Cars We Remember column: Peugeot history and Detective Columbo’s 1959 Peugeot 403

Greg Zyla
More Content Now
Peter Falk poses with his "sidekick" 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet (convertible) during a scene from the hit TV series "Columbo." Both NBC and ABC took part in its success during a 1971 to 2003 run.

Q: Greg I enjoy your nostalgia auto columns so can you tell us about the car Peter Falk drives in the former hit TV series “Columbo?” I know it is a Peugeot, but that’s about it. Is Peugeot still in business?

- Carol H., New Hampshire

A: Carol, TV fans young and old surely remember the hit series “Columbo,” starring the late Peter Falk that ran on TV starting in 1971.

And just like you, in addition to Falk’s acting that always included him saying to a prospective murder suspect, “Oh, just one more thing,” what also got my attention was the 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet (convertible) that served as Columbo’s personal calling card. Always in need of a carwash and cleaning, this Peugeot was actually a rare breed from the French car maker as only 504 convertibles were ever built in 1959.

In my opinion, that Peugeot 403 convertible was to France what the Karman Ghia was to Germany. European car enthusiasts had a few sporty cars to choose from that were actually in a price range that “normal” consumers could afford, and the 403 and Karman Ghia were two of them. Sure there were Aston Martins, Ferraris and Maseratis out there, but they were specialized high performance sports cars that carried high price tags.

Peugeot, and fellow carmakers Renault and Citroen, were the top French manufacturers, and it has always been clear that Peugeot had the better looking car that was able to penetrate the U.S. market along with Renault and its popular Dauphine.

Back to Lieutenant Columbo and his Peugeot 403 convertible. It was common knowledge that Peugeot wasn’t that happy about how Columbo took care of his 403, or lack thereof, as his car was always dirty, had a patched paint job and seemed to smoke regularly. It matched the personality of Falk’s character, including a bumbling demeanor, not always in clean clothes and constantly smoking. To this scribe, Columbo and his Peugeot are akin to Pat Brady and his 1946 Jeep “Nellebelle” of the 1950s “Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Show.” That Peugeot never let Columbo down although it was involved in a few on-screen fender benders along the way.

During the NBC years, the Peugeot’s license plate was 044-APD, but when ABC brought the series back in 1988, the plate was 448-DBZ. Also NBC/Universal Pictures sold the Columbo Peugeot after its last episode, and it turned up in Ohio. During Columbo’s second run, Falk and ABC collected three 403 convertibles for series use, one of them a 1960.

Peter Falk was blind in his right eye, losing it to cancer at age three. Falk’s “Columbo” awards during its run on NBC from 1971 to 1978 and then on ABC from 1989 to 2003 include 13 Emmys, two Golden Globes, two Edgar Awards and a TV Land Award nomination in 2005 for Peter Falk’s lifetime contributions. He died June 23, 2011 at age 83 from dementia.

In ending, we must discuss Peugeot’s history and stellar record of motorsports achievements.

As for Peugeot history, and to make a long story short, Peugeot dates all the way back to 1810 when it manufactured coffee grinders and bicycles. Its first car appeared in 1896 and they’ve been around now for 124 years. Peugeot purchased Citroen in 1975 and were somewhat successful until they left the U.S. market in 1991 (government and EPA mandates). However, Peugeot announced recently it expects to return to U.S. sales as soon as 2023 but no later than 2026.

Peugeot is also famous for its involvement in motorsports. From winning the Indy 500 way back in 1913 to modern day Dakar Rally victories, its biggest wins have been in the 24 Hours of Lemans (1992, 1993 and 2009) in the top LMP1 prototype division. Further, Peugeot has been a Formula 1 engine supplier (1994 to 2000) for seven years and leads to future opportunities.

Although at this point just an inclination, these “opportunities” could include Roger Penske, who is looking for a third engine supplier for his beloved IndyCar series (he now owns both IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). It would make sense on paper that with Peugeot looking at a return to U.S. markets by at least 2026, nothing could favor a successful return more than being named that elusive third engine supplier the current IndyCar Series seeks. Specifically, in the years leading up to Peugeot’s return into the U.S. consumer market, coupled with Peugeot’s love of motorsports and Penske’s keen marketing, business-to-business (read that new car dealerships) and overall PR abilities, no amount of advertising could be purchased that would exceed the positive consumer branding following an announcement that Peugeot will join Honda and Chevrolet as an official IndyCar engine supplier. To me, it’s a no brainer.

Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and Gannett Co. Inc. Contact him at greg@gregzyla.com or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.

This advertisement shows the versatility of the 1960 403 series Peugeot, available as a four-door sedan, two-door convertible or family friendly station wagon and even a small pickup.