Out of the distance at scarily high speed exploded a man and his son in a six-year-old 508 diesel, phoned by friends to come and see. The old man jumped kerbs and swerved to the wrong side of the road in his haste to park beside our new car, then spent fully 20 minutes of valuable eating time with the rest of them, trying the new 508 and posing beside it. As a 508 owner, he had a special status among the others and, like them, his verdict was unalloyed admiration. No cynics lived here.
It was a fascinating experience, and instructive. Bigger saloons might not be traffic-stoppers in the UK but, in rural France, they’re just that. We completed our drive, enjoying the sophisticated cruise and comfort of what is now one of the best saloons on the market, especially at the money. In the Sochaux museum, we spent time with Peugeot’s earliest cars, especially the 504 that remains so special, and even enjoyed a close encounter with the Instinct shooting brake concept that is supposed to be a radical guide to a 508 wagon.
However, my best memory of this trip will be of an excited old man called Gaston, sitting in our new 508 beside the national route that carries its name, drinking coffee and replying excitedly to my comments about the new car’s equipment and specification in fractured French. It’s not often the simple sight of a new car makes somebody else’s day.
Peugeot’s first 200 years:
One of the refreshing things about a visit to the superb Peugeot museum at Sochaux in eastern France is learning that the Peugeot family’s business did not begin – as nearly everyone else in early cars or motorcycles did – as a story of overwork and inspired ignorance by seriously underfinanced young men.
The motorcar may be a mere 133 years old, but Peugeot has a 200-year industrial history.
Well before Daimler and Benz, the Peugeot family had a thriving business making women’s fashions (25,000 crinolines a month between 1850 and 1870), kitchen and cooking gadgets, surgical instruments and precision workshop tools. Indeed, Peugeot’s lion emblem was intended first to embody the suppleness of a particularly successful range of quality wood saws and the sharpness of their teeth.
In 1870, young Armand Peugeot, eventually to become the pioneering ‘car guy’, was sent to the UK by his family to avoid the Franco-Prussian war. He became involved in the cycle industry, which led so many into motorcycles and motors, returned to France, produced the Peugeot- Serpollet Type 1 in 1891 (using a Panhard engine) and never looked back. He became one of the leaders of France’s pre-eminent early car industry, involving the company in early motorsport. It’s all laid out with perfect clarity in Sochaux, where there is also a superb collection of far more modern Peugeot road and competition cars. It’s a walk-in proposition and is well worth a visit.