By on June 2, 2007

Mercedes SL’s were as thick on the ground as mascara on an over-the-hill movie star. The teenaged scions of the local glitterati drove brand new BMW 320i’s and VW Cabrios. A red Ferrari 308 GTB was de-rigueur for the up and coming producer. If you simply HAD to have attention or score the prime valet-parking spot, a Rolls Royce Corniche convertible was the winning ticket. And what was I driving down Rodeo Drive? A beat-up 1968 Dodge camper-van. I looked like Jethro in “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Except that I actually was poor.

In 1977, I transferred to my employer’s West LA TV studio. Searching for cheap digs, I stumbled into a sweet deal south of Beverly Hills: a little garage apartment and my landlady’s daughter. We fell in love over Thanksgiving, and married in the first week of January.

We celebrated our budget honeymoon in the van, somewhere in the middle of the desert. There wasn’t another living soul within miles. That suited us just fine– until we got stuck in the sand. We laughed about it then; we laugh about it now.

In one of the earliest manifestations of post-nuptial domestication, I set out to find a more comfortable, citified ride.

When I discovered a ’68 Peugeot 404 for sale, Stephanie and I fell for its Gallic charms. The French four-door had big cushy seats, a sunroof and a pillow-soft ride. Its little four-cylinder mill was smooth as silk, and the four-on-the-tree gearshift was surprisingly slick.

Peugeots (back then) were tough as nails, fully deserving the appellation “the French Mercedes.” They were also Africa’s brand of choice; 404’s still came equipped with an emergency hand crank (which explained the little hole in the front bumper). I never failed to attract bemused attention when I demonstrated this handy device.

Although the 404 wasn’t quick by today’s standards, it cruised comfortably between 75 and 85mph– fast enough to attract the California Highway Patrol, zealous guardians of America’s reviled double-nickel national speed limit.

Late one night, my wife and I were cruising down I-5 somewhere in the middle of nowhere between LA and SF. A cop snuck up on us. Using his bullhorn, the Poncherello clone’s ethereal (though not angelic voice) ordered me to follow him. Then he greedily roared forward to nab a second speeder a ways ahead.

Just then, an unlit farm-road exit appeared. I killed the Peugeot’s headlights, exited, drove over the bridge and headed back the other way. I saw the cop from the bridge, about a quarter of a mile ahead, ticketing his other victim.

I backtracked about twenty miles before I screwed up enough courage to turn around. Thankfully, California’s finest had called it a night.

We now entered the reproductive era of our life. First, the 404’s multiplied; next thing I knew, I had half a dozen, some running, some not. This was problematic, living in an apartment near the beach in parking-deprived Santa Monica. It got old pushing dead ones around on street-cleaning days.

But I got them all running again, and began a side business selling or renting 404’s to co-workers who needed a cheap ride.

Then Stephanie got in the act. I found her a pristine 404 wagon for $75. All it needed was an engine, which I happened to have handy. I swapped it out in the street. Our apartment manager really loved me.

During my eternal quest for parts, I got an up-close and personal look at the dangers of becoming an old car magnate. A friend hooked me up with a crotchety old guy who had over fifty old Pugs. He was on a mission to save every possible Peugeot from the crusher.

His living room was jammed floor-to-ceiling with shelves of meticulously cataloged parts. Strangely, he wasn’t eager to sell anything; I had to convince him that I was a worthy Peugeot aficionado. Leaving his moldering collection, I felt sorry for his long-suffering wife.

I started liquidating my fleet shortly thereafter, and have avoided that trap ever since. Life is too short.

After our first two kids were born, my automotive priorities changed. The Peugeot 404 wagon became the family truckster, loaded to the gunnels for trips into the Sierras. With just 70hp underhood and an automatic gearbox, ascending the mountains required near-infinite patience, kinda like parenting.

Mercifully, the funky seventies finally came to an end. My peers and I were ready for something new. I cut my shaggy locks short (styled at Vidal Sassoon), voted for Ronald Reagan, stopped driving quirky old French cars, and grubbed for my family’s share of the pie. The me-generation had their eighties-version make-over.

In just a few years, I would be driving a shiny new Benz down Rodeo Drive on my daily commute. Miss Hathaway had worked her charms: Jethro was going native.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

16 Comments on “Auto-Biography 19: Beverly Hills 92404...”


  • avatar
    tsofting

    Great, as always, Paul! Reminds me of my own adolesensce when I had my first “real” summer job with a radio- and TV-dealer. He had a Peugeot 404 Wagon that was great for hauling TV-sets, dishwashers, etc. with all the seats folded flat. One of the quirks of the wagon compared to the sedan was that it had a limo-like wheelbase. If memory serves me right there was barely a cut-out for the wheel-well in the rear side door, just like on the ‘burban I acquired later in life!

