Where Forty-Year Old Peugeots Are Still Hot Stuff
Story and photography by Gustaf Sjöholm
Four months after my first trip to the stunning Concorso d’ Eleganza Villa d’Este I found myself covering a different and less exclusive part of the automotive world. Join me on a trip to the West-African country Benin, where old Peugeouts are as common as general delays, pineapples, and creatively crazy passing.
Many things are hard to understand in Benin. From this small country with only seventy-five miles of coastline, more than ten million people were deported during hundreds of years of slave trading. And even though the people of south Benin call themselves Christians–the same people disappear into spiritual voodoo rites when darkness falls. And the Béninois (yes, they speak French along with twenty-three other African countries) manage to stuff at least ten people into an old and bent Peugeot estate, regularly. Well, after they’ve loaded 400 pounds of bananas on the roof…
We’re driving along the streets of the small town, called Ouidah, in a Peugeot 505 SR. The engine is running smoothly, but the steering rack is a bit loose and I can’t really relax with motorcycles swarming on both sides. A white and matte Peugeot 404 Camionette, the pick up version of the immortal 404-series, is taking the lead a couple of feet ahead. The guy behind the wheel is driving so close to old men on bikes and kids playing in the ditches that I notice myself humming nervously. As in most less-developed countries, it takes a while to relax to the traffic conditions, to lower your tolerance level and accept the insanity.
Back in Europe, from Scandinavia where I’m from, old Pugs have been gone for a long time. Here in Benin the situation is quite the opposite. If cold and dampness killed them back in the country of IKEA and Abba, they seem to deal well with the West African heat and dust.
I fell in love with these old French workhorses from day one of my three-month long stay in Benin. Maybe because of the smell, I happened to end up behind a 404 Camionette from the airport in Cotonou, overloaded with newly harvested pineapples. When I finally managed to overtake the car without causing a major accident (except light contact and angry honking)–I found myself behind a new Peugeot–a 505 GTi–loaded with a huge rice bag under the open trunk and wheel angles more extreme than a racing wheelchair’s. Alignment what? Since I’m a sucker for French culture and grew up in the capital of perfection, Stockholm, I immediately fell in love with the non-regulated way of using these old French funky cars.
Even though I’m driving one of Benin’s most common cars, everyone’s looking at me. Especially in a smaller town such as Ouidah, my white skinned face is literally shining in an environment where tourists of any kind are rare. There are no other white people in Ouidah, except one odd nun and some old French dude running a “buvette” (local word for bar), visibly suffering from years of heavy Pastis consumption.
If Citroën became known for first class comfort and innovative technological solutions, Peugeot established a role as the Mercedes of France. The reliable car that quickly made a reputation for being capable of way much more than cruising along smooth, French boulevards. Reports from Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, and Nigeria indicate that even today the old Pugs keep West Africa on wheels.
“You can buy all spare parts brand new in Nigeria”, says Monsieur Aristide who works at a junkyard in Ouidah. He has helped me to find today’s two Pugs. But he didn’t find them at the yard; local guys in Ouidah drive these two scar-faced fellows every day.
“Compared to modern cars, old Peugeots are better and don’t need nearly as much service”, says Monsieur Aristide. I get his point. First of all, modern are cars are expensive in a country where most people are very poor. And modern cars also invite more problems in this demanding climate. And when I say climate I mean the socioeconomic as well as the tropical. Benin has historically been politically stable, but still ranks among the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
Peugeots have been manufactured under license basically everywhere. Brazil, Argentina, Australia–and Nigeria. It makes the Peugeot population in Benin a mixture of Nigerian-built as well as French emigrés. In the Peugeot factory in Kaduna (a Nigerian town 180 miles north of capital Abuja), 425,000 examples of the legendary 504-model were built over thirty years.
“We easily could have kept the production running another one or two years–there was still a demand for the model”, said Jean-Pierre Vieux, chief of operations for Africa at Peugeot when the model was cancelled in 2006. The production of the 505-model went on until 2000.
