Curbside Classic: 1972 Volvo 144E – Volvo’s Blueprint For The Next Thirty Years

(first published 3/27/2012)   The Volvo 140 series was introduced in 1966 as a ’67 model. This car, with continuous updating over the years, finally ended production in 1993 as the 240. The 140 was much more modern than the 122/Amazon it would eventually replace, and cemented Volvo’s reputation for the next thirty years as safe, reliable…and boxy.

The first postwar Volvo was the PV444, a two-door sedan that was powered by the inline-four B4B engine with 40 hp. Designed for middle-class Swedish families, it was a very efficient and practical car. The first Volvo model imported to the United States was the PV444. The first Volvo distributor in the US was Nils Sefeldt, a 44 year old Swede who took his family, $3,000 and a PV444 to America to make a go of it. He set up shop in Texas, and his first shipment of five PV444s arrived in late 1955. Volvo was slowly but surely making inroads in the North American market.

The 444 and 544 were deceptively fast. Volvo got a lot of free press when race-prepped 444/544s started besting more obvious sports cars on the track. Many an MG or Porsche driver were shocked when this funny little Swedish car that looked like a 3/4 scale 1948 Ford blew them away. By the late 1950s the four was producing 85 horsepower and 0-60 times of 14.3 seconds.

Due to its racing successes, Volvo heavily promoted it as a family sports car – practical and durable enough to drive to work, but with superior handling and performance to have a little fun on the weekend. The 444 and its 445/Duett estate version were continuously improved, but it had been in production for nearly ten years and a new model was due.

In 1956 the 120/Amazon series was introduced with very strong American design features, especially its Imperial-inspired grille. The four-door Amazon was a boon to the US market, as previously only two-door models were available. It did not, however, replace the 444 as had been expected. Instead, both models were offered concurrently for close to ten years, though the 444 was heavily updated and redesignated the 544 in late 1958.

An Amazon station wagon joined the two-door and four-door sedans in 1962 and was immediately popular. The Duett, as versatile as it was, only had two doors and a four door wagon was welcomed by many. The last 544s were built in 1965 and the Amazon became the sole Volvo model. This was potentially a problem. The Amazon was a fine car, but its design was clearly from the ’50s and by the early-to-mid ’60s it was getting dated. Volvo knew this and a new model had been under development since 1961. What would become the 140 would launch the ‘boxy Volvo’ design theme that would last all the way to the last 2000 Volvo S70 and V70 models.

The 1967 Volvo 140 was first shown to the press in August 1966, and it was a revelation. The design was very modern, if a little bland. It was not obvious that this was a Volvo, as the gently rounded styling of the 544 and Amazon was gone. The only styling cue to link it with the previous model was the split grille. It also introduced Volvo’s new model numbering system. The first digit showed the model series, the second digit was number of cylinders and third digit designated the number of doors. Thus, the 144 was a four-cylinder four-door sedan.

While it was intended to replace the Amazon, both models were available until the last Amazon was built in 1970. The 140’s wheelbase was unchanged from the Amazon, as were the powertrains. Standard 140s had the B18A four with 85 hp and a single-barrel Zenith-Stromberg carburetor. If you wanted a little more motivation, you could opt for the 144S, which added the B18B with 115 hp and twin SU’s. Initially offered only as a four-door, a two-door was added near the end of the first model year. The 145 station wagon debuted in March 1968.

An interesting variant of the 145 was the Express, meant to replace the Duett. The biggest difference between it and the 145 was a raised roof for greater cargo space. It came with or without a back seat, and a version with blanked out windows was also available. The 140 Series had several new safety features, such as four wheel disc brakes and a dual-circuit braking system. In 1967 the 140 received the Swedish Automobile Association’s gold medal for its brake system. It was also Sweden’s Car of the Year.

The 140 became available in the United States in March 1967, priced at $2995 with the four-speed transmission and $3175 for the automatic. In fall of 1968 all 140s received the B20 engine, with the standard B20A producing 90 hp and the B20B S version having 118hp. In addition, an alternator replaced the generator.

In 1971 Volvo divided the 140 into three trim levels. The basic 140 was unchanged, but a new DL model (for DeLuxe) received a new matte black grille and wheels with larger ventilation slots and revised hubcaps. The diagonal bar with the Volvo iron symbol, a trademark going back to the original 1927 ‘Jakob’, returned to the grille. The B20B engine was modified and became the B20D, which delivered 105 hp @ 5500 rpm.

A new top of the line GL (interior photo is a 1970 164, which was virtually identical) added all the DL features plus a 130 hp B20E four cylinder with fuel injection. Leather interior and fog lamps were standard, and the hubcaps were replaced with chrome acorn nuts with a bright center cap. The GL could do 0-100 km/h in 10.5 seconds with the four speed and 11 seconds flat with the automatic.

For 1972, the door handles were now recessed into the body, and the long-handled shift lever was replaced with a more modern short-throw version that had already been in use on the 164.

The 140 received quite a few revisions for 1973. The front end received yet another new grille, while bigger, more visible taillights updated the back. Bumpers were enlarged and on US-bound models were impact-absorbing up to 5 mph. A new black instrument panel had round gauges in a rectangular cluster and replaced the somewhat dated woodgrained version with a strip speedometer.

DLs had a very bright, very ’70s cloth interior option, as seen above. Quite a contrast from the black, gray or tan interior choices of today’s cars, eh? I kind of like it.

New safety features included reinforced supports in the doors for increased side impact protection and child locks on the rear doors. 218,155 140s were made in 1973. It just kept getting better. It seemed that this Volvo had legs, and would be around for some time.

That was true for the car, but it would only be called a 140 for one more year. The same basic car received a new front end in 1975 and became the 240 that would last all the way to 1993. But that’s a story for another time.

The 1974 models received even larger bumpers, and the front vent windows were eliminated. While the bumpers were not very attractive, they had to be added as federal regulations required them in the US. Volvo just equipped all 140s that way for efficiency’s sake. On a positive note, you now had bench seating on the outside of the car when it was parked. Fuel injected 140s received Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection with continuous injection (CI), replacing the earlier D-Jetronic version.

I have been wanting to do a CC on the 140 for some time, but I haven’t seen one in twenty years – maybe even longer. When I was a kid, friends of my parents, Dee Dee and Ward, had a seafoam green 140 identical to this one that Paul found in Eugene. It was their only car, and was still in great condition in the early ’80s. Ward replaced it with a silver Renault Fuego, believe it or not.

When they had their first child, the Fuego was traded in on a gunmetal gray Renault Alliance sedan. I don’t recall if he had problems with either (I was five, you know!), but in 1987 they got a new cream colored 240DL wagon, which they drove until at least 1998, when they moved to Michigan. Funny that his 240 was essentially an improved version of his old 144. Altogether, 1,205,111 140s of all types were built, and the 240 would go above and beyond those numbers. Yes, this car had legs.