Classic Automotive History: The Volvo Rear Door Dilemma

Design is always all about compromise. When designing cars, there are some criteria that has to be met through a cost/benefit perspective. Very few designs are really uncompromised, and those that are, are seldom very practical. In a few happy instances the equation can give a satisfactory result. Sometimes, some things simply has to give. The question for the car designer will always be: What will have to go?

Jan Wilsgaard started designing cars for Volvo practically fresh out of his teens, he became head of design in his mid-twenties. He held that position for forty years, starting with the Volvo 120-series “Amazon”, and ending up in the early 90’s with the Volvo 850. And with almost all the other Volvos made in between. When someone holds a position for that long, one can follow their ups and downs, their trial and errors, one can see their evolvement over time. Most of all, one can see different themes explored, certain aspects and idiosyncrasies, their private pet-peeves.

The 1956 Volvo “Amazon” is a very beautiful design, especially in four-door and two-tone guise. It looks a little like an American car, designed by an Italian. Perhaps what Detroit would and should have come up with, had they put their hearts and minds into compacts in the fifties.

Six years later, Wilsgaard had to redesign the car as a station-wagon. As said in my earlier piece, that was a very heavy and expensive redesign. The quarter panel is straightened out, on the sedan it makes a quite significant downwards slope to the rear. The rear light bezels are lifted up in accordance, so there’s a straight line from front to rear fender. The rear tail gate goes deeper into the body, on the sedan the trunk is higher up and has a more rounded shape. And not to forget, the rear doors are completely different.

When Wilsgaard designed the 140-series, he made the sedan and station-wagon simultaneously. And to be practical, he made the doors interchangeable. And here rises the dilemma. A station-wagon is most practical in a boxy shape, while a sedan has a “notch” in its shape. The transition between greenhouse and deck lid is a tricky one, and works best in a continuous flowing line. That’s why most sedans of today aren’t notchbacks as one could think, but fastbacks.

To make the lines flow, Wilsgaard made a small but not insignificant slope to the rear of the roof section on the sedan.  The slope is so subtle one doesn’t even notice it, but the car would look awkward without it.  The windows and doors followed accordingly, and as the doors were the same on the station-wagon, they too had that little inclination, in spite of the fact that the roof of the wagon continued in a straight line. It’s a compromise, a simple sacrifice in favor of the sedan. The result isn’t any less obvious due to the fact that the doors were trimmed in chrome, in contrast to the bare metal body.

Another pet-peeve of his is a line of thought I will henceforth call “the bow”. It’s a slightly banana shaped bow from front to rear, making the car look like a muscle in contraction just waiting to flex. It makes the car have a slightly muscular or even vigoruous stance. It’s most visible on the earliest 140’s, it became more obscure as the car evolved into the 240. Speaking of which, here are the doors as they looked in the 70’s.

Volvo has essentially been a one-line car maker for most of its life. When newer lines have been developed, the older ones have been produced in parallel. In the 80’s the issue with the 240-doors became a little less obvious because of the fad with blacked out window trim. But it’s still there. And it’s still visible.

The advantage of conservative design is that it usually stands above mere fads. What was seen as old-fashioned already in its time becomes timeless as time goes by. I guess the Volvo design language has such good bones they can be clad in any guise and just look contemporary.

For the 700-series Wilsgaard reversed the priorities.  This time around he made the doors in favor of the station-wagon, thus making a compromise in the other end instead. On the wagon the lines work perfectly, with a very harmonious result. Not so much on the sedan, with perhaps the biggest notch in notchback history.  Though it is a rectilinear heaven of sorts, the car actually has the trademarked Wilsgaard bow.

With the 940, the lines are eased up a bit. But there’s a slight discrepancy between the rounded shapes of the rear, and the sharp lines of the doors. It’s still a compromise.

I consider the 850 being Jan Wilsgaards least compromised and most harmonious design. Here, the doors work well both on the sedan and on the wagon, and the lack of quarter lights makes for very clean lines. Though, the quarter panels on the sedan looks a little vague, there could have been a better execution of those lines.  The bow is most visible on the wagon, the roof doesn’t so much slope but looks like it’s slightly canted, making the lines from the fender and the roof converge in the distant horizon.  As compromises go, this is one the best executions there is, it is the end result of forty years of juggling with different design parameters.

With the debut of the S80 in 1999 Volvo had gone the full circle. In the modern age of today, the door dilemma has become a non-issue. Different cars based on the same platform can be made on the same factory line, seemingly haphazard. With a slight variation of the P2-platform, Volvo could make three virtually different cars, the S60, V70, and S80. And with those came three different kind of doors. It’s still a cost and benefit situation, but with the technology of today, the cost of making variations is irrelevant to the benefit of having those variations in the first place. The dilemma is no more.