A modern-for-its-time vehicle with numerous body styles. We take a look at the Peugeot 403...
Arriving in 1955, the 403 was Peugeot’s second car launched in the years following World War Two. It enjoyed a 10-year lifecycle with an enduring design and reliable powertrain that further developed Peugeot’s solid reputation in Europe and here in South Africa. Along with the sedan, derivatives included a spacious station wagon and a cabriolet, although the estate was withdrawn in 1963 after the release of its successor, the 404 station wagon.
Even after the new 404’s launch in 1962, some cautious South Africans still bought the trusted 403, unsure whether similar levels of reliability could be expected by the newcomer. Of course, as we now know, they needn’t have worried; the 404 proved to be an even hardier vehicle. Sales of the 403 finally dropped from 742 in 1965 to 465 in ‘66 and just 13 in ‘67 as the model was run out.
The styling came courtesy of Italian design house Pininfarina, with automotive design now moving away from flared mudguards to smoother, more aerodynamic shapes that incorporated the headlamps. This was Pininfarina’s second monocoque body design for Peugeot after the immensely popular 203 that sold nearly 700 000 units.
The front suspension used a transverse leaf spring, while the rear had coils. Steering used a rack and pinion, with a white steering wheel and gearlever knob being par for the course until the mid-‘60s.
The engine is quite conventional, with a 1 468 cm3, four-cylinder block employing eight valves driven by short pushrods from a high-mounted camshaft. Hemispherical combustion chambers and a cross-flow head made of aluminium all helped to make a robust and easily worked-on plant.
The carburettor was Solex 34 PBICA and, while there are aftermarket carb copies available, these have not received positive reports, so rather rebuild the original if necessary. Power output was 43 kW, increasing to 48 kW near the end of its life, with a peak at a low 4 900 r/min.
Third gear was direct, with fourth being an overdrive. However, this was changed by the time of our final test in the 1965 to a direct fourth ratio. The column shift had an unusual pattern that had first away and down, with top gear towards you and up. Drive was to the rear wheels using a propeller shaft within a torque tube.
As you could expect, acceleration was slow by modern standards, as was the top speed. Fuel consumption, on the other hand, was very good for a family sized car, at an index of 12,5 L/100 km.
Which one to get
It’s highly unlikely that you will stumble upon a cabriolet or a station wagon, so settle for a saloon. The cabriolets cost twice as much as the sedans, so were niche sellers.
What to watch out for
We published a million-mile owner’s report in October 1966 and drivers praised the 403’s steering and rough-road stability, a reason many farmers took to this car. An impressive average fuel consumption on long runs of 31,8 mpg, or 9,0 L/100 km, was reported and part of the reason was the relatively low mass of just more than 1 000 kg. An all-round figure equivalent to today’s fuel index would be 12,0 L/100 km.
Availability and prices
We do not have accurate sales figures, but between 10 000 and 20 000 were sold in SA (worldwide, it was the first Peugeot model to exceed a million sales). Still, due to the age, rarity is an issue and you may have to scout round for some time until you find one. Based on condition, asking prices can be anything from R10 000 and up, and we spotted examples online between R40 000 and R60 000.
In our 1957 road test, the chromed Belfort Lion protruded prominently on the bonnet. In 1969, this was removed for safety reasons and incorporated into the grille emblem, clearly indicating an early appreciation of pedestrian safety long before it became legislated standard practice.
Peter Falk, playing the role of Lieutenant Columbo in the detective television series, drove a rather tatty 1959 vintage 403 convertible. The production company actually owned two, using one as a backup.