Your pragmatic depression-era grandfather may have once regaled you with the age-old adage that “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” None have taken those words to heart as literally and enthusiastically as the people who run that most revered of American gearhead institutions: the humble junkyard. Regardless of whether you know it as the pick ‘n pull, the boneyard, or the scrap yard, it has been a rite of passage for all enthusiasts to hunt the rows of these establishments looking for that one elusive part to keep their automotive heap on the road. Sadly, these treasure troves of automotive parts and history have been steadily disappearing over the years, thanks to stricter environmental protection laws and other EPA rulings, which make junkyards appear to Uncle Sam as nothing more than budding superfund sites.
With acres of cars on hand, one may assume that there’s a little bit of everything ripe for the picking. Ah, but that assumption would be blissful ignorance, young grasshopper. It is often the same old 90s Camrys and LeSabres that find their way through the pearly chain-linked gates of this automotive purgatory. However, there is the occasional new arrival that will make your heart aflutter and your eyes widen. One car that managed to incite such a reaction was this 1989 Peugeot 505 wagon, a rare specimen when new and completely forgotten today.
Before you ask – Yes, Virginia, they did sell Peugeots here. Americans had the option of purchasing new Peugeots until 1992, when years of low sales coupled with a bad reputation finally had the French-based corporate pull the plug on Pug. But before the Frenchmen headed back to Paris for fresh croissants and cigarettes, they brought over to our shores some unique and eccentric alternatives to the mainstream imports such as BMW, Mercedes, and Volvo. Like a star before death, the final RWD Pugs radiated brightest with the lessons and experience learned from 40 years of wagon making heritage.
That heritage harks back to the 50s, when the first Peugeot wagon made a splash with its then-new pushrod four cylinder, three row seating and high payload capacity. Peugeot was able to achieve the latter thanks to a heavy duty rear suspension that evolved into a four coil design with long travel shocks, which was (and is) a highly unordinary design. This setup succeeded in achieving high payload ratings while maintaining a soft and comfortable French ride, a hallmark of cars built in the region. While the hydro-pneumatic Citroens were the true belle of the ball in that regard, Peugeot’s solution was cheaper and vastly more reliable. To see proof of this, one needs only to go to Africa, where many nations there still have hordes of old RWD Peugeots on the streets and earning their keep. Modified with 4WD as well as with camper, pickup and dump beds, the stout Peugeot underpinnings have turned an otherwise fairly staid French wagon into the “Workhorse of Africa.” Deep in the poorest of countries with some of the worst roads, these old wagons and sedans are more common than mosquitos. Their devotion to these cars was such that certain countries there saw new copies of the 504 and 505 being built as late as 2009.
Here in the States, the love didn’t run quite as deep. In a market where safe and familiar sells, the off-beat French wagon didn’t have a fighting chance against Vista Cruisers, Squire wagons, and other American longroofs. The average American family man had no trust putting his family in “that there funny-lookin’ furrin’ car.” On top of that, French cars did not enjoy the reputations that imports such as Mercedes and Volvo managed to cultivate here on American soil.
Like any good European car, the cars of Citroen and Peugeot were often troubled with maladies. It also didn’t help that there was not as much dealer and aftermarket support for French cars as there was for other European brands. Dealers were few on the ground, and service was often hit or miss. And small town mechanics? Well, unless you had tossed a small block Chevy under the hood, fuhgeddaboudit. All this meant owning and maintaining one was not for the faint of heart, restricting sales to the few brave souls willing to take the risk for the decidedly non-conformist French people mover.
The gas crisis in the mid-1970s helped push sales upward, when foreign diesel cars suddenly became attractive propositions compared to sub-10 mpg land yachts being peddled by the Big Three. Sales stayed up near the 15-20 thousand mark until about 1985, at which point the muddled reputation, onslaught of Japanese cars, and stiffer competition from both US and other Euro cars further marginalized the already precariously positioned Peugeot. By 1992, the writing was on the wall for the brand. The Frenchmen closed down their dealerships, donned their berets and headed back from the land of the Buick Riviera to the waters of the French Riviera.
The 505 was in a sense the vehicular equivalent of Van Gogh or Rembrandt – Quietly good, but ultimately ignored during their time. It was only after the passing of many years post death that their true genius was realized. The Peugeot in its day was a well-kept secret, offering the famous French ride with the practicality of three rows of seats and a 1250Ib payload rating. Unfortunately for Peugeot, roses have their thorns as well. Hampered by a reputation for constant expensive repairs and their overall “quirkiness,” The 505 languished on lots while upper class families instead flocked to the local Volvo dealer for the latest Swedish Brick. It mattered not that Pininfarina helped pen the styling, that a turbo was added to the lineup for added pep, or that it could seat up to eight people. For too many people, different is bad, and so they motored right by the Peugeot dealer in their familiar chariots of choice.
To see such a rare and obscure model in a junkyard almost thirty years after it first came from across the Atlantic was a bit of a shock, to say the least. At this point, most of these that were doomed to the junkyard were crushed 10-15 years ago. Today, even rough examples are desired as parts cars for the small but dedicated cult of American Peugeot fans who swear by these old tanks. How this unlucky and unloved blue wagon found itself in a Johnston RI Pick ‘n Pull waiting to be turned into a Chinese washing machine will forever be a mystery. But its presence was a reminder of how easily genius can become lost and distained in the sea of familiarity, which ultimately is the real travesty of this Peugeot’s story.