Latest model from one of France’s oldest manufacturers possesses excellent brakes and roadholding qualities. High performance from 1-1/2-litre engine. Unusual features contribute to 403’s individuality.
Three years ago we borrowed a Peugeot 203 for test from Lockhart’s Service Depot at Dunstable. This Peugeot lingers in the memory as having very safe handling qualities and outstandingly powerful brakes, and possessing good performance allied to economical consumption of fuel. Recently we journeyed again to Dunstable to try the later Peugeot 403, a very good family saloon, but not as outstanding in its class as the smaller-engined 203. The charm of the Peugeot 403 to the enthusiast centres around its individuality, safe handling qualities which render it very pleasant to drive, and its outstanding performance for a very roomy car with but a wet-liner, 58-b.b.p. four-cylinder engine.
Under the bonnet there is individuality in this power unit, the polished domed valve cover of which conceals inclined o.h. valves in hemispherical combustion chambers, actuated by short and long rockers and push-rods. At the rear of the 403 there is the classic Peugeot worm-drive back axle, while throughout this car practical as well as individual items prevail. Front suspension is by wishbones and transverse leaf-spring but at the back, although a rigid axle is employed, it is sprung on coil-springs and located by a stabiliser bar. Steering is rack and pinion.
Outwardly this Peugeot is a conventional, handsome and spacious 5/6-seater saloon, well finished and of rather high build. The use of stainless steel for the bumpers and neat wheel knave plates secured by a single central screw instead of being sprung tinnily onto the wheels will be noted by the discerning, and the clean exterior lines are enhanced by the absence of a visible petrol filler, this being concealed beneath a spring-loaded flap which forms the near-side rear reflector and, closed, seals the filler orifice. Roof-rack sockets are provided as standard and it is pleasing to see the Peugeot lion mascot, with those sharp teeth in its open mouth, retained on the 403.
Inside the car there is a wide back seat and two large separately adjustable front seats, the backs of which can be let down to form a bed, an arrangement popular in France. Side-levers control sliding adjustment, the seats being set well inboard of the doors. Upholstery is in leather and each door has a small armrest, while there is a folding centre armrest for the back-seat occupants. All four doors trail—they shut rather “tinnily” and on the test car the passenger’s front door proved obstinate. The front windows require three turns, the back ones, which do not quite wind down completely, 2-1/2 turns of their handles to raise and lower them. There is a central roof lamp, actuated by opening the front doors, but not by the rear doors, its switch convenient to the front-seat occupants. The rear doors are locked by their interior handles, only the front doors possessing sill-locks, the door through which exit is made then being lockable externally by key. The front passenger’s door is fitted with a doth “pull.” There is a drawer-type ashtray in the facia and another for the rear-compartment passengers in the end of the rear seat armrest, usable only when the rest is down.
Behind the well-placed two-spoke steering wheel the driver is confronted by a metal facia and finds visibility good, both front wings being in full view and the side pillars untroublesome. Examining the Peugeot’s interior in detail one finds some excellent items which emphasise the car’s individuality and other items not so welcome. For example, the cubbyhole is so shallow as to be virtually useless and is covered by an unpleasant, spring-loaded, unlockable vertical lid. Under the facia on the left there are four fuses in commendably accessible covers and a little tumbler switch for selecting off- or near-side parking lamps, a thoughtful piece of design being that the direction-flashers work from these parking lamps as well as from their own lamps as additional warning of a change of direction.
The minor controls of the Peugeot 403 are very conveniently arranged. On the right of the steering-column a lamps-lever operates in a “box,” from which lamps off, sidelamps, dipped headlamps and headlamps full beam can be selected at a flick of finger and thumb. On the left of the column, above the gear-lever, is a small plastic stalk which actuates the direction-flashers, these self-cancelling notably promptly after a corner has been negotiated, instead of flashing an unnecessary and irritating warning for hundreds of yards thereafter. A row of “solidified milk” buttons left and right of the steering column, on the facia, look after, respectively, choke, starter, screen-washers, air-seal for the heater intake (for excluding egress of diesel and other obnoxious fumes in traffic) and screenwipers. Starter and washer buttons push in. The others are labelled S, AC and EU, respectively, which can but bewilder British owners! There is rheostat control of effective instrument lighting by means of a very small “fumbly” knob under the facia for operation by the right hand, and apparently the French do not trust the reliability of their wiper motors, as an emergency hand control, as on Citroën and Simca, is provided.
