Once upon a time, Sweden built some damn good cars.
They still do. In fact, Volvo had a major rebound in 2015 thanks to some needed new product, new engineering and technology and a new commitment to building the best vehicles they can.
Before Volvo's rebound was a deep history that is often forgotten outside of enthusiast circles. A company that began building automobiles in 1927, but had never seen real success until they arrived on American soil in 1955. From there, a legacy was forged through innovations in safety and a loyal fanbase of owners and enthusiasts.
To tell the entire story, it would take volumes. In this case, I want to focus on the products that help build the brand in North America. These are models that have been forgotten in the face of the wonderful new XC90, the S60 R, the Polestars and the XC70. These Volvos of the 1950s through the 1970s were rugged, reliable and durable – a reputation that built the brand right here on our shores.
This story begins with the first Volvos to arrive in the USA – PV444. Though most European cars came with two doors – sometimes without a roof – the PV444 simply looked behind the times. American design did away with fenders by then, the fastback styling also went away years before. It looked like it was a shrunk version of an American car circa 1941.
However, its first owners soon found out that what lies beneath this old body is a rally fighter. In Europe, they not only rebooted their national automotive industries in the aftermath of World War II, they went back to motorsport. Despite the tragedy of the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, other forms of motorsport were still going on. Rallying was a test of climate, elevation, road condition and adventure. The Swedes and other Scandinavians were among the best rally drivers in the world at the time – they remain so today.
The Volvo PV444 packed a 1.4 liter four-cylinder engine that help won some of those northern European rallies. For American consumption, Volvo added two side draft S.U. carburetors to bump the power to just 70 horsepower. A few customers in Texas and Southern California began taking delivery of the PV444. They simply loved them.
Volvo was among the innovators in selling their wares. They were not the first to introduce the idea of an European Delivery program, but they executed it a bit better than their lower European competitors. The program invited customers to take delivery of their new car at the Gothenburg plant. They can drive around Europe for some time until they could take their Volvo home.
While the PV444 introduced Americans to Volvo, the updated PV544 helped the company grow even further. There were plenty of changes for the new model when it arrived for 1958. The PV544 received more power, new trim, an upgraded interior and a new four-speed manual transmission. Customers loved the PV544 because it was rugged, durable and safe. Over time, it became more “modern,” with an electrical system upgrade 12 volts instead of 6 and the installation of a larger, more powerful engine by 1962. The famous B18 saw its first duty in the old fastback with fantastic results.
Did you know that the PV544 became the first Volvo to be assembled outside of Sweden? Since sales were growing in North America, Volvo opened a new plant in 1963 located in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Meanwhile, Volvo was developing a new car for the globe. Granted they had to use the chassis of the PV444 and PV544 to develop it, the body would bring Volvo owners closer to more so-called modern designs.
The Amazon arrived in 1959 on these shores. It showed up as a notchback design with some paeans to mid-1950s American styling. Yet, they were considered austere in the face of what Americans were selling at that time – some chrome, but not acres of it. In fact, the 122S had less chrome than American cars that are closest in size – the Studebaker Lark and Rambler American.
The first Amazons in America arrived with the B16 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine offered two versions – a 66-horsepower single carburetor version and a twin-carburetor 85-horsepower edition. Both engines came with a three-speed manual gearbox initially until the four-speed gearbox arrived in the early 1960s. The year 1962 marked the arrival of the B18 under the hood of the Amazon. By 1964, a Borg-Wagner automatic transmission was added to the Amazon roster.
The Amazon was not just offered in a two-door sedan. Wagon versions were introduced. Though they had this body style available in the PV544, wagon versions of the Amazon were immensely popular. Other features made the Amazon quite innovative. It was the first car to introduce reclining front seats, seen as a way to approach driver safety and road awareness from the most important position in an automobile. Co-developed with medical experts, reclining front seats enabled drivers to find the right position towards maintaining traffic awareness on the road. Disc brakes were introduced as standard on all Amazon models, while power-assisted brakes appeared on wagons.
The year 1962 also yielded another key Volvo automobile – the P1800. Aside from a fastback car, a notchback sedan and a couple of wagons, the P1800 gave Volvo a sports car to sell alongside these popular models. Though sexy in design, the P1800 opened the lid for Volvo to play with performance alongside safety. Initial models were rated at 100 horsepower. By 1963, the 1800 had a 108 horsepower version of the B18. In 1966, power went up to 115 horsepower with dual Weber carburetors.
The 1800 remained in the lineup until 1973. Along the way, the coupe introduced fuel injection to the Volvo lineup by 1970 and it spawned a wagon with an all-glass liftgate – the 1800ES.
In the mid-1960s, there was call for modernization across Europe. Money was flowing again across much of the continent. The industry regained a sense of maturity to be able to play with new technology and engineering to keep up – if not, encroach or leap ahead – of the Americans.
In 1965, the PV544 ended production. The Amazon was a few years away from being retired. What would come next would be one of the most advanced automobiles of its time – the 140 series.
