(first posted 5/27/2014. I asked Ingvar if he could shed a little light on Volvo’s PV and other aspects of Volvo history from a Swedish perspective for my PV444/544 CC. What he sent is too good not to use as a post of its own, so I’ve co-opted it. That’s not exactly what he had in mind, but he knows how I roll here (“volvo”, in Latin), and consented. You’ll also be seeing a couple of Ingvar’s excellent other Volvo posts later this week. PN)
The Volvo 444, colloquially just called “The PV” (and to a lesser extent, the Saab 92), was the car that put Sweden on wheels. Every country has its own version: the Model T, Volkswagen, Renault 4CV, Mini, Fiat 500. Sweden has not always been prosperous, but we can thank the Second World War for dragging us out of the mud for the very last time, and putting us behind the wheel of a Volvo.
Sweden was not affected by the war in any way, with the entire industrial infrastructure intact, and could start production immediately after the war. The Swedish Wirtschaftswunder thus started earlier than in the rest of Europe, but wasn’t perhaps as explosive and self evident as it was in Germany during the fifties and sixties. But during the forties, fifties, and sixties, there was a steady rise in prosperity all across the board. Suddenly, the entire country was middle class, or at least working class with middle class incomes. And the PV was their car of choice.
It wasn’t perhaps as roomy and practical as the later Volvos, but because it was the “first”, it has a special place in the hearts of the Swedes. For a large portion of the driving population of a certain age, it was the first car they ever owned, new or used. And for many more, it was the first car they even drove. Volvo wanted to axe the car several times, though there was always a steady trickle of buyers. Especially so when the 444 became long in the tooth in the middle fifties, and Volvo wanted to steer buyers into the new Amazon line. But people just kept buying the thing.
Finally, they relented, and updated the car to the 544, the car that was really never meant to be. And people kept buying it into the late 60’s. It was anachronistic even then, with its forties styling evident, but people just seemed to like it that way.
Later in life, it was popular as a used car, as a second car, as a beater, as a car for younger drivers, and so on. Several generations of drivers grew up with that car as the first car they ever owned, it was simply just transferred between generations. It was the car that was always there when you needed it, and perhaps forgotten and out of sight when you didn’t. For many people, it was always the go-to car when their own cars broke down.
Because all people just seemed to know somebody that had one standing somewhere ready to use. Like cockroaches, they were un-killable, and just seemed to be littered around the countryside, just standing parked in the woods or in some barn.
The 122 Amazon was a decidedly more upmarket car than the PV 444, larger, with four doors, and boot. Especially the 50’s two-tone four doors were simply a notch above the 444. It was seen as more aspirational, thus, there was still a market for a cheaper car. Volvo tried in several ways to replace the 444; they built several prototypes with new and different front and rear ends, during the fifties and early sixties. In the end, they decided to simply keep the old body shell for the 544 with no major alterations, though it was updated in many ways. Another important notion is that the 544 sold quite well, though it was seen as rather old for the times. I have to check the numbers, but it seems that production was evenly divided between the 444 and 544. Thus, it sold as many cars after the update as they had done before.
Volvo is unusual as they decided to keep older lines in production, parallel to the new lines they developed. They had many overlaps, and I have no idea how that affected sales, with cannibalization and such. But they have been very consistent on that, up to modern times. The Amazon came in 1956; yet the 544 was sold to 1966, and the Duett to 1969. The 144 came in 1966; the Amazon was in production until 1970. In 1968, they had three lines in parallel, the Duett, the Amazon, and the 144. The 140 became the 240, but when the 740 arrived in 1984, the 240 line was continued, up until 1993. The 740 became the 940 in 1991, but 740 production continued for a year or two after that. With the 850 in 1992, they had thus three lines in parallel again, the 240, the 740/940, and the 850.
Just as the PV had been downgraded to second car status with the arrival of the Amazon, the same happened with the Amazon later in its life. If the two-tones were seen as aspirational, the most sold model was the basic two-door later on. So, the two-door Amazon more or less replaced the 544 as the cheaper alternative in the late sixties. The same happened with the 240 with the arrival of the 740, and with the 940 with the arrival of the 850. There has simply always been a market for a very basic no frills Volvo, at least in Sweden.
