GRR

John Simister: The Peugeot 304 Cabriolet is a forgotten gem

04th June 2017
john_simister_singer_goodwood_12062017_04.jpg John Simister

We're lost, in France. And there is no chance of hearing Bonnie Tyler singing of her similar plight on our Peugeot 304 Cabriolet's Pathé Marconi radio, even though her song and our car are mid-1970s near-contemporaries. The radio no longer works.

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Under that Pathé Marconi logo is a smaller one, perhaps the result of a licensing deal. La Voix de son Maître, it says: His Master's Voice. But Nipper the dog can hear nothing from the gramophone's acoustic horn.

We're lost, because we're on a Peugeot tour of the dynasty's eastern French homeland and we've been following the wrong example of the company's new 5008. The road numbers make no sense against the route marked on our map, and then I realise we have gone too far north after leaving Peugeot's peppermill factory. We're almost at Besançon, and there are others hoping to drive our bright red convertible before the morning is out.

So, do we do what people did in the 1970s, and just navigate our way by Michelin map to the next known rendezvous point? Or do we time-travel to 2017 and use that little sliver of miraculousness called a smartphone? Expedience wins, but now there's no time to make the required detour. We have to drive straight to the Peugeot Museum at Sochaux, along yet more wonderful country roads. The sun is streaming down, and if we were to go off-piste then we have chosen the optimum car in which to do it. We'll just have to apologise later to those who have missed out.

What they have missed out on is a forgotten gem. Peugeot made the Pininfarina-styled 304 range from 1969 to 1980, but the convertible version only from 1970 to 1975. Of the 19,000 or so open 304s, just 836 were right-hand drive, UK-bound examples. Survivors are rare and much prized today. Our red one, though, is fully French and an interesting combination of a thoroughly restored body, very fit mechanicals and an as-found interior showing all of its four decades.

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Luckily the seats are authentically intact and as squashy, enveloping yet properly supportive as only the French knew how back then. Once you're in the driver's seat, you never want to get out.

It's best, then, to examine the 304's outside bits first. Its nose resembles that of the larger 504, with its giant trapezoidal headlights. The boot is vast, mainly because this is a two-seater car which could quite easily have been a four-seater. Under the bonnet is a little overhead-camshaft engine generating a healthy 75bhp from its 1288cc. No wonder there's an 'S' on the tail. 

The engine bay repays a closer look, because the 304 does things differently. The battery is down low, behind the bumper and next to the radiator, in front of which is the jack. The fan is directly behind the radiator, as you'd expect, but the engine is mounted transversely. Which means the fan belt has to do two extraordinary right-angle twists, but contrary to expectations it never flies off its pulleys. 

It's 8am. We're leaving the delightfully welcoming Château de Germigney at Port Lesney, which is nothing to do with the manufacturer of Matchbox model cars. The 304's roof is stowed, of course, and we're heading to the peppermill factory at Quingey. Straight away the 304 feels eager on the throttle and fluid in the gearchange, the whine from its transmission – in the sump, like a classic Mini's – singing exactly the same note as it did in the Peugeot 104-derived Citroën Visa I once owned. Every carmaker has its own specific sound signature to its gears, it seems, depending on its traditions of gear-cutting techniques. You don't hear it much in modern cars, of course.

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There's something else that used to be very Peugeot-specific, too, and its similar to the way those seats feel. The 304 has a remarkable way of moving over bumps and through bends, ultra-supple yet never letting the body lurch, simultaneously precise and cosseting. It's to do with soft springing and brilliantly-calibrated damping, and Peugeot used to be the master of the art not least because it made its own dampers with very clever valving systems. They're still working perfectly, even in this 1970s car.

The sun cooks our heads, the wind ensures we don't notice, and all the while the Peugeot could almost be a sports car were it not so unassertive in its looks. After devouring the undulating backroads near the River Doubs, it zips happily along the autoroute at 80mph as Sochaux draws near. I find myself thinking I could happily drive this little cabriolet every day. Even in winter, if I could find one with the optional hardtop.

Finding a 304 Cabriolet at all is the problem. Good ones seldom come up for sale, and when they do they command quite a price. It would be worth the search, though. Cars are rarely more lovable than this.

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