Peugeot 403

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Peugeot 403

1955 - 1966
In Line 4
65 bhp @ 4760 rpm
4 spd. man
Top Speed:
85 mph
Number Built:
3 star
Peugeot 403
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3


The 403 made its debut in saloon body style on 20 April 1955 at the Trocadéro Palace in Paris. The engine size gave the car a fiscal horsepower of 8 CV (8 hp), which placed it a class below the soon-to-be-replaced 11 CV Citroën Traction, but at least one class above the small cars produced by the principal competitor manufacturers.

When it was first shown, and until after 1958, the leading edge of car's nose carried an angular, forward-leaning chrome lion hood ornament – the lion image being Peugeot's trade mark. That was removed in 1959, due to safety concerns, and the logo was incorporated into a shield-shaped grill emblem.

Subsequently the semaphore-style trafficators on the C-pillars were replaced with flashing indicators within the light cluster. The front lights were modified to conform to new standards and in 1957 parallel parking windscreen wipers were substituted for the original "cross hands" ones featured at launch. Styled by Pininfarina, the 403 featured ponton, three-box styling incorporating, except on the most basic models, an opening roof panel.

The 403 Engine

For the size of the car - a six- seater - the 1.5-litre engine at first appeared on the small side. When driving the car its lack of cubic inches was not noticed (except that fill-up stations need rarely be visited). The 403 came with an enlarged version of the Peugeot 203's 1290cc petrol engine - it was oversquare, bore and stroke being 80 mm. x 73 mm. giving a capacity of 1468cc. Hemispherical combustion chambers in the alloy cylinder head had the spark plugs centrally located for maximum efficiency.

A single high camshaft actuated the inclined overhead valves through a simple pushrod and rocker arrangement. The engine need never be rebored as it had wet cylinder liners. Many Peugeots from this time covered over 75,000 miles before starting to blow smoke but when oil consumption did become prohibitive the liners could be replaced at a very reasonable cost. Maximum power developed was 65 b.h.p. at 4,750 rpm Speeds on the intermediate gear ratios were quite high. In second gear, an indicated 50 mph was easy to obtain whilst in third, a direct gear, the car would do a genuine 75 mph

Top gear was an overdrive well suited to extended high speed cruising. Speeds of up to 75 mph could be maintained as long as road conditions permitted, though at speeds in excess of 70 mph both engine and gear noise was audible. Naturally, hill climbing in the overdrive top gear was not sensational but if hills were attacked at speed few changes down were necessary.

An unusual feature at the time was the thermostatically controlled engine fan which cut out when the engine temperature fell to 75°C and reengaged when the engine temperature increased to 84°C. Claimed advantages included an improvement in fuel consumption of between 5% and 10% according to average speed and the avoidance, under many conditions, of fan noise. A diesel powered Peugeot 403 estate was introduced in the Autumn of 1958, the first of a long line, followed by a diesel saloon a year later. Upon the 203's discontinuation in 1960, a 47 hp version its 1290cc powerplant became available as an option on a reduced specification version of the 403, branded as the "403 Berline Luxe". Car tax in France was based on engine size, and the smaller engined 403 fell within the 7CV taxation class.

Transmission and Suspension

The four-speed gearbox had synchromesh on all forward gears. What did reduce the effectiveness of the gearbox were the gearbox positions which initially required concentration to select. The gear change lever stuck out from the right side of the steering column. For the Paris Motor Show in October 1957 the manufacture offered, at extra cost, an elecro-magnetic Jaeger automatic clutch, activated when changing gear. The suspension was unusual, consisting of a transverse leaf spring at the front and coil springs with a transverse stabiliser at the rear. Hydraulic shock absorbers were fitted all round. Solidly constructed, the suspension was admirable under adverse conditions. On smooth surfaces, the Peugeot's handling and general roadability called for no particular comment - in itself, high praise.

