Volvo: A Swedish Perspective

Gävleborg, Ljusdal, Järvsö, Hälsingland, Miljöer-Tätort, Övrigt-Personer

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(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.

Volvo PV-444-1024x728

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.

Volvo PV444A _Hatten-av_650

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.

Volvo PV 544 red

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.

volvo pv-544-sport_key_12

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.

volvo pv544-favorit-03

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.

volvo amazon-03

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 144 ad

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.

Volvo 122S 1968P1219

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.

Volvo 240 -GLT

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.

Volvos on street 2

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.

Volvo Ingvar Kamprad

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.

Volvo PV 444 picnic