Saturday, March 12, 2016

1958-1966 Peugeot 403

"In 1913 . . . PEUGEOT introduced the modern small, fast engine to American racing in this Indianapolis Speedway winner! Now in 1958 . . . PEUGEOT comes over from France again with this excitingly sensible Sportsedan! Peugeot — one of the world's great names in auto making — now brings to America a 5—6 passenger family sedan that has all the spirit and glow of a sports car."

French cars are a longstanding part of Cuba's automotive landscape. In fact, the very first automobiles registered in Cuba were French models: in 1898, señor José Muñoz brought a La Parisienne to the island. Shortly after, in 1899, a Rochet & Schneider, built in Lyon, was imported by pharmacist Ernesto Sarrá from Havana. These two cars mark the beginning of Cuba's automobile history, and the beginning of an increasingly intense love affair between the Cubans and their cars.

Compared to the often eccentric French designs, the Peugeot 403 was a very conventional car. Peugeot had earned the reputation of being a "French Mercedes" in postwar Europe, and the timeless design of the 403 nicely underlines this conservative image. Presented in April 1955, it was the very first Peugeot which was styled across the Alps by carozzeria Pininfarina of Torino. This partnership should flourish for the following 50 years and spawn many more successful Peugeot designs. Battista "Pinin" Farina's proposal for the 403 eschewed the typical 1950s gimmickry, and instead stood out with well-judged proportions and very clean shapes. They gave the car an elegant and understated look that still appeared modern when Peugeot entered the American market three years later.

The men at the helm of Peugeot had long been hesitating to conquer the export markets across the Atlantic. Maurice Jordan, Peugeot's operating chief between 1933 and 1973, felt that exports would be "unprofitable" to the company, and saw them merely as "a means to keep production lines working and bring a greater economy of scale." The impetus to enter the U.S. Market finally came through pressure from the French government that hoped for hard Yankee currency in return of the country's industrial products. To keep things tidy, the government insisted that Peugeot should distribute its cars through the existing dealer network of the nationalized Régie Renault.

Thus, Peugeot began to export the 403 in 1958, halfhearted and skeptical about their expansion to the New World. But then a surprising thing happened: soon, there was a long waiting list from customers that yearned for one of the cute French cars, and the company shipped ten percent of its production to the U.S. It was truly fortunate timing, as Peugeot could capitalize on the "compact" car boom that had caught Detroit's established players completely by surprise.

Peugeot was on a roll, but not for long. Three years later, Detroit's Big Three had launched their own compacts, and the obvious "laissez-faire" quality of other French makes had eroded the American trust into anything French. 1961 became a disastrous year for Peugeot. The company even had to repatriate 1,740 exported cars back to France. Other markets, at least, weren't that sensitive. Even today, the 403 is a common sight in many Latin American and African countries, where the Peugeot's outstanding reliability is widely appreciated.

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