. Kitman might as well have handed me the keys to a nuclear power station and told me to power my apartment building.
Again, what am I supposed to do with this information — that the best station wagon out there is a half-century-old French car? I mean, I can in some good conscience recommend someone try out an old VW Bug. That’s still an own-able car in this day and age. But how many people can there be in America who could really own a 1960s Peugeot? A few thousand?
I understand that I’ve spent a lot of this article explaining why you, the reader, would want to be one of those few thousand. I understand. There’s a real siren song calling you to this car. If there wasn’t, I don’t think it’d still be on the road today. Maybe you can judge its qualities based on the difficulties it’s had to endure. After all the tricky parts and mysterious mechanics, if it wasn’t so good, I’d have never found myself behind the wheel.