(first posted 5/21/2011. Curbside Duett shots posted at the Cohort by Robert Adair)
To understand the Swedes’ love for the station-wagon, one has to go back to the war, the second world war. Much of the Swedish economy was built upon the fact that the country hadn’t been ravished by the war. When other countries made tanks and gunships, the Swedes developed cars for the glorious post war society they were sure would be built upon the rubble and ruins of Europe. Swedes were not going to spend their post-war years squeezed into tiny bubble cars. And in addition to proper family-sized cars, a roomy station wagon was called for.
The Volvo PV444 was presented in 1944, with deliveries started in 1947.
The Saab 92 came out to market in 1949. Those two cars and the Volkswagen were the cars of choice for the Swedish people throughout the fifties. Though they were very popular, they weren’t exactly the most practical cars. The Saab didn’t even have an externally available luggage compartment for the first few years. Something had to be done.
Though the Volvo PV444 was of unibody construction, there was some pressure from the commercial sector to make chassis available for conversions. In 1949 Volvo presented a separate chassis on a ladder frame, it came equipped with engine, hood, front wings, front bulkhead and dashboard. Outside coach builders made use of that and built various specials, like wagons, pickup trucks, fire engines and ambulances.
There were even some convertibles built, much in the style of the Chrysler Town & Country woodie convertibles, though on a lower scale.
And roomy station wagons. Those were not the kind of crude Epa-conversions I talked about before, but outsourced factory approved coachbuilt conversions, and therefore they were quite expensive. Market pressure then made it easier for Volvo to develop a less expensive wagon of their own, with an all steel body on the commercial chassis. The tell tale between the versions are the rudimentary rear wings often fitted to the coachbuilt cars, where the factory version is rather clean and slab sided.
The new factory-built wagon was presented in 1953 as the Volvo PV 445, colloquially called the “Duett”, with the dual purpose of being used both “for work and pleasure”. It was marketed to artisans, craftsmen, shop-owners, and the likes, people who needed a practical wagon to make deliveries on week days, with the need to haul the family down to the beach or summer house come weekends. And as practical cars go, it was essentially the only one of its kind and therefore seen in much use.
It was also the car of choice for the various branches of the Swedish government. The bright orange cars from the national telephone company Televerket were a common sight, I remember seeing those in practical use up into the early 1980’s. Other large fleet buyers were the national railroad company SJ, who had their cars painted red with contrasting black front wings, while the national post office had their cars painted a bright yellow with contrasting black front wings.
The PV445 was modernized in parallel to its sedan counterpart; in 1960 it received a minor facelift and became the P210. At the same time, production of bare commercial chassis ended after some 4000 had been produced. In 1962, the 120-series “Amazon” station wagon was presented. It was a rather expensive solution due to the fact that it was of unibody construction.
The design staff virtually had to carve out a completely new rear end, from the B-pillars and back, with specially made rear doors, rear wings, a new roof, and a bi-split rear tail-gate. Because of that, it became more of an upscale family car, thus relegating the Duett to work horse capacity only.
And boy, did it see much of that. Not in the horse and buggy but more in the oxcart kind of style. People mistreated their cars in the most sadistic kind of way and still expected every car to do its duty. I wouldn’t be surprised if Volvos reputation for quality wasn’t built upon the sheer beatings those cars were capable of withstanding.
It honed the people into the practical use of wagons and paved the way for generations upon generations of family haulers in Sweden, making the station wagon the most common car in the country.
In 1968, the Volvo 145 station wagon was presented. Interestingly enough, that year saw three overlapping generations of Volvo wagons being made, with that year being the final model year for the Amazon wagon. In 1969, the Duett was finally phased out, with a tally of roughly 90 000 cars produced.
The demise of the Duett left a hole for more practical cars in the line-up, and as a replacement of sorts the rather curious 145 Express was presented in 1970. The ten inch roof extension and larger tail-gate was made out of fiberglass, and simply just tacked on during production. With time, it has garnered a sort of cult following in Sweden.
When trying to describe the Volvo Duett, I keep looking for comparisons. But in the hearts and minds of the Swedish people there really isn’t anything like it, it transcends description. It’s like a Jeep Station Wagon but not as rugged, or like a Land Rover but without four-wheel drive.
It has hippie connotations like a VW Bus, it has surfer credibility like a woodie wagon, it has anti-society vibes like a Citroen driven by a bunch of angry communists. It is unadorned like the girl next door, it is unpretentious like an Ikea dining room set, it is rugged and reliable as Sancho Panchas mule, and it is homely like a well worn Birkenstock.
It is an anti-car made for those that knows that quality always wins over style, it is simply one of the most practical cars ever made.