This is the seminal Volvo. It laid the foundations for generations of classic RWD Volvos, built for over half a century (1947-1998). All the qualities that came to define the brand are on full display: rugged, sporty, safe, conservative, long-lived. Beautiful? Hardly; but that rarely seemed to be a priority at Volvo. Its charms ooze from the inside out, and there’s a healthy dose here. The PV not only put Sweden on wheels, it started a long trans-Atlantic love affair with the brand, myself included. A few memorable drives in one was all it took..
Volvo was established as an automaker in 1927, as a subsidiary of famed ball-bearing maker SKF, hence the trademark, which means “I roll”, in Latin. In the years up to WW2, Volvo made a series of sturdy and fairly large cars like this PV659 from 1935, that appealed mainly to the upper classes.
During the war (which Sweden sat out), it was determined that the future lay in a small “people’s car” that would be affordable to the masses, as part of the same impulse that had created the Volkswagen and would soon sweep Europe with so many other small cars. Several concepts were explored, including a FWD car inspired by the advanced DKW F9 of 1940. That was also the car that was largely copied for the post-war Saab 92, so perhaps it’s a good thing Volvo decided that a FWD car would require to much new tooling. A rear-engine prototype, the PV-40 (above) from 1940 shows some of the obvious styling influences that came to fruition in the PV.
Given Volvo’s history with conventional front-engine, rear-wheel drive cars, Volvo decided that was the way to roll for their new small car too. They turned their eyes to another quite advanced car in Germany, the 1939 Hanomag Autobahn, a 1.3 L aerodynamic sedan. Volvo was in need of unibody know-how, and they found it here. They also found a fair amount of design inspiration from it too. In checking the dimensions of these two, they’re mighty similar.
The 1941 Ford obviously lent a helping hand to Volvo’s styling department too, such as it was.
The PV444 was announced in 1944, but did not go into proper production until 1947. It was modestly powered: its 1.4L three-bearing OHV four was rated at 40 hp (later 44 hp), and drove through a three-speed floor-shifted transmission. Top speed was some 125 kmh (76 mph). Its price ended up being higher than hoped for, but then it was a fairly substantial car for a “peoples car”, and waiting lists soon became long.
In a curious turn-around, Hanomag’s L29 truck from 1950 bears a striking resemblance to the PV444’s front end. Fair enough.
Due to its being designed already during the war, rather than after it, the PV’s design was already a bit archaic by the time it went into full production, but that just became part of its charm. But no one then could have imagined it staying in production for almost twenty years. That was an eternity for a car design back then.
I found this black PV444 at a Volvo specialist shop, not surprisingly. The PV444 was continuously developed, most of all its performance. In 1951, the 1.4 engine’s output was increased to 51 hp. But the big change occurred in 1956, when the twin-SU carb B14A engine arrived with 70 hp, which began the sporty quality that was to become a major aspect of the PV’s success, especially in the US. 1956 was also the year official US imports began.
But the B14A was only a one-year warm-up act. In 1957, an enlarged and substantially revised B16 engine arrived with 1583cc, which in twin-carb tune sported a full 85 hp. That was enough to make the 444 into a genuine 95 mph car, at a time when very few imports could claim that. The MGA 1500 sported all of 68 or 72 hp.
The 444 quickly became a common sight on race tracks on both side of the Atlantic, despite only ever having a three-speed transmission. Sweden is a relatively flat country, and a three-speed was deemed adequate. And the lusty B16 engine overcame that deficit quite adequately, with a wide powerband.
The stick was very long, which became a Volvo tradition, and acted as a visual torque meter, as it leaned over the harder the engine pulled. The PV was a very honest, direct car to drive, and all of its components and systems functioned well together, creating a well-rounded driver. It was a car with no obvious faults (except maybe the three-speed), and many virtues., which gave it a strong and loyal following.
Undoubtedly, the virtue that played a key role in Volvo surviving the Great Import Boom Shakeout of 1960 was its durability. The PV’s rugged construction and excellent material quality made it a survivor, in more ways than one. Before 1960, dozens of obscure European makes were common in the US, but the number of survivors narrowed down substantially that year. Volvo’s reputation in the US had been solidly established, and continued to thrive.
Although Volvos later often came to be stereotyped as the car of the left-leaning, in its earlier days, its owners were more likely to be engineers and other who had an appreciation for things well made. And it also appealed very much to the huge sporty-car set in the fifties, because it was one of the few sedans then available that could properly be called a sports sedan. When kids had to be hauled, the PV made a better MG sedan than the real thing (MG Magnette).
Volvo’s new 122 “Amazon” (CC here) arrived in 1956, with the intention to replace the 444, sooner rather than later. But the PV had become a beloved institution in Sweden and abroad, and sales continued to be strong. After some thoughts were given to substantially revising its dated styling, Volvo decided to just make a few minor changes, like a single-piece windshield, and give it a new designation, the PV 544. A number of other refinements came along with that too, the biggest one being a standard four-speed transmission, at least for the US. Given that the new Amazon weighed some 200 lbs more than the PV, that change endeared it even more to the sporty car set, who continued to buy it on the strength of its excellent performance.
In 1962, the all-new B18 engine arrived, the first in the long and legendary line of Red Block engines. That makes the last few years of the PV 544 the really desirable ones, like this 1965 I shot in downtown Eugene a while back. For power-hungry Americans, the 544 came only with the 90 hp twin-SU carb B18D engine, and with its very light list weight of 2055 lbs, made this a very spirited hunchback.
I forgot to ask the female long-term owner to open its hood, but here’s a shot from BAT. Classic Volvo, as well as classic Anglo-style sporty OHV four. Volvos pretty consistently did have an anglophile streak, including the use of the Laycock de Normanville overdrive unit, which is otherwise mostly commonly associated with Brit cars. To the best of my knowledge, that unit never made into the production PV, although I suspect a few did after the fact.
This image brings back so many intense memories. PV’s were not uncommon in and around Towson during my high school years My older brother’s best friend had one, and I spent many a happy ride in the back, getting to hang out with them and bomb through the winding back roads of Northern Baltimore County, real sports car country.
And then in my last year at Towson High, I became friends with a kid who drove one, a family hand me down. His father, an engineer at Black and Decker, drove a new 144S. Mom drove his hand-me down 122S. And so the 544 became his ride. We made some more memories in that car, and I drove it a couple of times, as I was more comfortable driving under the influence of LSD than he was. That enveloping cocoon of a body, the throbbing engine and subtly vibrating gear shift…I’ve always had a special place in my heart for these cars ever since. Why didn’t I buy one instead of a VW Beetle?
This fine PV544 is from 1965, the last year it it built. In October of 1965, production ceased, after 440,000 PVs rolled off the lines. But not all in Sweden; in 1963, Volvo opened the first (in modern times) non-domestic auto plant in North America. The Hailfax, NS plant started production in 1963 with the 122, but apparently the 544 was built there for one year too. Is this one of them?
This devoted 544 owner has gotten back in, and needs to head off. I’ve never seen it again since, and it’s the only 544 I’ve ever found in Eugene, oddly enough, as this is Volvo-town, USA. Add this to my very long list of cars that I’ve fallen in love with all over on being re-united, and covet. It’s in loving hands, and that soothes the pain a bit.
Yes, I could roll in that.