After the end of World War II, car makers were forced to do a lot, with very little. Material shortages and frequent strikes made getting anything to market was an ongoing struggle, however Peugeot, a rising force before the war, managed to launch come back from the brink and launch the genuinely ground-breaking 203 in 1948 after five years of difficult development.
The first cars hit the streets in 1949, and although it had lost some of the older 202’s beautiful styling features – this was after all Peugeot’s first all-new design following the war – it made a number of quantum leaps elsewhere. The independent front and transverse spring rear suspension remained fundamentally the same, offering great ride quality, but the 203 actually featured an all-new monocoque body structure – hugely advanced for the time.
Peugeot was also pushing the boundaries with its engine building techniques, being one of the first manufacturers to offer an aluminium cylinder head for reduced weight, as well as hemispherical combustion chambers for improved power and efficiency.
Over its 11-year production run, more than 700,000 203s were built, helping the company to begin its meteoric rise over the next few decades. Sleek looks and a range of body styles kept the 203 popular throughout its production run – good news considering it was Peugeot’s only proposition until 1955.
Performance was pretty good for the day, but times have moved on and a 203 will really struggle to keep up with the hustle and bustle of modern motorway traffic. Stick to the back lanes however, and the 203 remains in its element, offering a fantastic and supple riding cruiser. They remain great value classics today too, lacking the high prices , being equally useable on vintage rallies as they are for weekend trips with the family.
Which one to buy?
A long production run and vast range of body styles including saloons, estates both two and four-door convertibles, as well as a coupe, means that there is a 203 for every occasion. Despite a large number produced, not many are left today. Neglect, corrosion and natural attrition have seen to that. The cars that remain fall into two broad categories, the rusty restoration projects and the tidy or restored examples.
A few notable changes were made throughout production, a facelift in 1952 saw minor changes to the saloon’s rear window, and the increase in power to a heady 44bhp. 1954 saw the introduction of an upgraded gearbox which now had synchromesh on all forward gears and provided smoother changes. Two-door coupes were built only from 1952 to 53 and remain extremely rare today. Sunroofs were an unusual option and can be found on a number of different body styles.
As to which body style to look for, it generally comes down to what’s available, and the most common 203s seem to be the four-door saloons. There are also a number of convertibles and pick-up body styles around, made by external coach builders, while the practical estate variants do crop up from time to time. All versions are enjoyable to drive feeling a lot more modern than their age would have you believe.
Performance and specs
Engine 1290cc, 8valve OHV in-line four-cylinder
Power 44bhp @ 4400rpm
Torque 59lb ft
Top speed 75mph
0-60mph 30.2 seconds
Fuel consumption 31.4mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
Weight 930 kg
Many mechanical parts and service items are still available. Speaking French helps, as there are a few specialists who stock or source spares for your 203, but most are based in France.
• Rust can be a killer on these cars, cropping up in hard to repair places and requiring major body repairs when it does. Check a car over thoroughly even if it has been recently refurbished and pay particular attention to the door sills, arches and rear floorpan.
• Body panels are a bit harder to source than mechanical bits so a restoration project with a sound body shell will be easier to get right than a mechanically sound car with a rusty body.
• Joining the Peugeot club can help in meeting the right people and getting the right assistance for any 203 related issues. As you might expect, there are a lot of French and mainland Europe-based specialists, however UK expertise is a little trickier to find.
• As with any old car wear and tear on suspension rubber and bushes is to be expected, and a car that has been well cared for should have had these easy to fix items sorted. Rear shock absorbers and bushes tend to wear out regularly.
• Electrical wiring can perish due to old age, as well as previous repair work that has not been done well. Thankfully, it’s all quite simple, and any good auto electrician should be able to work out any issues in a short amount of time.
• As was (and still is) Peugeot practice, a number of components were interchangeable between models, and some owners have installed upgraded components from the 403 to improve performance.
1949: After a five-year development, production of the 203 starts in 1948 with the first cars being delivered in 1949. 41bhp 1.3-litre in-line four-cylinder engine and four-speed manual gearbox were standard fitment.
1950: Longer wheelbase Commerciale and six-seater Familiale versions introduced
1952: Updated 203 saw changes to dashboard and modified windows and power output increased to 44bhp. Two-door coupe introduced
1953: Petrol cap recessed into bodywork. 2-door coupe ends production
1954: Gearboxes upgraded to offer synchromesh on all forward gears and smoother changes
1955: 403 production started, signalling the beginning of the end for the venerable 203
1959: Bonnet ornament changed to flatter version due to safety reasons
1960: Final year of production for 203 with over 700,000 units of all styles manufactured
Owners clubs, forums and websites
www.clubpeugeotuk.org - UK Peugeot car club
www.franzose.de/en/Home - French site for 203 parts
www.serie04.com/en/203-203 - French source for Peugeot parts
www.museepeugeot.com/en/home.html - Peugeot museum and parts source
Summary and prices
Restoration projects start at £2000 while complete, useable cars are available from around £5000 and up. With that in mind, unless you have prior experience in restoring vintage cars or are specifically looking for a reason to spend many hours in your shed, it’s generally more cost effective to buy a restored example.
Top condition cars and well restored 203s start at £10,000 with some rare examples commanding up to £15,000, which still makes them eminently affordable classics.
The Peugeot 203 was a crucial post-war model for Peugeot, being the only model it produced until its replacement became available in 1955. Not as basic as the Renault 4 yet still affordable enough to become a volume seller, well maintained examples are great value classics today.
Words: John Tallodi