A French warhorse in Africa

Wed Dec 4, 2013 7:12am EST

By Diadie Ba

DAKAR Dec 4 (Reuters) - While Peugeot the company may be struggling to find its way, Peugeot the car is still going strong on some of the world's most treacherous roads in the former French colonies of West Africa.

The indefatigable 504 estate, based on the saloon produced by the French automaker from 1968, remains the mainstay of the cross-border bush taxi trade in the region. Millions depend on the vehicles to visit relatives or trade goods between countries such as Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

Local cab-owners jack up the rear-end to provide greater ground clearance, then add a third bench at the back of the car to pack in even more passengers - typically a total of eight plus the driver.

The bodywork is then festooned with stickers, favourite maxims ("Chaque jour est une vie" - "Each day is one life") or professions of faith, including sometimes the name of the driver's local religious leader or "marabout". Luggage - and the occasional live goat - are stored on the roof rack.

A 500-mile (800 km) trip currently runs at around 20 euros ($27) per passenger, or slightly more for those wanting a seat by the window or up-front with the driver.

"Even if some say it's old and only good for the breaker's yard as soon as you find some spare parts it finds a new life," Insa Diaw, 56, a Senegalese cabbie who has been driving his 504 since 2002, told Reuters.

A lively trade in second-hand spare parts from France and an abundance of mechanics mean that even in West Africa's smallest villages, it is possible to get a broken-down 504 back on the road within the hour.

For nearly four decades until the mid 2000s, the 504 was assembled in Nigeria. But in the past decade it has been shunned by Africa's growing middle-class for whom Japan's Toyota Land Cruiser became a status symbol in the same way that Europe's middle class aspire to a Mercedes.

A Land Cruiser is well beyond the means of the average taxi-driver, whose tight daily cashflow means he often has to resort to buying just $1 or $2 of gas at a time as he waits for his next fare.

"But I can tell you," said Diaw, "if you know how to drive a 504 properly, it can go places where a 4-wheel drive can't."

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