Do you remember the Peugeot 405? When the French automaker quit the American market more than twenty-five years ago, the 405 was its last car standing.
Over in Europe, Peugeot is very proud of the 405; so proud, in fact, that the Peugeot Museum at Sochaux is holding a 30th birthday party for the car tomorrow (Saturday, June 17th).
Planning a birthday party for a car - particularly, a family car which at first glance might not seem particularly special - would seem like more of an Italian thing to do.
However, there's more to the 405 than meets the eye.
At its launch in 1987, it was a crisp, confident, and confidence-inspiring car which proved that Peugeot could move from its traditional rear-wheel drive format to powering the front wheels in more modern fashion, all without losing its touch.
Peugeot, you see, had built worthy, if ever so slightly stodgy, rear-drive sedans for decades. The 403, 404, 504, and 604 were hedonistically relaxing vehicles, with a Gallic dignity that dips, potholes, and freeway hop could not upset. More years than not, they tended to smooth rough roads over better than a contemporary Rolls-Royce.
At the turn of the '80s, the 504 evolved into the 505. It remained a pleasant, vaguely upmarket automobile which four Automobile magazine staffers voted as the one car they'd most willingly drive from New York to Los Angeles. However, it held to rear-wheel drive at a time when fuel prices were pushing manufacturers to front-wheel drive.
Among front-wheel-drive Peugeots in the new decade, there were the 205, 305, and 309. The boxy 305, never imported to the United States, had served the company well, but it was ten years old and hardly fit the new extrovert image projected by the 205 GTi, a pocket rocket "hot hatchback" that is highly regarded by enthusiasts today. The 309 was a Talbot, with European Chrysler roots, that never quite took off.
The 405 was a revelation.
This was among of the first aerodynamic, affordable sedans in the contemporary mold: a family car with a rounded front end to welcome the air, and a high trunk to calm the flow as it left the body. In a nod to Americans, who as a rule were not particularly fond of French styling, Peugeot had finally abandoned the typically French sloping rears of old. This was also the first Peugeot with a height-adjustable steering column. The French, typically not averse to arrogantly pitching what they thought would work best, were trying a new approach.
The 405 shared its basic platform with the Citroën BX, which had debuted in 1982. It came six years after Ford's Sierra, which was the first "aero" sedan and influenced the American Taurus.
Nevertheless, styled by Italian Pininfarina as were the prettiest Peugeots, the 405 made everything else in its class look dated and plain. The pert shape that, in a famous British ad, "Took our breath away" boasted, in base form, a superb coefficient-of-drag of just 0.28.
America's Automobile magazine, testing the 405 at launch in Paris, wrote that the car was a "smash hit on the home front. In Paris' crowded streets, jaywalking pedestrians smiled appreciatively at the sedate silver SRI.
"And we couldn't miss the extensive marketing effort supporting Peugeot's newcomer. Bright new billboards for the 405 proclaimed 'un talent fou' (literally, 'a crazy talent'). That's not readily translatable into English, but the Japanese, Italian, and German competition had better try to understand it."
No car has ever won the European Car of the Year award by a higher number of votes than did the 405, in 1988. Within two years, Peugeot had sold half a million; within three, they'd hit the magic million.
In its seven-year life, the 405 matched its crosstown Renault 21 rival for sales; perhaps disappointing for those who might consider the Peugeot a better car, but impressive when one considers that, pre 405, the Peugeot had not played in the midsize market for a decade and that Renault had been making front-wheel-drive cars for twenty years.
The 405 also did good business against its Citroën BX sister, Ford's Sierra, Opel's Ascona (Vauxhall Cavalier in Britain), and the Audi 80.
Particularly impressive was the 405 Mi16, a sixteen-valve performance version of the basic car. Its 158-horsepower engine benefited from Peugeot's experience in rallying, and it came with anti-lock brakes. There was even the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive T16 405, with 220 horsepower.
In typically French fashion, Automobile, at least initially, could not get one to drive. "I regret we cannot give you an Mi16… Our French journalists are waiting a month to drive this car," they were told by Peugeot PR.
"'Ah,' we replied, not unkindly," recalled the magazine's Ken Gross. "But the French already like the 405. It's the Americans you must impress. Perhaps you could reconsider."
Peugeot did – but not that it helped much. Less than five thousand Peugeots were sold in America in 1990. When sales halved the following year, the marque threw in the towel.
Peugeot's problems in America derived from complex, longstanding issues and are not a reflection of the 405's abilities. That the 405, everywhere else in the world, met and exceeded the high expectations placed on it accounts for its instant success, and for the resulting fondness with which it is remembered. Like the best Peugeots, it blurred the lines between mainstream and premium; as CAR magazine put it, "The whole car seems to work with a harmony rare in machines of this price and class."
Even in the United States, where Peugeot has not played for a quarter century, there remain a select group of people, particularly on the West and East coasts, who retain an appreciation for Peugeot's unique blend of ride and handling.
The 405 sedan was discontinued in Europe in 1995, though the wagon would remain available through 1997.
By the mid '90s, the 405 was built in the United Kingdom, Egypt, Chile, Argentina (1999), Zimbabwe (2002), Poland, Taiwan, and Iran. Production in Iran finally ended last year.
The 405 was replaced by the 406 (1996), 407 (2004), and 508 (2011).
Peugeot is one of the world's oldest automakers, and will celebrate its 130th birthday in 2019.
In the meantime - Happy Birthday, 405.