Here in Britain, these four-door family saloons, and others like them, were among the first wave of Continental imports to make domestic buyers reconsider their attachment to the usual, locally built Ford, BMC, Rootes and Vauxhall products.
Though certainly not exciting, and no more remarkable than a Consul or a Cambridge in their homelands, these Common Market, 1.5-litre family saloons from France and Italy were built for a now almost extinct breed of buyer who wanted a thoroughly conventional vehicle that was respectable, decently well-made and comfortable.
A four-door saloon that faded into the background hum of European cities during the week, but could take a full-size family long distances at the weekends on a modest fuel budget, using an efficient engine that didn’t attract penalties from the taxman.
In the UK, where there were no taxes on large engines, both cars were a rare enough sight to be worthy of comment in an era during which loyalty to British-built products remained at a high level.
Young car-spotters might have known them best either from copies of their Ladybird or Observer’s books, or from the TV, where – in a time when cars had a look that defined their country of origin – Fiats and Peugeots were perfectly cast automotive scene-setters in countless ITC action-hero series of the era.
Cut to back-projected Rome and you’d likely spot a 1500L weaving through traffic in front of the Colosseum; or, when the action transfers to Paris, 404s could invariably be seen following the protagonist’s studio-bound taxi ride along the Champs-Élysées.
Even today, if you were asked to come up with a generic 1960s European saloon, the image that may form in your mind would still be something very close to a Peugeot 404.
It’s a ‘what you see is what you get’ family holdall, a prevalent taxi and a car that also became a byword for East African Safari Rally-winning ruggedness: it won the event four times.
The 404 was a classic three-box Pininfarina shape of the early ’60s, with its austere elegance somewhat debased by the ubiquity of the various BMC iterations on the same theme.
Yet it had an unpretentious air of dignity that lifted it above the superficial charms of the ADO9 cars from Longbridge.
The Peugeot was not common on UK roads in period simply because the same money (£1200 at late-’60s prices) bought you the six-pot suburban glamour of a Vauxhall Cresta or the colour-supplement ‘young executive’ appeal of the Triumph 2000.
However, those who looked beyond such superficial gloss recognised in the 404 a roomy, comfortable, sensibly finished car with an appetite for demanding work in almost any environment.
It had no real performance aspirations, but made up for that by virtue of its reliable roadholding (on Michelin X tyres) and a standard of road-noise isolation not even Rolls-Royce could match.
It also had one of the better column gearchanges of its era.
The 404 started its career in 1960 as a model to supplement – and eventually usurp – the much-loved 403.
At first it was a sedate 72bhp five-seater saloon, soon joined by frugal but dog-slow 2-litre diesel, six- or eight-seater estate and 100mph Kugelfischer fuel-injected versions.
Throughout the ’60s, various trim levels offered plastic, cloth or leather, but the reclining front seats featured in all models and could be folded flat to create a makeshift bed.
By the end of the decade, the 404 had begun a regime of simplification to allow it to run as a cheaper companion model to the new-for-1968 504.
All the 404 shared with the Cambridges and Oxfords of this world, apart from the recycled styling, were the generalities of a conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout that was still the rule rather than the exception.
Yet the 404 was not quite as straightforward as it appeared.
Shorter, narrower and lower than its predecessor (also by Pininfarina), it maintained the Peugeot traditions of full coil springing, a worm-drive rear axle, a torque tube to control axle movement (although this also meant you had to drop the axle to change the clutch) and rack-and-pinion steering.
Its wet-liner, four-cylinder, overhead-valve 1618cc engine was tilted at 45º and almost hidden under a huge air-cleaner.
It sent its power through a four-speed gearbox with a direct rather than overdrive top.
The engine soon gained five main bearings and a higher compression ratio, meaning that even single-Solex-carburettor versions could top 95mph, while cutting eight whole seconds from the original 0-60mph time of 22 secs.