The centre of the facia is occupied by the heater panel, the controls comprising two neat, plated quadrant levers, with the fan-switch incorporated in the right-hand one. The heater fan is commendably quiet. There is a fresh-air vent located inside the front grille and delivering through a vent pipe in the cockpit. Heater and demister are thoroughly efficient.
The front doors have ventilator windows which have thief-proof locks, as on the VW, but unfortunately lack the rain-gutters of those on the German car, so that ventilation in rain results in water dripping into the Peugeot’s interior.
Instrumentation comprises small square-dial indicators for water temperature (rather amusingly calibrated 104, 140, 176 and 212 deg. F.), fuel contents, ammeter reading and clock. Centrally between these is the mileage total recorder, the trip (with decimal) recorder being located above, within the big arc of the Jaeger speedometer, which has a commendably steady needle, but which is calibrated with thick lines every ten m.p.h. from to 95 m.p.h. and with thin lines every 5 m.p.h., which can be confusing. The fuel gauge is decently accurate, but marked merely 1, 2, 3, 4, with hatching at the “empty ” end of the dial; water temperature is normally approximately 170 deg. F. Rather unnecessarily large knobs protrude under the facia for zero-ing trip mileage reading and clock. There is a very adequate centre rear-view mirror and twin, swivelling anti-dazzle vizors, the passenger’s carrying a vanity mirror. To make up for the inadequate cubbyhole the 403 has elastic-topped pockets in the front doors and a wide shelf behind the back seat. The facia is generously crash-padded and has an upholstered sill above it and the windscreen.
In driving the Peugeot the well-splayed-out pendant pedals and light clutch action are immediately appreciated. The steering column gear-lever, on the left of the column, is rigid and operates easily but is no better than others of its kind, inadvertent selection of the wrong gear being all too easy, accentuated in the Peugeot because the gear locations are as for a three-speed box with reverse forward of bottom gear, top gear, which Peugeot term overdrive, being forward, above second-gear position. The change down from this high top to normal top or third gear and back again is easy, but to go quickly from high top to second gear is awkward, while bottom gear is sometimes engaged when third is selected from high top.
To the disappointment of this steering-column gear-shift is added that of finding the gear ratios spaced in the usual dreary manner of mediocre family cars. Second gear (9.74 to 1) is too low to be useful and the gap between this and third gear (5.75 to 1) is depressing, while top gear (4.36 to 1)—the so-called overdrive top—can be engaged satisfactorily from around 30 m.p.h and could with advantage be higher.
Due to these gear ratios acceleration is not outstanding, the Peugeot needing 23 sec. for the standing-start 1/4-mile and taking even longer to reach 60 m.p.h. from rest. Once in its stride, however, the car gets along splendidly, if rather noisily, the over-square engine making its presence heard in the lower gears and top gear emitting some whine. These unhappily spaced ratios are somewhat offset by the flexibility of the car, third gear sufficing down to a crawl, while top gear can be engaged at 30, or even 20 m.p.h., although this is troublesome to one’s conscience, as the makers do not like this ratio to be used below 40 m.p.h. They also say first gear must on no account be engaged if the car is doing over 15 m.p.h.
The indicated maxima are 28, 51 and 80 m.p.h. in first, second and third gears, while in top gear the speedometer needle goes off the dial, the genuine level-road maximum being about 84 m.p.h. A cruising speed of 70-80 m.p.h. is habitual
Reverting for a moment to the detail arrangements, there is ignition key, a rather badly-placed knob by the steering-column switching on the h.t. current; as the warning light is incorporated in the water thermometer dial forgetful owners will probably run the battery down. This indicator also shows low oil pressure. There is a separate indicator window for the direction-flashers.
