By on November 27, 2010

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!

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23 Comments on “Ahmadinejad’s Peugeot 504 Not As Cool As Jerry Brown’s Plymouth Satellite, But Still Cool...”

  • avatar

    As a recent migrant to northern California (northern central valley, no less), I voted for Brown largely because he is not especially evil, given the alternatives.
    However, I’m glad the Dead Kennedys grind his gears, but I can’t really blame him on this count. I read somewhere recently that Jello Biafra realized in retrospect that Brown wasn’t so bad.
    That said, I’m pretty sure you’re required to be crazy to run for elected office in this state.
    …and I had my first experience on 880 in Oakland on Thursday, and the first thing that came to mind was how much nicer it would be to be riding in a DS than my friend’s xB (my xB would have been worse yet, being lowered and having fender-rubbing issues).

    • 0 avatar

      I would straight trade Brown for Ahmadinejad as our governor in an instant. I’d take a Plymouth over a Peugeot though. We definitely need better a better electorate here.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    MM, I owned at least half a dozen 404s and one 403, and am mighty familiar with the 504, so if you want to debate their respective qualities some time…

  • avatar

    Back in 1990, my old boss had a ’78 504 diesel that I used for company business around town.  Acceleration was glacial, but it had the absitively, posolutely  smoooothest ride of any car I have ever driven.  When it finally died, I took out the cushy leather seats, and installed them in my buddies FJ40 Land Cruiser.  Heck, they even made the ride in that L.C. more comfy!

  • avatar

    My favorite car ever was my ’79 504D sedan. I bought it in Palms Springs in ’98 and had it shipped home to Maine. Lovely sea grean on brown, absolutely no rust and ran like a Swiss Watch. Sadly, I had a job issue in ’03 and had to sell of my little fleet. Sold the 504D to friends in the Peugeot club who have a VERY nice collection of vintage Peugeots. So it lives a life of happy retirement in Indiana.

    RWD Peugeots are still my favorite cars of all – I had five 505s over the years, the 504D sedan and also a 504D Automatique Wagon with only 40K miles on it – that car was nice too, but the stickshift sedan was a lot more fun.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Did he savagely fenestrate Linda Ronstadt in the Plymouth’s base-trim-level vinyl back seat?

    So he installed windows in her?  Kinky…

    BTW those are some prime 70s “fun-bags” in the album cover. 

  • avatar

    My parents got the 404 when we arrived in Paris for the year. I was 12. It was the first car I drove legally, on my 16th birthday, 35 miles of bliss from the RMV in Hyannis to our summer house in Wellfleet. In the latter ’00s I had a couple of dreams where that car reappeared. The suspension took pothole pocked Massachusetts roads with aplomb. I’d love to have one. With four on the tree, not a slushbox.

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    Mmmmm. Fresh electrons…

  • avatar

    Nightmare car. The worst I’ve ever owned. Constant torture. Bought a ’78 gas automatic in ’80 to satisfy my now-ex, who demanded a perfectly smooth and controlled ride to coddle her back. It did have that. It also had:
    1) Wet sleeves. With cardboard gaskets. Which failed, treating me to the shimmering beauty of water in the oil. Total rebuild at 50K. Standing between water and oil, just cardboard.
    2) An electric fan clutch, with exposed commutator directly below the water pump. Damned thing failed constantly, indicated by rapid overheating.
    3) Valves that needed regrinding at 40K, halfway across Canada in Thunder Bay.
    4) Incredibly expensive ZF automatic which failed at 60K.
    Brakes, power steering, it all failed.
    The day I traded it for a new ’87 Sable was a very happy day.

  • avatar

    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…
    Come On, Dude.  Seriously???  And I heard Dick Cheney has a dungeon where he castrates kittens. With his teeth.

    (and you _totally_ lost me on the fenestrating.  Are you saying Linda Ronstadt got Windows?)

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I have owned three Peugeots… a 405 STI, a 405S and a 505 Turbo.
    If somehow Honda had come along and put a durable engine in these things, the cars would have been heaven.
    Actually if Honda had somehow co-opted the entire design and replace every powertrain and electric item with a more reliable replacement, the cars would be heaven.
    Then there was the weight issue. Boy these cars were heavy for their horsepower. If Honda had…
    You get the idea.
    The only reason why I kept the 405’s for a while is that there was the junkyard nearby with three of them in strikingly new condition. The owner later told me that I was the ONLY customer who pulled parts off of those vehicles. He offered all three to me for $1000. But I already knew that these Pugs would be a temporary interest. The ZF trannies alone were the biggest POS’s of the early 90’s. Even the Chrysler 4-speed minivan units of the time (A604’s?) were workhorses compared with the flimsy Pugs.

