Citroën had the 2CV, Volkswagen had the Beetle, Fiat had the 500 and Peugeot had the 205. Although the 205 came much later than other people’s cars, it was just as important because it enabled Peugeot to overcome its deep financial troubles and return to profitability, and it transformed the automaker by luring new customers into showrooms and giving it a more youthful image. This is the story of the 5,278,300 205s that were built from 1983 to 1998 and sold in over 140 countries all around the globe.
Work on the 205 began in 1978. At the time, Peugeot’s aging entry-level 104 was struggling to keep up with more modern rivals from Renault, Ford and Volkswagen. Furthermore, there was a massive gap between the 104, once the shortest four-door car in Europe, and the 305, a well-built and modern car that was considered bland at best.
Peugeot had problems outside of its own lineup. It had somewhat reluctantly picked up Citroën and Chrysler Europe (a group that included Simca) over the course of the 1970s and it did not have the time, the cash or even the interest to save either brand. It had no choice with Citroën because too many jobs were at stake, but Simca was half-heartedly morphed into Talbot and eventually phased out altogether. Together, Citroën and Chrysler Europe cost Peugeot a small fortune.
Drafted in an unfavorable context, the early guidelines of the project that led to the 205 (called M24 internally) called for a car that was lighter and more fuel-efficient than the 104. It had to be easy and cheap to build and utilize as many existing parts as possible to enable Peugeot to save money on research and development. From the beginning, Peugeot hoped that the 205 would propel it into new markets and give its image a much-needed boost.
As was traditionally the case, Peugeot commissioned both its in-house styling center and storied coachbuilder and design house Pininfarina to draft up styling proposals. Both parties started with a 104 platform and early prototypes consequently looked like an overgrown 104, a design that, if launched, would have undoubtedly been dated five years after its debut.
Looking back over three decades later, Peugeot explains that Pininfarina’s designs kept the spare tire in the engine bay, giving the car a high hood. Peugeot designers lodged it under the trunk floor and penned a sweeping hood that made the M24 more aerodynamic and helped create a more modern-looking overall design. In the end, Peugeot’s in-house design was picked over Pininfarina’s, marking a first in several decades. The design was fine-tuned with the help of computers – a real novelty at the time – until it was finally locked in 1979.
The first drivable 205 prototypes were built in 1981 and they underwent extensive testing, including crash tests at Peugeot’s Belchamps, France, facility. It is interesting to note that some of the early prototypes were equipped with three-lug steel wheels, a setup that was replaced by a more conventional four-lug design on all production-bound 205s.
With the car almost ready, Peugeot had to decide on a name. 105 was briefly considered but eventually ruled out because Jean Boillot, the brand’s general director at the time, wanted the hatchback to be more upmarket than the 104. In 1981, project M24 was christened 205.
The story begins
205 production began in Mulhouse, France, in November of 1982 and the car was presented to Peugeot-Talbot dealers on January 20th, 1983, in Monaco. The press drove the 205 in Morocco the following month and it made its public debut on January 24th, 1983. At the time, it was only available as a five-door hatchback with a gasoline-burning engine.
The entry-level 205 was powered by a carbureted 954cc water-cooled four-cylinder engine that was borrowed from the 104. Linked to a four-speed manual transmission, it sent 45 horsepower and 50 lb-ft. of torque to the front wheels. The car retailed for 39,800 francs, which made it a mere 50 francs more expensive than the smaller 104. It was amazingly Spartan and it did not come with headrests, a dimming mirror or even a cigarette lighter.
Early in the 205’s career, the range-topping model was the GT, which carried a base price of 54,800 francs. It utilized a 1.4-liter four-cylinder mill that made 80 horsepower and 81 lb-ft. of twist thanks to the use of two carburetors. A five-speed manual transmission was bolted to the engine, and the car came standard with a brake booster, an electronic tachometer and a discreet trunk-mounted spoiler. Power windows and alloy wheels were optional.
A 1,769cc diesel-burning four-cylinder engine was added to the lineup in September of 1983. With 60 horsepower and 79 lb-ft. of torque on tap, it was capable of reaching a top speed of 96 mph (155 km/h), which was not bad for a slow-revving old-fashioned oil-burner. It returned 6 liters per 100 kilometers in a mixed European cycle, which converts to roughly 39.2 U.S. mpg and 47.2 U.K. mpg.
Peugeot’s investment started to pay off and the 205 became the best-selling car in France in 1984 with 171,702 units sold, a number that represented 9.8 percent of the new car market. The 205 repeated that feat in 1985 when its market share grew to 12.9 percent with 226,974 examples sold.
Pininfarina displayed a concept car called 205 Verve at the 1984 Turin Motor Show. Essentially a station wagon version of the hatchback, the car failed to grab Peugeot exec’s attention and it remained a one-off show car.