The notion about class and prosperity is quite important to understand the position Volvo had in Sweden. Especially the 240 held a position very similar to the full-size Fords and Chevies during the 60’s and 70’s in the US. It was simply the norm to have a 240, it was the single most common car in the country, with a market share between 30-50%. Basically every other car was a Volvo. On a European standard, the 240 was considered a full size car. And it is very unusual to have such a big car as being the norm. Compared to the rest of Europe, and the rest of the world, except perhaps the US.
But in Sweden, it wasn’t seen as a premium car, but simply being on the highest level of working class achievement. Thus, Volvos were not only very common, but also seen as the car for the regular Joe. And there it differs to the rest of the world, were Volvos had other connotations, like the notion of Volvo being a car for intellectuals and doctors and lawyers and such.
Inequality has risen stratospherically the last couple of decades, but in the early 80’s, Sweden was perhaps the most equal country in the world. At least in economic terms. The gap between rich and poor has perhaps never been smaller in the entire human history as then and there. And everybody in Sweden drove Volvos, from the working class up high. For the upper classes, there was a notion of simply not flaunting your money. It was seen as a great faux pas. And captains of industry happily paraded their Volvos, though perhaps they had a 264 instead of the more common 244.
Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad was very proud of his, and could be seen driving his rather shabby 245 up until recent times, if not even as we speak. Not only was it attainable, it bridged the gap between rich and poor in a way seldom seen. Thus, it became a symbol of that special Swedishness, like in the untranslatable idiom: Volvo, Villa, Vovve. The very symbol of Swedish suburbia, having a house, a dog, a car. And not just any old car, it was such a foregone conclusion it had to be a Volvo that it became part of the term.
Funny you should mention the default-car concept…the ad server’s telling me “Why buy anything else?” but a Chevy Impala.
Fantastic. I’ve read your other pieces, Ingvar, and also enjoyed your commentary. I’m looking forward to more of your writings.
That’s very sweet of you. I haven’t done much, but I’m glad my input is of use. Yes, Paul sort of co-opted this, but now I see that it actually works as a stand alone piece. And that’s fun…
It’s not the quantity, but the quality. Your commentary on styling in older articles is first rate. I hope you’re back, so to speak.
I hope so too. I have at least a half a dozen articles in my head, so we’ll see what the future brings in mind. But I’m very thankful for Paul for giving me this opportunity, even if I’m kicking and screaming. Procrastination, and so on. Sometimes a respectfull kick in the ass is all it takes…
I’m always very happy to oblige with those kicks. 🙂
It’s nice to hear about Volvo from the Swedish perspective. Although there are obvious differences that you pointed out between how Volvo is viewed in Sweden and around the world, at least in the U.S. it is seen as a premium car for those who don’t like to flaunt their wealth.
We have more or less always had Volvos in my family so I have followed them closely. I have also been an avid Bilsport reader, so I know a little about the Swedish perspective, yet this was very enlightening.
By the way, we have that same expression in Denmark. We say “Villa, Volvo og Vovhund” meaning the exact same.
Definately material for it’s own article, thanks!
It’s always interesting to hear the perspective on a car from its native country.
I’m heading up to Mosport in a few weeks for the vintage festival, hoping to see a 544 on the track.
During my first year at university in 1969, I had often got a ride to the campus in a 544 (could have been a 444, I don’t recall). It belonged to my math professor, who lived a couple of blocks from my place. I would walk to her house, and wait outside for my lift. Her husband, an engineering professor, drove a 140. Obviously.
Although Volvos were a common sight in Ottawa back then, 444/544s were quite rare, and this one was a beater, bordering on cockroach status. It never failed to start, even on the coldest mornings, but the heater would not cooperate. The front passenger seat was missing, so I had to sit in the back. In spite of the rusty body, it still felt remarkably solid. It was better than walking, or using the inadequate public transport.
Sadly, she was one of the worst math professors I ever had, just mechanically reading her notes and filling the blackboard with endless equations and proofs. Must have been traumatic, because to this day, I associate the 444/544 with those horrid calculus lectures. It would be sometime later that I finally ‘got’ differential and integral calculus.
