Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has but one redeeming quality, and that’s his taste in daily drivers… and now he’s selling it! Yeah, he’d probably prefer to load the thing up with drums full of a VX/BZ cocktail and crash it into a Tel Aviv nursery school… but, still, the story makes me want to rant about downscale “Man of the People” vehicle choices and the love/hate relationship I once had with my own 504.
Jerry Brown, having gone from Governor of California to Mayor of Oakland to California Attorney General and now back to Governor (where his first act once sworn in will no doubt involve the Suede Denim Secret Police— and, by the way, a friend who worked for Jerry at the Oakland City Hall tells me that the Guv hates the Dead Kennedys song to the point of “frothing at the mouth” over it), helped establish his image as an ascetic oddball by eschewing predecessor Governor Reagan’s limo and driving a ’74 Plymouth Satellite. In fact, he didn’t even go for the cop-grade Satellite with the 440, instead opting for the more proletarian 318. Did he savagely fenestrate Linda Ronstadt in the Plymouth’s base-trim-level vinyl back seat? Were her Malaise-Era-pop-star gasps muffled by a Wiffle Ball duct-taped over her mouth? Who can say?
All right, now “California Über Alles” is stuck in my head, so let’s crank it up as we continue:
What do Jerry Brown and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have in common? Yes, both are crazy and both chose “Man of the People” cars that turned out to be seriously cool. Was this just random? Did they know? Jerry could have selected, say, a ’74 Maverick sedan, and Ahmadinejad could have gone with a new-ish Iran Khodro Samand (the Iran Khodro Paykan, aka “Iranian Hillman Hunter,” is up there with the 504 in terms of coolness). We could muddy the waters further by bringing Ho Chi Minh’s Peugeot 404 into the discussion, but then we’d have to debate the relative merits of the 504 versus the 404… and we’ll get to that topic later on.
The only French car I’ve ever owned was, of course, a 1977 Peugeot 504. Perhaps it rolled off the assembly line just after Ahmadinejad’s. San Francisco, 1990: The California economy is in shambles— though the early-90s recession seems like good times compared to the current meltdown— and recent college graduates cannot find employment. But hold on now— some friends work at an anti-nuclear-weapons canvassing group, sending carloads of underpaid lefty activists to go knock on doors and beg for cash… and this organization takes tax-deductible donations of unwanted cars! Better still, their headquarters is an old school in a sketchy Mission District neighborhood, and the school’s former playground now serves as a parking lot for dead or nearly-dead donated cars. Dozens of them! Every day, several of the “crew cars” must be coaxed into life, at which point four or six or nine ever-optimistic canvassers climb aboard for their journey to the doorbells of San Mateo or El Cerrito (though often the journey is really to a journey to a patch of highway shoulder, where yet another ’73 Olds Delta 88 or ’81 Datsun 310 expires in a cloud of head-gasket steam). I am hired to use junkyard parts and/or duct tape to persuade a larger fraction of the No More Hiroshimas Motor Pool to run, and the first thing I do is claim the coolest of the bunch for my personal parts-running use: an Ahmadinejad-grade white ’77 Peugeot 504, complete with gas engine, sunroof, automatic, turn-signal stalk on the right side of the steering column, and factory 8-track player with a single tape in the glovebox. That tape, naturally, is a full-on Jerry Brown-grade album:
You see how these things work? In 1976, Jerry’s cruising his Satellite, Ahmadinejad is just picking up his 504 at the Tehran Peugeot dealership, and the owner of my future 504 is buying Ronstadt’s latest hit album. Sadly, by the time the 504 became my junkyard runner— from Soho down to Brighton (OK, fine, Richmond down to San Jose), I must have hit them all— the only mechanical device in the car that worked every day was the 8-track player and its single tape. The fuel filter kept clogging with old, bad gas. The transmission leaked a quart per 50 miles driven. The charging system seldom, if ever, kept up with the car’s demand for fresh electrons. Few, if any, dash controls or instruments functioned. 20 years ago, you could still find a fair number of 504s in California junkyards, which meant I put more work into picking over Pugs than into yanking parts to keep The Country Squire of Peace or the Omni of Test Bans going. However, the interior was in great shape and the car was about the smoothest, most comfortable motor vehicle I’d ever driven. Most important, I felt seriously cool driving it; this self-image was not reinforced by anyone I knew (the 504 in the early 1990s not being regarded as an interesting car by anyone outside of the dozen or so American cognoscenti who knew it as the “Dodge Dart of Africa”). Finally, the transmission crapped out for good, the always-threadbare purse of Neutrons-’Я’-Not-Us, Inc. didn’t have sufficient dimes to hand Pick-N-Pull the 50 pocket-lint-coated bucks for a replacement, and the only French car I’ve ever owned clanked back into its parking space among the other dead crew cars. Since that time, though, I’ve meant to get myself another 504, preferably a gasoline version with 5-speed. Someday!