(first posted 5/29/2014) This is the seminal Volvo. It laid the foundations for generations of classic RWD Volvos, built for over half a century (1947-1998). All the qualities that came to define the brand are on full display: rugged, sporty, safe, conservative, long-lived. Beautiful? Hardly; but that rarely seemed to be a priority at Volvo. Its charms ooze from the inside out, and there’s a healthy dose here. The PV not only put Sweden on wheels, it started a long trans-Atlantic love affair with the brand, myself included. A few memorable drives in one was all it took..
Volvo was established as an automaker in 1927, as a subsidiary of famed ball-bearing maker SKF, hence the trademark, which means “I roll”, in Latin. In the years up to WW2, Volvo made a series of sturdy and fairly large cars like this PV659 from 1935, that appealed mainly to the upper classes.
During the war (which Sweden sat out), it was determined that the future lay in a small “people’s car” that would be affordable to the masses, as part of the same impulse that had created the Volkswagen and would soon sweep Europe with so many other small cars. Several concepts were explored, including a FWD car inspired by the advanced DKW F9 of 1940. That was also the car that was largely copied for the post-war Saab 92, so perhaps it’s a good thing Volvo decided that a FWD car would require too much new tooling. A rear-engine prototype, the PV-40 (above) from 1940 shows some of the obvious styling influences that came to fruition in the PV.
Given Volvo’s history with conventional front-engine, rear-wheel drive cars, Volvo decided that was the way to roll for their new small car too. They turned their eyes to another quite advanced car in Germany, the 1939 Hanomag Autobahn, a 1.3 L aerodynamic sedan. Volvo was in need of unibody know-how, and they found it here. They also found a fair amount of design inspiration from it too. In checking the dimensions of these two, they’re mighty similar.
The 1941 Ford obviously lent a helping hand to Volvo’s styling department too, such as it was.
The PV444 was announced in 1944, but did not go into proper production until 1947. It was modestly powered: its 1.4L three-bearing OHV four was rated at 40 hp (later 44 hp), and drove through a three-speed floor-shifted transmission. Top speed was some 125 kmh (76 mph). Its price ended up being higher than hoped for, but then it was a fairly substantial car for a “peoples car”, and waiting lists soon became long.
In a curious turn-around, Hanomag’s L29 truck from 1950 bears a striking resemblance to the PV444’s front end. Fair enough.
Due to its being designed already during the war, rather than after it, the PV’s design was already a bit archaic by the time it went into full production, but that just became part of its charm. But no one then could have imagined it staying in production for almost twenty years. That was an eternity for a car design back then.
I found this black PV444 at a Volvo specialist shop, not surprisingly. The PV444 was continuously developed, most of all its performance. In 1951, the 1.4 engine’s output was increased to 51 hp. But the big change occurred in 1956, when the twin-SU carb B14A engine arrived with 70 hp, which began the sporty quality that was to become a major aspect of the PV’s success, especially in the US. 1956 was also the year official US imports began.
But the B14A was only a one-year warm-up act. In 1957, an enlarged and substantially revised B16 engine arrived with 1583cc, which in twin-carb tune sported a full 85 hp. That was enough to make the 444 into a genuine 95 mph car, at a time when very few imports could claim that. The MGA 1500 sported all of 68 or 72 hp.
The 444 quickly became a common sight on race tracks on both side of the Atlantic, despite only ever having a three-speed transmission. Sweden is a relatively flat country, and a three-speed was deemed adequate. And the lusty B16 engine overcame that deficit quite adequately, with a wide powerband.
The stick was very long, which became a Volvo tradition, and acted as a visual torque meter, as it leaned over the harder the engine pulled. The PV was a very honest, direct car to drive, and all of its components and systems functioned well together, creating a well-rounded driver. It was a car with no obvious faults (except maybe the three-speed), and many virtues., which gave it a strong and loyal following.
Undoubtedly, the virtue that played a key role in Volvo surviving the Great Import Boom Shakeout of 1960 was its durability. The PV’s rugged construction and excellent material quality made it a survivor, in more ways than one. Before 1960, dozens of obscure European makes were common in the US, but the number of survivors narrowed down substantially that year. Volvo’s reputation in the US had been solidly established, and continued to thrive.
Although Volvos later often came to be stereotyped as the car of the left-leaning, in its earlier days, its owners were more likely to be engineers and other who had an appreciation for things well made. And it also appealed very much to the huge sporty-car set in the fifties, because it was one of the few sedans then available that could properly be called a sports sedan. When kids had to be hauled, the PV made a better MG sedan than the real thing (MG Magnette).
