Over 200 years ago, in 1810, the Peugeot family established a manufacturing company in the small commune of Sochaux in the northeast of France. At first Peugeot specialized in the production of hand tools and kitchen equipment. Later, around 1880, the company diversified into the production of bicycles. Peugeot’s bike line proved to be a bridge to what turned out to be an even larger market, automobiles. Years later the bike brand has been sold but Peugeot still produces kitchen equipment and automobiles in France.
Peugeot’s automobile manufacturing history started in 1889 when the company built its first car, a three-wheeled steam powered contraption of which only four were built. The following year Peugeot changed the steam engine to a petrol powered internal combustion engine of Daimler’s design. With this change their cars became more practical and their automotive business took off. Peugeot’s automotive division grew through merger and expansion to become the second largest car company in Europe. It held this position until January of 2021 at which time it joined a merger to become part of the even larger Stellantis Group.
Through all of the changes Sochaux remains as a major manufacturing center for Peugeot. Their plant in Sochaux today still cranks out trainloads of cars destined for foreign and domestic markets each day. With respect to automobiles, Sochaux is, in some sense, France’s equivalent to Detroit.
Peugeot’s long history is on display at the company’s museum, la Musée de l’Aventure Peugeot, located in Sochaux’s center. There’s much to see at Puegeot’s sprawling museum. Along with an extensive exhibition of Peugeot’s cars going back to the early days there are also exhibitions of the numerous household products and bicycles made by the company. Though you can’t buy a car at the museum (as far as I can tell), you can purchase Puegeot branded items such as spice grinders and coffee mills as you exit the museum through its gift shop.
The museum doesn’t display many recent car models. The most recent of these, it seems, are all on railcars destined for auto dealers’ lots. To see the new models head over to the nearest Peugeot dealer. Or better yet, visit the brand’s expansive plant nearby, the l’usine PSA de Sochaux, and see the very newest models as they are assembled.
A factory visit requires an advance reservation, something that we were late to realize. Fortunately Wanderlust would be back in Montbeliard on her return cruise. Thus well before we revisited Montbelliard we were sure to book a factory tour slot and to pencil in a return stay in Montbeliard’s flower lined port.
Six weeks after we first stayed in Montbelliard Wanderlust was tied up again in the commune’s port. Soon we returned to la Musée de l’Aventure Peugeot, the collection point for the factory tours.
It turned out that I was a bit confused when I booked the tickets. The booking web page says, “This visit can be made in English, French, or German for Group and on reservation only.” I took this to mean, undoubtedly with some level of willful ignorance, that a reservation would necessarily be in a group and thus English would be spoken. The web page also says, “It is also necessary to understand French,” which confused the matter for a tour given in English. Nevertheless, rather than risking rejection by requesting a clarification, I purchased the tour tickets online and hoped for the best.
On the day of the tour we arrived at la Musée de l’Aventure Peugeot and registered at the reception. After checking our tickets the counter person then asked us if we understood French. Our façade of willful ignorance dissipated.
We gave our typical answer to the receptionist, “un petit peu”, meaning “a little bit” in English. It’s a well practiced phrase we had learned from the French who reliably use it in response to our, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” or “Do you speak English?” Indeed as we learned the phrase “un petit peu” seems to be invariably used whether the native French speaker could teach English at Oxford or could barely gather together a few of the most basic words of English sufficient to order fish and chips in London. Politeness dictates we ask whether English is spoken before launching in to speaking English in France. But often the answer left us more confused about whether we should try our poor French or stick with English.
Fortunately we were in France. Our mangled French words triggered a typical Gallic shrug from the receptionist. We understood “some” French, enough that we could mangle “un petit peu”, and thus per the “rules” we could join the tour. But it wasn’t quite right, and hence the disapproving shrug. But it’s France. Mild transgressions are often met with polite reproaches and are otherwise left unpunished.
In truth we weren’t the only ones in our small group who ran afoul of the safety rules. The website described a dress code for the visit requiring long sleeves, closed toe shoes, and long pants. Even on a hot day, we understood this part and came dressed appropriately, prepared to sweat it out in what had to be a hot factory. All of the French tour-goers missed at least some part of these clothing restrictions and in their case there was no language confusion defense. These transgressors too received a mild admonishment and a Gallic shrug from the guide. Like us they were allowed to come along on the tour.
With the tour group assembled at the museum our guide drove us all to the short distance to the plant in a van, a Peugeot of course.
The Peugeot factory in Sochaux is the final assembly point for several Peugeot, Opel, and Citroen models. This was all explained to us in French, or we imagine it was. Under usual circumstances we might have understood a bit more of the French narrative than we did, but with the combination of a rapid talking guide and the background din of the factory operating in full swing we comprehended next to nothing the guide said. Undoubtedly we missed numerous interesting details. Nevertheless the gross idea of what is going on during the auto assembly was clear from the context.
There was another rule, and this one wasn’t mentioned on the website: No picture taking is allowed inside the factory. Indeed, no packs or bags could be taken in. It’s too bad as the inside of the factory in full production was very interesting to see. It would have made for some interesting and informative pictures. C’est la vie.
One of the biggest surprises was there was a mix of models coming down the assembly line. As we watched various Peugeot and Opel models, both left and right hand drive version, progressed down the assembly track one after another seemingly in no particular order. Every car model was different than its neighbor on the line. Somewhere an unseen computer kept the process organized so that the correct parts arrived at each assembly station on automated trolleys in lock step with the arrival of the chassis moving along on the factory carriage. In the absence of a computer it would have been impossible to manage. One could only imagine what Henry Ford would have thought if he saw this modern automobile assembly line in action.
Assembly was done by a combination of robots, which usually were reserved for the heavy lifting, and humans, who do the finer detailed assembly. It’s a continual chain of motion that spits out 2,000 cars a day. Everything has to work perfectly: If just one station malfunctions, one robot goes down, one supply cart carries the wrong parts, the whole line would have to pause. But that never happened when we were there. It was all seamless and very impressive to see in action.
At the end of the assembly line, after a series of inspections, a worker comes out to drive each car off. Or mostly drive them off. Not all of the cars started when their ignition keys were turned. The ones that didn’t start are pushed off to the side presumably, to be rejuvenated later by an unseen crew. Given the complexity and variability of the assembly process it is hardly a surprise to see a dud every now and then. Indeed, with all the complexity it was surprising to us that any of the newly assembled cars started at all.
Peugeot factory and museum are roughly 3 km from Montbeliard an easy bike or bus ride from Wanderlust while she was stayed tied in the canal port.