In the early 1970s, Volvo really started hitting its stride in the U.S. market. In addition to the brand’s burgeoning reputation for safety, the conservative, practical, well-built cars offered a nice compromise between performance and economy. As such, they became increasingly popular with well-heeled American buyers seeking upscale “anti-Detroit” offerings. Road Test Magazine took a look at the latest from Volvo in April 1971, evaluating the new fuel injected automatic 140 Series 2-door that was just arriving in the U.S.
It’s funny to see Road Test ascribe aggressive, obnoxious drivers to the Volvo brand—that imagery has now firmly transferred to become the stereotype of BMW owners. Today, at least in my observation, Volvo drivers are usually gently nudging their Sino-Scandinavian steeds carefully along at 5 MPH below the posted speed limit. How times change…
While heavy non-power steering would seem to be off-putting to many Americans in the early 1970s, it was probably a badge of honor for Volvo owners, reinforcing the reverse snob appeal of the “non-American” approach to driving. After all, Volvos were machines needing to be mastered with muscle, rather than the feather-light finger-tip control offered by Detroit’s power steering systems.
Volvo did take a page from Detroit with the column shifter for the automatic. Road Test noted that it seemed out of place in the 142E, especially since no front bench seats were on offer. Soon enough all Volvos would have their shifters on the floor. The ribbon speedometer and reliance on warning lights instead of gauges was another Detroit-style touch that didn’t quite fit the nature of the European car.
Unlike the heavy steering, the brakes were light in feel, but incredibly effective in operation. Stopping power was excellent, and Volvo was to be commended for focusing on critical elements of the car’s performance as the top priority.
Road Test gave especially high praise to the multi-adjustable front seats in the Volvo. For the time they were exceptionally well designed and comfortable—and great seats are a Volvo brand attribute that continues today. Volvo was also noted for being a pioneer in safety systems, including the 3-point seat belts—a novelty in 1971, and it’s funny to see the Road Test editors needing to consult the owners manual to learn how to properly use them.
As for the “E” (derived from the German word Einspritzer) denoting fuel injection on the 142, it worked very well. The car had competent performance and reasonable emissions under all driving conditions. Road Test noted the biggest challenge might be service, as fuel injection was still rare—the editors noted that widespread understanding and easy repairs of the systems would come when U.S. makers adopted the technology. Given the benefits of fuel injection, it was actually rather shocking that Detroit actually dragged their feet as long as they did—it would be another full decade before the set-up would start to appear with any significant regularity on American brands.
Longevity was also an enormous claim to fame for Volvo. The cars were solidly built and durable, with 6-digit odometers (U.S. cars didn’t dare go that high at the time) allowing owners to gleefully note that were racking up over 100,000 miles and their cars were still going strong.
The $4,621 ($27,171 adjusted) price tag put the 142E well into premium territory for what was a “small” car. But the price was very much in line with what a buyer would have shelled out for a basic Chrysler Newport, Mercury Monterey or Oldsmobile Delta 88, none of which could match the pragmatic, functional benefits of the Volvo. The 140 Series was pitch perfect for college professors and other upscale iconoclasts of the early 1970s. No wonder sales soared—1971 was Volvo’s best yet in the U.S., where 48,222 of the sensible Swedes found homes stateside.