Auto-Biography 19: Beverly Hills 92404

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
auto biography 19 beverly hills 92404

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.

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  • Glenn 126 Glenn 126 on Jun 06, 2007

    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!"

  • Beemernator Beemernator on Jul 28, 2009

    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...

  • Inside Looking Out The next 4Runner will be BEV.
  • The Oracle This is a proper Italian red sauce turd.
  • Carson D This isn't a notice of a wait time for 4Runner fans. This is a deadline for the opportunity to buy one new before they're gone. Whatever comes next, there is no possible way that it will be as good at doing 4Runner things as what is available today.
  • Bkojote There's a lot "just right" with the current 4Runner, and having spent time in more contemporary equivalents for road trips, I completely understand why they sell a ton of these.Here's some topics that aren't super common among 4runner owners - excessive carbon buildup in the engine after 40,000 miles (Audi/VW), bent valves (Bronco) , failed oil coolers (Jeep), cracked engine blocks (Jeep), dead vehicles from OTA updates (Chevy Colorado), being stranded due to opening the door too many times (Defender), malfunctioning engine sensors (Defender, VW), dead batteries due to electrical system malfunctions (Jeep), unusable defoggers (Jeep), waiting for seat heaters to boot up (Subaru), randomly catching fire (Kia/Hyundai), crappy build quality (Ford, Tesla).The interior feels solid and rattle free, and everything feels substantial in the way a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Kia Telluride does not. 14 year run means accessories are plentiful and well sorted. The control inputs from the radio to heated seats to climate control work better than 99% of the cars you can buy new at this point and are dead simple and ergonomically satisfying. Even dynamically (I drove a model with the KDSS system to be fair) it is a surprisingly composed vehicle on mountain roads- it's far more civilized than a Bronco or Wrangler, and hell, it was far more pleasant than the past two peastant-grade Benz crapmobiles I've been in.So I get it- car journalist rags whine about how overly complicated and tech-heavy modern vehicles are while their substance is cost cut, but here's the literal definition of 'don't fix it if it aint broken.' . It's a trusty Ford Econoline in a world of craptastic Ram ProMasters.
  • Frank Sounds like they dont want to debut it at the same time as the new Land Cruiser, which is probably smart. The new 'runner is ready to go I am told, so there's a reason for this delay.