(Volvo love isn’t exactly universal. The following piece may strike some readers as an odd piece to feature in a Volvo tribute week, but for others it will offer a refreshing perspective. There is no one way of looking at a car, and this is especially true at CC. -ED)
Volvos, from the 1970s and 1980s at least, get a mixed press from many spheres, ranging from strong acceptance and fondness to strong dislike. Certainly, I don’t think it can suggested that the Volvo range in, say, 1985, comprised entirely of good cars, especially when it included this, the 360GLT.
The beloved cars I’m referring to above are, basically, the 144/145, the 240/244/245 and the bulky, often underpowered 740 series. Cars that were awkwardly styled, with potentially elegant, simple shapes bespoiled by those immense bumpers, the consequent impression of bulk for the sake of bulk, even on such details as the lights, aerials and rub strips. Such loudly proclaimed safety features became the first thing many people thought of when the word “Volvo” was mentioned.
Behind this, the car was actually considered to be no more than ordinary, but with good corrosion resistance. The press was able to highlight fundamental failings, such as the poor roadholding and handling, the disappointing space utilisation, unremarkable engines, performance and economy. Perhaps was the worst aspect was the image the cars got, and with which the owners therefore got labelled, as either the thinking man’s saloon (perhaps in the University car park in Eugene) or much more likely, as the conveyance of those with a slightly selfish, self interested, blinkered view that dictated a bigger car than necessary, and a certain wannabe premium feel with the inconsistent twist of “Swedish care for the environment” on top.
Volvo often got a reasonable run from the press, with the safety and durability of the cars being respected. In the UK, CAR magazine did not share this stance. Looking back, it was a conflicted brand in the 1970s. The 262C Bertone Coupe just about sums it up. In contrast, SAAB pulled the respectable, innovative, safety-oriented image much more effectively.
Volvo’s 300 series gave us these same values in a smaller package, with the added promise of economy. The 340 and 360 range (also known as the 300 series and initially as the 343 and 345) was not originally intended to be a Volvo, but a DAF. DAF are now (and were then) better known as a heavy truck manufacturer, and are now part of the PACCAR group. DAF had been producing trucks of various shapes and sizes since the 1920s, but the in the 1960s, this Dutch company was producing a range of small cars, whose key distinguishing feature was the continuously variable belt drive transmission, known as Variomatic, the first automotive use of a CVT or AVT transmission. CC has a good guide the Variomatic here, in Robert Kim’s spot of a DAF 66 estate in Stockholm.
The DAF story starts with the 1959 DAF 600: a compact (81 inch wheelbase) two-door saloon with a flat twin 750cc engine and rear drive. This car was gently updated through the 1960s, to ultimately become the DAF 33 saloon. This was still clearly a derivative of the original 1959 DAF 600, although with a Michelotti facelift. Probably a charming enough little car for pottering around, but against a Mini, a Renault 4 or even a Beetle, certain weaknesses are apparent. A frequently heard association was between the DAF and rubber bands, as well as observations about the unusual engine noise pattern, with the gearing changing as the car accelerated, rather than the engine speed.
DAF followed up with the larger 44 series in 1966. This had the same flat twin engine, with the spare wheel stowed on top, driving the rear wheels through the same Variomatic system and swing axle rear suspension, carried on a longer 88 inch wheelbase. This in turn was supplemented by the visually similar 55 series in 1967, which had a water cooled 1100 cc Renault four-cylinder engine and torsion bar front suspension.
In 1974, the 66 arrived, with another facelift to the 44 series body and an improved version of the Variomatic transaxle, now coupled with a de Dion tube and leaf spring rear suspension, eliminating any side to side movement of the rear axle, and an option of a 1300cc Renault engine. This car was the mainstay of DAF in 1975, when Volvo bought the company’s autobile division. DAF had looking for a partner since 1970 to develop a larger car, and in 1973 Volvo had bought a stake before taking full ownership in 1975.
The fruit of this partnership was the Volvo 343: a rear-drive three-door hatchback, using the Variomatic and a 1.4 litre Renault engine, on a wheelbase of 94 inches (similar to a 1974 Golf) and with the de Dion tube and leaf spring rear suspension. Conceptually, it was a bigger DAF 66, with much more modern if not elegant styling, that was originally to be called the DAF 77.
