Curbside Classic: 1975 Volvo 164 E – The Anglo-Scandinavian

The Volvo 144 was a paragon of modern Scandinavian design: all business, understated, clean, functional.  And suddenly out of nowhere appears the 164, wearing the frumpy old affected face lifted from an anachronistic English Wolseley 6/99 saloon. It was like stepping out of an Ikea showroom into a thatched-roof English cottage, but fortunately, there were other compensations, like a lusty twin carb straight six and superb leather seats, just like the best English cars. The top of the line Volvo had a bit of an identity crisis, one that would be a recurring theme with the brand.

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The contrast between them was greatest with the early version of the 164, like this one here, before the 5 mph bumpers spoiled its original deep grille.

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The 164 also had a 4″ longer wheelbase, all of it in the front end, to accommodate the longer inline six.

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The English qualities of the 164 shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, given that Volvos always had a decidedly Anglo characteristic. They used SU carbs, had Laycock overdrives, and there was a decidedly conservative approach to Volvo engineering: no Germanic swing axle rear suspensions or alloy engines. Volvos were English cars, but just better built: Swedish steel and better electric systems (still not perfect, though).

The 1966 144 though was a big step forward for Volvo, and its superbly practical body would go on serving for decades. But Volvo saw where the market was heading, both in the US and Europe. Luxury mid-size sixes were the hot new thing, and Volvo joined BMW in the straight six party.

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The new BMW 2500/2800 arrived about the same time as the 164, and its engine was even developed along the same lines as the Volvo six: add a couple more cylinders from the family four…and presto! In the case of the BMW, the M30 may not have shared quite as many parts as the Volvo six did with its donor four. But then Volvo was never quite as engine-proud as the Germans.

The Volvo 3 liter six was a perfect example of expediency; never has an engine been more obviously built up from one and a half fours. And the results were predictable: a torquey and fairly powerful unit that made the 164 quite a brisk car for the times.

I happen to have the May 1969 Road and Track in front of me, and it’s a particularly enlightening one to put the 164 into perspective. The other two tested cars are the new BMW 2500 six, and the MGC, also with a three liter six. The 164 and MGC engines were both rated at 145 (gross) hp; the smaller but higher-revving BMW 2.5  at 170 hp. The MGC weighed 2600 lbs, the Volvo and BMW both about 3000 lbs. Guess which of the three was the fastest of the three?

The Volvo. Not that the numbers are very impressive from today’s perspective, but with a 0-60 of 9.5 seconds, and a 1/4 mile in 17.6 @ 83 mph, the Volvo was squarely in typical American V8 territory. Not the hot ones, of course, but a the typical family V8 mill of the times, and certainly better than the common Chevy 283/Powerglide combo. The MGC was a big disappointment; meanwhile the more expensive BMW offered plenty of other virtues.

Like handling, for one. Volvo was absurdly conservative with wheel rim width and tire sizes. The 164 had absurdly narrow 4.5″ wide 15″ rims, and sported skinny 6.85-15 Goodyear Power Cushion (non-radial) tires. The BMW had 70-series Michelin XAS radials. Odd. Was Volvo trying too hard to be the Swedish Buick?

Another historical note: cars just got much worse mileage back then. R&T’s recorded mileage for the 164 in “normal driving” was 17.5 mpg. That’s starting to get into American V8 territory too.

I don’t have sales stats for these old 164s, but my gut tells me they sold reasonably well, though well behind the 144. Seems to me that the folks who were attracted to the 144 might not have seen themselves so readily in a 164; their respective images just didn’t mesh very well. A Wolseley is not what a lot of Volvo drivers had in mind.

This ’75 is the last year of the 164. The 264 that replaced the 164 was a different animal altogether for a number of reasons, not least of which were its less distinctive looks. The 164 also had a longer wheelbase (all in the front end), and its jaunty nose was unmistakable.

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The 264 shared the whole 244 body, and used the oft-maligned PRV 2.7 L V6, a joint undertaking with Renault and Peugeot.

The 164 six may have had its maladies as a result of being an early adopter of Bosh’s electronic D-Jetronic fuel injection after 1972, but the basic engine was as robust as the the B20 it was derived from. Nevertheless, one sees very few of either of the six-cylinder Volvos anymore. It’s clear that for the long haul, they’re ones to avoid. This is the first and only 164 I’ve seen around. And 264s are just about as rare.

A bit of history I didn’t know or had forgotten was that the prototype of the 262 “chop top” coupe had been based on a 164. With their French engines and assembly by Bertone, they were truly pan-European.

Related reading: Volvo Bertone Coupe and Volvo 144E