Peugeot, and French cars in general for that matter, has always been synonymous with chic design. It's also fair to say that either one of the two big French brands has also gone through more trying times in terms of design. However, when looking at it from a whole-of-life perspective, both brands have some automotive solid gold in their back catalogues.
Today, we're celebrating two things. First is the wonderful and rare piece of design that is Anton's Peugeot 504 Cabriolet. Second is acknowledging Peugeot's product renaissance with the 508 Fastback.
The pairing of these two cars is actually quite significant.
Gilles Vidal, the recently departed director of Peugeot's design studio, was the lead on the 508 project. Before his departure, Vidal had spent his whole career with Groupe PSA, first joining the brand in the mid ’90s. It was during his tenure there he met Jean-Pierre Ploué.
Ploué is a legend amongst the corridors of Groupe PSA, having been the person responsible for bringing sister brand Citroën back into form. Think C5, C6 and DS3, just to name a few. As the group director of design, consider Ploué also somewhat responsible for the 508, as well as being influential to Vidal himself.
However, it was Vidal who was most fond of the 504. So fond of it, in fact, that when the studio, led by Vidal, began penning its concepts and future design ethos, it looked back to this very model to inspire what was to come. What ended up manifesting from such escapades was the production version of the Peugeot 508 we see today, as well as the concept vehicle 'e-Legend'.
So, a 508 meeting a 504 is a genuine case of a progeny meeting an ancestor. The 508's design is more than a case of borrowing one or two elements. Its exterior design is a decent attempt at re-imagining a 504 for today.
Before we nitpick this pretty pair apart, let's take a look at Anton's 504 Cabriolet.
Wearing its original factory metallic paint, his 504 began its life in New Caledonia. A wealthy individual over there ordered three of the things new, and had them sent over to the French-governed nation. It ended up finding its way over to Australia, which is where Anton comes into the picture.
It took precisely 11 years to bring the car up to the standard you see here. The car wasn't tatty by all means, but as is the case with all old cars, it ended up falling victim to the 'snowball effect'.
"The right-hand-drive conversion wasn't spot on, the dashboard slightly off centre," adds Anton. "Once I ripped the dash out to solve that issue, I found some other things. Then a few more things, and here we are 11 years later."
It's always hard to convey the quality of a restoration via photos, but let me say a few things to guide your mind. The bodywork cost more than a high-end hatchback, every nut, bolt and related piece of metal was stripped, zinc-coated, and put back, and even the original factory-build paint markings have been painstakingly replicated using templates, stencils and hand painting.
It's a true labour of love, passion and effort that's had the priceless benefit of being overseen by Anton's incredibly discerning eye.
However, as a car it's worth the effort that's been invested into it. The 504 Cabriolet is not just an air-headed looker. It was launched in 1969 with 'Kugelfischer' fuel injection, four-wheel disc brakes and fully independent suspension all round.
It's amazing to realise that point and then acknowledge that other brands, with their road cars, were still using crude beam axles, drum brakes and carburettors right up until the 1980s. The 504 was miles ahead of its time. It was also miles ahead in terms of cost. When new, they retailed for more than an equivalent Jaguar E-Type.
The 504 Cabriolet partially fell victim to the mainstream badge on the front, however. Many went unloved and fell into various states of disrepair, as potential second and third 'collector' owners gravitated toward other metal from the era, foolishly not seeing anything in this French drop-top sweetheart. By that time, it was too late for many to find the loving hands of someone like Anton.
That makes it a rare car, then, globally. According to howmanyleft.co.uk, only five were registered as of Q1 2020, and 11 declared as owned and in storage. In Australia, Anton believes there are a couple of others lurking about, give or take three to four.
Parking it next to a 508 gives the modern car's design so much clarity. The old 504 is the missing piece of the Peugeot Rosetta Stone, which when together enables you to understand and make sense of its design, and legacy, in which it follows.
The first piece of commonality you instantly see is the wide front grille adorned with a large lion in its centre. Once you're over that, more intricate familiarities begin to surface.
The headlights on both cars share a square-shaped twin-beam arrangement that's too uncanny to just be a fluke. As are the tail-lights, too, for that matter, which feature the same three-strike 'lion claw' pattern.
Zooming out, another point that took me a little by surprise was how Peugeot managed to finish the new 508 with such a low roof line. It's incredibly sleek compared to most modern cars, let alone contemporary sedans.