I love reading of how certain cars are viewed in other cultures, and this was an excellent example. Thanks, Ingvar!
When I was first out of law school, I took flying lessons from a guy named Lars who had in years past been an auto mechanic in Sweden. I told him about my brief infatuation with the Saab Turbo but he immediately set me straight. “Forget Saab, they’re no good. If you want Swedish car, stick with Volvo. But not the six.”
As for the old model, as a kid I actually got a ride in one of the later PV544s. A neighbor was an engineer for Dana and he got to drive “test cars” home. When he got something interesting I would walk over and he would tell me to get my Dad and we would go for a ride. It was the first time I had ever seen a Volvo and I had no idea what it was.
I had the same experience you did just a few weeks ago. I was at a gas station putting gas in my ’91 Volvo and I spotted a gentleman who had an ’89 Volvo wagon near the same pump.
I went over and we started talking about Volvos. Through my conversation with him, I discovered that he was originally from Sweden and was named Klas. He’s a retired professor. I then asked him his opinion on Saabs – he told me that while Saab was a technologically-advanced, innovative car, he and other Swedes believed that the build quality wasn’t great and that they were WAY less reliable than Volvo. And Klas has five(!) Volvos.
The Volvo/Saab debate in Sweden is perhaps as old as coke/pepsi, or pc/mac. It’s either the one or the other, and respective camp has often very strong views on their own personal choices. In general, Volvo was seen as more conservative, and Saab as more progressive. Left brain/right brain, and so on.
Exactly. I read a story at Petrolicious on a Saab that was sold to a Volvo owner, becasue the seller figured, “hey, sincce Yyou like volvos, you probably like Saabs too.” I thought a Volvo person would be the last person you’d try and sell a Saab to. I guess outside Scandinavia, you’re more of a Sweden-phile (is there a word for that?) than a Volvo-/Saab-phile.
My parents were just such Sverifiles As I noted in another comment my parents had a 544 when I was born, traded for a Saab 2 stroke wagon. Mom was 2nd generation of a Swedish family so in addition to Saab and Volvo, I grew up with smorgasbords and blue-and-yellow streamers. FWIW the Volvo was indeed ratber more reliable than the Saab.
(Of course if Scotland manufactured cars, we would have had one of those instead, as Dad was first generation Scottish American. (So I also grew up with bagpipes and meat pies..))
Excellent article with unique photos.
The unofficial modelname~nickname here for the PV444 is Cat’s Back. The Volvo Cat’s Back, the Swedish Cat’s Back or just Cat’s Back.
I remember in the US, at least in the Bay Area where they weren’t uncommon even in the early ’60’s, they were occasionally called humpbacks or hunchbacks. I guess to differentiate from sleeker Detroit fastbacks and then VW 1600’s. This was around the time VW formalized (or invented) the term squareback, and notchback referred almost exclusively to the regular 2 door VW 1500.
Thank you for a well-written story.
The practice of keeping obsolescent models in production could be an article in itself. While Volvo may have done it the most, others have too, typically in the US with rwd cars defying their downsized replacements. And I can still buy another Gillette Sensor razor, even though I’m supposed to want a Mach V Turbo Nano Mondo LSi.
Splendid piece, Ingvar.
American GIs encountering the 444/544 during their European service, grew enamored of the cars which bore the familiarity of 40s-era Fords, referring to the car as “the old friend.” That description bore out in my experience of owning a 544, which was like being in the company of an old friend: always faithful, trusted, dependable and comfortable.
The different in perception between the Swedish and American markets is fascinating. From your narrative, in the home country, the Volvo is an ordinary car, very conservative, very acceptable to all demographics.
In America, Volvo’s are an upscale ride primarily (at least when new) bought by members of the political left. To the point that, while married to my late wife (a member of Young Americans for Freedom at the University of Vermont in 1969 – you can’t get more hard core conservative than that), a Volvo was the only restriction on my car-buying tastes. She absolutely refused to be seen riding in a Volvo, because “you know what kind of people buy those cars” (in her opinion: stinking America-hating liberals, who should be shipped to France or Sweden where they belong).