Peugeot’s success story in Nigeria supposedly began with a hundred privately-imported Peugeot 403s back in the late ’50s. They gained quick fame by mastering the challenging Nigerian roads. After the Peugeot 404 was introduced, the demand for Peugeots in West Africa increased greatly. In 1972, a joint-venture between Peugeot in France and the Nigerian government, Peugeot Automobile Nigeria LTD, was created.
Today, forty years later, Peugeot has established a reputation as the car that always reaches its destination. It seems to be well earned since Peugeot reworked the suspension, injection, and air filter systems. Air and fuel are among the toughest challenges for any vehicle on West-African roads.
There are gas stations in Benin, but I rarely see any customers. Most motorcyclists and drivers buy gasoline, smuggled in from Nigeria, in old liquor bottles along the roads. You pay and a young lady with her kid tied up on her back fills up your car using a filthy piece of fabric as a filter.
The further north you go in Benin, the drier and dustier the air becomes. Towards the end of the dry season in late February, early March, just before the rain finally starts to fall, eyes, lungs, and engines are all really suffering.
“I personally prefer Toyotas, they are less thirsty”, says Aristide. We’ve made a stop next to Marché Zobé in downtown Ouidah to buy some green oranges. The vendor cuts the very top of the fruits off so we can squeeze the sweet juice directly in to our dry mouths.
Some minutes later, or actually closer to an hour (the Béninoise likes to bavarder, to chat), we jump back into the cars to continue our trip. I throw the pieces of the orange out of the open window. Trashcans don’t exist in Benin nor in its neighbor, Togo.
The clutch pedal isn’t functioning smoothly so I feed a decent amount of throttle to avoid stalling. Aristide and I wave to a bunch of kids who run after our cars. We head towards the beach and the voices of the screaming, running kids slowly fade away.
Yovo, yovo, yovo… meaning “white, white, white” in the local language.
The 505 SR produced 96 horsepower when it left the factory in the mid-’80s. A glimpse at the dusty power plant indicates that this good, old example has matching numbers. Peugeots final rear-wheel drive model was launched in 1979. It shared many components with its predecessor, the 504. The spacious estate version, Break, also has a live-rear axle with Panhard arm to cope with increased freight weight.
The paved street ends and one of the typical dirt roads takes over. I reduce the speed a bit; to be driving on dirt roads next to the coast in Benin requires an adapted driving style. I stay in second and third gear, try to be nice to the poor clutch, and hit potholes gently. In today’s 505SR, I notice that some of the instuments actually work, the rev counter is up and some of the warning lamps keep blinking. After some weeks of commuting in “bush taxis”, the most common way of traveling here, I’ve realized that the Check Engine lamp and a couple of other warning lamps are always on.
We continue driving along the Route des Esclaves (“The Slave Road”), passing palm trees and lagoons. Not much more than a hundred years ago, this empty and silent sand road was the last piece of African land the poor slaves saw before they were packed on ships and sent to the Caribbean or Brazil. We drive by Cases des Zomaî, a place where the slaves were kept in darkness for weeks and sometimes even months as a horrible and cruel physical test to prove their strength and work potential.
When we hit the beach at Porte du Non Retour (“The Point of No Return”), we make a stop to kill our thirst with a fresh coconut. From here it’s possible to drive all the way to the smoky city of Cotonou. The Peugeot 404 Camionette is blending in perfectly among endless sand dunes and palm trees. Fifty years after its introduction, this is a very common and in-demand car here.
West-Africa in general and Benin in particular is an oft-forgotten part of the world. Life goes on without really being affected by other global events. Well, that’s not totally true of course. The Lebanese and Chinese influences are strong, the latter are building roads, and all motorcycles sold here today are Chinese.
But among cars, 30-40 year old Peugeots are still ‘hot stuff’. Just owning your own vehicle is a luxury that adds to the attraction of an old wrecked Peugeot, even for a blue-eyed European from far up north.
A Peugeot 504 or 505 is a true and known friend when you’re trying to understand the predictable and cruel history of south Benin. Equally so if you just get fed up and head north searching for lions and elephants in some of the national parks close to Burkina Faso or Niger’s borders. Everything and nothing is possible in Benin.