The year was 1953 and my mother and I were in Liege, Belgium, visiting my godmother — Auntie Katie — and her Belgian GP husband, Elie Baiwir. My uncle had been a professional footballer and they were huge fans, involved with the Belgium Football Association, and every May they would come and stay with my family in North London for the FA Cup Final. Arriving in their stunning silver Jaguar XK120 roadster they naturally aroused much attention in our post-war suburban neighborhood. However, back in Liege, it wasn’t the Jaguar that impressed me as much as the other car in their garage — the one my uncle used for his daily rounds.
His town car was the stunningly futuristic and streamlined black Peugeot 203 Berline. From that moment I wanted one.
When my uncle died my aunt came back to live in England, bringing the Peugeot with her, again turning heads wherever she drove, and the car was eventually inherited by my cousin when she died. I was shocked and angry when I learnt that he had sold it for £50 to a scrap yard because he couldn’t find the parts to maintain it in the ’60s — what a waste.
Years and years went by with various 203 sightings during the part of my work photographing French lifestyles. Eventually, in 2001, I spotted the classified ad in Classic Car Weekly that tipped me over the edge. After many phone calls and emails to Patrick, who was selling it on behalf of an elderly Polish air force pilot, Stanislaw Celak, we agreed on £500″‘ • to include trailer delivery to south west London from Leicester.
It arrived early one Saturday morning to my quiet Wimbledon cul-de-sac with neighbours I’d never even met coming out to watch and admire the shape (although not the condition) of this barn/lock-up find. Appropriately this car too originated in Belgium — in Ghent where Mr Celak settled after the war with his Belgian wife. They imported it to the UK in 1963. It had been regularly used in Leicester until 1988, when it was put away and forgotten.
Interestingly, among the huge file of pre-1988 paperwork that came with the car, was correspondence from R.M. Kitchingman of Club Peugeot UK recommending parts suppliers. There were also original lubrication diagrams, an owners’ manual and a copy of The Sunday Times P. Olyslager motor manual.
From the mass of documentation (Belgian garage bills, every MOT certificate and tax discs from 1963 until 1988) the car appears currently to have a genuine mileage of 72,126 (supported by the odometer reading of 115,402 km). The handwritten logbook details it as e.i.1951 with matching engine and chassis numbers of 1.207.025 — indicating manufacture between October 1950 and September 1951. It was registered in Leicester on 21 October 1963.
So here I was with a fabulous looking wreck. I pottered around for a couple of years doing a bit here and a bit there, getting Peugeot Parts in Wimbledon to recondition the dynamo and starter motor, getting a local body shop to look at the ‘minor welding’ as well as some cosmetic repairs.
I eventually discovered they’d botched it up with a ton of filler and copies of The Sun (personally I would have preferred Le Figaro). The car would start and idle but never run so the fuel line was checked, rechecked and rechecked again with a new filter fitted every time. I ordered a sexy new stainless steel exhaust, with the legendary ‘fish-tail’ tail pipe, from London Stainless Steel Exhausts (not a snappy name — but it says what they do and they’re not in London), which for a while was, I’m sure, all that held the rotten underside of the car together.
Southern Carburetters in Wimbledon did a diagnostic check on the car, which was still idling but stalling when revved, and they concluded that the carb was ‘full of dirt’ after 9 years’ storage! My Christmas present that year, from my then new girlfriend and now wife, was a rebuilt carb with SC’s ‘123ignition’ distributor — how romantic was that? But still it idled and stalled.
I must admit with a lot of other stuff going on in my life I lost interest for a while and the car took pride of place in my local pub’s car park. Eventually the bullet had to be bitten and I decided that having come this far with the car I’d sort it out properly. After loads of research I chose Riverside Autos, down on the south coast in Littlehampton, to do the job. Steve and Trevor have been running the busines beside the River Arun for many years, with a workshop full of ongoing projects from Mk2 Jaguars to Lotus Cortinas. As usual, when the trailer with the car arrived in April 2008 it aroused the most attention of any of their projects, which continued for the duration of the refit — people love 203s.
Let’s spend a week or two having a look at it to see exactly what needs doing’ suggested Steve. Two weeks later he suggested I ought to go down and have a chat, which sounded ominous — and it was! They were right to be worried about what they might find and for the next eighteen months this is what they did: Removed and refitted all the body fittings — bonnet, boot lid, sunroof, doors, front and rear screens, lights, bumpers, interior trim, seats, petrol tank, roof lining and radiator.
What they found was quite remarkable in that, while the car was in a very tatty state, the 60-year-old structure was remarkably sound. Rather naively in retrospect, I just told them to get on with it. I was probably too trusting but had nothing to worry about because we were in constant contact and discussed every stage together with the cost. They took hundreds of images of the work in progress too. My trust was repaid with interest. Matters like the fuel flow were dealt with painlessly — the tank was flushed many times before it became clear that the answer was to reline it. Once that was done the fuel flowed freely for the first time in years, with the filter remaining clean. Rusty body sections were cut out and replaced — floor, sills (previously packed with those back numbers of The Sun!), lower door edges, front and rear wings, front and rear cross members, inner doors and jacking points —nothing was left to chance.
They remade the headlining, carpets, the door cards (with the budget going through the roof and time running out for summer fun we decided that they should make them — they are excellent but not the real thing and I’m looking out for NOS correct options), radiator grille and wiring loom.
Unsurprisingly a new radiator was needed and the clutch was reconditioned. As a nod to 21st century safety they rewired the stop lights as a pair instead of just the original single one on the boot lock. Seat belts were fitted to specially fitted anchor points. They were very accommodating when I made my monthly hospital progress visits — even giving me lifts to the celebrated on-trend East Beach inCafe on the beach for my lunch.
During the final stages we nipped over to Retromobile and picked up some shiny stuff — Cibie headlamps, headlamp surrounds, door handles and even more books on Peugeot 203s. Eventually on 23 June 2009 we went and collected the car, handing over a cheque so huge I’m embarrassed to even think about the amount, and drove it back to Islington, North London. I was a shuddering wreck on the journey because, despite asking Steve and Trevor to road test it to within an inch of its life, I was sure we’d never make it without a breakdown.
Of course we did make it but unfortunately that drive home is still the longest we have made in the car. I bought it when I lived in suburban Southwest London intending to use as my daily drive but have since moved to North London’s mean streets and now have very little use for any car. It comes out of hibernation at Easter and sits outside the house for the summer and goes back in late September. When it’s in position outside our house (and being admired and even photographed by myriad passers by) of course I can’t drive it for fear I won’t get the prime parking space back!
The past few years’ MOTs show that the car has been driven precisely 315 miles which, obviously, is not good and a decision will probably be made this year to decide its future.
With 203 values as feeble as ever (which I have never understood) I’m resigned to never getting anywhere close to what the project cost but I’m so glad we did it. I hope Mr Celak would be pleased with the result.
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