Also, I find it interesting that Volvo’s safety reputation was rather taken for granted and expected in Sweden, while over here it was a huge deal – quite possibly the reason for the brand’s existence.
I’m from Vermont and went to college in Burlington (St. Michael’s College). I have firsthand experience with the type of group your wife was a member of. We too had a Young Americans faction at St. Mike’s and I was trying to fend off their attacks all the time.
So she thought liberals like me should’ve been shipped off to France or Sweden? I take it she would not own or be seen in a Peugeot, Renault or Saab either.
Actually, no. Volvo’s were the only thing that seemed to touch a nerve – although I’d have probably gotten the same reaction had I seriously looked at a Prius.
I’m never quite sure how we managed to not only link up, but make a thirteen year successful marriage until she died. During my college days, I was Students for a Democratic Society, a Vietnam protester, and after the politics died down, one hell of a glam rocker.
Then again, Patti was the family liberal. Her father was absolutely (American born) Prussian in temperament, with politics somewhat to the right of Adolph Hitler. Other than a joint love for motorcycles, we had very little to discuss in life. And her sister (still alive) thinks Ann Coulter is a wonderful person. For that, and a few other reasons, I haven’t said word to her since the funeral.
Never underestimate the power of love.
That’s funny. My dad, a conservative Republican Protestant Iowan, remarried to a Boston liberal Jewish university librarian. She was a Peugeot driver as well. They were happy though. He in his Lincoln and she in her Peugeot.
I guess they had one thing in common. Due to WW2, he refused to ever own a Japanese car, and she refused to ever own a German car.
I came home from the hospital in a 58 544 named Erik the Red. At that time Volvos weren’t considered upscale; they were just another odd foreign car. Even Erik’s replacement – a 67 Saab 95 2 stroke wagon named Sonja – was considered somewhat downscale (if even wierder).
As I’ve read (probably here but maybe at AUWM) that the weak dollar in the 70s forced many European makes to become became upscale out of necessity – they were going to be expensive regardless, so they needed features to justify it. IIRC Saab pioneered this but Volvo certainly followed.
“Also, I find it interesting that Volvo’s safety reputation was rather taken for granted and expected in Sweden, while over here it was a huge deal – quite possibly the reason for the brand’s existence.”
There’s an old adage in the ad world that says you can never sell a car on safety. And perhaps that was true up until the late 80’s. But Volvo started early on with that, perhaps from the sixties onwards, at least in Sweden. They saw a window of opportunity, and they took that opportunity and ran with it. Personally, I think their safety record is somewhat overblown, but it also has to be put in context on what kind of cars were produced then.
And it was a smart move to sell on safety, as their primary market was the safety oriented middle class suburbian family. And what concerns those foremost is the primary safety of their kids. Thus, a Volvo wagon became the default choice for family life, at least in Sweden. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was taken for granted.
Late to the party here. I’m a Volvo owner and own other brands. I agree, Volvo safety reputation is definitely overblown. At one point it was exceptional but it hasn’t been that way for decades because other brands caught up and often passed Volvo many years ago. I think decades of advertising polished the reputation and the somewhat anti-estabishment Volvo buyers eagerly embraced the message.
My friend Doug t-boned a 240 Volvo wagon that pulled out in front of him with his ’77 Mercury Bobcat wagon. The Volvo was totaled. The Bobcat? just needed a new grill.
This was a good story and the pictures brought back a lot of memories. A Doctor I was stationed with in Newfoundland drove a 48 Ford…er 444/544. Considering the weather there, it is significant when I say he drove it all the time. It was what I thought Volvos should be.
When I was finished with the contractor stage of my life and thought I needed something more economical to commute with, I bought the swoopy volvo that came after the box. I think there is a mental block ref saying the model number because it was a disaster. I later heard that the wiring harness was designed to be biodegradable because of some Euro requirements. If so, the design was effective because it sure did degrade. I don’t know for sure what the story was but it was a rolling electrical short that became a “cars for kids” charitable donation.
