Classic Cars: Peugeot 403

The 403, launched half a century ago, established Peugeot as a global brand. By Andrew Roberts

The time: a weekday afternoon. The television channel: Five. The scene: a murder somewhere in the Universal Studio backlot. Suddenly, amid the black and white Dodge Polara police cruisers materialises a battered convertible driven by someone who appears to have covered themselves in glue prior to dashing through the nearest charity shop. It is Det Lt Columbo en route to arrest Stewart Granger with a dyed-orange face, or an equally villainous elderly film star of similar note.

It is a television moment that never fails to cause mass wincing in Peugeot owners everywhere, for the lieutenant's car is none other than one of only 504 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolets. In its heyday, the Cabriolet was Peugeot's range-topper, with its leather trim, fog lamps, and cigarette lighter. In the US, the 403 saloon was proudly marketed as having "no fins, no excessive trim, no strange shapes" and as being one of the "seven best-built cars in the world". For once, the copy was more than mere hyperbole.

Peugeot embarked on the 403 project in 1950 with a design rationale to produce a car that would supplant, and eventually replace, their popular 1948 1.3-litre 203 saloon and appeal to the re-emerging French middle-class sector. Peugeot believed small cars meant small profits, and that the swingeing taxation on large-engine cars would result in limited sales. What the traditional Peugeot customer apparently needed was a sizeable six-seater saloon powered by a relatively small 1.5-litre engine, a vehicle that would be robust enough for the roads of Francophone Africa and smart enough for Parisian arrondissements.

However the original in-house designs of Henri Thomas were deemed too similar to the Franco-American lines of the likes of the Ford Vedette and other voitures des nouveaux riches and so, in 1951, Battista Farina of Turin was commissioned to style project 403. The result was a solid but elegantly understated saloon that would hopefully inject a note of Gallic (or at least Gallic-Italian) dignity on to roads that were already becoming populated with Antwerp-assembled Plymouths – the car of choice of many a French B-film gangster.

The new 403 was not exactly designed for speed – its 1.5-litre engine gave a mere 65bhp at 5,000rpm – but its combination of a solid rear axle and simple suspension meant for a robust constitution. As befitting a car for the respectable bourgeoisie, the 403 was pleasantly equipped as standard with a sliding roof, folding armrests and separate reclining front seats. A column-mounted gear-lever made the 403 a genuine six-seater; albeit with the sixth occupant being obliged to perch somewhat precariously between the driver and front passenger.

When it was launched, on 20 April 1955, its success was such that by the end of that year its second-hand value was higher than its selling price. Part of the 403's appeal in France was due to the fact that it occupied its own niche in the market; the Simca Aronde was much smaller, the Simca Vedette and Renault Frégate were far larger and more expensive – as was the other new French car of 1955, the Citroë* DS, while the 1.9-litre Traction Avant Onze Légère was coming to the end of its long run.

The 403 was to eschew the tail-fins of Simca and the avant-garde approach of Citroë* in favour of low-key sobriety that made it an iconic police car of its era, its 80mph top speed being more than compensated for by the fact that the 403 could apparently take any amount of abuse and, with drum brakes fitted to all wheels, you probably wouldn't wish to travel any faster.

Sweden and West Germany provided the 403 with its chief rivals – the Volvo 122 Amazon and the Mercedes-Benz 180 Ponton. All three were slightly underpowered four-cylinder saloons, all bore a hallmark of quality and all were available with a dashing white steering wheel. And unlike contemporary British offerings such as the Morris Oxford and the Humber Hawk, these continental upstarts placed an emphasis on practicality as opposed to leather, walnut, and carpets.

Right-hand-drive 403s are unusual as the UK's high-import duties in the 1950s and 1960s made the Peugeot more expensive than a Cresta or Zodiac but many Commonwealth countries responded to the 403's durability and comfort.

Peugeot's approach to the 403's development was exemplified by continual improvements rather than annual facelifts, with the eight-seater Familiale Estate in 1957 and a diesel engine in 1959 increasing the 403's appeal to African and South American buyers. In 1960, the millionth 403 left the production line and Peugeot introduced the stripped-spec 7CV saloon for the taxi market but, by this point, the 403 had been supplanted by the 404. Here was a new Peugeot that went so far as to feature vestigial tail-fins. But 403 production continued until 1966, by which time it was nicknamed l'increvable – the indestructible.

In the UK, the general public only seems to recognise it from re-runs of The Day of The Jackal, plus a certain US TV series concerning America's most unlikely detective, but in its homeland the 403 remains an automotive icon – the car that established the Peugeot marque as a global brand.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?