On bad roads high speeds could be maintained with complete confidence and no discomfort. When severely stressed, the body was free from the thumps and rattles usually present. Motoring journalists of the time went to some lengths to find the achillies heel, but rarely found it. When attempting manouveres that would be considered suicidal in nearly every car from the era, in the Peugeot they counld only generate a slight swaying of the tail, otherwise the Peugeot remained rock steady. Most believed, and justifiably, that the 403 was the best car on bad roads - period.

The Peugeot has rack and pinion steering. Light and precise it was complemented by the compact turning circle. Cornering was further facilitated by the lack of body roll, much less than usual for a car of this type. Indeed the road manners of the Peugeot encouraged hard driving and when driven hard, the car retained its feeling of stability. The 403 also afforded miserly fuel consumption. Despite prolonged thrashing, figures around 32 m.p.g. were the norm. Economy Runs produced figures better than 40 m.p.g. Cars with the cruising potential of the Peugeot needed good brakes and those on the 403 required only a light pedal pressure to lock all wheels. No fading was experienced when the brakes were deliberately abused. The position of the handbrake, beneath the dash, was not ideal but at least the brake worked well.

Peugeot 403

Body variants

The wheelbase was lengthened by 24 cm (10 inches) for the five door Peugeot 403 "familiale" and "commerciale" estate versions. The familiale provided a third row of seats and was described as a 7/8 seater while the commericale offered a more conventional seat configuration for an estate car. The lengthened 403 estate had a solid rear axle fitted to an aluminium differential case. It came with a manual column shift and, in ots "familiale" guise, fully reclinable front seats. Sunroof and steel belted radial tires were standard. Reliability was considered excellent for the time.

A two door cabriolet version of the car was also offered, with a luxurious interior featuring high quality leather upholstery. In 1958 the 403 cabriolet cost 80% more than the entry level "berline grand luxe" 403 sedan, and presumably for this reason the convertible 403 was produced and sold only in very modest numbers. In the spring of 1961 production of the 403 cabriolet came to an end, in anticipation of the launch later that year of the manufacturer's 404 cabriolet. In the television detective series Columbo, the main character (portrayed by Peter Falk) drove a 1959 convertible model 403. Superseded by the Peugeot 404 in 1960, the 403 remained in production as a budget alternative until 1966.


The 403's front seats were individually adjustable through a range designed to furnish persons of all builds with a comfortable driving position. They could also be adjusted back to form a double bed. Seat coverings were washable and their general appearance was attractive. Windscreen washers were standard equipment whilst a heater-demister was supplied on the De Luxe models. The top and leading edge of the facia was padded to minimise injury in case of accident. The facia had a wide range of instruments including a speedometer and trip distance recorder, fuel gauge, ammeter, heat gauge and a clock. Warning lights indicated oil pressure, headlight main beam, and turning indicators.

The high beam dip switch was located at the right of the steering wheel and was hand operated. The boot on the Peugeot was not so large as the exterior size indicated. Quite a deal of its space was taken by the spare wheel which was carried flat on the floor. Luggage was stored on a deck over the spare. One advantage of this layout was that the spare can be removed without disturbing the luggage.

Sturt Griffith's Road Test

A name synonymous with quality automotive journalism in the 1950s was Sturt Griffith. He would take all cars on offer in any particular year, then drive it over a punishing course to determine what was good, and bad, with a particular car. Obviously his yardstick was the best on offer in any particular year - and something we do not have the benefit of today. While we make every endeavour to judge a car on its contemporaries, sometimes it is very difficult. We refer to many of his road tests in compiling our own, but for the record, the Peugeot 403 review below remains as told in 1957.

The Peugeot Company is another wise manufacturer which does not go in for annual model changes, but instead progressively incorporates developments into its car without a fanfare of trumpets. Since last tested, a host of changes have been made in the "chassis" and body, the more important of which include new type rear brake drums, solenoid starter operation in place of "long pull," more flexible rear shock absorbers, an articulated bonnet support, and a neoprene oil gasket for the rocker cover.