The 205 on steroids
The first 1.6-liter GTi prototypes started meandering around Europe in 1983 and the model was presented in March of the following year. Aimed squarely at the second-gen Volkswagen Golf GTI, the 205 GTi’s kart-like handling, rev-happy 105-horsepower engine and affordable price earned it accolades from the international press.
Drivers who found the GTi too soft and had a fat wallet could opt for the Turbo 16, which was introduced shortly after as a limited-edition model. Often called T16, it was the most extreme version of the 205 ever built thanks to a mid-mounted 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that churned out 200 horsepower. Just 200 examples were built.
The brain child of Jean Todt, the Turbo 16 was primarily offered to the public to allow Peugeot to race the car under the Peugeot Talbot Sport banner in the World Rally Championship’s Group B class. The car used the same basic architecture as the street-legal T16 but its four-banger churned out 365 horsepower thanks to a slew of track-specific modifications. The T16 was driven to victory in the World Rally Championship by Timo Salonen in 1985, but his teammate Ari Vatanen was involved in a bad crash which prevented him from racing for a year and a half.
In 1986, the second evolution of the track-only T16 was launched with an impressive 530-horsepower engine. Peugeot again took home both the pilot and manufacturer titles but that was the last year for the Group B and it was deleted in 1987 because of numerous – and sometimes deadly – crashes.
Eager to keep racing, Peugeot turned its attention to rallying and modified the Turbo 16 to compete in the Paris-Dakar, which it won in 1987 with Ari Vatanen at the wheel and in 1988 with Juha Kankkunen. A 550-horsepower version of the T16 also participated in Pikes Peak but it did not finish the race because of a mechanical failure.
The lineup grows
In September of 1984, the three-door body style inaugurated by the GTi was offered on all gasoline- and diesel-burning models. To differentiate the two on paper, the trim levels of three-door models started with an X (XR, XLD, XRD, XT, etc) and five-door models were attributed the letter G (GR, GLD, GRD, GT, etc). The exception to the rule is the aforementioned GTi.
That same year, Peugeot showcased an all-electric version of the 205 which had a range of 86 miles (140 kilometers) and a top speed of just 62 mph (100 km/h). Inside, it was identical to its internal combustion counterparts because all of the drive components were neatly installed in the engine bay.
Interestingly, the battery-powered 205 was equipped with a primitive regenerative braking system, a technology that is found in nearly all of today’s EVs and hybrids. It could be fully recharged in 10 hours and it took 11.6 seconds to reach 31 mph (50 km/h). The car was never added to the Peugeot catalog as a regular-production model but several examples were built by Peugeot in order to gather information about electric mobility.
Slow sales prompted Peugeot to pull the plug on the 954cc base model in 1985, but overall the 205 was still as popular as ever and the one millionth example was built on December 9th of that year.
Peugeot launched a clever ad campaign that billed the 205 as a sacré numéro, which can be translated as “one hell of a number,” or “one hell of an act.” The automaker had visibly learned a lesson from rival Renault: Advertising is almost as important as the car itself. The Renault 14 was similar to the 205 but it failed largely because of an ad campaign that compared it to a pear.
The lineup grew again in March of 1986 with the addition of two convertible models deigned jointly by Peugeot and Pininfarina. Badged CT and CTi, respectively, they were based on the existing GT and GTi models and became an instant hit.
The last evolutions for 1986 were the addition of an automatic transmission and a 130-horsepower GTI powered by a 1.9-liter engine. It was launched as an upmarket alternative to the existing 1.6.
In addition to two-seater hatchbacks like the XA and the XAD aimed at companies big and small, the 205 spawned two commercial vans.
Introduced in 1986, the first was the Multi looked like a bulky station wagon version of the three-door hatch. It was built by independent coachbuilders such as Gruau and Durisotti and sold through Peugeot dealers as an authorized conversion. The Multi was offered with a 50-horsepower 1.1-liter gasoline-burner (later upgraded to 55 ponies) and a 1.8-liter diesel until it was phased out in 1993.
The second van, dubbed 205 F (for fourgonette, “small van” in French) was introduced in 1990 and based on the highly successful Citroën C15. The two vans shared the same rear doors, but the 205 F had a more streamlined silhouette and a useful storage tray above the passenger compartment. Available in white or red with a 1.1-liter gasser or a 1.8-liter diesel, it was axed in 1997 and replaced by the Partner.
The Multi had a maximum payload of 870 pounds (395 kilos) so it was often undermined by better established vans like the Renault 4 F4 and the Citroën Acadiane. Its main selling point was that it was unbeatable in city traffic because of its compact dimensions. The 205 F had a more useful 1,100-pound (500-kilo) payload but buyers more than often opted for the Citroën C15, the default choice in the small, car-based van segment throughout most of the 1990s.
Updated inside and out
The 104-sourced gasoline-burning engines were replaced by more modern units pulled out of the Citroen AX parts bin in 1987. The 205 also got a new, more ergonomic dashboard, but it stayed the same on the outside.
