Shaping Volvo's History
No automaker may be in the midst of as big of an upswing as Volvo.
The Swedish automaker long associated with stolid solidity was snapped up by China’s Geely in 2009, but we’re just now beginning to see the Chinese firm’s impact on Volvo’s products.
First off the line was the XC90, a long overdue redesign of Volvo’s crucial midsize crossover. Critics and the public generally agree: The XC90 is a hit, now accounting for almost half of Volvo’s sales in the United States despite being much more expensive than its predecessor.
Next up is the new S90, a flagship sedan that looks to be Volvo’s best effort yet at taking on class leaders from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, and Cadillac.
But Volvo’s future hasn’t always looked so rosy. The company has been through many ups and downs in its nearly 90 year history.
We visited Volvo’s museum located on the outskirts of bustling, cosmopolitan Gothenburg, Sweden, where we learned a lot about the company’s past—and what it may indicate for its future.
1927 Volvo ÖV 4
It would be hard to call Volvo’s first production car a real success, even though nearly 1,000 were built over a three year period. That's better than your typical startup.
For one, the company had to push back the car’s introduction by a day because engineers installed the rear differential’s gear incorrectly. The first prototype went backwards when the driver put it in drive. Whoops.
This was fixed the next day, so Volvo actually celebrates its “birthday” as April 14th, not 13th, 1927.
Oh, and then there was the minor miscalculation of initially offering the ÖV 4 only as an open-top car (its name means Öppen Vagn 4 Cylindrar, or Open Carriage 4 Cylinder). That might work in, say, Southern California, but Sweden is cold and dark for much of the year. A closed-roof version called the PV 4 came about a year and a half later.
You must make mistakes to learn from them, right?
1944 Volvo PV444
Volvo’s first postwar effort wasn’t a technological breakthrough, but it solidified the automaker’s reputation for building tough, durable cars.
Like other brands, Volvo saw postwar Europe as more friendly to downsized, less expensive cars. The PV444 unit-body construction to simplify manufacturing. It was powered by the brand’s first four-cylinder engine in 15 years. Volvo was an early safety pioneer, and in 1959 it fitted the car with the world’s first three-point seat belt.
The PV444, and its PV544 successor, both proved moderately popular in North America and the New World would soon become Volvo’s most crucial market.
Illustrating this increasing popularity, Volvo skirted import tariffs by opening up an assembly plant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1963. Although small by modern assembly plant standards, the facility lasted in Canada for 35 years and built many of Volvo’s best-known cars for the American market.
1953 Volvo Duett
Station wagons and Volvo go together like Gravlax and knackebrod, and the Swedish brand has long been associated with people- and cargo-hauling five-doors.
The Duett was the first on the wagon scene for Volvo, and it aped the PV line's look on a separate, more commercial-oriented, chassis.
In reality the Duett was more of a van or a carryall than a wagon. But it inspired the popular Volvo Amazon, a more conventional wagon that, a few developments later, begat the iconic Volvo 240.
1956 Volvo P1900
With the PV line bringing in much-needed cash, normally stodgy Volvo decided to have a little fun for the first time by introducing an ultra-limited-production roadster.
The P1900 set the stage for Volvo’s on-and-off affair with sporty cars. While the automaker’s lineup hasn’t always prioritized performance, it was an early adopter of the turbocharged engine and, today, its Polestar line is shaping up to be a legitimate performance sub-brand.
As for the P1900 itself, the little car utilized a Corvette-inspired fiberglass body designed, curiously, by a boat building firm in Santa Ana, California.
Truth be told, the P1900 was a flop, due in part to construction that didn’t live up to the PV’s rugged standard. The company's chief took one home for a weekend and declared it unfit for the brand to sell alongside its otherwise robust lineup.
Still, it inspired the shapely P1800 coupe that is arguably Volvo’s prettiest car to date.
1966 and 1969 Volvo 140 and 160 Series
With a nearly 30 year run, the 140 (which later became the 240) was Volvo’s first boxy design—a look the automaker continues to update today, at least in one form or another.
Thoroughly modern at its 1966 debut, the 140 was eventually offered as a coupe, a sedan, and a wagon. A wide variety of powertrains and body styles were offered, including the six-cylinder 164 (pictured at the rear). Regardless of body or badge, the cars lined up against Germany’s best but stood out not only for their squared-off styling but for an emphasis on safety.
Moreover, the 140 and the 240 that replaced it in 1974 was remarkably sporty. The rear-wheel-drive car performed well in both track and rally racing.
Notably, when it was laid to rest in 1993, the 240 ended an era of rear-wheel-drive cars for Volvo. There’s a museum in Portland, Oregon, called “every road in town” dedicated to the preservation of the 240 wagon.
1992 Volvo 850
The 850 might seem too new to be considered a classic, but it was introduced to the world in 1991, which makes the design 25 years old and ready for vintage plates in some states.
The first genuinely modern Volvo, touches of the 850 can still be felt in Volvo’s S60 line today. It rode on a new, front-wheel-drive platform that helped it cement the brand’s reputation for relative unstoppability in wintry conditions.
But the 850 stands out to enthusiasts as the first time in decades that Volvo went beyond institutional conservatism and thought outside the box (in a manner of speaking). In 1995, the Swedes collaborated with Porsche for a limited-run 850 T5-R that delivered 243 horsepower to gnaw away at its Michelin front tires.
The subtle-looking but rocket-fast T5-R (which was also available in shades more restrained than the pictured, unsubtle yellow) no doubt spooked a few BMWs at traffic lights.
Since 1995, Volvo has rarely been without something with a little more punch in its lineup.