The Peugeot 304 is a small family car introduced to the public at the Paris Motor Show in September 1969 by the French car manufacturer Peugeot. Peugeot, which had always been a financially prudent company, saw a gap in the midsize car market in France, Italy and the rest of Western Europe. By using the smaller 204's midsection, development costs were minimized resulting in a higher profit margin because of the higher pricing structure in the larger, better equipped market. The 304's main competitors on its home market came from Renault and Simca, with Citroën noticeably absent from this sector at the launch. The 304 was a success for Peugeot and was noted for several advanced features under its sombre Pininfarina styled exterior. With its independent suspended front wheel drive drive train and disc brakes, it rode and handled better than most of its contemporaries, including some cars in higher price brackets. The chassis served Peugeot well and lasted for approximately 24 years adapted to derivative models. There was a distinct upmarket feel to the 304, its handsome lines were well suited to postwar Europe's newly affluent middle classes who desired roomy, advanced and stylish cars to park in their driveways. At about this time the Autoroutes were opening up France and car manufacturers around Europe knew that any car launched hence, would need to add an ability to travel at high speeds, in relative comfort with surefooted handling to its lineup in order to compete. The 304 fulfilled this brief and became one of the best selling cars in its market segment.
The car was sold until 1980 and was replaced by the Peugeot 305.
It was based on the Peugeot 204 with which it shared many components, the most obvious difference being the frontal styling.
The 304 was launched with an all alloy SOHC four-cylinder 1288 cc petrol engine (XL3). More powerful S versions of the engine, sporting a twin choke/twin barrel carburettor (XL3S), became an option in 1972: the S engines provided a 10 bhp (7.5 kW) output increase to 75 bhp (55 kW). Various detailed modifications were made to the engine in 1975 which boosted torque and included a marginal displacement increase to 1290 cc (XL5/XL5S).
A 1357 cc diesel engine became available for the saloon from July 1976, and for the estate and "fourgonette" van two months later. In July 1979, a larger 1548 cc diesel engine was offered; this was the engine also installed in early versions of the Peugeot 305.
The car was moderately advanced for its time, having fully independent suspension, and a four speed gearbox located directly below the engine, sharing the same oil as the engine. Although most interior components were interchangeable with the 204, the 304 had a floor-mounted gear change in place of the column-mounted control in the smaller car. The transverse engine front wheel drive configuration conferred enhanced cabin space, although this was no longer such an unusual feature as it had been for the 204 back in 1965. The 304 also incorporated front disc brakes and headlights that could adjust for left/right hand drive.
The 304 was designed to slot between the popular 204 and the recently introduced Peugeot 504. Since the 204 had an exceptionally spacious passenger cabin for its class, the 304 body used the central portion of the 204: engine and running gear components were mostly interchangeable between the two cars. However, the 304 had a restyled front grill and headlights, designed consciously to emulate the 504 which had received a generally positive response from the market place.
More substantial differences occurred at the rear of the saloon, where overhang on the 304 was 13.5 cm (5.5 inches) longer than on the 204: this allowed for a larger boot/trunk. However, estate and two door versions shared their (shorter) rear ends with corresponding models in the 204 range. Coupé and cabriolet versions replaced their 204 forerunners in March 1970, being the first models to receive the "S" version of the engine two years later in March 1972. However, the cabriolet and coupé 304s were withdrawn from the market, without direct replacements, respectively in July 1972 and August 1973. The fourgonette (van) version of the 304 appeared only in September 1977, as a belated replacement for the 204 fourgonette which had disappeared from the production lines the previous year.
The 304 changed little during a model life exceeding ten years. From the outside, the saloon received a simplified rear light cluster design in 1972, and there were rearrangements of the Peugeot badge appearing on the front grill. The roof line of the saloon was changed slightly to give greater headroom for rear passengers, the rear doors' window frames correspondingly were modified, gaining about and inch and a half to their rearmost upper edge making them the only doors in the 304 model range which were unique to the 304. Changes under the metal included the replacement of the dynamo with an alternator in 1971 and the fitting of wider tyres in 1974. The hydraulically operated clutch was replaced with a cable operated mechanism in 1977.
Launched in 1969, the Peugeot 304 confronted a more competitive market place than the one that had greeted the 204 in 1965. From the start it found itself in a fight for market share with the Renault 12 also introduced at the 1969 motor show: after the launch in 1970 of the Citroën GS competition intensified further. Nevertheless, the entire segment was boosted by the 1973 oil price shock as motorists traded down from larger cars. The Peugeot was particularly popular with the police and other public services both within France and in the Saarland region of Germany where the German Peugeot importer is based and where locally, for historical reasons, Peugeot traditionally enjoyed a level of market penetration usually reserved, at that time, for domestically branded makes.
The 304 saloon remained in production until 1979, by when a saloon version of the Peugeot 305 had been on sale for two years: the break (estate) 304 continued until Summer 1980, by when an estate version of the 305 had been introduced. In 1980, when the last 304 estates had come off the lines at Mulhouse, 1,178,423 Peugeot 304s had been produced: of these, approximately 36% were exported, mostly within Europe: during the 1970s Peugeot was one of several European manufacturers successfully learning to treat the entire EEC region as a single market.
The estate version was also exported to North Africa, where many were deployed as taxis and louages. In Egypt, as of 2009, the estate version of the 304 remains one of the most widespread types of vehicle in taxi service, though the government is hoping to persuade taxi drivers to adopt more recently manufactured, more government-imposed emissions compliant vehicles.
The Peugeot 304 also had a 2-door cabriolet version, which also contained only 2 seats, unlike the coupe version. This version is also the only version of the 304 that exists in any significant numbers in the UK today, as most saloons imported were destroyed by corrosion.