The Junior nameplate that was introduced in 1986 as a limited edition was added to the catalog as a regular-production model in 1987. It was an entry-level model that became one of the most popular variants of the 205 built. Although it was available in several colors, most were ordered in a shade of white called Blanc Meije (also offered on the 2CV) with matching white plastic hubcaps.
In March of 1988, the 205 Rallye was introduced as a sub-GTi model. Billed as a very light street-legal car designed for track use, the Rallye had no radio, no a/c, no rear ashtray, no clock and no storage bin in the passenger side door panel. What it did have were bucket seats, red carpet and a three-spoke steering wheel that were all lifted from straight from the GTi parts bin as well as a 102-horsepower 1.3-liter four-cylinder. It was initially limited edition but it was later added as a regular production model by popular demand.
In 1988 the CT was replaced by the Junior-based CJ, a smart move on Peugeot’s part as it instantly became one of the most affordable convertibles on the market: In 1990 it retailed for 90,200 francs, over 10,000 francs less than the Golf Cabriolet. Both cars were available with an electric top but the Volkswagen was noticeably better appointed.
The numerous versions of the 205 massively contributed to its success. Between the three- and five-door models, gas and diesel engines and miscellaneous trim levels, 28 versions were offered in 1989.
In 1990, the 205 gained clear turn signals lenses and redesigned tail lamps, giving it a more up-to-date-look. The facelift also prepared it to fend off the smaller 106 that came in 1991 and the 306 that debuted in 1993.
The final years
The facelift and the slew of special editions such as the the Champion, the Green, the Gentry, the Roland-Garros, Color Line and the range-topping GTi Griffe were successful and the 205 again became the best-selling car in France in 1990 and in 1991 with 229,044 and 200,781 units sold, respectively.
A turbocharged version of the 1.8-liter oil-burner arrived in 1991 and propelled the 205 into a new era. Rated at 78 horsepower and 115 lb-ft. of torque, it enabled the hatchback to reach 62 mph from a stop in 12.2 seconds and reach a top speed of 108 mph
In 1993, new pollution rules in Europe forced the adoption of a catalytic converter, creating massive reshuffling of engines for almost every automaker in Europe. For the 205, the biggest change was seen on the 1.9-liter GTi, which saw its power drop from 130 to 122 horsepower, and the 1.6-liter model, which was deep-sixed.
The 1.9-liter GTi and CTi were phased out in 1994 after 294,514 examples of the GTi and 27,999 of the CTi had rolled off the assembly line. The lineup was thinned and variants progressively disappeared or changed as sales slowed down. The CJ became known as simply Cabriolet, and most other trim levels were baptized Sacré Numéro. Modifications were minor, but the car got a new bumper and lost the plastic trim on the hatch, a locking glovebox and side repeaters for 1996. U.K. sales were halted in 1996.
The Sacré Numéro became the 205 Génération towards the end of 1996. Recognizable by a big oval emblem on the trunk lid, it was available with the 1.4-liter gasser and the 1.8-liter diesel. The 205 was showing its age but although sales reached new lows every year, the end of production was delayed several times because there was still a strong demand from folks who had been driving the hatchback since it was new, and from a small but resilient clientele that shunned the increasing amount of electronics built into cars. Although it always complied with European safety and emission norms, the 205 stayed basic and largely free of in-car electronics thoughout its entire career.
The end of the line came when the last 205 was built on December 31st, 1998. That year, the lineup started at 58,700 francs, making it cheaper than the pint-sized 106 and Peugeot’s entry-level model. It was replaced by the 206 which was much more up-to-date looking and became Peugeot’s all-time best-seller.
Happy 30th, Peugeot 205!
Today, the 205 is by no means rare (government records indicate that about 241,000 units are currently registered in France) but early models with orange turn signals are becoming harder and harder to find because, with the exception of performance-focused models and miscellaneous limited edition, most are simply driven into the ground and junked.
Like the Clio Williams and 16s, the GTi variants were long abused by the tuning crowd. Today, most GTis are preserved by enthusiasts and many regularly field them in local auto-crossing events and hill climb races.
A word about the photos
All of the period photos were kindly provided by Peugeot’s archives department, but the more recent shots were all taken specifically for this article. In fact, we delayed publishing the piece several times because we felt we didn’t have enough images. We tried reaching out to owners via enthusiast forums and did not receive a single reply, be it positive or negative, which was a big disappointment.
We made it a point to carry our camera every time we went to the hardware store or to the grocery store and took most of the shots you see above behind the wheel of our trusty 4 F4. The idea was to compile a very thorough gallery of the different models in every day situations, not just a few shots of a restored GTi taken at a car show. The gallery above contains a model from the first year of production (not easy to track down!), a couple of interesting limited editions, a 205 F, a late-model Cabriolet and so forth.