While the Citroen Traction Avant tends to dominate any conversation on pre-war French motoring, the often-overlooked Peugeot 402 shouldn’t be dismissed. The Citroen may have stolen the show with its monocoque construction and stronger sales but the Peugeot was equally innovative and allowed the ‘Lion of Sochaux’ to survive a decade which saw Citroen and Renault bought out and nationalized respectively.
The predominant feature of the Peugeot was its styling. With faired-in wings, spatted rear wheels and the wonderful addition of headlights set in behind the sculpted grille, the 402 was a clear departure from the staid and upright model it replaced, and it stood apart from the rest of the saloons on offer at the time, even if its underpinnings were more conventional.
This streamlined styling was not just for show, as its aerodynamic aesthetic allowed it to cleanly cut through the air. This was important as its long-stroke 1991cc engine produced just 55 BHP and, with the weight of a separate chassis and steel bodywork to contend with, every horse mattered. In addition, two important mechanical options were offered with the car - each appealing to very different types of buyers.
For the well-healed motorist, for whom the act of changing gear was tiresome, Peugeot offered the vastly expensive Cotal electromagnetic pre-selector gearbox. A feature usually only found on top-end vehicles at the time, due to its high price, the pre-selector box allowed the driver to change gear with the mere flick of a finger-tip. This removed the rigmarole of a non-synchromesh assisted gear change which would have been faced by lesser buyers.
For the economically minded, Peugeot also offered the world’s first non-commercial diesel engine for passenger cars, beating Mercedes Benz to market by a year. The 2300cc diesel unit was as powerful as the petrol, but far more fuel efficient and so a big hit with the taxi trade. Sadly, by the time the Second World War was over, only a single example of the 402-diesel was said remain in existence.
No mention of the Peugeot 402 would be complete without the inclusion of the Eclipse model. Based on the long-chassis version of the saloon, this ingenious coupe-convertible was the ideal ‘boulevardier’ in that it boasted a metal roof which would stow itself electrically under the rear bodywork to reveal a full convertible, with occasional rear seating. This was an automotive trick that was not to be repeated on a large scale production car until the Mercedes SKL debuted in 1996, a full four decades later.
While the Peugeot is a rare sight on the roads today both in the UK and abroad, there is a flourishing club scene around them, and they are becoming more and more sought-after as buyers wake-up to their gallic charms.
Are you one of the rare UK owners of a 402? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.