THE fine adjustment of ignition timing is now effected by the conventional micro-adjuster on the distributor head. In the body, an electric clock has been added, winker-turn indicators replace the semaphores, and a number of additions have been mad£ to more correctly direct under-body water in wet weather. The Peugeot is one of the most "readable" cars on the Australian market. Its suspension is excellent from the viewpoint of comfort, and also of keeping the wheels on the road when driving fast over rough surfaces. Its cornering is of a high standard, and the car is safe on greasy or loose roads. Its steering is quick and accurate, and the brakes are quite adequate for the car's speed.

All these add up to good "handling" qualities, and result in a car which is pleasant and safe to drive fast, when one desires. The Peugeot, over the years, has also shown that its unitary body structure will stand up to rough country use with a minimum of rattles and squeaks. One usually hears the highest gear of the Peugeot referred to as "overdrive," and the next gear as "top." The car has, in fact, a four-speed gearbox and it is considered more lucid and accurate to refer to the gears in the conventional manner, as top, third, second and first, which nomenclature is adopted in this report. Top gear is a trifle higher than is common practice with engines of this power, but it can be, and on the test was, used in a perfectly normal manner, and gave normal results.

One consequence of high gearing in top, of which the VW is an even more pronounced example than the Peugeot, is good fuel economy and effortless cruising in flattish country-. Another consequence is more frequent gear changing in hilly country and in metropolitan driving. Any driver would prefer the clutch and brake pedals to be lowered from their high rest position, which could be done without difficulty. Also, with a high top gear, the majority of changes are between top and third gear. These gears are arranged in different "levels" on the gearshift, and consequently one must move the lever across the gate when making this frequent change. ' If these two upper ratios were on the same level, easier and quicker changes would result, and greater use would be made of the excellent top gear.

There is also the aspect of a very low second gear, which almost renders first unnecessary. A good feature is the precision of the gearshift, and the employment of synchromesh on all four speeds. The Peugeot climbs reasonably well in top gear, but for difficult climbs third gear will be required, and this lower gear will suffice for most mountain passes. The gears used, and the speeds attained, on the regular test hills were:
  • BODINGTON (average grade 1 in 111): Top gear at 50-39-35 mph.
  • RIVER LETT (1 in 12, maximum 1 in 81). A lively climb in third gear at 40-33-44 mph.
  • SCENIC HILL (1 in 10, maximum 1 in 8): Third and second gears in about equal proportions at 50-25-34 mph.
  • MOUNT TOM AH (1 in 12, maximum 1 in 9): An easy climb in third gear at 50-40-45 mph.
  • KURRAJONG, WEST (1 in 12i): Top gear at 50-48-38 mph.
The power-weight ratio of the car with a load of 3cwt is reasonably good at 48 b.h.p per laden ton. Overall gearing is such that at 1,000 engine rpm, one obtains a road speed of 17 mph in top gear, and 13 mph in third gear. The high gearing in top comes into its own on the touring highway and one can cruise the Peugeot between 65 and 70 mph with moderate engine speeds around 4,000 rpm The good riding and cornering abilities of the car are a help in the maintenance of fast cruising speeds in hilly country. Top gear retains it flexibility and response down to about 30 mph

The average speed over the test route was 43.1 mph, and the Peugeot was run quite moderately to achieve this figure. Weather was very variable and included some snow-covered roads on the upper Blue Mountains. Good response in the town driving range requires the use of the lower gears. Prompt overtaking can be commenced from 25 mph in third gear, and from 35 mph in top gear. The maximum pulling power (a torque of 75 lb-ft) is developed at the high speeds of 42.5 mph in top gear and 32.5 mph in third gear. Times for acceleration from 20 to 40 mph were: third gear, 8.2 seconds; top gear, 12.5 seconds. As would be expected from the above torque figures, top gear acceleration is well maintained into the higher speed ranges. Only 12.6 seconds were required for acceleration from 30 to 50 mph in top gear.

