The Peugeot 403 was the French company's second new car to be introduced in the years following World War 2. As the 203 was already a success helping Peugeot get through the extremely lean post-war years, expectations were high for its more luxurious eplacement.
Thanks the Pininfarina-designed body, the 403 was stylish and at the time thoroughly modern, featuring a number of innovative and practical touches. On the other hand, the running gear was less cutting edge, thanks to a mix of old and new parts. Body styles were just as numerous as they had been for the 203, while a stronger focus on luxury pushed the 403 a bit more upmarket.
The formula proved to be a successful one, and the 403 proved to be an even bigger sales success for Peugeot. It became the first model to sell well over 1 million units, with a production run lasting a total of 11 years.
Which one to buy?
More of a major facelift than a totally new model, the 403 built on its predecessor’s success – which was largely thanks to the large range of body styles offered. Most models, excluding the entry-level cars, came with opening sunroofs and the interior was a far more luxurious and comfortable place to be than before.
The Familiale and Commerciale were the estate options with reinforced rear axles, improved interior space and in the case of the Familiale, seating for 8. The most common variant however was the four-door saloon. The Pininfarina styled body has aged well and with the proven running gear of the 203 these cars developed a good reputation for reliability and longevity.
The basic engine was a 1468cc in-line four producing 58bhp, which provided acceptable if leisurely performance. A 1.8-litre diesel engine became an option in 1958, which provided increased economy, along with with greatly increased noise and vibration. The 403 Berline Lux was introduced in 1960, a 47bhp version of the 203’s 1290cc engine allowed it to slip into a lower tax bracket. The standard transmission option for all variants was a four-speed manual with a Jaeger manufactured automatic offered from 1957 on.
The 403 convertible was TV detective Columbo’s choice of transport for a number of years, and despite its shabby appearance on the show, it’s the most highly prized and collectable of all the 403 variants. With approximately 2000 built values are high and the remaining models are generally in good to excellent condition.
Diesels were innovative for their time but are nothing like the modern units you find today and the automatic models add unnecessary complexity so these are best avoided. With a limited supply of cars available in any body-style you cannot get too picky, the sedan and station wagon variants with the larger petrol engines and the standard manual gearboxes are the pick of the range while the ultra-rare convertibles have become appreciating classics.
Performance and specs
Engine 1468cc, 8valve OHV in-line four-cylinder
Power 58bhp @ 4900rpm
Torque 74lb ft @ 2500rpm
Top speed 76mph
0-60mph 24 seconds
Fuel consumption 27mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
Most common parts and service items are available, generally from French-based specialists, and joining a classic car club can be beneficial.
• Rust is a common issue, and can mean the end of an otherwise mechanically solid car. It is generally a lot more cost effective to refurbish a car with a sound body shell. The most common spots to check are the door sills, floorpan and around all four wheel arches. Recently resprayed cars can hide potential problems so bubbling body panels or uneven paint finishes may indicate corrosion underneath.
• As with any old car, wear and tear on suspension rubber and bushes will need to be checked. Rear shock absorbers and their bushes tend to wear out regularly, and electrical wiring can perish due to old age.
• Peugeot implemented a policy of parts interchangeability across its range to keep production and development costs down, which today means that many 403s may have non period components.
• Thermostat controlled engine fans were a new addition to the 203-based engines. It’s a reliable set-up as long as the cooling system has been kept clean and flushed of contaminants regularly. Any issues will most likely be fixed with a new radiator or thermostat, but do check the headgasket for signs of failure.
• Gearboxes are long lasting and gears should engage smoothly, if crunching occurs especially in the lower gears then the synchros may require replacing. The Jaeger designed transmissions allowed automatic clutch actuation however the rarity of these transmissions means that parts sourcing can be difficult.
• Suspensions were robust and conventional in their design however they do require periodical maintenance to the bushes and rubber mounting points. A full service requires the body to be lifted off the chassis and can be labour intensive.
1955: Saloon Peugeot 403 enters into production. Five-door Station Wagon body style introduced later in year, with pick-up and van body styles introduced followed by Cabriolet.
1957: Peugeot Familiale introduced, featuring three rows of seats. Headlights modified to comply with new regulations, windscreen wipers modified and semaphore-style indicators upgraded to flashing indicators
1958: 1.8-litre diesel engine introduced in station wagon body style
1959: Minor changes to steering wheel and external trim. 1.8-litre diesel now available with sedan body style
1961: Final year of production for convertible models
1966: Peugeot 403 production ends with over 1 million units sold
Clubs and websites
www.clubpeugeotuk.org - UK Peugeot car club
www.franzose.de - German site for 403 parts
www.serie04.com - French source for old Peugeot parts
www.museepeugeot.com- Peugeot museum and parts source
Summary and prices
Prices for the more mainstream models range between £3000-£9000, these cars should have a traceable history and most will have been restored to varying degrees in recent years. Pay much less than this and you risk being saddled with a rusty project that will soon have you shouting French obscenities at your latest purchase.
For those looking for a more exclusive 403 the convertibles are just the thing. Extremely limited numbers mean that these cars can command up to £60,000 in top condition.
Words: John Tallodi