Working in the family firm sits easily with Thierry Peugeot. But it nearly didn’t happen. His great, great, grandfather was against the idea of the company entering the new-fangled car industry 120 years ago; it didn’t have a future, he thought. Far better to stick to bicycles, machine tools and salt and pepper grinders.

The family was divided on the issue but those who wanted to be bold and take a step into the new world won the day. The split continued for some years: at the 1910 Paris motor show Peugeot had two booths, one for cars and one for everything else. Unity, or at least commonsense, prevailed thereafter.

It was inevitable that one day Thierry himself would be involved. But he too spent six years away from Peugeot, selling aircraft equipment in the USA among other jobs including a spell in South America. He joined the firm that bears his name in 1988 and today is chairman of the supervisory board, a position he has held since 2002.

That outside experience is important, he believes, and he hopes that his teenage children will do likewise should they follow into the family business. “There are only about six Peugeot family members among a workforce of 200,000 so we can easily lose ourselves,” he says modestly, chatting over dinner during the launch of the 208 in Portugal.

It’s a key car for the company, just as other 2 series models have been. The first was the 201, launched during the great depression of the late 1920s and early 30s.
Of the modern 2 series, the 205 of 1983 was launched at a time when Peugeot desperately needed a small, best seller. That car went on to sell 5.2m units and transform Peugeot’s fortunes.

The 206, launched in 1998, did even better, selling 7.7m and counting. Production will finally end this year. It still sells well in central Europe and France. The 207 that replaced it did less well. Sales were just 2.3m. The car was “too big and too expensive” as Peugeot executives admit, losing ground to the more svelte Ford Fiesta and VW Polo.
New 208 is slimmer, lighter, better looking and should appeal far more to women.

Sales this year are expected to reach 265,000, rising to 550,000 next year by which time it will also be built in Brazil as well as Poissy, the main launch plant, and Mulhouse in France and Slovakia.

The hope is that the 208 will be seen as a premium product and Peugeot admits he is puzzled why France’s car makers don’t seem able to make a car that the rest of the world sees as premium. “We have premium wine like Bordeaux and luxury goods like LVMH so why not premium cars?” He notes that when Peugeots were sold in the US, they were bought by people who would buy a Volvo if not a BMW “so they were almost premium then.”

But the burning question is the alliance with General Motors. Is it going well?

“PSA is well known in the industry for its ability to work with partners,” said Peugeot. He reels off the names of current partners – BMW, Ford, VW, Toyota, Mitsubishi – and repeats the phrase heard so often from his deputies at last month’s Geneva motor show: ambitious but pragmatic.

Peugeot points out that parts supplier Faurecia, 57% owned by PSA, does more business with the VW Group than it does with Peugeot-Citroen and he expects Faurecia to play a prominent role in the alliance.

What clinched it for him was an engineer asked to give his viewpoint to the supervisory board on whether PSA and Opel-Vauxhall engineers would be able to work together. The engineer was very enthusiastic; a deal was done.

Coping with the demands of big families is obviously a Peugeot strength.