Where do I start? I've to-and-fro'd long and hard about whether or not to write this review. After all, how is it possible to remain unbiased and subjective on something that you hold so dearly?
So where do I start? The beginning, I guess…
The year was 2011, and I was still in high school. Soon to get my L-plates, I spent many an hour trawling through online classifieds and auction sites for a potential set of wheels. From day one, I wasn’t interested in something pedestrian like a Corolla or a Focus. I wanted something a bit older, a bit less common, and a bit more special. There were a few vehicles on my shortlist but I ultimately decided on a 504 due to the mechanical simplicity and reputation for rock-solid dependability.
After almost a year of searching (and what seemed like a lifetime for 15-year old me) we found, in my opinion, the perfect specimen. It was a solid, original one-owner car that’d lived its whole life in Tasmania. We bought it over the phone; sight unseen. This, in retrospect, was a terrible idea but luckily the seller was very honest and forthcoming about the car so there weren’t any nasty surprises when we took delivery.
And thus, the journey began…
All in all, the Pug’s been a joy to own. Over the past 9 years, there’s been very little maintenance to speak of beyond the routine stuff. It’s needed a brake overhaul and a re-cored radiator, but that’s pretty much it. Scheduled servicing, by the way, is at fairly short 5,000km intervals. Luckily, however, it’s an absolute doddle to do at home. For instance, all fluids (including gearbox and diff) can be changed without jacking the car up. How many other family sedans can boast that, hey? The one thing, however, that I’m noticing lately is that spare parts and consumables are becoming a little difficult to source.
In terms of styling, it’s a fairly unique shape. From the slightly aggressive and imposing front-end, to the narrow, truncated and almost dainty rear you’d be hard pressed to mistake the Pug for pretty much anything else on the road. This is especially true for my example, which still wears its factory-correct and oh-so-seventies ‘Trak Yellow’ paint. The colour, interestingly enough is a Renault colour. This is due to the fact that Australian market 504s (after 1971 or so) were assembled by Renault at their factory in Heidelberg, Victoria to satisfy local content rules of the time. As a result, Australian cars were unique in that they were also fitted with a few homegrown bits and pieces; most notably high-backed front seats and quad headlights.
At the heart of the beast lies a 2-litre slant-4 engine breathing through a twin-choke Solex carburettor (the engine designation is ‘XN1’, for those playing at home). Being a pushrod design, it doesn’t really like to rev over about 4500rpm, but at the end of the day there’s no need to push it quite that hard, as peak torque (of an admittedly modest 140Nm) is delivered below 3000rpm. It’s a very smooth and refined unit that’s hardly noticeable in daily service, but there is however a very healthy and satisfying induction ‘bbwwwaaahhhhhh’ under heavy throttle. Performance (acceleration in particular) isn’t anything to write home about, but it can still hold its own in modern traffic.
In my example, the engine is mated to a 4-speed manual gearbox; which if anything is a little under-geared as it sees the engine spinning at over 3500rpm on the legal limit. When all’s said and done though, fuel consumption is still quite reasonable for what is a fairly large car of this vintage. I see 10 litres per 100 kilometres from mixed driving, and this jumps up to about 13L/100km in city traffic.
Back in its day, the 504 was a fairly advanced car, given that it was fitted with things like four-wheel disc brakes and independent coil suspension at all four corners. Now this might not seem like a huge deal nowadays, but for a family car in the late 60’s it was a bit special. Features like these go some way to explain why it doesn’t really feel like an ‘old car’ to drive.
As for actually driving it? Typically French. Piloting a 504 is an experience that’s a little difficult to put into words; as there are so many characteristics that don’t normally go together, but somehow just sort of ‘do’.
By far and away the standout feature that every passenger seems to comment on is the ride quality. It’s very softly sprung, with huge suspension travel that laughs in the face of even the biggest speed bumps and pot holes; yet there’s a surprising amount of grip and very neutral handling at the limit (if you’re willing to push it). The steering is un-assisted and extremely low-geared, but at the same time incredibly communicative and precise.
It all comes together to create a car that’s extremely comfortable and sure-footed. In fact, most of the time you forget that you’re driving something that’s nudging the big 5-0; which is a real testament to the car’s engineering.
When it comes to interior features and creature comforts, this is the one area where the Pug really shows its age. You get such niceties as two-speed wipers, a heated rear window, inertia-reel front seat belts, a two-speaker AM radio and the biggest ashtray you’ve ever seen… But that’s about where it stops. Living in Queensland, the biggest omission that you notice is the lack of air-conditioning… This, combined with vinyl seats means that anything above a mid-20’s day results in a slightly sticky, and at times downright sweaty experience. I’ve always said that if it was fitted with A/C I could easily see myself daily-ing it.
While I don’t get to drive it nearly as much as I’d like to these days, I certainly can’t see myself parting with it anytime soon. If you’re ever in the market for a reliable, usable, straightforward and capable classic car I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a 504. They’re bloody terrific.
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