In the late sixties Ole Sommer visited California. Now, I was born a decade later but I imagine that was probably one of the most carefree and easygoing environments the world has ever seen. You had beaches and sunshine, bikinis were worn and surfboards surfed, the Beach Boys sang about it all, and the economy was booming. What caught Ole Sommer’s attention was, however, a different aspect of Californian pastime: the beach buggy. As an engineer and car builder marked by the carefree sixties, he felt inspired by these spare time just-for-fun vehicles.
As with the Volvo Special, Ole Sommer looked at the Volvos in his showroom and the parts in his shop and got to thinking. Once again, he decided to put his money where his business motto’s words were. That motto was “Do you have a relaxed attitude towards cars? – So do we.” Not taking things to seriously is exactly the modus operandi behind beach buggy building. So Sommer looked at the driveline and suspension parts from a Volvo 142 and laid them out on the shop floor. He then thought, well, how do we connect all these parts?
Today Denmark has very, very strict rules on what you can and (mostly) cannot do to cars, but forty years ago, that was all different. Sommer says that “back then car inspectors were people with hair on their chests.” “If [the inspector] liked the car, you received a certificate that things were in order. There were no mysterious calculations and approvals from here or there. Back then they were real men who could tell whether or not it was a decent product.” Sommer did not really care for deformation zones on cars, so what he ended up building would not have those and as a result would be 190 kilos (418 lbs) lighter than the Volvo 142 on which it was based. With the engine moved back a bit the weight distribution was also better.
The hood is attached by a bolt in the middle of it. Loosen it and the hood comes off. Why make it harder than it has to be? Plus you save the weight of the hood mechanism. Likewise, there is no advanced windscreen wiper system to wipe dry the low, wide windscreen. Instead, there are simply three small ones.
The car consists of a square tube skeleton that has been fully galvanized and has sheets of fiberglass in between the tubes to avoid dust and water from entering the car – the first prototype used plywood. It means the car looks more or less like a traditional Danish farmhouse, which also caused at least one customer to put flower boxes on the outside. This was completely in accordance with the car’s purpose, which was to be a non-serious run-about car – a Joker.
The first series consisted of seven cars and as with the Volvo Special they were all sold, which meant Sommer had to pay through the nose to buy one back for his museum when he later decided to build it. The custodian present when I visited, remembered the original owner visiting and telling the custodian how he sold it back to Sommer and made money on having owned the car. Ole Sommer, who was present that day, overheard the conversation and growled, “I remember!”
I am not entirely sure how these cars came equipped. Unfortunately the properly sized ashtray in this one was fitted by its first owner. They all had the horizontal Volvo speedometer on the passenger side. They all came with the sturdy, classic Volvo B20 engine. I know some had dual double carburetors installed. I imagine they were quite quick with a hot-rodded B20 and 418lbs less weight. The stock car was listed at 90 horsepower though, so that would be a stock B20. Tests at the time mentioned surprisingly good handling. It would definitely have been the best handling farmhouse around.
The car listed at 35,857 DKK in 1972, which from what I can gather was more or less the price of the Volvo 142. In the 142 you had a big, solid car for four people while the Joker seated only two. It was thus too expensive to be a rational purchase. And rational was what people wanted when the oil crisis set in in 1973. Therefore, there was never a second series. The carefree sixties were over and a different mentality set in. In Denmark we had “car-free Sundays.” In order to make sure resources were not wasted on fun and games, you were not allowed to drive your car on Sundays. This mentality has probably never really let go of the Danish attitude towards cars. Most attempts at car building since then have been electric vehicles. We are making it ever harder to drive cars in our cities and we encourage public transport and bicycling instead. This is all very admirable and it has made Denmark a leader on green technology, but sometimes you cannot help but miss some of the carefree attitude of the swinging sixties.
In the eighties, there was at least one person who felt the same way and who built something neither green nor sensible. That person was – as usual – Ole Sommer and you will see more of that car in the next installment of this series.
When Sommer Autombiles celebrated its anniversary in 1990, Sommer’s employees wanted to reminisce about the past as well, so they built a quarter-scale copy of the Joker. It is powered by a small electric engine.
Note: Quotes and some of the details in this piece are from the book Danske Bilbyggere – forsøg på en dansk bilproduktion efter anden verdenskrig by Hans Pedersen, Claus Frausing and Jørgen Kjær.