The Fiat 1500L was once almost as familiar a sight on Continental roads as the Peugeot.
It looked like a Pininfarina-designed car, but its crisp, angular, 404-esque outline was actually created in Fiat’s own styling department.
Launched as the 1800 and 2100 in 1959, these six-cylinder saloons were rebooted in ’61 as the 1800B and quad-headlight 2300 (with leaf springs replacing coils on the live rear axle in both cases).
They were further supplemented in 1963 by the 1500L, using the 1481cc four-cylinder engine from the smaller Fiat 1300/ 1500 saloon – actually, a four-cylinder and 72bhp version of Aurelio Lampredi’s excellent pushrod overhead-valve 1800/2100/2300 ‘six’.
In Italy the 1500L went up against locally produced Rootes Group saloons, Simca’s 1501 and various other three-box, rear-drive, 1.5-litre family cars, and was also offered in a lower-powered form for taxi drivers.
It was cheaper than any of the ‘quality’ local Alfa Romeo/Lancia family saloon competition, although the latter would probably have considered the 1500L as another nail in its coffin as an independent producer: Lancia boss Carlo Pesenti had only invested in the new front-drive Fulvia and Flavia on the understanding that Fiat would not re-enter the big-saloon market and undercut him.
In Britain we got the smaller-bodied 1500, but never had the 1500L (‘L’ stood for lunga, or long).
With quad headlights, the 1500L was also built to the tune of 200,000 examples by SEAT in Spain through to 1972, four years after its demise in Italy where it was in effect replaced by the 125.
There were plenty running around in Spain – mainly as taxis – well into the 1980s.
Two inches longer and rather heavier than the Peugeot, the 1500L sat on a near-identical wheelbase, had slightly more rear legroom and an equally commodious, regularly shaped but high-silled boot.
Unlike the Peugeot, the Fiat was only sold with a manual ’box.
Both of the ’60s Eurosaloons here belong to the same person.
Also a collector of modern exotica, their owner (who is selling the Fiat but keeping the 404) wishes to remain anonymous, although we can say that the person in question learned to love Peugeot 404s after using one as an everyday car in Canada during the ’80s.
Of the two the Fiat has, in some ways, more initial appeal today.
Despite everything you know about the 404’s rugged reputation, the 1500L seems superficially better-finished, has a higher technical specification (with discs all round) and appears more robust than the Peugeot.
Its doors shut with a less tinny sound, it has carpets where the Peugeot gives you rubber mats and there are plush cloth seats – bench-type front and rear.
The Peugeot makes do with admittedly practical vinyl.
But the 404 is all about practicality, right down to the built-in mounting points for the roof-rack.
But it occasionally surprises – disappoints, even – with odd touches such as its deeply recessed spark plugs that require a special spanner for their removal.
With its uncompromisingly large, chrome-encrusted helm and nicely detailed fascia, little appears to have been skimped in the 1500L’s finish and materials compared with its upmarket, six-pot siblings that all used the same body.
Fiat was an early adopter of warning lights (there are 10 altogether, but only three instruments) and still enthralled to the dubious glamour of ribbon speedometers on these cars.
Peugeot, by the mid-1960s, had transitioned back to circular instruments in a tidier but slightly bleaker dashboard.
The 404’s only real internal eccentricities are the crude-looking handbrake by your right knee and the curious angle of the steering wheel, whose column is always slightly in the way of your left foot – or it would be in the manual version.
A single column stalk for all lighting functions is a modern touch.
Both are roomy five-seaters for prolific families, and each features a low waistline and good vision thanks to slim roof pillars, while the extremities are easy to judge.
The Fiat, with its crisp manual column gearchange, feels marginally the lustier of the two cars, and it is geared in such a way that it seems usefully flexible in third and top from low speeds – especially so considering the combination of a small engine in such a relatively large body.
It is, in other words, by no means the gutless wonder you might anticipate.
