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My experiences with the 403 by John Grant

The Peugeot 403

 This is one of the most under rated cars of all time. The 203 looks sufficiently different to have already become a collector’s item, but the 403s seem to be just fading away, unappreciated.  This seems odd when you consider that over 1000 were assembled here in NZ by 1962 at the Volkswagen plant in Otahuhu. They were sold in large numbers to farmers and vets.

This is not just my own opinion. In ‘Drive; the definitive history of motoring’, it is concisely described in these words –

The Peugeot 403 was ideal for austerity Europe – a large solid car with simple mechanics and a no-nonsense approach. It was the preferred car for much of middle-class France.”

My own first encounter came in 1966 when I wanted to upgrade my 203. This had done over 270,000 miles (yes MILES), most of it towing a light racecar or trialling over both islands.  I saw one advertised from a deceased estate. It was a French assembled 1957 car, dark blue in colour and with only just over 70,000 miles on the clock.  I bought it at Easter and initially was very disappointed with its performance.  It had been “babied”. It was in immaculate condition but had always been driven with consideration, even when shipped over to Australia for touring.

I paid about £450. I could have beaten the widow down, but it was in such excellent condition I was prepared to pay top dollar. I took possession of it and gave it a full service and tuneup before driving down to Wellington. I was planning to compete in a ten-hour Trial starting on Easter Saturday.

We drove down on Good Friday when the traffic was quiet. At first it would only cruise at about 50mph, so I ran it in again on the trip. I would ease the speed up and run it faster for short bursts of half a mile or so. Bit by bit, the engine readjusted and settled in to the higher speed without breaking any rings which had been a real risk. If a lip has developed in the bores, a change of driver bringing a drastic change of speed can pound the rings against the lip and break them. By the time we reached Wellington, it was purring along faster and smoother than it had probably ever done before.

We cruised back up to Auckland in about eight hours – not bad for the roads in those days. I managed to get a set of Michelins for it and over the next nine months put on 35,000 more miles. I then sold it as I was going overseas – to the UK where I picked up my brand new fuel injected 404 at the wharf. A couple of months later I also found a secondhand 403 in London for my uncle, Frank Peake. He had bought a caravan which we had been towing around Europe behind my 404 and in June we took it over to Dublin with the 403 which I drove around Ireland towing the caravan with four adults and a child on board.

On arriving on Irish soil, I noticed the oilpressure warning light was coming on when the motor was hot. “Oh yes” said Frank,. “It always does that”. Not fancying the thought of an engine seizing while towing, I checked and found that it was a sludging problem, and short of stripping the engine down, there was nothing to be done right then. We carried on towing.

Jeanette has one vivid memory of that car. We had got to our campsite early one day and Frank decided that we should drive around the Ring of Kerry in the evening and he would drive so I could “play being a tourist”. At one point we were going down a straight road and could see a right angled bend coming up – but Frank was not slowing down! “Frank! There’s a bend!” cried Aunt Minnie. He braked abruptly and we made it safely around the corner. When she asked what he had been thinking about, he admitted he had “been watching that fellow cutting the hedge back there” – in the rear vision mirror. In all his years of driving, he never had an accident, but he gave his wife grey hair and high blood pressure.

 

That car and caravan went round Ireland three times that summer taking various relatives visiting each other and then across to Scotland. Coming south, it finally scuffed a piston going over “Shap” which is a very long steady drag.  My uncle carried on.  Just north of Liverpool, it scuffed another. By this time it was belching out lots of smoke – so much that it was not allowed to go through the Mersey Tunnel and they had to drive around through Warrington, the equivalent of going round the head of the Waitemata through Riverhead.

Believe it or not, car and caravan made it safely home on two cylinders to Bebington. An engine job was now essential and this was automatically considered to be my job. The question was where to do it. There was no garage and the local service stations had no hoisting facilities available. We eventually bought a little Haltrac hoist, and lifted the engine out on the road side with the aid of a convenient tree branch and a passing postman who provided the essential extra hand to guide it straight.

Parts were available from the agents – in Croydon.  Finding our way there however was not the end of the problem, as they could not make sense of the Peugeot parts books. Eventually I managed to get it sorted out, we picked up the parts – a new set of sleeves and pistons -, went back by train and put the engine together. Even after all that time with low pressure, the crankshaft was as good as new. The postman came to the rescue again with the offer of his own garage which had a strong roof beam. We therefore put the overhauled engine in the boot of the 403 and towed it around a couple of blocks to his garage where it all went satisfactorily back together again.

After we returned to NZ in December 1967, that car continued in regular use towing the caravan around Europe as well as the UK. Judging by the wear in the engine and on the rubber of the pedals, it had been round the clock several times before we bought it and went around several times more before the rust caused by the salt on the roads, finally made it unsafe. Frank then went out and replaced it with another 403 which served him well until he died in 1981.




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