The U.S. market can be a funny, unpredictable thing when talking about various imported motor cars. Take the Peugeot 405, for instance. This is a car that one would have seen all over the place in Europe, but rarely in North America, even when they were still new cars. Of course, all markets have its preferences. I’d wager that there were damn few Cadillac Broughams or Chrysler Fifth Avenues in Nice or Paris. The new 405 was Peugeot’s last try in cracking the U.S. car market’s potentially lucrative nut.
In July 1987, the 405 made its first appearance as an ’88 model. The mid-sized, front wheel drive 405 sedan and estate had been originally slated to replace the venerable RWD 505. Peugeot, however, demurred, and decided to sell the 505 alongside the 405 for a few more years, much as Volvo kept the 240 around after the 740/760 began production. The 405 sedan became available to Francophiles in October of 1987; the station wagon arrived several months later, in May of 1988.
The 405’s Pininfarina-penned styling was smooth, modern and attractive, although very close visually to the Alfa Romeo 164. Pininfarina’s tradition of handing out the same suit to multiple clients was an old one that was still fairly acceptable in the ’50s and ’60s (The Austin Westminster of the early ’60s and its near-twins come to mind), but by the late ’80s it was not quite so easily tolerated by new car buyers. At this time almost every manufacturer save Peugeot had an in-house design department. After the 405’s introduction, however, Peugeot finally added their own design people, and relied less on outside vendors for their styling.
Several varieties of inline four-cylinder engines were available in 1.4-liter (70 hp), 1.6-liter (92 hp), and 1.9-liter (110, 125 and Mi16-exclusive 160 horse) versions. A 70-hp 1.9-liter diesel and 90-hp turbocharged 1.8-liter turbodiesel were also available.
A rare high-performance variant was the 1993-only T16 405 with a turbocharged 2.0-liter, 16-valve four, all-wheel drive and other various upgrades. Only 1,061 were produced, 60 of which went to the French police. These rare Pugs produced 200 horsepower under normal boost and 220 with overboost.
Sadly, the wide variety of 405s did not transition to North America. As is often the case when European cars are exported here, the U.S. only received selected models. If you happened to be among the few and the brave in the United States who just had to have a 405, your choices were limited to plain DL and fancier S models with a 110-hp, emissions-friendly version of the 1.9; or the performance model, the Mi16 sedan, with an extra 40 horses, five-spoke alloys and rear deck spoiler.
Station wagon versions of the 405 were imported to the States as “Sportswagons”, in DL and S guises. These look quite attractive, though I have never seen one in the metal. I wonder what the take rate was versus the sedans?
On paper, one might think that the 405 would do well in the U.S., but it just didn’t happen. Burgeoning Japanese luxury marques like Lexus (and, to a lesser extent, Acura and Infiniti) almost certainly took a bite out of Peugeot’s hide. Perhaps a worse problem was the simple lack of Peugeot dealers outside of major metropolitan areas. When compared with those of more mainstream Euro makes like Volvo, BMW and Volkswagen, Peugeot showrooms were few and far between.
By the late ’80s, Peugeot was clearly tanking in the U.S. Despite the 405’s good looks and performance–particularly in the Mi16 version–there just weren’t many takers. And of course, the reliability of French cars, perceived or otherwise, had been a factor for decades. 1990 sales of 405s and 505s totaled only 4,261 vehicles! After an even more dismal 1991 output of 2,240 405s and 505 wagons (the 505 sedan was discontinued in the U.S. after model year ’90), the fat lady had indeed sung. Peugeot ceased importing cars to North America, for good, in July 1991.
Although Peugeot returned to the Mexican market in 1997, they remain absent the U.S. market. On a family vacation to Puerto Vallarta in 2006, I was surprised to see small late-model Peugeot hatchbacks cruising about. They looked pretty good. In retrospect, I think they were 307 models.
Despite failing in the U.S. market, the 405 did just fine in Europe, with 500,000 units sold by 1989. That number doubled to a cool million by 1990. Long after the last American Peugeot retail establishment closed their doors (or moved on to more lucrative marques), Peugeot continued to refine the 405. A ‘Phase 2’ version featuring new rear styling, a new instrument panel and other refinements appeared later, keeping the French Sochaux factory chugging right along, cranking out 405s with no worries. English market 405s were also built in Ryton, U.K. from 1987 to 1997.
But the party had to end sometime. In 1995, the 406 replaced the 405. At the time, the 405 sedan had been discontinued in Europe, though the wagon would remain in the lineup through 1997. But even that was not the end of the 405, whose production continued in Argentina until 1999, in Zimbabwe until 2002, and in Iran until 2012, when Peugeot stopped importing parts. About 2.5 million 405s were made. by the time production ended for good.
But you would never know that from driving around in the United States. My local Volvo dealer, McLaughlin, sold Peugeots from 1985 to 1991 in Moline, but I can tell you that I never saw many, even as a car-crazed kid at the time. The only one I really remember was a gunmetal gray 505 I used to see parked in front of a nearby house in Rock Island.
It was an uplevel model with alloys and spoiler, and I liked the way it looked–it reminded me of our family Volvos. I recognized it because I had a Corgi model of a burgundy 505 when I was a kid-I still have it as a matter of fact. That gray 505 was still there in the late ’90s when I started driving, and then one day I drove past that house and it was gone. I regret never getting a picture of it.
I found this survivor about five years ago on an overcast, drizzly day, A Peugeot, now there’s something you don’t see often. I didn’t waste any time and turned around to check it out. It began raining harder as I got out of the wagon, but I didn’t care. When was I going to see another one of these, after all!
I don’t remember ever seeing one of these in the Quad Cities, even when they were still new cars. McLaughlin sold them right to the end, but they sold many more Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs at the time. Interestingly, at the same time the Lincoln-Mercury dealer sold Saab. The only times I recall seeing Peugeots when they were still new cars were when my parents took us to the Chicago Auto Show circa 1988-92.
Once again, I primarily remembered the 405 due to a toy I had as a kid, in this case 405 Mi16 by Majorette. And yes, I still have that one in a box somewhere too. See, toy cars can be educational!
I was pretty happy to find this car and finally see a 405 up close. This one was a little weathered but well-equipped, with a moonroof, leather and always-classy black paint. I am guessing it’s an ’88, to judge from the “1988 European Car of the Year” decal on display in one of the rear quarter windows.
I’ve always had a soft spot for French cars. My favorite is the classic Citroen DS, but Peugeots are neat cars too. I think it’s a shame that so many interesting European cars aren’t available on our shores. Perhaps that will change someday; after all, Alfa Romeo and Fiat have both returned-how much of a long shot was that? But survivors are still out there, even in the salty Midwest!