The development of the 1935 Peugeot 402, like many of its contemporaries, was heavily influenced by the principles that governed efficient air travel.
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The Wright Brothers' pioneering airplane flight in 1903 not only opened the way for mankind's mastery of the skies, it also infused the technological world with the dream of flying. Very soon it was realized that the shapes of a plane's surfaces had an important influence on power and economy.
This gave way to trendy "streamlined" styling for all manner of vehicles -- and even things that didn't move, like household appliances. But apart from a few sensational prototypes, common motor cars continued to look more like boxy carriages into the mid-1930s.
A big change came when Walter Percy Chrysler's company introduced the brand-new Airflow models in 1934. Designed by Carl Breer, the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows were characterized by a body with rounded nose and "waterfall" grille, integrated headlamps, and separate angled windscreens reminiscent of a period airplane cockpit. It wasn't just the unusual streamlined styling of the Airflow that made it a sensational new car.
Girder-like semi-unibody construction, an engine positioned more forward for improved weight distribution, rear seats set within the wheelbase for a more comfortable ride, and many other details were forward-looking. But for all its inherent advantages, acceptance of the Airflow was limited.
Many didn't like the radical styling. Others were put off by rumors (mostly unfounded) of technical problems that were spread when the car's production got off to a slow start. DeSoto gave up on the model in 1936. Production of Chrysler-badged Airflows lasted until summer 1937. More conventional Airstream models, hurriedly launched for 1935, kept Chrysler Motors from disaster.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the introduction of the Airflow was being watched with great interest in a most unlikely quarter: Peugeot, a manufacturer known even today for conservative design.
With its headquarters in Paris and its main factory in Sochaux in Northeast France, near the Swiss border, Peugeot is one of the world's oldest automakers. Company history dates to the very early 19th century, when the Peugeot family began producing goods that over time would come to include tools, coffee and pepper mills, kitchen utensils, bicycles, and much more.
In 1889, the firm showed its first passenger car -- a Serpollet-powered steamer -- at the "universal exposition" held in Paris. Soon after came a Type 2 Peugeot, this time with an internal-combustion engine built in France under license from Gottlieb Daimler.
In 1896, Armand Peugeot, one of two cousins then running the family firm, spun off the still-speculative automobile business from the established industrial concern. Later, his nephews, who inherited the old-line family business, would begin manufacturing motorcycles and light cars on their own, but a merger in 1910 brought all Peugeot motor vehicle operations under one roof again.
By the 1930s, reliability and robustness were two words commonly associated with Peugeots, but in styling and technology the cars conformed to mainstream European standards. Then, in 1934, the continent's automakers were roused with a jolt: André Citroën introduced the Traction Avant that marked the start of an era with its front-wheel-drive design, flat cabin floor, and unitized body without running boards.
Here, from within France itself, came a challenge Peugeot designers would accept. Caught up in the contemporary fascination with aerodynamic streamlining, the talented Peugeot engineers would not hesitate to produce a second sensation based on the look of the American Airflow.
The resulting Peugeot would have the same two-piece windscreen -- but even more angled. It would have the same nose -- but even more rounded. It would have the same flamboyant curved sideline, yes, even a flowing decoration on the fender skirts -- all inspired by the Airflow.
This Peugeot was given the model number 402. To learn about the 1935 Peugeot, continue to the next page.
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1935 Peugeot 402
Since 1930, Peugeot had begun labeling its models the 201, 301, 401, and 601. When the new 1935 Peugeot 402 was introduced at the Paris Auto Show in the Grand Palais, it was recognized that the choice of the final digit represented the beginning of a quite different generation of passenger cars.
To the enthusiastic French motoring public, Peugeot's change to the streamline design seemed to be a new landmark. On the surface, nothing appeared to be in common with the older models, which were becoming quite dated by this time.
Still, there were some important tried-and-true elements secreted under the stylish 402 body. The low stance may have reminded some of Citroën's unit-bodied front-wheel-drive car, but the Peugeot was mounted on a conventional -- albeit newly designed -- rear-drive chassis. And rather than adopt hydraulic brakes, the 402 perpetuated the use of cable-actuated mechanical units.
But these were the only conventional components used. A brand-new, 55-horsepower, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine with overhead valves went into the 402. Also new was a synchronized three-speed gearbox. Front wheels were independently suspended. Leaf springs were self-lubricating.
At approximately 16 feet long, the 402 wasn't exactly small. But even with only a four-cylinder engine (in contrast to the inline sixes and eights used in the various Airflows), it was efficient enough to attain a top speed of around 70 mph.
There was one more thing Peugeot did well: While the styling of the Airflow looks more sturdy, the 402 looks quite more elegant. With a particularly French sense of style, Peugeot composed its own variation on the aerodynamic theme. This was unique among European automakers.
