Death of a Peugeot: The Tragic Fate of a “Columbo Car”

Columbo’s car is the stuff of Hollywood legend, much of which is recounted here on this web site: See, The Car, The Car Topless, Inside Columbo's Car, Columbo and the Worlds Strongest Man, and "It Could Use A Coat Of Paint": Columbo's Car Crashes and Car Problems

But the full facts are a bit more complicated than the official studio version of the famous Peugeot’s biography. For example, there were a couple of additional Peugeot 403s leased by the studio, acting in rotation as Columbo’s vehicle.

Here is the grisly tale, from a first-hand observer, of the strange and  terrible fate that befell one of Columbo’s cars.  

Special thanks to Paul Leverenz for sharing this story, and for sending us his photos of the car that he tried to save from a fate worse than death.

(by Paul Leverenz)  

While it is true that Universal owned one of the Peugeot 403s used in the “Columbo” TV series, they also leased two others. When the original series ended, one of them was given to a good friend of mine, who still owns it.

When the TV series was to be revived, Universal fetched this copy
(in deplorable condition) with a flatbed tow truck to have it examined
in L.A. by their mechanics. They returned the car in a few days, after
determining this car was beyond restoration.

I spent many a Saturday working on this car for my friend, who was not mechanically inclined, and drove it around town in San Diego many times. The car fell into total disrepair and I refused to work on it any longer, telling my friend it was hopeless.

Professional mechanics refused to even put it on their hoists, for fear it would collapse in two.

When I photographed the car, I was extremely saddened at how my friend had let this car fall into such disrepair. He had lost the keys to it long before this day -- the last I saw the car -- and so he had allowed his lunatic mechanic (a homeless former songwriter who burned his mind out on drugs during the sixties) to unfasten the steering linkage, so it could me moved onto the flatbed by wrestling each front wheel.

Many years prior to this, my friend had let the Peugeot sit out in the open in Mission Beach, California., literally 100 feet from high tide, where pranksters loaded it up with Grunion (fish), and then seagulls feasted on the fish and the top and seat upholstery.

All this horrible damage could easily have been avoided if he had just covered the car properly. But my friend was too busy with his law practice to take care of his car in those days.

Shortly after he acquired the car (for free from his former brother-in-law), a police car rear ended the Peugeot in the San Diego Police Dept. parking lot.

That police parking lot collision is actually a funny story in itself. My friend was taking a client to police HQ to recover some belongings. His client, a big, brawny drag queen who called himself "Tammy", had been arrested for soliciting and was going back to pick up the female clothes he/she was arrested in.

When the collision occurred, Tammy jumped out of the Peugeot, holding his/her neck and crying out in pain. My friend said the expression on the cop's face was of absolute fear. Tammy eventually got a big settlement for that accident, and my friend was delighted to get a new paint job out of the deal for the Peugeot, but he was oblivious to the shoddy repair work.

After the smash-up in the police garage, my friend took the Peugeot to Tijuana, where it was straightened out by attaching it to a telephone pole with a chain, and then driving it forward fast.  Then, untold gallons of bondo were sculpted over the rear quarter panels.

The floorboards had rusted through, and the car sagged so much that I advised him not to open both doors at the same time.

One more anecdote:

When my friend acquired the car from his then brother-in-law, he flew up to Los Angeles from San Diego to get it and drive it back to San Diego. I recall that it took him about a week and several stops at auto repair garages to drive the car to San Diego -- a normal 2.5 hour distance. 

He would drive south on I-5 until the Peugeot conked out, get towed to a nearby repair shop, have whatever fixed, get back in the car and drive some more until it broke down again.  I believe he left it at various repair shops and took a bus home to San Diego, and then when the car was ready, he would somehow get back to L.A./Orange County to continue the trek. 

The night he finally arrived in San Diego, he called me during my dinner and said he was sitting on the I-5 exit ramp to Pacific Beach (Garnet Ave. exit) and needed a push. I jumped in my car and drove to the location and found him there with a dead battery.

I think I was driving a Datsun 510 back then and we decided it would be okay to push him with that car. My bumper rode up over his bumper and I put a dent in his trunk before we even got underway.  We managed to get the car running and he limped to my driveway with no lights.

That of course was the first time I saw the Peugeot, and this would be the start of several "lost weekends" working on that car in my driveway.

I later bought him a different trunk for something like $15 at a local junkyard. Much later I foolishly found him a parts car, a 403 four door, for $75 which we decided was in better condition than his convertible, and so I spent a lot of time making that parts car road worthy for him; that was when the convertible was sort of abandoned next to his Mission Beach house, and the rust really got to work destroying the floorboards and sheet metal.  He still has that 4 door somewhere, and probably the rear window shelf is still lined with his collection of "day-of-the-dead" dancing skeletons. 

Sadly, the former Columbo car now rests in a storage lot in Ensenada, where it continues to deteriorate. I wrote a piece about this situation and was published in Special Interest Autos a few years ago. My friend refuses to sell it and I have no time to deal with it any more.

After the Special Interest Autos article, Kit Foster received a few serious inquiries from people who wanted to buy the car. My friend still refuses to sell it.

I located a restoration shop here in San Diego who could rebuild the car, but I don't think he has the money right now for that kind of repair. I'd estimate it would take $30-50k to have it done. And my friend doesn't work on cars.

It's one of those sad situations without solution.

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