She is 40 years old. For the occasion, Peugeot pays tribute to its 205, a "sacred number" which gave the manufacturer a facelift and saved it from a disastrous fate, before becoming a collector's item for millennials. On February 24, 1983, the first models of the small car snapped up like hot cakes in dealerships, a commercial success largely due to the resolutely modern line of the latest Peugeot... and an intense advertising campaign.
Forty years later, the manufacturer with the lion organizes until September 3 an exhibition on the 205 at "L'Aventure Peugeot", the museum installed in its historic cradle of Sochaux (Doubs). We can read in large letters the premonitory sentence of Armand Peugeot in 1892: "Automobile locomotion is called to take an enormous development. To admire, alongside the first gleaming models from the end of the 19th century: around fifteen 205s, including the Turbo 16 model with which the Finn Ari Vatanen won the Paris-Dakar rally in 1987. Well restored, this lioness of the desert seems just out of the factory.
The manufacturer owes a proud candle to this small car, released when the very young PSA group (which has since become Stellantis) had just absorbed its competitors Citroën and Chrysler Europe and was crumbling in debt. The group, which did not see the drop in demand coming in the wake of the oil shocks, must meet the challenges of its main competitors: the R5 from Renault and the Golf from Volkswagen.
"In the greatest secrecy", Peugeot began work in July 1978 on a new project, with demanding specifications: a small high-performance model at a tight price that appealed to the greatest number, which rejuvenated the image of the brand and can be produced on an existing platform, recalls Hervé Charpentier, the museum's curator. This is where the shoe pinches. With the platform of the previous small model, the 104, the manufacturer is unable to produce a vehicle with modern lines. The designer Gérard Welter (died in 2018 at the age of 75) will prove it "by the absurd" by releasing a prototype with old lines, a sort of 104 bigger and uglier. This deliberately failed essay is exhibited in Sochaux next to a real 205 released on the historic date of February 24, 1983. "It was proof that we had to change our style. For the first time, the style was going to impose itself on the technique”, says Mr. Charpentier.
The leaders of the group are persuaded to invest 625 million francs in a new production line. The new boss of the group, Jacques Calvet (died in 2020 at the age of 88), having just arrived from BNP in 1982, persuaded his bankers to finance the launch. The first copies will be produced in Mulhouse. Given the success of the small model, others will come out of the chains in Sochaux, Poissy and Villaverde (Spain).
Because the triumph is immediate: from day one, customers flock to the dealerships. Anticipating demand, Peugeot had delivered tens of thousands of units to them since production began in November 1982. The day before, Peugeot had launched its T16 rally model, which would collect victories. “Everything that happens in competition gives an aura to the touring car,” recalls Mr. Charpentier.
Production will ultimately beat the manufacturer's records, with 5.278 million copies sold between 1983 and the end of production at the end of 1998. Peugeot will then do better with the 206, the first heir to the 205. What many millennials dream of who grew up in their parents' 205. Today, some do not hesitate to pay several tens of thousands of euros for a collector's item. The 205 was also last year the best-selling old car (over 30 years old) in France, with more than 8,000 transactions, ahead of the 2CV, according to figures from the firm NGC-Data published end of January by L'Argus.
Others have their family model repaired at a high price in the workshop opened by Peugeot right next to the museum. This is the case of a "Griffe" version, a limited series produced in 1,400 copies, which the workshop is renovating in order to be able to exhibit it at the museum: "This represents 2,000 hours of work. At least 90% of the parts are original,” explains workshop boss Éric Barthelat. However, there is no question of resurrecting the 205, as other brands such as Fiat and VW have been able to do with their legendary models. "The 205 belongs to its time," says Mr. Charpentier.