It's not that much taller than the drop-top from the ’60s, which is a significant feat to achieve with a mass production, regular-style road car. Peugeot managed to pull this off via the use of frameless door glass, which was integrated for the sole purpose of dropping the roof by a few inches. The bonnet line is also reminiscent of the past, with a pair of wide-set simple folds dividing the vast horizontal plane.
As a final sign-off, the 508 wears its model name on the front of the car, just proud of the lion badge. This is the first Peugeot in 25 years to resurrect this historical design trait. The last Peugeot with a '5' in its model name to feature this touch was indeed the 504. If anything signifies what spawned this car, it's that small touch right there.
We'd have definitely noticed more design touches if we had a 504 Coupe, such as a shared roof line and overall rear haunches. But to be frank, I care not that this isn't a coupe. It's such a treat to see a 504 Cabriolet in the wild, anywhere in the world for that matter. It also shares enough with the newer car to make commonality appear apparent despite having no roof.
So, I was nervous when Anton flicked me the keys for a quick drive.
To provide a frame of reference, I'd driven a 508 extensively in a previous life. I know my way around how it feels, and what it's like to live with. One thing you notice with the 508 is how incredibly light it feels. People do claim the small steering wheel and quickness of the steering rack are big drivers of why it feels the way it does, which I can level with.
However, I believe the bulk of its feeling comes from the fact it is actually a light car for the class. It has a tare mass of just 1385kg. A VW Passat comes in at 1511kg to provide context.
Mass appears to be something you can't seem to undo. You can engineer around it, no question there. Throwing power, magical dampers, and other fodder does work a treat to subdue the side effects of weight. Those technologies can make a heavy car do wonderful things, such as go fast around corners and the like, but none can successfully imitate the true feeling of lightness.
The 504 felt so incredibly featherweight. As a consequence of its lack of mass, its suspension doesn't have to do much work. It isn't supporting large, heavy sections of chassis and bodywork, and as a consequence it can take crappy sections of road right in its stride.
If you've ever driven around France, you'd know that the cobblestone roads found there are god awful. Whereas Citroën went down the path of inventing hydropneumatic suspension to tackle ride quality, Peugeot took the traditional route of keeping things light and placing engineering effort supporting such a gospel.
It's no wonder that Peugeot still makes a big deal about this point. When you drive one of its models from yesteryear back to back with its latest and greatest, you can see how this ideology still rings true, and how it hasn't decayed with time. The school of thought that is lightweight cars still has its place in our era.
Although not identical, you get the same sense of lightness when behind the wheel of either car. It's a unique experience that empowers both cars to feel effortlessness and swift.
With the 504, everything inside had quite a delicate action in keeping with its on-road manners. The manual shift throw was long, but precise, and easy to use. You didn't need to force it into gear with slow-paced angst, as you often have to with old cars. It gently slips between ratios quicker than I first assumed its old synchro technology could ever manage.
The steering is great, feels reasonably light, and easy to get to know. 'Friendly' is a nice way to put it. Another unusual point is that you sit quite high in a 504 Cabriolet. Combine that with a low door line, and what you get is nothing short of convertible car mecca.
I personally love drop-tops, and have driven a few now, but this is most certainly in a new league of openness. As you peer left to right, and even behind, the high vantage point means your vision is completely unobstructed, which transposes to the feeling that you're sitting on something, not in something.
Uncorrupted, open-air bliss.
This is in contrast to the 508, where you sit quite low, hunkered down into its belly, with high door lines and a high centre console cloaking you from the outside. Whereas the 504 was sparse, even beautifully minimal with its interior design, the 508 is naturally something quite different. There are some clever capacitive touch buttons inside that do their part to reduce clutter, but that's about it.
Regardless of that feeble attempt to draw the longest of bows, you just can't compare the two, as the new car is a tech-fest internally. Two large digital screens dominate the dashboard, its seats massage you, and there are all sorts of other advancements that come with age.
On the inside, they're very different in terms of execution. I'm okay with that, as I don't think many of us want to revel in everything from the past all the time, such as temperature control systems devoid of air-conditioning, and a complete lack of infotainment.
In saying that, the 508 is a fair re-creation of the past. It's not retro. That's an evil word. It takes the good parts of the past and brings them well into the 21st century for all of us to enjoy once again.
By good parts, I mean it offers a contemporary take on lightweight motoring, and portrays high-class design in a manner that's legitimate and truly faithful to its past.
Let's hope the new Peugeot 208 follows the same creed.