Auto-Biography: The Volvo 343 GT Project

The 66 was the first compact to wear Volvo’s “ironmark” logo.


One of the parking-lot curiosities I noticed after joining Volvo of America Corporation in mid-1976 was a diminutive, boxy two-door sedan that bore absolutely no resemblance to any of the other cars in the company test fleet. I learned that it was a Volvo 66. Introduced in Europe only about one year earlier, it was a badge-engineered version of the DAF 66. Then the newest product of the Netherlands’ Volvo Car BV, the Volvo 66 was a mildly face-lifted version of the previous DAF 66, with heftier bumpers and other safety features added to align the model more closely with Volvo’s larger cars. More CC commentary is available here and here for those hardy souls who wish to learn more.

From time to time between the first and second U.S. oil crises energy shocks, VAC investigated the potential addition of a smaller vehicle to Volvo’s stateside lineup. I’m not sure that the 66 was ever a serious contender, given its mini-compact dimensions, its 1.1- or 1.3-liter Renault-sourced inline four cylinder engines, its unusual belt-drive CVT transmission, and its relative lack of the comfort and convenience features which were becoming increasingly popular with U.S. customers. After some time in the VAC test-car pool, the 66, which entered the U.S. on a temporary import bond, was most likely scrapped, rather than being shipped back to Europe, and we focused our attention on “adapting” Volvo’s 240- and 260-series sedans and wagons to become more attractive to our own existing and potential future customers.

That is, until the Volvo 66 was replaced by the new and (slightly) larger 340-series. Introduced in Europe toward the close of 1976, the Volvo 343 was the first fully new model from Volvo Car BV. Now in the compact class, it featured a practical three-door hatchback body style and was the first Car BV model to apply Volvo’s standard three-digit model nomenclature, where the first digit indicated the model series, the second digit the number of cylinders, and the third digit the number of doors.

The Volvo 343. Not quite as much of a red-headed stepchild as the 66 had been. A longer four-door with a conventional trunk and better proportions would be added to the lineup later.


Although the 343 retained Renault power, its displacement was increased to 1.4 liters, and its gearbox was moved to the rear, improving weight distribution (but not doing any favors for the hatchback’s luggage capacity).

With the 343 now seen as being somewhat more competitive in size and performance than its predecessor, it seemed only natural that VAC should again assess its stateside market potential. This time, the exercise wouldn’t be limited to one or two test cars. Volvo of America was given the green light to go further in its “adaptation” efforts than ever before. And who better to be given that assignment than the company’s sole Product Adaptation Engineer?

We knew that a sportier version of the Volvo 242 was in the works for the 1978 model year, so the natural thought was that a similar treatment could be applied to the 343. It was also obvious that the 343’s European lighting had to be changed. My alternatives were a dual-rectangular system (which allowed the grille to be wider, giving the front end more of a horizontal theme which it desperately needed), or the quad-rectangular system, which we had been promoting for Volvo’s “big” cars (and which would eventually be introduced for ’81, replacing the dual round headlamps used on the 242 and the quad-rounds on the rest of the 240- and 260-series).

The 343 GT proposal. A new front clip, bumpers and body-side trim changed the character of this compact hatchback.


In the end, we went with the quad-rectangular setup, thinking it to be a bit more upscale in appearance as well as being more appropriate for a near-luxury European compact, though it meant a narrower grille was required, a compromised solution for sure. Along with the lighting changes, the then-obligatory blackout window and body-side trim was added. In retrospect, a somewhat lighter touch might have been appropriate. My only rationale was that this was the apex of the “Eurosedan” years, when every automaker seemed to adopt the noir livery, whether justified or not.

A new dash and center console highlighted our proposed 343 GT interior. The Recaros later found a temporary home in one of my test cars.


Along with the exterior changes, we were allowed to propose an updated interior. A fully redesigned instrument panel with a center console that flowed down from the dash were its major elements, along with more supportive Recaro seats upholstered in square-weave black cloth (which we felt would be close enough, and yet different enough from, the black corduroy we would eventually see in the ’78 242 GT). Switches for (front) power windows, power mirrors, and hazard flashers were integrated into the lower portion of the center console, and a U-shaped emergency brake handle. The latter caused a last-minute issue at our first ‘product clinic’, when the truck driver unloading the car mistook it for the real thing and gave it an enthusiastic yank, breaking it into three pieces.

The center console included a roll-top storage compartment ahead of the gearshift. The offending handbrake lever can barely be seen at the lower left.


Despite a very positive response from potential customers evaluating it against a competing proposal from our Dutch colleagues, the fates intervened to keep the 343 GT a one-off prototype. Unfavorable currency fluctuations, as well as an analysis showing that the smaller 343, when equipped with a proper Volvo four-cylinder powertrain, would yield little or no fuel economy benefit compared to Volvo’s current 242, sealed the deal. More than twenty years would pass before Volvo would add a compact companion to its U.S. lineup. But that’s a story for another day.

(Lede image from