Old Volvos never die, but they can be at a standstill. This 164 saloon seems to be getting some TLC body-wise, but what it really needs is four new tyres. If and when it gets them, it may resume a life of effortless cruising in Bangkok, with its power (almost)-everything and A/C. Looks like someone’s trying to rescue this gorgeous green Gotheburg gem. How did it end up here?
The story (sort of) begins in 1958. Volvo halted production of their ancient, slow-selling 831 Disponent, the darling of Swedish cabbies. The 831’s 3-litre sidevalve engine – Volvo’s first six, produced since 1929 – was no longer viable, but no replacement was planned. Volvo were focused on the smaller Amazon and the P1800, where the exports lay, along with the invincible PV544. But the notion of a 6-cyl. car had not left the company.
The next generation Volvo (the 140 series) was in well into the mock-up phase by 1963 and already Volvo was planning to give the higher-end market another stab. The engine was quite literally the Amazon’s B20 2-litre 4-cyl. with two extra pots, logically leading to its code name, B30. This made for a nice 3-litre straight-6, which would share its elder cousin’s (four-father?) famous appetite for mileage.
Style-wise, the 144’s large and airy cabin and rear was mated to a longer front end with a distinctive vertical grille. It is said that Volvo figured that they might emulate the British – especially the likes of Wolseley, Vandenplas, Jaguar and Rover, which would be the new Volvo’s main competitors, along with Mercedes-Benz, Ford, GM Europe and the Italians, in the 2.5 to 4-litre “executive saloon” category. But priority was given to the 144, which premiered in 1966. The 164 hit the dealerships in December 1968, weeks after its unveiling.
The 164 had a few visible changes during its lifespan, starting with fog lamps, which were phased in several markets in 1970 and eventually replaced the original grilles, flush door handles in 1972, larger horizontal taillights, a straight front bumper and revised grille in 1973, and finally 5-mph botox bumpers in 1974. Given the car’s relative success in the US, and to simplify production, it was decided to switch the entire production to the US-style bumpers (but not taillights) – just like the MGB and the Midget. Fortunately, the new V6-powered Volvo 264 was launched in late 1974, leaving the 164 to do a final model year (for the US, Australia and Japan only) in 1975 with a sensational new party trick: electric front windows.
Our CC is therefore a one-year-only non- 5-mph straight bumper model. So far, so what? Well, there are a few details that may seem a bit intriguing to the European or American 164 enthusiast. The De Luxe (two words that, if you pardon my French, can sometimes signify De Merde) name is a bit strange – looks like it came from a 144, or the next generation 260 range. Another quirk is the lack of chrome trim around the rear lights panel, though things get downright interesting inside.
This is not a ’73 steering wheel, it’s a ’72. The same goes for the rest of the dash, which is still the faux wood horizontal slab it ever was, and the horizontal speedo that looks about ten years older than the car actually is. The exterior is ’73, but the interior doesn’t match, it seems. But perhaps the fact that this is a RHD model photographed in Thailand could have something to do with that.
This is what a 1973 Volvo 164 should look like and did look like – at least in Europe, Australia and the US. Volvo sent CKD kits for both the 144 and 164 to a number of places. There were assembly lines in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Africa. A mish-mash of model years like this is a trademark case of local assembly – this car was either put together in Indonesia or, more likely, Malaysia. This is a tropical Volvo, so I’m guessing it doesn’t have heated seats.
This car also has Borg-Warner automatic transmission, which migrated from the steering column to the floor in 1972. This also shows in the under-dash A/C unit. These may have been dealer-installed or put in from the very beginning in Malaysia; I’m not sure. The “normal” (non-A/C) dash had a sort of amputated fake wood console down there with a small clock (behind which was the fuse box), but knowing the time is less vital than cool air in steamy Southeast Asia.
The official Volvo A/C setup advertised at the time was quite unlike what we have in our tyrelessly green machine. Guess using last year’s leftover RHD dashes meant one had to improvise with local suppliers.