Even with my misadventure I have always had a respect for Volvo and the opinion that it is a good honest car. I think I have seen more small block ford swaps than chevy but the car is strong enough to tolerate most any heart transplant you might choose. Of them all, the 48 Ford clone is still my favorite. Probably something to do with memories of my childhood.
A family member had an 89 240 5 speed for a few years. She would add oil after the light came on a lot (isn’t it for telling you when to add oil?) When she moved close to me I showed her what a dipstick is for and the value of changing oil. Then engine never missed a beat, but it took me a while to figure out why I could never stop the oil leaks. I finally figured out the flame trap was plugged up and it kept building up internal pressure. It had over 250k miles when she sold it with a bad clutch and bent shift linkage, the driveshaft bolts fell out and bashed up the linkage, after I bolted it back in the clutch was gone and the shifter linkage was all bent up. She sold it at that point, I wish now we kept it. It was built like a tank, did have some rust in the rockers and rear window even though it was a California car.
“She would add oil after the light came on a lot (isn’t it for telling you when to add oil?)”
But it works for the gas . . . .
And still the engine ran fine for years to come. She is trained to check oil now.
I’m the complete opposite of your family member when it comes to changing oil on my Volvos. My cars get their oil and filter changed every 2,000 (yes, 2,000) miles whether they need it or not.
When I purchase my 1991 740 sedan from its original owner two years ago he made me swear on the Bible to change the oil every 2,000 miles, use only Mann filters, and put only Mobil 1 Synthetic in it, like he did. It soon became a habit I couldn’t break.
I always changed oil and filter every 3k miles. I now only drive about 1k on my Titan and 2k on my Jetta, so now I just change once a year on both vehicles. The Jetta has over 300k on engine, I’m sure the frequent oil changes have a lot to do with that. I only use Mann filters on the VW, and factory Nissan filters on the Titan. I do not use synthetic, never have.
I always thought Volvo’s reputation for reliability was overblown, as my mother’s 1984 740 GLE wagon needed a new clutch at 30,000 miles, as did the long term test Volvo 740 driven by one of the car magazines at that time. I also was always amazed that Volvo’s were so popular in snowy areas as their live axle, rwd set up was not well suited to the snow.
Then again, I’ve had 3 Saabs and wish I had one now, so I guess I fall on the Saab side of the debate!
I think it’s reputation as a car for snowy areas comes from the fact that it was developed for a time and a place where cars very seldom started at all in the winter. I don’t know if that’s really a problem nowadays, but then, it was a real problem.
Up north in Sweden, some parkingspaces even had their own power outlet. You just plugged in the cord to the engine block heater, and hey presto, a car starting even in the coldest of days.
Aha! Very interesting! I guess handling in the snow is only important once the car starts! Well my 1988 Saab never had any trouble starting in Maine, as long as I could turn the key, but my ignition use to freeze as it was between the seats and I made the mistake of placing cold sodas right over it in the summer, leading to condensation dripping down into the key hole. Usually heating the key with a lighter would do the trick but once (in Virginia in march) a deep freeze left me unable to start the car!
We visited a friend of my dad’s in rural Sweden in 1964, driving our European-delivery 122S. He drove a Saab 93 or 96, I just remember it was white. He told us that Volvos were for city folk where the roads were plowed. In the country, he said, you needed a Saab (with fwd) or a VW (rwd and rear engine). One of the perks of Volvo’s European-delivery program was an inexpensive ticket home on the same Swedish freighter that carried the car. Our Swedish captain was surprised that Americans would want a Volvo. His car was ’53 or ’54 Chevy.
Volvos were never cheap here until well used A frien bought a 240 with fuel injection and a dead trans to use as a generator he had it hooked to a couple of batteries and an inverter and ran his house off it $50 to buy and it drank about a jerry can of gas a week, it was in use for a long time but he never got to drive it.
Great article. One of my favourite things about this site is learning of different perspectives, how certain cars are viewed or used in different cultures – though sometimes I find some of the assumptions about certain cars frustrating.