Lockheed hydraulic brakes are used and they have a large area of lining at 120 sq. in. Moderate pressures on the pedal produce satisfying!}' prompt results, and the brakes are. well up to the car's requirements. On the 3.5-mile, coast down from Kurrajong Heights, there was no evidence whatever of fade" from overheating. The handbrake just stopped the car from 30 mph down a gradient-of 1 in 8.

Roadholding, Steering and Fuel Consumption

I would rate the Peugeot as unusually good in this department. It handles all types of Australian road surfaces in a more-or-less uniform fashion, which affords comfort to front and rear passengers alike. When the car is cornered hard it shows very pleasing road adhesion, and there is not very much in the way of body roll or tyre squeal. With two persons aboard, the rear wheels are the first to break away on a greasy road or on loose gravel. However, the car is in such perfect balance that the rear wheels only drift gently, and the required track through the bend can easily be regained. On no occasion did the suspension bottom or the wheels show any tendency to hop.

Rack-and-pinion steering mechanism is employed, and a steering damper prevents undue reaction in the hands over bad roads, without causing the steering to be heavy. The extreme positiveness of this type of steering, and the quickness of its action in the case of the Peugeot, make it a delight to use, especially when one is driving fast. Although 3.5 turns of the steering wheel are necessary to move the road wheels through their full lock, the response to wheel movement is not as slew as this figure may indicate, by reason of the fact that the turning circle is particularly compact at 31ft. Manoeuvring in the city is obviously easy. At an average speed ot 43.1 mph over the test route, the Peugeot gave a very satisfactory 33 miles per gallon. Taking the loaded weight into consideration, this is equivalent to 40 ton-miles per gallon. The fuel-speed factor (ton-m.p.g. x average speed) is 1,725, both of which figures are very good. At the foregoing rate of consumption, the fuel tank gives a long cruising range of 345 miles.

Behind the Wheel

The individual driver's seat is not of the bucket type, but is comfortable. The wheel is of a suitable size and is well placed, but the pendent pedals are set too -high. Vision is reasonably good, but the screen pillars have a width which tends to obscure the driver's view into corners. The column gearshift is positive, has a short movement, and is fitted with synchromesh on all four speeds. It is rather heavily spring-loaded into the centre layer comprising second and third gears. Screen washers of the finger-opened type are fitted as standard. The instruments are conveniently before the driver and comprise speedometer, clock, ammeter, and gauges for head temperature and fuel contents.

Warning lights are provided for oil pressure and the winker turn indicators. The switches and minor controls are arranged on the fascia to left and right of the steering column, and they are easily identified in darkness. Lights and dipping are operated by a finger control projecting from the right of the column, and the winker turn indicators by a finger on the left side of the column. The town and country horns are brought into operation successively by pressure on the horn ring. The handbrake is under the right of the fascia and can be reached only by the driver leaning well forward. The rear-vision mirror is large, firmly mounted, and effective.


Access to the engine and its ancillaries is particularly good, and servicing is therefore facilitated. The modern engine is "over square" having a bore and stroke of 80 by 73 mm. It has hemispherical combustion chambers, inclined valves, and a high camshaft. Compression ratio is maintained at a very moderate 7 to 1, but nevertheless specific power output is high at 39.5 b.h.p. per litre. An oil-bath air cleaner and a full-flow external oil filter are used. The engine is not as quiet as is usual today, in addition to which there is a slight gear whine in top gear. Gear ratios are: Top 4.4, third gear 5.8, and second gear 9.7 to 1.

The unitary body-cum-chassis is supported at the front end on a lower transverse leaf spring and upper wishbones. The rear axle is of the torque-tube type, and is suspended by coil springs, and transversely located by a Panhard rod. The final drive is quite exceptional, being of the underslung worm type. The body has most attractive external lines, whilst its interior offers generous space. The front seats are independent but are align-able to give a width of 52 inches. The comfort of a third person on the front seat is not helped by a large hump over the gearbox. The rear seat has a width of 54 inches, and is fitted with a central retractable armrest.