    • 0 avatar

      Previous to the 504 I wrote about above was an older 504 with more bondo than steel (Ithaca, NY, road salt capital of the world) that turned into a flexible flyer after just a few months. Before the Peugeots my drive was a ’77 Honda Civic CVCC that I bought new. Red, with air horns added for Boston traffic. I still miss that car. Going directly from Honda to Peugeot doubled the sting. Why did I do such a stupid thing? Like I said, now-ex.

  • avatar

    When i was interning for the Cal Auto Museum in Sac (Formerly the Towe Auto Musuem) I got to sit in, but not drive jerry Brown’s Plymouth. So blue, inside and out, and wonderful. To drive though? The report from the museum’s driver was a that it just felt like the brakes were on all the time, the car never wanted to start and it was a real boat. Still, a crowd favorite and everybody at the museum and all the visitors seemed to love the thing.

  • avatar

    We had a 73 504 GL – no fuel injection in that gold metallic with a metal manual sunroof. It was smooth & quiet and we had no problems. Next Volvo 164E avec fuel injection which had starting problems…

    The 404 was Farina-styled and twin to the BMC Austin Cambridge and Morris Oxford.

    Brown? I thought that was the CA Govenor who persuaded Milhous to quit. But then “I’m not a quitter,” went on to quit later on.

  • avatar

    I used to have a thing for French cars, and I had a number of Peogeots. The only one worth anything was the 74 504 that started out as a diesel. I swapped in a Ford 2.8 V6, and that made quite an improvement. But there was so much room under th ehood that I slapped myself on the head and said, “wow, I could’ve had a V8”.So I puled out the 2.8 V6 and put in a Ford 302. Now that car really rocked. Blew off every BMW Bavaria and most Mustangs in town. Of cource, the leather upholstery still cracked, the plastic trim warped and split, and so on.I finally got a Chevrolet. Sounded French, and that was close enough.Bob

  • avatar

    As near as I can tell, my white 74 Peugeot 504 is a dead ringer for that of the Iranian despot.  If you see this car in the Bay Area, it’s me, please dont shoot.

  • avatar

    In the summer of 1975 I traveled through west africa for three months and realized that all the vehicles were Peugeot 404/505’s, Land Rovers or Toyota Landcruisers, pretty much in that order. So when I came back I purchased a very slightly used 1972 gas/auto Peugeot 504 (for about $1500 with about that many miles I believe) in Sacramento, CA, to take back to the University of Oregon where I was scheduled to start architecture school.

    Before my trip I had sold my 1963 Jaguar XKE, so I am in that select brethren who went from an XKE to a Peugeot, intentionally.

    It was the smoothest car I have ever owned, and the most quiet. It didn’t have a tach, so you would often put it in neutral to gun the engine to check if it was running.

    For winter 1976 I drove to NYC and back. It only used a couple quarts of oil and the trip would have been faultless but the alternator went out on the return leg in central Iowa. On New Year’s Eve.

    This seemed to be a disaster involving an extended stay in the corn fields, but we paged through the local phone book  and actually found a dealer in Cedar Rapids. They were closed of course for the holidays, but the dealer had named the dealership after himself and there he was in the white pages. Being a feckless college youth I had no problem calling his home on New Year’s Eve evening. Being a dealer in french cars in Iowa in the ’70’s, he was kind (naive) enough to meet us at his dealership where he proceeded to remove the alternator from a brand new car on his lot and put it in my Peugeot. at night, in the snow, in his formal party clothes. Then he took a personal check from an Oregon college student…..

  • avatar

    That reminds me of the old joke…
    Q: Why does Linda Ronstadt sing so slow?
    A: She’s got a governer on her.

  • avatar

    My first car was a Peugeot 504L Automatic.

    The 504L was a cheaper version with a 1800cc carburetor engine and a live rear axle, where as the more expensive version had independent suspension. Makes you wonder how Peugeot could and cared building 2 different kind of suspension in basically the same car.

    Anyway, it was roomy, comfortable and reliable.

    The 1800cc was good for about 80HP and the 3-speed Automatic would loose most of it before getting to the diff. Still it could sort of slide, but then that was more due to the tyres, which were so old and hard as wood.

    Anyway I drove it until a lorry completely flattened the trunk.

    I loved that car – but of course I’ve loved every car I owned.

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