  • avatar
    frontline

    You are a trip man!

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    tsofting,

    Yes, the 404 wagon was completely different from the B-pillar back. Long wheelbase (there was a three-row version available, France’s Suburban), and the rear suspension and axle were uinique: had two coils on each side. Peugeot made a pick-up truck version, mainly used in Africa. In fact, 404’s were still made in Africa well into the eighties, if not later.

  • avatar

    Excellent writing Paul.

    BTW, your GM series was very interesting and also beautifully written. Do you have an exceptional memory or did you do a lot of research?

    cheers

    Malcolm

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Malcolm,

    Thanks. Some of both.

    The research was mostly to confirm what I’ve been soaking up for fifty years.

    Paul

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    Thank you, Paul. It’s refreshing to read something interesting and well-written with respect to grammar, punctuation, and word choice.

  • avatar
    whitenose

    I cut my shaggy locks short (styled at Vidal Sassoon), voted for Ronald Reagan, stopped driving quirky old French cars, and grubbed for my family’s share of the pie. The me-generation had their eighties-version make-over.

    So you realize this is all your fault, right? Along with my parents. You guys are the ones who really screwed the planet.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    whitenose,

    I do. I take full responsibility. And I’m ashamed. I even take responsibility for starting the whole SUV fad (Chapter 22).

    Your turn. Good luck; you’re going to need it.

    Paul

  • avatar
    CasterOil

    Paul, an excellent auto-biography.

    The best part about the 404 was the cylinder liners – pop them out, turn 90 degrees, and hey presto! Instant rebuild!

    That and the excellent ride on coil springs.

    Rust in Peace.

  • avatar

    More bigtime nostalgia. I took my first legal drive in a ’65 404 wagon with 4 on the tree. Hyannis to Wellfleet (cape cod)–probably a bout 35 miles. That car handled beautifully, took bumps with the utmost aplomb, and had good steering feel, and no assist. I can still hear the car’s distinctive whine in my head, but I don’t think I’ve heard it in real life in almost 30 years.

    I took it out once on the local interstate, floored it for several minutes, and it topped out at 85, so it’s hard to imagine cruising all day at that speed.

    I think the 404 was one of the prettiest cars ever made. I would love to have one again.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    David” “its hard to imagine cruising all day at that speed (85)”

    The wagon was geared lower (higher numerical) for big loads. I didn’t do 85 (for long) in the wagon either. Also, in 1967, there was a horespower bump. The sedan was quite happy between 75 and 85. The euro-only injection model would do 100 easily.

    Paul

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Paul — we’re lucky to have you. Great piece… again!

  • avatar

    Paul,

    Intresting. Well then, find me a ’67 or later.

    I really am not much interested in owning a classic. I take photos instead. Cheaper, more creative. But a 404 would tempt the hell out of me. (Note to self: don’t even think about looking on eBay.)

  • avatar
    elinor macleod

    paul, It’s time for an old friend to weigh in. Your IC and SD memories are a trip down memory lane for me. Thanks for your great sense of humor and original writing. elinor

  • avatar
    Glenn 126

    Actually, the Peugeot 504 (which was the car loosely based upon the 404, introduced in 1968) was produced in Nigeria until about 6 months ago. I’ve been on the Nigerian web site for Peugeot, and printed out the specs and everything for the 505 sedan AND station wagon, and yep – the car was pretty much the same as when discontinued by the parent company decades ago.

    I also always loved the look of the 404, pity I’ve never been able to get one.

    As for eBay – “run away! run away!”

  • avatar
    BMWnut

    I have a few 404 memories of my own. A friend of my father, who was a farmer, had a 404 pickup truck. It was therefore the one with a diesel engine, so that he could run it on subsidized fuel. Besides being an eccentric he was quite tight with money. He would retread the same tyre more than once, for instance.

    At one stage his trusty 404 developed a problem with its diesel pump. He was able to fix it, but the repair did not last. That was not a problem. He would simply drive around with a pack of epoxy glue. When his trusty Peugeot spluttered to a halt at the roadside, he would glue the diesel pump back together. When the glue set, he then had to bleed the air out the system before he could set off again. Since this only happened about once every ten days, he drove around like this for years.

    His long suffering wife finally convinced him to buy a car for the family. Off course there was only one choice. A 404 saloon, also diesel powered. Farmer’s diesel was quite cheap, you see. In later years the saloon was also used for farm duties, such as transporting live sheep in the boot (trunk for the Yanks). The lid was left open of course…


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Contributing Writers

  • Jack Baruth, United States
  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Vojta Dobes, Czech Republic
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Cameron Aubernon, United States
  • J Emerson, United States