My First Peugeot
My dad brought home his first Peugeot, an off-white 403B in March 1961 when I was just 10 and probably at a very impressionable age—because this must have been when my obsession began.
He paid something around £1,300 for the car and it came from Hospital Hill Motors in Wollongong, complete with heater demister, weather shield and sun visor. Obviously, Dad had been impressed by the performance of the marque in the Redex trials and had observed the robust nature of the vehicle as well as heard the reputation for economy and for handling and roadholding.
He also used to go on about French steel—I think it was something which he'd picked up from his metallurgy training (I also recall, as young child, waiting somewhere beside the road and watching what must have been mud-covered Redex trial vehicles drive past).
Dad had also witnessed my grandfather's less-than-joyful experience with an Austin A40 and then the A55 "Manumatic" clutchless device (Grandfather used to get somewhat irritated when the grandsons would look out the rear window after the second-gear descent of Bulli Pass to witness a plume of blue smoke as the relatively new Austin pulled away—we didn't know it at our very young age, but it proved how fast the Austin's rings and valve guides were wearing).
It was some years later that I got my own Peugeot, but I learnt to drive on Dad's 403B. I had some driving lessons in my eldest brother's VW beetle (never did like its lack of feel), middle brother's Morris Minor (What a charmingly unreliable vehicle this was - the fuel pump failed with monotonous regularity, the "power plant" came complete with an angry snarl from worn pistons/gudgeons and who knows what else). There was no comparison in terms of what was the best to drive—the 403B stood out. I got my licence in the 403B and drove it whenever Dad permitted or an excuse arose.
When I was able to afford it I bought a 1958 Peugeot 403 wagon, EYV-591—in that "Moroccan Tan" pink colour with a red stripe down the side (it looked a lot like Michael Arahill's wagon).
Parting with $275 got me a lot of car for a small price, but underneath the dented bonnet, from the prior owners 'roo shooting incident, was an unservicable left front shock absorber and it had a dreadful selection of worn 6.40x15 cross ply tyres, but was still a great buy.
The engine had been overhauled by George Gall when the previous owner had the wagon, there was negligible rust and other than straightening of the bonnet and tidying up the paint, it was all there and very solid. The rear leaf springs sat a bit lower than standard 403 wagon and the ride was fairly firm.
Of course it had those 5-inch wheels with five studs and that big heavy steel back axle casing. Talk about over-engineered!
The front shock was replaced with a second hand item from the local wrecker, and with the addition of a set of 165x15 radials braced on the 5-inch wheels, a very tenacious attitude was revealed. It had so much grip on sealed roads. You had to wait for wet or dirt roads before any departure from the chosen path ensued—and even then, the wagon's road manners would help you out after attempting the ridiculous.
This old wagon could embarrass many a more pretentious vehicle round a corner—providing, of course, you'd been able to wind up some velocity before the manoeuvre! Downhill sections were savoured, and there were favourite sections of road—you get the idea.
A weight of 23 cwt and a standard 1,468 cc powerplant conspired to produce nothing special on uphill sections.
Some of my mates commented on the negative camber of the front wheels under brisk cornering. Such stupid questions as "Have you seen the angle of your front wheels when you're going round corners?" How could I? I was having too much fun enjoying the prodigious grip.
The length of the vehicle prompted others to suggest a black paint job might lend a funereal appearance to the machine. All good fun when you were 19.
It was interesting to note the effect of the Peugeot 403 wagon on my brothers. From the eldest I detected a "let's see what John's wasted his money on" attitude. This was changed to "*#@%$! This thing handles better than my car", which was a very new Mazda 1500 Luce, with Konis, wide wheels, etc, etc. It wasn't long before he'd found an old Peugeot 403 wagon, restored it and said goodbye to the Mazda (he later confessed that he should have got a Peugeot 404 instead of the Mazda).
Middle brother David had moved from the side-valve Morris Minor into a 1968 Corolla, which was pretty zippy at that time, and was in no mood to change vehicles. Then a wayward BSA 750 bike took out the parked Corolla.
David ended up with the 1956 Peugeot 403 which he wrote about in the November 2002 Pugilist—an absolutely brilliant cruiser.
That meant that between our parents and three sons we had an "all Peugeot 403 family" - two sedans and two wagons.
As time progressed we became an "all Peugeot 404 family", with two sedans and two utes. Curiously the Peugeot 403 sedan drivers had opted for the 404 utes and the Peugeot 403 wagon punters had taken the 404 sedan path.
The experience of the old 403 wagon ingrained in me the "Peugeot disease" for which I must have become some sort of carrier, having passed the illness on to others; a school mate (whose Dad worked for GMH) had to have a 403 wagon, another two got 403 sedans.
I found and did up a Peugeot 403 ute for an acquaintance down Bombala way - a sleeper cutter who needed something rugged and enjoyable. Then, much later the bloke to whom I sold my first Peugeot 404 sedan wrote it off; brought it back from the grave; used it for a further two years, before going on to purchase further Pugs - a 504, 405 and 306. He's infected!
I can't say that I've been totally true to the cause. There was a totally reliable but characterless Honda Accord for 13 months, a Dato 200B which was cheap and had the best handbrake in history, but was an amazingly bad drive! And a succession of Holden and Ford company cars - the best Ford was a Nissan in disguise, a Corsair Ghia 2.4 litre, and the best Holden was the Nissan-powered 3-litre six, but then we look forward to an enlightened company car policy.
I've owned 10 Peugeots in all. But the 403 wagon confirmed my obsession with the marque; took me all over the state, was an excellent camper with reclining seats from a sedan or all that space back there, it hauled engines and heavy parts and ridiculously heavy loads of garden supplies, and was really very reliable.
It ended it days after having a nasty prang. I sometimes wish that I'd had the cash to fix it, but I needed transport and the dollars had to go to getting a replacement. Yep; another Peugeot 403 wagon. But it never was as good as the first.
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