Auto-Biography: Volvo and the Odd Man Hypothesis

The “odd man hypothesis” was first advanced in Michael Crichton’s 1969 seminal techno-thriller novel The Andromeda Strain.  Crichton presented it so convincingly that for decades afterward, I believed it to be an actual theory. However, according to Wikipedia, ‘The “odd-man hypothesis” is an entirely fictional construct stating that unmarried men are better able to execute the best, most dispassionate decisions in crises. In Crichton’s novel, the ‘odd-man’ hypothesis is explained by a page in a RAND Corporation report detailing the results of a test series wherein different people were to make command decisions in nuclear and biological wars and chemical crises.

Just to be sure, I searched RAND and found no connection to that hypothesis. (Now I’m just waiting for the D.C. “suits” to arrive here in a black SUV…) How did the odd-man hypothesis apply to me? Read on…

The original paperback version. Crichton aficionados can now buy a hardcover “50th Anniversary Edition” for somewhat more than $1.25. (Source: Abebooks)


But first some context: In mid-1976, Volvo of America was in the process of assuming control of several of its previously-independent U.S. distributors, including one in the mid-Atlantic region. Along with crates containing service tools, spare parts, and other items from that facility came a number of 1975 Volvo 244s equipped with driver- and passenger-side airbags. These cars had been leased to Allstate as part of their sizable company car fleet, exposing these airbag-equipped Volvos to real-world driving conditions,  accumulating mileage and (hopefully not) confirming proper operation of their passive restraint systems. It was my job to deactivate their airbag systems and return the cars to their original specs. They were to be my hands-on, nitty-gritty initiation into the world of automotive safety.

An early Euro-market Volvo 244, similar to the cars on which I performed airbag surgery. (Source:


As the Product Engineering & Development department’s only unmarried male employee at the time, I briefly (and cynically) imagined that management had calculated that their potential liability in the case of anyone’s deployment-related demise would be magnitudes less than if the bereaved spouse of a married employee with a family required compensation in a similar situation. Fortunately, neither eventuality came to pass.

Each of the airbag-equipped 240s had a steering wheel similar to this one, which Volvo used in some production cars (without the airbag, though). (Source: eBay)


As I remember, the airbag system was engineered by Eaton Corporation – at least Eaton’s corporate logo was on the slim, spiral-bound Operator’s Manual that I studiously referred to while disarming and dismantling the airbag units. It also appeared on the bright yellow test module which I used to connect to the system, ensuring its effective anesthetization before disconnecting its associated wiring and trio of crash sensors. After removing and carefully securing the airbag units, wiring harness, crash sensors, and other components, a stock steering wheel, glove-box, and under-dash panels were installed, returning the sedans to their original configuration.

An early Volvo 240 dash. In these Allstate test cars, the passenger-side airbag resided in what would have been the glove-box. (Source:


The final step in the process was to check for satisfactory operation of the vehicles’ horn and lighting (including glove-box illumination). I successfully completed the last of these automotive surgeries, never learning the ultimate fate of these test cars, whether they were destined for the scrapyard or a used-car lot somewhere. I was just glad to have completed my first assignment as a Volvo employee without any injuries or unintentional deployments.

Fortunately, none of the Volvos that I worked on had ever experienced a crisis severe enough to deploy an airbag. (Source:


Some readers have asked whether my Audi Fox daily driver caused any raised eyebrows at Volvo. Other than a few tongue-in-cheek comments on its Royal Norwegian Auto Club car badge, there was absolutely no pressure to leave the dark side and trade the Fox for a Volvo; lots of the company’s permanent employees drove a variety of domestic or Japanese cars without a care. Unfortunately, as a “permanent temporary” employee, I wasn’t eligible for a low-cost lease on a new Volvo (let alone an actual company car, for that matter).

Despite my status as the Product Engineering & Development department’s newest hire, however, I would shortly find myself behind the wheel of one of Gothenburg’s finest, but that’s another story.

(The feature image, shows some of Volvo’s famed “Green Book” service manuals, sourced from eBay.)