All of the seats are comfortable, being of foamed rubber over coil springs, and they are covered in two-tone Vynex. Armrests are fitted to each door. There are three positions available for the front squabs. From the normal position these can be adjusted back to a reclining position or to a fully down position wherein they complete a camping body. The reclining position of the squabs is unfortunately deprived of comfort owing to the absence of sufficient height to form a headrest. The interior finish of the body of the de luxe model is good. The window surrounds are of polished aluminium, the doors are lined with two-tone material, and the head lining is of rippled plastic.

The fascia is padded top and bottom as a safety measure. Unfortunately, the glovebox is particularly shallow, and there are no door pockets for parcels. Floor ventilation and screen demisting are provided by a good ventilating system, which may be operated under either ram or fan pressure. An imported heater element may be added to this system at the additional cost of £19. The boot has a large clear luggage space of approximately 18 cu. ft above the spare wheel which is covered by a framing. It has a counter-balanced lid and, like the whole of the under-body, is proof-coated.

Peugeot 403 Quick Specifications:

Car: Peugeot. Model: 403. Price: A£1,285 Other cars in same price class: Borgward Hansa Tiger, Ford Zephyr, Standard Vanguard, Wolseley 15/60. Occupants: Two.
Engine: Cylinders: 4. Bore: 80 mm. Stroke: 73 mm. Capacity: 1468cc. Comp. ratio: 7:1. Valve gear: O.H.V. Max. b.h.p.: 65 bhp @ 4760 rpm Oil filter: Full flow. Spark plugs: AC F10. Battery: 12 volt 58 amp./hr. Coolant capacity: 16 pints. Sump capacity: 7. Fuel pump: A.C.
Transmission: Clutch: Single dry plate. Ratios: 1st, 17.5 (SM); 2nd, 9.44 (SM) ; 3rd, 5.75 (SM) ; 4th, 4.S3 (SM). Propellor shaft: In torque tube. Final drive: Underslung worm. Top gear mph at 1,000 rpm: 17.3. Top gear mph at 1,000 ft. per min. piston speed: 37.6. Gearbox capacity: 2h pts. Differential capacity: 21 pts.
Suspension: Front: Independent by transverse leaf spring and wishbones. Rear: Coil springs and rigid axle. Spring dampers: Front, hydraulic: Rear, hydraulic.
Steering: Turning circle: 31 ft. Steering gear: Rack and pinion. Turns of steering wheel (lock to lock) : 3j.
Brakes: Method of operation: Hydraulic. Friction lining area: 126 sq. in.
Dimensions: W'base: 8 ft. 9 in.; Length: 14 ft. 9i in.: Weight: 21i cwt.; Width: 5 ft. 5| in.; Height: 5 ft. 0£ in.; Ground clearance: 6 in.; Wheels: 15 in.; Tyres: 5.90 x 15. Pressures: Front, 18 p.s.i.; Rear, 23 p.s.i. ; Petrol tank: 11 gals. Track: Front, 4 ft. 5i in.; Rear, 4. ft. in.; Weight distribution, front/rear: 52/48.
Interior: Door actuated courtesy light. Glove boxs. Heating and demisting system: De Luxe only. Twin sun visors. Map pockets. Ashtrays Front and Rear. Padded facia panel. Front-hinged doors. Armrests: Front and Rear. Starting handle. Layback seats. Self-parking Windscreen wipers.
Performance: Maximum speeds for flying quarter mile: 85 mph / 88 mph Speed in gears; 1st 25 mph, 2nd 49 mph, 3rd 75 mph, 4th 85 mph Acceleration times from rest; 0-30 mph 6.9 sec., 0-40 mph 10.0 sec., 0-50 mph 13.5 sec., 0-60 mph 21.2 sec. Standing quarter mile 22.6 sec. Overall fuel consumption 32 mpg. Touring range 350 miles. Fuel tank capacity 11 gallons.
Peugeot 403

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