As part of the celebration of 60 years of Volvo in America, the company has made appearances across the country with a set of historic models alongside the new XC90 crossover. The 2016 XC90 is the first Volvo to use the new Scalable Platform Architecture and the first of what Kerssemakers says will be 14 new vehicles in the next five years. The first event occurred just a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, and this past weekend, wares were again on display, this time at the Hilton Head Concours d'Elegance. Among the heritage vehicles was a Volvo Sport (also known as the P1900) that I had a chance to drive with the CEO.
The Sport might seem an odd choice to showcase, as it earned a reputation as one of the worst cars Volvo ever produced. In the early 1950s, the Swedish company was trying to shake the image of being safe and boring, and the decision was made to launch its first two-seat sports car. Assar Gabrielsson, the head of Volvo at the time, was regularly visiting US suppliers to keep up with trends and happened upon the Chevy Corvette. Intrigued by the car's swooping design and fiberglass construction, he commissioned Glasspar, a boatbuilding company in Los Angeles, to create bodies for the future sports model. (Glasspar notably created the G2 roadster, which is said to have inspired the Corvette.) The California company made the molds and built 20 prototypes, and the process was then brought in-house to Sweden.
Despite its short production run and checkered history, the Sport led the way to the coveted P1800.
When the first cars were completed, Volvo had a new president, Gunnar Engellau. Legend has it that Engellau drove the Sport over a weekend and hated it so much that he cancelled production immediately, before the car even made its debut. Only 67 were built, with fewer than 20 sold in the US. Despite its very short production run and checkered history, the Sport led the way to the coveted P1800.
The Sport is powered by a small, 1.4-liter inline four-cylinder rated at just 70 horsepower, and it has a three-speed, non-synchromesh manual transmission. Driving it is a sporting experience – as in you might have a sporting chance of surviving a crash, a factor that likely lead to its termination in 1957. Yet it's still absolutely incredible. The car is light and loose, and I imagine that, as Engellau noted back in the '50s, it would be downright uncomfortable to drive at 60 mph, but perhaps invigorating all the same. It is amazingly easy to drive, but even at 30 mph it feels skittish and jumpy. The steering wheel is surprisingly upright and, at five-foot-seven, I had to contort myself to get into the driver's seat. Instead of having the shifter down between the seats, it's mounted under the dash, right next to the steering wheel. Down is first, up and to the right is second, and directly below is third, with reverse all the way over to the right. Kerssemakers and I took the little car out for a short drive as we chatted about the past and the future of the brand in the US.
"You can't talk about your future if you don't respect your heritage," he says as we turn onto one of the Spanish-moss-draped roads around the Port Royal Golf Course. The Sport purrs along in agreement. "You'll see a number of features in future Volvo models that clearly remind you of the old cars."
"Volvo will always be about safety – but we are also about the joy of driving."
There's a small connection between the Sport and the latest Volvo model. Much like the modern XC90, the interior of the Sport has very few controls and an array of gauges. There are just three knobs and seven gauges in the 1957 car, all labeled in Swedish, allowing driver and passenger to monitor everything from oil temperature and pressure to battery voltage and water temp. In the new XC90, there are only nine buttons (all required by law) and a central iPad-style display that allows you to customize the information you want to see through the Sensus Connect infotainment system. The XC90 is also surprisingly light feeling, though we imagine far less dangerous at speed than the Sport. And while it isn't quite fair to put a 1950s sports car up against a modern SUV, you can see why Volvo has decided to bring the historic car back to the public's attention.
"Volvo will always be about safety – but we are also about the joy of driving," Kerssemakers says. "It doesn't make sense to talk about things you don't have. We've been waiting for the XC90 to come to market, and the SUV shows where we are headed and shows that we are committed to the US market."
To that end, Volvo recently announced plans to open its first American plant near Charleston, SC, and Kerssemakers recently moved from Sweden to the US to head up all of the North American operations. Kerssemakers says that Volvo will have spent more money on advertising between August and December of this year than it did in the entirety of last year.
Volvo will have spent more money on advertising between August and December of this year than it did in the entirety of last year.
That fact, however, doesn't curb the frustration that Volvo fans like Bruce Herwald feel with the brand as it currently stands. Bruce is the owner of a 1962 P1800 built by Jensen that won the Best of Marque award at the Volvo Club of America meet held over the concours weekend. Kerssemakers chose Herwald's car out of the hundred or so that were gathered and presented the award personally. Herwald said he was really honored to accept it from the North American CEO rather than "some show figure."
"They have to start getting themselves out there. They have to start getting the cars to market and get people interested in them again," Herwald said. "The guys like me that love the old Volvos don't want to see the brand go extinct. We may emotionally want to own a new Volvo, but the brand has to get more competitive models out there. It's going to take a lot of capital and hard work to get Volvo back to where they were."
Kerssemakers says that with the 2016 XC90 in the lineup, the company "will finally move back to decent volumes." The goal is to reach 70,000 units by the end of 2015 and 150,000 units per year by 2020. "The growth is product-driven and ad-driven and we came here to Hilton Head to show that with the XC90 we'll get back to where we were in 2004. We also are here to prove, tangibly, that we want to have an American product, and that is the XC90."
"It's going to take a lot of capital and hard work to get Volvo back to where they were."
So far the product has had the desired effect. Volvo sold one of the XC90 First Editions directly off the green at the event. The folks who bought the silver SUV decided, on the spot, to turn in their current car and purchase the limited-run XC90 and drive it back home to Boston. It's that kind of purchase that Volvo is hoping for to maintain momentum and keep its story alive in the US.