The boxy shape of the 140 was certainly modern. It also featured many innovations in safety engineering. These innovations include crumple zones, a passenger shell construction built around the cabin and additional space around each occupant for future addition of passive safety technologies. These were advances that many manufacturers were testing when the 140 Series starting selling.
Volvo began to apply model names in a logical fashion. Two door sedans were called the 142, four-doors had the 144 nameplate and the wagon became the 145 – now with four side doors than two. The B18A 1.8 liter four-cylinder engine was initially offered with a choice of a manual or an automatic transmission. A sporty model was also offered – the 144S with a twin carburetor version of the B18A. For 1970, the engine grew to 2.0 liters and fuel injection was being offered alongside the 1800E by 1972.
Sturdy and reliable four-cylinder engines were the mainstay of Volvo for decades. However, the market began to change upward by the end of the 1960s. American automakers ruled the luxury segment since the start of the century. European luxury brands began to take key market share away, albeit slowly. It seemed improbable that Volvo would not only develop a six-cylinder engine, but add a more luxurious model to its lineup. They did so by crafting a more elegant front end – a mix between an Amazon and contemporary luxury icons.
The nomenclature was simple: 164.
The 164 became the luxury car of choice for those who have the money and the means to own one, but rather defy convention to show their status. The 164 offered plusher interiors, a higher level of equipment than the top trim of the 140 Series and all of the safety technology that made the 140 Series popular the world over. Owners of the 164 would rather talk about how safe they feel inside than how much luxury they can show off.
The push for improved safety engineering in the early 1970s was heeded by Volvo's engineers. With new USA Federal mandates coming for collision protection by 1973, Volvo was ready to meet these challenges head on. To meet the new standards, Volvo introduced 5 MPH bumpers on their lineup. In 1974, the four-cylinder models received a safety-driven update that included a new front end that sloped onto the big bumpers. Volvo introduced the 240 Series – the longest tenured model in the company's history.
The hallmark of the 240 was an increase in safety throughout the car. Crumple zones were engineered on either end of the vehicle. Airbags began to appear in the steering wheel. Roof strength was improved to protect against rollovers. Even seat design was re-engineered to coordinate with self-tightening seat belts for occupant protection. The 240 also added a front grille was made of a breakaway plastic, larger taillights, a new plastic sectioned dashboard and seats with integrated headrests.
The first run of the 240 Series saw an updated 2.1 liter Red Block four-cylinder with Bosch fuel injection – available with either a manual or an automatic. In 1979, a turbocharger was added to the Red Block in the 242 Turbo. The next year saw the arrival of Volvo's first diesel-engined model in North America. These diesel engines were supplied by Volkswagen.
During 1975, the 164 received the same treatment as the 240. They call it the 264. The differences were more pronounced with a raised chrome front grille, a distinctive taillight design and more luxury than before. The biggest change for the 264 came by a collaboration with Peugeot and Renault on a V6 engine that would be welcomed and derided at the same time – the Douvrin. This engine was well designed and appeared to be efficient, however it also become notorious for being unreliable. It was shot across the bow for a company known for durability and ruggedness.
Another collaboration that was laden with criticism was with Bertone in designing the 262C. The lower roofline retained a Volvo-like shape, but it restricted headroom that was the hallmark for the 240/264 sedans and wagons. The 262C also offered the highest equipment content ever, which in turn became the most expensive Volvo ever offered of its time.
As the boxy 700 Series models were introduced for 1983, only the 240 Series survived. The 264 was shelved because of the 760 GLE. Turbocharged gas and diesel engines were transferred to the newer, more expensive series. The 240 became a lower priced model for those who still want a Volvo and all of its attributes. The 240 was available in a four-door sedan and a wagon lineup. Updates for the 1986 model year included flush-mounted headlamps and a revised rear end. A few tweaks to the overall look would occur through its final days in 1993. In the end, the old Volvo never carried a base sticker price above $20,000 – a true value in every sense.
For this history, it would be prudent to stop here. The boxy 700 and 900 Series models would end Volvo's rear-wheel drive model run, as a new wave of products arrived with front-wheel drive. In fact, the first European-built vehicle I drove was a rented 1985 740 GLE sedan. It was indeed a solid car, but it was indeed premium, aspirational and upwardly mobile. Though Volvo continued to advance safety engineering, it began to lose its edge of dancing between proletariat and upmarket. The premium side of its personality eventually won and it is where Volvo sits today.
Could it be serendipity that I would stop this piece at that point? Importantly, to see how Volvo made its name in America through its reputation of safety, durability and toughness to the point of the 700 Series is a way to look back at the way things used to be.
Back in 1955, Volvo was an unknown name among many that arrived in the Post World War II economic euphoria in America. By 1980, it became a leader in safety that was accessible to most customers. These were moments in time when Volvo truly showed what it can do regardless of what everyone else was attempting to do.
All photos by Randy Stern