In 1955 while still in love with my one year old Raleigh Lenten Sports bicycle with Sturmy Archer gears, Dad introduced me to a second love - cars! He did this by parking our new Lincoln Premiere, a 'ginormous' car, in our driveway and attracting neighbors like flies to sticky fly-paper. This single event forever imprinted on my brain that cars brought people together.
Shortly thereafter, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) decided Fontainebleau, just south of Paris, would be our home for the next four years. We flew from Ottawa to Montreal on a DC3 followed by an eight day ocean crossing aboard the SS Homeric, a 20,000 ton ocean liner. This was 'some exciting start' to our new adventure. When we arrived at the port of Le Havre, we were told our Citroen DS19 was not yet available. Instead, we had been ‘provided’ a Simca Aronde (tiny by Citroen standards, miniscule by Lincoln standards) as our interim mode of transport. After experimenting with the 'weird' steering column switch gear, we finally had lights and had only just exited the port's gate when a very large truck pulled directly across in front of us blocking our way. Welcome to France we thought. Dad remained composed while the rest of us (Mom, sis & me) went ’on high alert’. This obviously livid driver approached waving his hands while yelling something we did not understand. He then reached through the open window and thankfully demonstrated how to dim the lights. Lesson one, dimmer switches were no longer floor mounted - one lesson taught, and many more to learn ...... this was to be a very interesting and very different world!
Different too was my new school for NATO armed forces kids. As there were so few Canadians, all high school grades were taught in a one school room. This meant quite an age range with approximately twenty students and being exposed to girls who were becoming women and the boys, not quite so obviously, becoming men. Starting in grade nine, I could see my future laid out in front of me: motorcycles, boy scouts, cars and of course women - quite an array with lots to learn - what a wonderful life!
A Brit friend from the international school and I used to hang together on most weekends at one of the major round-a-bouts to see how many weird cars we could identify with the help of our Spotter’s Guide to Cars. The French motorists would park in the grass surrounding the round-a-bouts, spread a blanket, set up a picnic to watch the cars, play chess, cards or nap. If an accident occurred, people tended to take sides and debated who had the ‘right of way’ until the referees (gendarmes) arrived on their immaculate BMW 500 motorcycles. Having minimal roadside services these grassy round-a-bouts served as welcome respites for travelers and great vantage points for car-spotting kids like us.
Though my friend and I were delighted by the more rare automobiles such a MB, BMW, MGA, Austin Healey, Lancia, Facel Vega Porsche or Alfa, even the seemingly endless parade of French Traction Avants, Deux Chevaux(s) and Renaults held our interest just by tracking the region code on their license plates. At the other extreme, the spotting of a beautiful Aston Martin Masserati, Jaguar or Ferrari created a memory that would last for weeks. The scarcest were American cars (none were imported to France) and most were registered in Switzerland. This immersion into French culture instilled an appreciation for things European generally and French in particular.
By the mid sixties, I had returned to Canada. Peugeot’s reputation had grown with their surprise four victories in the East African Safari Rally followed by being named "One of the seven best cars in the world." Prices had likewise climbed and it was then considered a luxury car well beyond the means of a starving student. So, when I found a very cheap, very well used 1958 Peugeot 403 she was mine! I found her just down the street on a local J. I. Case farm equipment dealer’s lot in Baden, Ontario, Canada. She was parked beside a tractor. Many agricultural dealers augmented their winter season sales with secondary items including secondary brand cars. The owner, Mr. Gingerich, had a well-polished Peugeot sales pitch was, "Did you know these cars engines run for ever because they have giant main bearings because they used the same block as the much higher compression diesels?" Sounded good to me!
The 403 and I became good friends and we survived many club & regional rallies, autocrosses and ice races. I recall at a coffee stop about midnight during the two-day Northern Lights Rally being told by a fellow competitor that they had “never seen so much rust go so fast!" It still makes me smile. About this time, I served as an engineering student on a work term at Long Mfg, an automotive heat exchanger manufacturer. The plant manager, Harry Koegler, (a big German) said, “Peugeots had the most comfortable seats – better than Mercedes, and that maintenance costs were much lower too.” Harry had traded in his 403 for a 404 that I rode in often. He was planning to get a 504 when they became available. It was around this same time my local Case/Peugeot dealer was loaned a special promotional car by Peugeot Canada to promote the brand. I was smitten ... it was a light blue Peugeot Pininfarina 404 coupe. I stopped by old man Gingerich's Case/Peugeot dealership whenever I could just to gaze lovingly at her lines and glide my hand along her curves ... I was in love again.
Jumping forward 50 years, I was finished paying for school and had moved to the US. I had started and sold a couple of small businesses, raised a family and adjusted to living in a world deprived of such fine imported cars. I was therefore delighted when I came across the old car of my dreams: a perfect example of a 404 PF coupe in Holland. It had the requisite KF2 fuel injection (95 BHP), the European Cibie lighting, the Nardi augmented instrument cluster, the new Assisted Thermostable Braking System and a beautiful two tone paint job. I purchased it in Sept 2014 and imported it in early 2015. It now sits in my driveway and will have a home for the foreseeable future. It is everything I expected even when just sitting there looking pretty. The acceleration is a pleasant surprise for a 1.6 liter engine in a 2300 lb car as is the highway mileage. The KF2 fuel delivery system starts (due to the faultless wax thermo plug system) immediately and runs smoothly, has adequate torque and seems happy cruising in the 60-80 MPH range. It is well-appreciated on car outings and garnered The Best French Car Award at The Best of France & Italy show at Woodley Park, CA.
In my opinion, the 404 coupe body was one of Battista 'Pinin' Farina’s finest works. He incorporated some his predecessor designs; the Fiat 8V (nose), the Lancia Flaminia (flying buttress and sunken rear window) and the Ferrari 250GT (hip dihedral side highlight). Uniquely, he added novel design elements including the extended roof down to meet a concave surface body section above the horizontal door shut line. This is unique to the coupe (of course this configuration is not possible on the cabriolet and completely different from sedan or wagons). Then there is a major tapered accent strip which starts as a stainless steel trim accent on the front fender centered on the headlight then transitions seamlessly to a ‘same cross-section’ coachwork ridge- line mid-door tapering and blending into to the center of the rear tail light. Very subtle and very unusual is the angled dihedral line emanating from the front of the horizontal dihedral accent line extending in a blend-fade on a tangent line to the top of the rear wheel arch. The two form an elongated isosceles triangular plane between the two, projecting a sense of speed. The master’s stroke and his “knowing when to lift the pen” is clearly demonstrated here. Thank you Battista!
Thanks also to The North American Peugeot "le Club 404" Owners Network who have done an astonishing job in double quick time of launching a useful website. This group will prove increasingly helpful as our cars age. The magic elixir for the club’s longevity will be to attract new and younger owners who don’t have a history, but just love great cars!
Cheers, Greg Millard
Greg pictured with just some of his other loves: A 1934 Bentley & Dexter his loyal dog!