Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie
Mediterranean style doesn’t necessarily take flamboyant forms: sometimes, good taste is all about restraint, as in the case of the Peugeot 306 Cabriolet.
Italy and France are beyond doubt two hotbeds of style. Germany may have the Bauhaus, but as far as more flamboyant forms are concerned, the two South European states are in an aesthetic league of their own. The combination of the two therefore ought to lead to extraordinary results.
The Peugeot 306 Cabriolet is the outcome of an Italo-French cooperation, but extraordinary it isn’t. Which isn’t to say that it’s unexceptional, either, but that its quality lies in its discretion, its moderation and composure, rather than any extravagance.
Peugeot, of course, had been subject to Italianate influences for quite some time when the 306 convertible was unveiled in 1994. Second only to Ferrari in terms of longevity and significance, the French carmaker’s partnership with Pininfarina of Turin had played a significant role in establishing Peugeot as a purveyor of understated, classy motorcars. The Vélizy-Torino axis was therefore well established when the 306 model, Peugeot’s compact class offering for the ‘90s, needed to be decapitated.
The resultant 306 Cabriolet was a child of Cambiano in more than one way: it was both produced there and bore all the hallmarks of traditional Pininfarina styling, as well (and despite being based on a Peugeot in-house design). At a time when its competition - such as the Opel Astra F or VW Golf III convertibles - had to make do with ungainly roll bars and/or bulging retracted roofs, the Peugeot offered the kind of clean, uncluttered silhouette that used to be the reserve of considerably more expensive open-roofed fare, such as the BMW 3 series convertibles.
Yet the Pininfarina touch is just as obvious in the details, which betray the subtle craftsmanship of the Cabriolet’s styling. Of course, the fundamental proportions need to be right for these small elements to shine, but the delicate edges of the 306’s surfaces - particularly visible on the faint kink on the Cabriolet’s rear wings - bear witness to the fact that the Italians weren’t satisfied with simply elongating the base car’s lines. Similarly, the Cabriolet’s A-pillar wasn’t simply reinforced through the addition of a quarter glass; instead, the entire windshield frame was painted black.
In more than one way, the Peugeot 306 Cabriolet acts as an antithesis to a great many current car design trends. The blackened A-pillar, for example, is aimed at smoothening the overall appearance of the convertible’s roof and greenhouse, whereas these days, designers tend to make this part of the car increasingly fussier by adding a plethora of chrome accents, fake windows or gratuitous creases. Pininfarina also lent the Cabriolet’s side sills an elegant waistline, which prevented its stance from becoming somewhat static - or heavy, which is what most cars are intended to look like today.
This contrast is just as obvious when it comes to the overall appearance of the 306 Cabriolet. One needn’t even compare it to its grotesque successor (which came loaded with chintzy, post-Colaniesque styling cues, a whale shark’s mouth and an utter disregard of any basic sense of proportions, as well as a retractable metal roof) to understand that this Peugeot was a product of the ‘90s, in retrospect a highly loveable period of mostly non-aggressive, positively reserved design. And a period that was so much at ease with itself that it was able to embrace the convertible for what it is: driving at its purest, as well as at its potentially most dangerous. Quite some contrast to the thinking behind the fortresses-on-wheels that no manufacturer can do without anymore.
One of the most pleasant gifts the 306 received from Vélizy happen to be its side mirrors, actually. Their mechanically necessitated gaps are arranged in a most graphically pleasing fashion - a detail many would deem utterly unnecessary, but which illustrates the level of care and attention that went into the creation of what is just ‘some old Golf clone’ to a great many people’s eyes.
The 306’s cabin isn’t quite as remarkable. Albeit successful at conveying an impression of solidity - let’s not forget this car came out years before the Golf IV would reinvent people’s expectations of perceived quality - and boasting a clear, geometrical interior architecture, it falls slightly short of the standards set by the exterior. The arrangement of its instruments and centre console, as well as the door armrests ‘flowing’ into the dashboard, certainly betrays the influence of legendary designer, Paul Bracq, who had been in charge of Peugeot interior design at the time. Not all of these graphical gimmicks are strictly necessary, and their execution does bear witness to the limitations of the production methods of the time, but neither of these minor complaints deter from the Peugeot’s overall stylistic quality. Which, unfortunately, cannot be said about the silly wood effect plastic that spoils quite a few 306s’ central instrument panel. As it turns out, the 90’s weren’t immune to the odd silly fashion, either.
The Peugeot 306 Cabriolet wasn’t the last offspring of the Vélizy-Torino axis. And neither was it Peugeot’s final convertible, or what could be described as the last proper Peugeot. And yet it stands for a time when people - and not just members of the Bourgeoisie - appreciated charms of the discreet kind. Now may be the time to forget about discretion and shout about those stylistic qualities that have since been forgotten.
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