Even the decorative trim was deserving of attention, especially those details that referred to Peugeot's longstanding leonine emblem. A magnificent, stylized lion's mane waved at the fender skirts. The lion's-head radiator mascot not only identified the 402 as a Peugeot, but it performed a function; turnable, it served as the hood release lever.
And, of course, there's no ignoring the unusual, side-by-side headlamps positioned behind the sloping, reverse-teardrop grille. With a 12-volt electrical system (a pair of six-volt batteries were included), the light they generated was remarkably effective.
Art Deco style appeared in the design of the symmetrical dashboard. Beneath the junction of the two angled windscreens, the gearshift lever stuck out from the central part of the dash. (Shift action was cable-directed, not via direct linkage.) In the 402, the handbrake lever also left its usual location on the floor for a place on the dashboard, another touch in common with the Airflow.
With no floor shifter, the front bench -- framed with trendy chromed tubing, a trait shared with American streamliners like the Airflow and Lincoln Zephyr -- was a genuine three-seater. Maroon velour fabric for seats and inner door panels harmonized with brown bakelite for control buttons.
A single circular dial housed all the gauges the driver needed to see; on the opposite end of the dash panel there was a provision for a radio -- a true rarity in European cars of the time.
A special multiple-function button in the steering wheel hub operated the complete lighting system and the dual-tone horn, too. As an option, customers could get a heater/defroster with a metal dash-top duct painted in the same café au lait shade as the rest of the instrument panel.
Peugeot added safety components to the 402 like inset pull-type exterior door handles and new latches designed to resist flying open. (Fifteen years later, Mercedes-Benz would take credit for having invented them.) Four-door 402s used rear-hinged front doors and front-hinged rear doors, the reverse of the practice on Airflow sedans.
For more on the 1935 Peugeot 402 lineup, continue to the next page.
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1935 Peugeot 402 Lineup
In contrast to the body construction restrictions inherent in the semiunitary Airflows, the 1935 Peugeot 402 lineup's body-on-frame chassis allowed for more variety of body styles. When the new Peugeot was unveiled in Paris in October 1935, there were no less than eight different models.
On the standard 124-inch-wheelbase chassis there was the four-door sedan; the "Coach," a six-passenger coupe with a one-piece backlight; a convertible; a three-seater roadster with a folding one-piece windscreen and a rumble seat in which two more persons could sit; and a utility sedan dubbed the "Commerciale." The Commerciale had a two-piece tailgate for easy loading of its flat cargo floor, but it came without fender skirts.
The absolute sensation, however, was the "Eclipse," a three-seat convertible with a metal roof that could be electrically retracted into the car's very long tail. Based on plans by a Peugeot-enthusiast dentist, Georges Paulin, such convertibles first appeared in the 601 series beginning in 1934. Peugeot claimed it took just 15 seconds to stow the top and that the system's reliability had been proven in 20,000 tries on the prototype.
The remaining models were mounted on a 130-inch wheelbase. They included an eight-passenger sedan called the "Familiale" and a purpose-built taxi with sunroof and sturdier bumpers. (The taxi was available only for a year because cab drivers came to prefer the regular 402 for their work.)
Aside from the 402, there was something else of note on the Peugeot stand at the 1935 Paris show, something that seemed to be so unbelievable that a cutaway model of it was displayed to explain it further: the world's first fully automatic transmission.
Gaston Fleischel, an Alsatian engineer born in 1885, designed the device specifically for the new streamlined Peugeot. His numerous patents, which dated back to 1927, would influence the development of automatics built in America where, with much more powerful cars and greater production volume, the automatic transmission would find more ready acceptance after first appearing as an option on 1940 Oldsmobiles.
At Peugeot, however, only prototypes of Fleischers handiwork were produced. The big factor was cost: 6,000 francs ($910) for the transmission was too much when the price for a whole car was listed at 22,900 francs ($3,465).
A more successful option was a four-speed electromagnetic Cotal gearbox shifted via a small lever attached to a control box on the steering column. There was still a lever in the dash, but it served only to put the car in or out of reverse gear. This transmission was functional and affordable -- costing only 2,500 francs ($380) -- and found favor with Peugeot customers.
To learn about the engine the powered the 1935 Peugeot 402, continue to the next page.
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1935 Peugeot 402 Engine
Two other fantastic projects remained in the prototype arena: an even more aerodynamic streamliner, and a modern V-8 for the 1935 Peugeot engine.
While developing the new four that went into the 402, Peugeot also designed a V-8; at first an L-head, but later with overhead valves.
This engine was considered for a more luxurious sedan with the same body as the 402, but with a modified nose and grille. Perhaps, predictably, it would have been called the 802. But due to the ominous political situation in Europe, it never got past the point of some nice drawings and perhaps a clay model.