It has a high rev limit that is there to be exploited, although there is no tachometer, and does not sound overstressed.
The gentle feel of the Peugeot’s sweet, quiet engine is made more sedate in character by its smooth automatic gearbox, yet the 404 is not as slow as its relaxed demeanour suggests.
It, too, revs freely and enjoys a considerable weight advantage that allows it to canter along briskly, always very stable, on suspension that is the reverse of most others, in that the lack of road noise tends to make you believe the ride is smoother than it really is.
This is no Citroën DS, but the Peugeot’s generally supple ride easily trumps that of the rather choppy Fiat on anything but the very smoothest of roads.
With square lines and low gearing, neither car makes a particularly restful cruiser in terms of engine and wind noise, although the Peugeot feels the more sophisticated of the two.
The Italian is noisier, harder work to drive and less civilised, exacerbated by – or perhaps due to – a slightly ponderous feeling that speaks to its conservative engineering.
The 1500L’s design is of the 1950s, so heftier than it needs to be in an era when unitary construction was still a relatively young technique.
Modern motorists would never accept its heavy low-speed steering, whereas the Peugeot lightens up nicely and has a tight lock that befits its popularity as a taxi.
While always requiring more effort than you really want to exert, the Fiat’s steering also manages to be more vague than that of the 404.
It loads up with understeer quickly, although it also corners on a reasonably even keel – as long as no bumps and potholes are encountered to knock it off line.
The Peugeot is the more accomplished, rounded product from a company that specialised in mid-range saloons (it made pretty much nothing else until the 204 appeared in the mid-’60s) for conservative buyers who expected comfort and reliability above all else.
Fiat, in contrast, specialised in smaller cars, and it was in that realm that its engineering intellect and inventiveness was focused.
The 1500L is not a bad car, but it has the feeling of something that was built to a routine formula for a booming but uncritical market where certain buyers valued its rugged simplicity over the niceties of driver appeal and refinement.
As an antidote to the complexity of the Citroën DS in its home market, the Peugeot 404 showed that high levels of comfort and refinement could be achieved by quite conventional means, and it is somehow no surprise to learn that it sold to the tune of 2.8 million examples through to 1975.
Presumably today’s youngsters daub blobs-on-wheels when asked to commit an image of a car to paper; in the ’70s we all drew Peugeot 404s (even if we didn’t know it at the time) as the generic family vehicle.
My thoughts on this crystalised some years ago when somebody around my age and with no particular interest in the subject described my now long-departed 404 as “a car-shaped car”.
I think he summed up its appeal perfectly.
Images: Tony Baker
Thanks to: European Classic Cars
Fiat 1500L Berlina
- Sold/number built 1963-’68/200,000
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 1481cc ‘four’, single Weber carburettor
- Max power 83bhp @ 5400rpm
- Max torque 89lb ft @ 3200rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, lower trailing links, torsion bars rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering cam and roller
- Brakes discs
- Length 14ft 8¾in (4489mm)
- Width 5ft 3¾in (1619mm)
- Height 4ft 9¾in (1467mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 8¼in (2661mm)
- Weight 2536Ib (1150kg)
- Mpg 25
- 0-60mph 17 secs
- Top speed 90mph
- Price new £1000
- Price now £6-12,000*
- Sold/number built 1960-’75/2.8m
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 1618cc ‘four’, single Solex carburettor
- Max power 76bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 96lb ft @ 2500rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual or three-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by lower wishbones, telescopic damper struts, anti-roll bar rear live axle, torque tube, Panhard rod, telescopic dampers; coil springs f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes drums
- Length 14ft 6in (4420mm)
- Width 5ft 5¼in (1657mm)
- Height 4ft 9¼in (1454mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 8in (2642mm)
- Weight 2300Ib (1043kg)
- Mpg 27
- 0-60mph 19.9 secs
- Top speed 85mph
- Price new £1200
- Price now £9-15,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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