Some reports credit the styling to Michelotti, others to an in-house team led by John de Vries, claiming its selection by a ballot of DAF employees in 1970, over designs by Bertone and Michelotti. The initial versions were recognised by the big bug like headlights, an almost flat bonnet and front wing line, and a long front overhang, especially for a rear drive car. The rest of the styling could be summarised as dumpy, with the car looking to be one size too big for its compact wheelbase. The engine was, as noted, from Renault, and was an enlarged version of the engine fitted to the 66, and also used in the Renault 12 and 18, still with the spare wheel stored alongside it.
As Volvo consolidated its control, the original DAF styling and branding were replaced by Volvo’s own, resulting in bigger bumpers and a safety emphasis on the interior fittings, which were alot more solid than might otherwise have been expected. It was finally launched at the Geneva Motor Show in April 1976.
The initial cars were not that great. For a start, the (Europe only) market demanded a conventional gearbox, rather than the unfamiliar (and noisy) CVT, and stronger performance. There were quality issues all over the car, from the heating system, to cold starting, to leaks and dashboard faults. In 1978, a four-speed manual gearbox was made available, installed as a rear transaxle, in the space otherwise taken by the CVT. As Robert Kim pointed out in his feature on the DAF66, the CVT was not very space efficient–it required a longitudinal engine and a large amount of space at the rear for the gearbox, and this was still the case in the 343.
In 1979, the five-door 345 was introduced, followed a year later by an enlarged 1.7 litre Renault engine and in 1984, by a Renault 1.6 litre diesel engine. Thankfully, Britain was spared this, as the diesel was only offered in LHD drive markets.
Volvo added the four-door saloon in 1983, with an added rear boot so clearly bolted onto to the original design you could almost see the join. It has a the same rear doors and same roof line. Dull does not go far enough.
At the same time as the saloon, Volvo managed to squeeze the 2.0 litre B19 engine into the 340, to create the 360 saloon and hatchback. To achieve this, the spare wheel moved from the under bonnet location to the boot, and the main drive shaft was placed in a torque tube, requiring a larger (and larger than comparable cars’) transmission tunnel through the car, exacerbating already poor space efficiency. Some argue the gearbox location gave good weight distribution; another view is that there was too much weight there anyway. The base car weighed thirty percent more than a base Golf, in 1976.
The quality of the cars got better as production continued, as it normally does. But these cars were never as well built as a larger Volvo, with corrosion and detail electrical faults (for example) being much more of a problem than in other series, as well as long-running issues with the Renault engines.
The big issue with these cars is not my preference for front wheel drive in this market (given its space efficiencies and packaging benefits combined with the proven ability to still create a car that is good to drive, it seems an absolute default for a better car in so many ways) but the fact that this car was outdated in 1976, with subpar road performance and quality next to the contemporary competition, and inferior comfort and space utilisation. It was simply not a good car; indeed, without the CVT and the Volvo badge, it would almost certainly have sunk without trace in Europe by 1980.
The Volvo image had always been a bit mixed: estate cars, safety and a dull driving experience sum it up pretty well, at least until the 850 and S40 came along. The 340/360 had all these, but with fewer safety features than the larger cars and without an estate option. But, and it is a big but, the safety features offered by Volvo were focussed on passive safety (protecting passengers and pedestrians in the event of an accident) rather than active safety (avoiding accidents). Features like good seat belts, laminated windscreens and managed crumple zones are all good things, but good road holding, brakes and visibility are all features that help prevent accidents, and which Volvos such as the 240/260 and 340/360 did not have.
But the Volvo badge counted for something, particularly in northern Europe and Scandinavia. For some reason I cannot fathom, (and am actually embarrassed about) the 340/360 made frequent trips into the sales top ten in Britain in the early 1980s. It somehow, despite all its failings, achieved a reputation, if not a strong image, as a valid and credible Golf alternative, with an image ahead of any Ford or GM product. Quite how is, frankly, very puzzling. For a car so full of compromises, from the bought-in engine to the forced “safety” styling features, from the subpar road behaviour to the less than competitive quality, its success is a surprising achievement. The market it served, in the UK at least, was dominated by the older and often conservative buyer, some no doubt downsizing from a 244.
The car actually soldiered on until 1991, long after the replacement 440/460 series had come on line. Volvo also made some vans (essentially a five-door hatch with no rear windows or seats) for the Dutch post office but never offered an estate. A total of 1.13 million were built, almost all in Holland, with a small number built from CKD kits in Malaysia.
The featured car is a 1987 360GLT–the two-litre version with sports pretensions offered on UK ebay in April 2014. But, please, do not confuse this for a credible Golf GTi or Alfa 75 competitor.