Peugeot 203 review: Classic metal
Bitumen or bush, Le Petit Chérie ran rings around its bigger rivals
Until 1953 most Australians had an ingrained preference for six-cylinder or V8 power. Through the 1930s the Chevrolet and Ford were best sellers, followed by the Holden.
Then, in September 1953, Maitland pharmacist Ken Tubman won the inaugural Redex Trial in his 1.3-litre Peugeot 203. Eleven 203s were entered and all finished. First of the fancied Holdens was Lex Davison in fourth. That set the Peugeot lion among the Holden pigeons.
The 203 had great attributes. It was tough and durable and its engine was advanced for the time. The rack-and-pinion steering was superb while long-travel suspension gave it first-class ability in the rough. Its overdriven top gear enabled it to cruise more easily at 110km/h than a Holden.
By the time of Tubman’s victory, the 203 had been around for a few years, having gone on sale in Europe in October 1948 and arriving here in 1950. The first 203s to be sold in Australia were imported minus paint (undercoat in red excepted), tyres and battery. Then they started to arrive at the docks also sans wheels and bumpers – so local content edged up.
J.F. Regan imported the cars into Melbourne and had them painted by a contractor near his Auburn showroom.
Local assembly began in the Redex year and a sunroof was standard equipment. The following year saw further changes and the ’54 model was known as the 203A. It had a bigger rear window and a lift in power from 42hp (31.3kW) to 45 (33.6). The upholstery was different but the single central taillight was retained.
The 203A was on the market for only a few months. It was superseded – somewhat eccentrically – by the 203C. With this model, Peugeot moved even further ahead of the opposition by providing synchromesh on first gear, making the Pug one of the world’s few sedans (at any price) with a four-speed synchromesh gearbox.
For 1955 it got twin taillights and stretched itself to a full camping body with the seats folding flat.
This was the year of the 403’s European debut. But Peugeot has never been a company to rush the old off the market as soon as the new appears. So the 203 remained on sale in Europe until 1960. Nobody suggested it was obsolete!
In hindsight, the 203 began a positive trajectory for Peugeot that ended when the 505 slipped off the market more than three decades later. Those rear-wheel drive Pugs had magnificent dynamics and almost unmatched talent as long-distance cruisers. The 203 was superior to the FJ Holden and the 403 was superior to the FC.
Its 1953 Redex Trial success enabled Peugeot to establish a great reputation locally, especially in the bush.
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