During World War II Peugeot had been planning a new post-war model, and was able to introduce the new 203 as early as the autumn of 1947. It was a sensationally modern car with a streamlined unitary body and a new four-cylinder 1290 cc engine. Although it would continue to be manufactured for many more years, its replacement had already appeared in 1955: the Peugeot 403.
After sampling such unusually heady vintages you might think that the postwar 203 would seem distinctly vin ordinaire. Not so! While it is undoubtedly true that the 203 was a common sight on French roads in the fifties, the main reason was that they were so very good. Some 680,000 were built between 1948 and 1960.
The first Redex Reliability Trial, run in Australia in 1953, was won by a Peugeot 203 driven by Ken Tubman and John Marshall. Up until the final day’s drive into Sydney a handful of competitors were on equal points lost, so the organisers put in a special stage. A secret horror section at Marulan near Goulburn, NSW was included to sort them out. Tubman and Marshall were able to get through the horror stage without getting bogged or lost and went on to win the event.
In those days the French did not go in for bright colours and the light blue-grey paintwork was about as daring as most people wished to go. The shark-nose, complete with teeth (albeit horizontal ones) and doleful looking headlamps set in pontoon wings was very forties American, as was the graceful slope of the tail. As well as saloons (berlines) you could have a cabriolet top, a coupe or even a roadster.
Inside, there were bench seats fore and aft (the French were all for packing them in), and a nice big elliptical speedometer reading to an optimistic 150 km/h with minor instruments grouped around, that was typically fifties. So was the column gear-change, though by then four gears were de rigueur.
Column gear-changes never seemed to work well probably because car designers tried to foist them off onto the public. They seemed unnatural, somehow, a vulgar affront to a gearbox in the same way an upright is in the world of the pianoforte. That said, the Peugeot type was obviously well-engineered and far more positive than many British attempts at the same thing. The driver always felt he knew where he was going and from whence he had come. Another unusual control was the swing-action handbrake.
The biggest surprise by far, though, came during driving when you realised that the Peugeot’s power came from just 1290cc. This overhead-valve four with over-square (75 mm x 73 mm) dimensions and 31 kW at 4500rpm was a gem. After all the 203 was a moderately big motor car and to expect 1290 cc to row it along as well as it did to a top speed of around 120km/h with minimal fuss, seems almost unbelievable.
Like all the other Peugeots it rode well, this time on coil springs all round, if only independent at front. The 203 seemed to combine the creature comforts of the 1937 Peugeot 402 Limousine with the enjoyable driving characteristics of the 601. All in a more modern package of course.