Another sensational car did become a reality, the radically streamlined 402 sedan designed by Jules Andreau. For some time, Andreau had been working on aerodynamic automobile designs. In 1933, he showed some extraordinary prototypes with fishtail bodywork. Then the streamlined Peugeot 402 gave him the basis for a new project with all-around wind-formed lines.
The result appeared at the 1936 Paris Motor Show, a breathtaking car with one mighty fin -- and a sealed hood. The stillborn V-8 was supposed to go there. In the end, Peugeot produced six Andreau cars with normal 402 mechanicals for sale to special clients.
Even with its avant-garde looks, the 402 quickly became established. The car's reliability and economy won over skeptics. The coach and soft-top convertible were made until summer 1937.
A new six-seat version of the Eclipse also came out, replacing the three-passenger version. To keep the price reasonable, the top became manually operated. It was necessary to switch this new convertible to the long chassis of the Familiale sedan in order to contain the enormous roof in the trunk.
As a space-saving move, a flat, one-piece windshield replaced the original Eclipse's veed windscreen, which did away with the pointed forward edge of the roof panel. This "metal convertible," as Peugeot called it, would go on to be one of most sought after cars to come from Sochaux. In October of that year, the Commerciale utility sedan adopted the longer wheelbase and the nicer rear-body styling of the Familiale.
To follow the story of the Peugeot 402 from 1936-1940, continue on to the next page.
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1936-1940 Peugeot 402
The 1936-1940 Peugeot 402 put its stamp on the entire Peugeot line.
October 1936 saw the introduction of the 302, a smaller four-window sedan in the 402 style. There was also a convertible. Built on a 102-inch wheelbase, the 302 was powered by a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Starting in April 1938, both cars were offered with the bigger 402 engine; as such they were sold as the 402 Légère (Light).
In autumn 1937, there appeared an even smaller model, the 202, a replacement for the old 201, the last of the old-style Peugeots. Aside from its flat, undivided windshield and backlight, the 202 had the characteristic 402 look on a car that was just about 13.5 feet long.
Its engine was a new 1.1-liter ohv four that could take the 202 to a top speed of 62 mph, Peugeot said. Furthermore, Peugeot light trucks built before and during the coming world war had the same 402-style nose with headlamps hidden behind the grille.
The 302 and 402 also served as the basis for race cars made by one of the most important Peugeot dealers in Paris, Emile Darl'Mat. The man with the unusual name also was a race-car driver and designer. He built a small series of impressive roadsters and coupes, the latter with twin teardrop-style backlights and a heart-shaped license plate.
Three years after the introduction of the 402, a second generation was presented at the 1938 Paris show. Chrysler had stopped making Airflows the year before, but Peugeot pressed on with its interpretation of the futuristic design, modifying it only a little bit and calling it the 402 B.
The grille was more rounded with painted bars in place of chromed ones. On sedans, a new "bustleback" trunk replaced the former flush-fitting deck lid and exposed spare tire. Thanks to a longer stroke, the engine now displaced 2.1 liters and made 63 horsepower. Removable cylinder liners were another of the engine's new features. Transmission choices remained the same.
A big metal sunroof was newly available -- at no additional cost. The maroon velour interior fabric was replaced by a simpler, light-brown, striped fabric.
New body types included the first hardtop coupe in France, the 402 B Coach. It was the solid-roof companion to the "Coach Décapotable," which featured a folding fabric top over fixed window frames. The long-wheelbase series still consisted of three models: the Familiale, metal-roof convertible (now called the "Transformable métallique") and Commerciale.
The existence of the small 202 and the flexibility of body-on-chassis construction led to some comical designs. Peugeot put the 202 body on the modified chassis of the 402 Légère, gave it a longer nose, and sold it in 1939 as the 402 B Légère; 4,569 were built.
In contrast, a handful of prototypes of a diesel-engine 402 B were manufactured. Government restrictions that limited diesel use to utility vehicles put an end to this project.
Dark days were just around the corner for France. After the military forces of Nazi Germany overran the country in 1940 and civilian car production was ended, only a few 202 and 402 sedans left the factory until 1944. When peace returned to Europe, Peugeot revived the little 202 as its sole car line for a few years, but the days of the Airflow imitators was by now definitively over.
Production of first-generation 402s came to 33,815 cars between 1935 and 1938; another 6,718 long-wheelbase models and 2,038 taxis were manufactured. (By 1939, nearly 25 percent of Paris taxis were 402s.) Factory output of 402 Bs until 1940 came to 11,620. Long-wheelbase 402 Bs accounted for 4,512 assemblies. In the first generation, 10 percent were ordered with the Cotal four-speed transmission. Twenty percent of 402 B buyers chose it.
There is no doubt that the unusual 402 was one of the best-selling cars in prewar France. You could still see them on the streets in the 1950s, where they were hard to miss. Even after all those years, the distinctive look of the two-piece windscreen and the headlamps behind the raked grille gave them away very quickly.
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