I know the pseudo-British styling is an issue for some, but Volvo managed to tone it down a bit before production began. After all, having a vertical grille was still acceptable in 1969 – nobody minds them on a Benz or an XJ6. But the entire car looks so extremely conservative, albeit in a Germanic rather than a British way, that it does look like it came out at least five years too late.
Round headlamps mounted on the top of the wing – it looked trendy in 1955, so what was it doing on a late ‘60s luxury car? Well, here’s what the competition looked like when Volvo designed the 164, circa 1965.
European luxury saloons were still pretty much ‘50s-era designs. Those that did not have a big horizontal grille (such as the Lancia Flaminia, the Ford Zodiac Mk III or the Humber Super Snipe Series V) were not necessarily the freshest ones. The Jaguar S-Type, one of the most recent cars among the twelve ’65 saloons shown here, still harked back to the XK 120 in many ways.
Jaguar had already started turning Daimler into a clone. While the V8 250 saloon (bottom left) did provide the only 8-cyl. engine in this class, the Jag body looked (and was) another ‘50s throwback. Only GM (Vauxhall and especially Opel, bottom right) and Ford Germany (not pictured) had a transatlantic look of true ‘60s modernity. Old-style grilles were still plentiful, chiefly thanks to BMC’s badge-engineering bonanza, represented by the Princess VandenPlas (middle right, one car that clearly inspired Volvo) in this and the Wolseley in the previous montage, but also available with a horizontal grille as the Austin A110. Volvo, being a relatively small and methodical outfit, took a long while to put the 164 in production and were faced with a European executive car landscape that, by 1969, was markedly different.
Sure, venerable ‘50s holdouts like the Farina Wolseley (until 1971) or the Rover P5 (until 1973) were still about, but some (Alfa, Lancia and Rootes) had pulled out. Ford and GM were still making miniature American cars, only slightly bigger and wider than the previous generation. BMW, Fiat and Triumph brought new blood to the competition, though BMC also fielded their biggest flop yet, the Austin 3 Litre.
The recently-formed British Leyland had another couple of new cars up their considerable sleeve. The Rover P6 (middle right) could now get the same V8 as its older sibling, bringing it into the executive class. Aside from its rear end, the P6 looks a lot younger than the newer Volvo, which is pretty telling. The new Jaguar XJ6 was also a formidable opponent – Daimler were sticking to the older 420-based Sovereign for one last year before switching to the new platform. Big grilles were becoming old hat, Mercedes and Jaguar notwithstanding; among its 1969 cohort, the Volvo does look very old-school.
The 164 was also quite conservative technically. Live rear axles were not exactly cutting edge for a late ‘60s European car. Nor was the (excellent) 4-speed manual with optional overdrive or 3-speed automatic transmission anything groundbraking. Four wheel disc brakes (ventilated from 1972) were standard, as on many of its peers. Initially rated in Europe at 130 hp (DIN), the 2978cc B30 engine was a bit short on power for some, who rationalized that Alfa Romeo could get that much out of a mere 1750cc four. Fuel injection was included in the options list in 1972, long after Mercedes, Triumph, BMW and many others. It provided a direly needed 30 extra horses, which helped prolong the engine’s life, though that time span was not to be very long.
Besides non-automotive applications, the B30 was one of several engines used by British sportscar firm Marcos in 1969-71 – chiefly for its ability to pass US emissions tests. The B30 also powered the Volvo C303 military vehicle (1974-81), which was initially used by both the Swedish and Malaysian armed forces. The famous PRV (Peugeot-Renault-Volvo) V6 that took over from the B30 in 1974 had a far longer and more successful service life, albeit not without its issues.
There were a couple of interesting special-bodied 164s – other than the Bertone coupé prototype mentioned in Paul’s excellent 164 post. and Don “Dottore” Andreina’s ode to the 165 wagon that (almost) never was. One was a rather rakish coupé made by Zagato and shown at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show – where the Citroën SM premiered. The Volvo GTZ 3000, had it gone into production as the Italian Volvo importer wanted, would have competed with the Franco-Italian spaceship. The GTZ 3000, while lighter and more aerodynamic than the saloon, was simply not able to reach 200 kph, which sealed its fate. Fuel injection might have made a difference, but Volvo weren’t ready yet.