As the driver becomes accustomed to the 403 he finds its suspension softer than that of the 203. This absorbs road shock satisfactorily, at the expense of an irritating up-and-down motion to the car’s occupants, accentuated because the phasing of the seat springs is out of harmony with the suspension. But, if the ride is bad in this respect, the steering and cornering power are very good. There is not a trace of lost motion at the wheel, which is free from kick-back and vibration and extremely accurate. This is light steering, geared 3-3/4 turns lock-to-lock, which is not so low-geared as it sounds, for the lock is phenomenal, providing the useful turning circle of 31 ft. The car corners very safely, even on wet roads, for which the fitting of Michelin “X” tyres all round is probably largely responsible. The cornering is nicely balanced, with virtually neutral steering action, but just a trace of understeer. There is a good deal of roll and the seats do not provide much support under fast cornering conditions, comfortable as they unquestionably are. The tyres protest hardly at all when the car is near its limit of cornering adhesion. For light pedal pressure the brakes are extremely powerful and quite vice-free. They stop the car in a straight line in the wet. The hand-brake is set too far under the scuttle on the right and its metal lever and ratchet release are hard on tender hands, but it holds securely.
The engine has the comparatively sober compression-ratio of 7.0 to 1 and accepts Esso Mixture without a trace of “pinking.” Nor does it run-on after fast driving, and it consumed no oil or water during the long week-end when the writer tested the car. Fuel consumption was said to be very good, at least 30 m.p.g., but our test didn’t substantiate this. A tankful of petrol took us 253 miles, which, on the claimed capacity of 10-1/2 gallons, is 24 m.p.g. Subsequent tests on measured quantities of petrol gave an average of 24.4 m.p.g. under normal usage. Finally, after our customary high-speed run consumption remained at 24 m.p.g., creditable under the circumstances but making us dubious about claims of 30 to 40 m.p.g. from the 403. The body of the Peugeot is free from rattles save for a metallic noise from the region of the facia and wind noise is low. The Marchal headlamps can be adjusted easily after the chrome rims have been slipped off; they give a fair driving light but are very poor when dimmed, so that spotlamps would seem essential.
In the high-speed drive round our 115-mile Hampshire circuit in the early a.m. the Peugeot’s excellent cornering and braking powers were fully apparent. Under bad conditions, with mainly wet roads and mist which slowed the car in places, the overall average speed worked out at 60.2 m.p.h. over these varied, give-and-take roads. In the hands of the same driver who has conducted this severe test with the last four cars to be fully road-tested by Motor Sport, the Peugeot covered the final winding section of the route at the excellent average speed of 74.3 m.p.h., bettering the speed on dry roads of a two-carburetter British sporting saloon by 2.9 m.p.h. Such a performance would only be possible with a car of high braking and roadholding ability. During this part of the test steering and cornering were confirmed as very good, the car breaking away under extreme conditions with all four wheels at first, the back then sliding rather viciously, calling for quick and violent correction with the steering. The good visibility and superb steering lock materially assist fast driving but the soft ride spoils rapid negotiation of long bumpy bends.
It remains only to add that the Peugeot has a large luggage boot, the lid of which can be locked and has over-centre hinges, luggage being carried on the floor above the spare wheel and tools, and that the bonnet has to be propped open. The Tudor battery, Ducellier coil, and big Tecalemit air-cleaner for the single Solex carburetter are accessible, but the dip-stick arrangement is poor. Very sensible is the glass container which shows brake-fluid level at a glance, as on the 203.
Towards the end of the test some trim under the facia had become detached and the clutch tended to judder, but otherwise no shortcomings developed. Incidentally, the only extras on the car were Kumficar seat covers and floor mats.
Summing up, if the Peugeot 403 is unsatisfactory in respect of ride, gear-change and gear ratios, it has roadholding, steering and braking which render it safe as well as fast, and excellent performance for a spacious 1-1/2-litre car with single carburetter and low compression-ratio. It is a car of individual character, typically French.
In this country this Peugeot is available for £796 2s. 11d., or £1,195 11s. 5d. inclusive of import duty and purchase tax. Other versions are a folding-head cabriolet, eight-seater family saloon and station wagon. Lockhart’s Service Station, Chiltern Road, Dunstable, can offer quite prompt delivery.—W. B.