For most of August, a hushed silence has been in force over motormessenger, thanks largely to the fact that I was away on holiday in Algeria.
For those unaware of the North African nation, it’s just over the Mediterranean and faces both Spain and France. Algiers, the nation’s capital, is a beguiling conglomeration of old-world colonialism and European chic. Early 20th-century Art Deco buildings contrast with Ottoman markets and modern, glass-fronted offices. Like their European counterparts, the Algerians are also pretty bad drivers. Whilst this is partially to do with the fact that there is an epidemic of traffic in the narrow, Victorian-era streets of the city, a large chunk of the blame falls squarely on the carelessness and impatience of those at the wheel. To misquote author Bill Bryson, the Algerians should never, ever have been let in on the invention of the motorcar.
|Traffic, in 35-degree heat.|
Nevertheless, if you can drive in Algeria, you can drive pretty much anywhere. This is the country of three-lane motorways, expanded to five by the traffic. Stop signs are merely taken as advisory notices. It’s okay to undertake. That one dim light coming towards you out of the darkness could either be an old Honda bike or a massive, dog-eared Renault arctic with most of its lights smashed. Don’t want to queue? Make your own on the verge or, if you’re particularly obnoxious, force your battered diesel Polo up the verge of the opposing side. Nearly anything goes.
In a place where a car is as much a defensive weapon as a method of transport, what do you drive? Most of the roads are blistered and potholed by the sun. Rocks are common too, so a high ride height is a must. You’ll want something with good bumpers too, as most people bumper-surf to get into horrifically tight spaces.
Enter, then, Africa’s workhorse and Car of the Year 1969, the Peugeot 504.
This particular example has been in my family since new, and is the lavishly-equipped SR model (which means front electric windows, a sunroof and, er, that’s about it). The carboretted four-cylinder leaded petrol engine dispatches its power via the rear wheels and is harnessed by a four-speed gearbox. Impressive, no doubt. Our example is still going strong and wears the scrapes, dents, marks and patina of 31 years in Africa.
I got to drive the old man for a few kilometres, thus breaking myself into the world of left-hand drive. Sinking into the original interior, complete with pillowy-soft fabric seats, I was greeted by a bus-sized steering wheel and a speedo sans rev-counter. Even for 1982, this car was aged!
Fire it up and the engine clatters, quickly settling to an industrial-sounding idle. A manual choke to my right helps warm up the engine, despite it sitting in 32-degree heat for most of the morning. With a big boot and comfy interior, it’s no wonder that most of the long distance taxis in North Africa are still 504s or its modern sister, the 505. Pressing the accelerator is akin to standing on an orange – perhaps the throttle cable needs sorted? Then, the first corner. Turn left. Keep turning, turning, turning. Oh crap – am I going to make it?! I juuuust complete the turn in time, saving the car from scraping a kerb. Clearly, I’m not used to a car without power steering and a massively unhelpful steering ratio. Feeling like a captain who’s narrowly avoided grounding a boat on rocks in a storm, I drive on with a new found respect for the blue beast.
Whilst this car may be outdated, its well-suited to Algerian roads. It’s comfy, modern enough to keep up with new traffic and strong enough to withstand years of abuse from the sun, other drivers and irregular maintenance. Could you say the same about a modern E-class or Pug 508 in thirty years’ time?
|I came across the manual for our car – note the Arabic translation!
What’s more, as time wears on, everyday Algerians are beginning to notice the car that has played a part in many of their childhoods. This year, a handful of people stopped to compliment the car or share stories of the one their brother, father or uncle used to have. The Pug’s imposing shape also helps to scythe through traffic, as people are reluctant to cut up a heavy, broad-shouldered French saloon in their little plastic Korean hatchback.
So what’s in store for the future? It’ll most likely stay in Algeria, but in a perfect world I’d love to restore it, give it a six-speed ‘box, limited-slip diff and a turbocharged Audi 2.0 petrol engine. It’s the least I could do for such a faithful old workhorse.
|Dust, scratches and originality in spades – you can’t buy that|