Which is perhaps why Volvo themselves threw in the towel with this line of thinking. In 1966, with an eye towards the P1800 and another eye wandering somewhere between Italy and Michigan, Volvo designers toyed with this handsome P172 coupé, based on the upcoming 164. The idea was shot down even before the 164 came out, perhaps due to the B30’s leisurely performance or for a number of other reasons. The big coupé idea lingered on until the Bertone 262C came to be, a decade later.
Volvo is a marque that has always thrived as the middle child in the luxury saloon class. Not daring, not stylish, but careful, safety-conscious and solid. Kind of like Peugeot in the mid-range saloon class. And like the Peugeots, Volvos were not cheap. Quality build and durability command quite a premium, which not a few well-heeled but discreet folks understood.
But then sometimes, Volvos were not too expensive either, depending on which market they happened to compete – in the UK in 1970, it was as dear as the top-of-the-line Citroën DS, but much cheaper than the BMW 2500. This was probably different in Germany, France and Sweden at the time. Floating exchange rates after 1971 were also cause for alarm; by 1974, on some markets currency fluctuations pushed the 164 dangerously close to the XJ6.
Volvo sold about 12,000 of their 164 saloons in its debut year, then 20,000 in 1970. Production progressively crept up to 30,000 by 1974 and finished back around 20,000 for the final US/Oz/Japan-only 1975 model year. According to the Swedish Volvo 164 Club’s impressive website, over 153,000 units were made in seven years (there are other numbers floating around on the web). That’s even better than the first generation Jaguar XJ6/Daimler Sovereign (around 94,000 units – excluding the 12-cyl. cars – in five years), which was deemed quite a success.
But then Volvo is not necessarily playing in Jaguar’s league, big grille aside. Performance-wise, it’s closer to a DS 21 or NSU Ro80 than to a 3.4 litre Jag or a Rover V8. It drinks just as much as the bigger engines while performing like the smaller ones. And according to at least one automotive journalist at the time, “The well-equipped Volvo 164s [TE] are NOT luxury cars – they have luxurious fittings, a certain dignity, they’re well-built and very safe, but they are truly just basic utilitarian transport with trimmings.”
On the whole, I cannot dislike the Volvo 164 completely. The car has a lot going for it, even though it’s not going anywhere soon. The fugly front end gives it presence, the interior seems nice (though not as big as I thought, especially at the rear), the “Cypressgrön” colour is sublime and the car’s solidity is legendary. But it’s still a 144 with a nose job – not exactly a sex symbol.
A lot of automakers have used this recipe – one bodyshell, two engines and/or noses – with varying success. And the 164 was a success. It certainly helped Volvo re-conquer their place within the global executive saloon market, where they have remained for five decades. But Volvo were not turning into a specialist luxury carmaker: The ratio of 140 to 164 production is well illustrated by the advert above. The bread-and-butter 4-cyl. cars would bring home the bacon – like the 140 series (142 / 144 / 145), which sold over 1 million units from 1966 to 1973, but the more profitable 6-cyl. cars could provide a nice and steady little side benefit.
Unlike virtually all of its competitors, Volvo always lacked one crucial variant: a large domestic market. There were only 8 million Swedes in 1970, of which very few could afford a 164. This means that, of all its competitors, the 164 was most likely the one whose production was the most exported. This Thai example, most probably put together in Asia, is a reminder that Volvo’s reach was already far and wide back then. Nowadays, Volvo is owned by the Chinese and the shoe, as they say, is on the other foot.
CC Capsule: 1970 Volvo 164: Out to Lunch, by Jim Grey
eBay Find: 1974 Volvo 164E – Because Swedes Need Luxury Too, by Tom Klockau