I remember when Kerry ran for president a Bush campaign ad described his supporters as “Volvo driving latte drinkers.” This was a complete surprise to me, as in the UK until very recently Volvos were seen as the car of very traditional, blazer wearing, dyed in the wool conservative, slightly sozzled at the golf club types.
This may turn out to be my favourite CC week ever.
I’ve been meaning to shoot this recent arrival in my neighbourhood for a while, and today seemed like a good time. There are some additional pictures in CC Cohort.
What’s ‘Das Auto’ in Swedish?
Ingvar, thanks for an interesting article. I live in Seattle which has no shortage of old Volvos. It’s fun to hear from an actual Swede about what I always thought were kind of boring but stolid cars.
Ingvar, yes, an absolutely superb, entertaining and informative article – looking forward to more…..
Volvo for Life…….
Of course, BMC used to DREAM of only running three lines in parallel… A35, A40, ADO16 (six brands), Wolseley 1500/Riley One Point Five all overlapped sublimely.
But we’re talking about Volvos, and mine is getting nicely run in at 71,000. Here’s a photo of a spontaneous clan gathering just up the road – mine is the newbie in the middle:
Fascinating to hear how the PV was Volvo’s “everyman” car in the home market, as it was decidedly not mainstream over here. When I was in elementary/middle school (late 80’s into early 90’s) one of the school guidance counselors drove a cream-colored PV544. Even then it was a borderline classic, and well-kept. But I had no clue how old it was–due to the old-fashioned design I originally thought it might be from the fifties, but really wasn’t sure. I just knew it wasn’t a 240 or a 740, and it was the only Volvo like it I’d ever seen. Such an oddity, though cool in its own way.
A good place to repost this Canadian TV ad from the mid-60’s, presumably shot on country roads around Halifax, NS, near the assembly plant.
Volvo limousines were the first choice of the Communist Party elite in the old German Democratic Republic aka “East Germany:
One of many articles here:
The Time Volvo Limousines Were Built For East German Bureaucrats
“East German leadership, all the way up to Erich Honecker at the top, considered West German luxury cars unfit for use in the GDR but also preferred to distance themselves from the rest of the ZIL and Chaika-driving Eastern Bloc. To that end, East German leadership could usually be found in the back seat of a Bertone-built Volvo 264 TE, though they did have a stretched Citroen CX or two as well…
The cars became so closely associated with the inner cadre of the East German Communist Party that Wandlitz, the Berlin suburb where many of the GDR’s leadership class lived, became known as Volvograd. At the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Volvos had become such a symbol of the excess and corruption of the East German government class that reporting in the New York Times on the collapse of the socialist state mentioned the Volvo limousines multiple times…
The cars themselves were essentially just modified versions of the standard Volvo 264, which featured the widely-used PRV V6 under the hood. The 264 TE was lengthened 70 centimeters in comparison with the standard 264 and could seat six to the standard car’s four seats…”
There is one in the Berlin’s DDR Museum
And a 1980 pic of Volvos (and a ZIL limousine in the background) in an East Berlin government procession:
LOL – Silly Kommies bought the POS French V6 Sell them a few more!
Great to read this one again – and as in 2014, I still have my Volvo C30…:-)
I made a comment in another forum about the curious overlapping habits of Volvo car production, I may as well paste it in here:
Changes in production runs were usually done during the industrial holiday season when the entire country went on a collective vacation.
So, the 940/960 was phased in during the summer of 1990 as MY91, while the 760 was phased out and the 740 was continued for another two years. The 850 was presented in 1991and phased in production during that summer as MY92.
The oddballs here are the 740 and the 240, with a two year overlap for the 740 being phased out during the summer of 1992 and the 240 being phased out almost a year later during the spring of 1993. In essence the 240 survived its replacement with almost a whole year, overlapping production for an entire generation of cars.
Fun thing is, this isn’t the first time Volvo had such an overlap. In 1968 they had a triplet of estates in production with an overlap of the Duett, the Amazon, and the 145 estates. The 145 was presented in the summer of 1968 as MY69, the Duett was phased out during the winter of 68/69, while the Amazon Estate was phased out during the summer of 1969. Production of Amazon sedans continued another year until the summer of 1970.
I hope this clear things out? 😉