Volvo’s new 122 “Amazon” (CC here) arrived in 1956, with the intention to replace the 444, sooner rather than later. But the PV had become a beloved institution in Sweden and abroad, and sales continued to be strong. After some thoughts were given to substantially revising its dated styling, Volvo decided to just make a few minor changes, like a single-piece windshield, and give it a new designation, the PV 544. A number of other refinements came along with that too, the biggest one being a standard four-speed transmission, at least for the US. Given that the new Amazon weighed some 200 lbs more than the PV, that change endeared it even more to the sporty car set, who continued to buy it on the strength of its excellent performance.
In 1962, the all-new B18 engine arrived, the first in the long and legendary line of Red Block engines. That makes the last few years of the PV 544 the really desirable ones, like this 1965 I shot in downtown Eugene a while back. For power-hungry Americans, the 544 came only with the 90 hp twin-SU carb B18D engine, and with its very light list weight of 2055 lbs, made this a very spirited hunchback.
I forgot to ask the female long-term owner to open its hood, but here’s a shot from BAT. Classic Volvo, as well as classic Anglo-style sporty OHV four. Volvos pretty consistently did have an anglophile streak, including the use of the Laycock de Normanville overdrive unit, which is otherwise mostly commonly associated with Brit cars. To the best of my knowledge, that unit never made into the production PV, although I suspect a few did after the fact.
This image brings back so many intense memories. PV’s were not uncommon in and around Towson during my high school years My older brother’s best friend had one, and I spent many a happy ride in the back, getting to hang out with them and bomb through the winding back roads of Northern Baltimore County, real sports car country.
And then in my last year at Towson High, I became friends with a kid who drove one, a family hand me down. His father, an engineer at Black and Decker, drove a new 144S. Mom drove his hand-me down 122S. And so the 544 became his ride. We made some more memories in that car, and I drove it a couple of times, as I was more comfortable driving under the influence of LSD than he was. That enveloping cocoon of a body, the throbbing engine and subtly vibrating gear shift…I’ve always had a special place in my heart for these cars ever since. Why didn’t I buy one instead of a VW Beetle?
This fine PV544 is from 1965, the last year it was built. In October of 1965, production ceased, after 440,000 PVs rolled off the lines. But not all in Sweden; in 1963, Volvo opened the first (in modern times) non-domestic auto plant in North America. The Halifax, NS plant started production in 1963 with the 122, but apparently the 544 was built there for one year too. Is this one of them?
This devoted 544 owner has gotten back in, and needs to head off. I’ve never seen it again since, and it’s the only 544 I’ve ever found in Eugene, oddly enough, as this is Volvo-town, USA. Add this to my very long list of cars that I’ve fallen in love with all over on being re-united, and covet. It’s in loving hands, and that soothes the pain a bit.
Yes, I could roll in that.
Excellent treatment of a car that appeals to me quite a bit. I have been inside of one of these precisely once, probably around 1965 or so at about age 6. The guy across the street worked for Dana Corporation and would sometimes bring home what he called test cars. When I saw the old black car in his driveway, I was mystified. My best guess was a really old VW. It never entered my mind that it could be a new car.
I got a short ride in the back seat. All I remember is that the car seemed really solid. It turned out to be my last ride in a Volvo until the 80s. These were not common in the midwest, and I certainly never understood that they were the hot rods of the early postwar imports. I would imagine that these were fairly pricey when new.
Great profile. In both senses.
Ahhh – a book I had forgotten about. A Curbside Classic in its own right. 🙂
The female owner of this cream-colored 544 doesn’t look that old. Did you ask her if she uses the car as a daily driver? I wouldn’t be surprised if she does.
There are quite a few 544s being used as daily cars around northern Virginia, where I live, mostly in Arlington. I always see a lot of 122s and 140s when I’m over there.
I bought my first new car (66 VW 113) in St. Johns Newfoundland while I was stationed at the Navy Station, Argentia. IIRC this car was still available also. A Doctor at our Navy Station Hospital drove one and I was pretty taken with it. I think the difference in price was a big deal as well as the known dealerships in the states. Also, the available Volvos might have been left over 1965 units. Part of me wishes I had gone Volvo but the 66 vw (as you pointed out) was one of the best.
Part of me thinks the Volvo might have lasted longer but you can’t go back.
Boy, do I have a story to tell about this car!
My friend up the street traded a 1951 Ford his aunt gave him for a friend’s 1959 PV544. That car had the bumpers removed and the holes were filled in and the car was painted in a metallic green color similar to Camaro Rally Green popular at the time.
When back in high school, I made a huge solid aluminum Frankenstein’s head shift knob. I couldn’t use it on anything, so my friend screwed it on his shifter. It was so heavy, it would drop into 4th gear all by itself when the clutch was disengaged! Pretty funny to see it happen.
When home on leave in January, 1971, He, another guy and me went out cruising around north county St. Louis one evening. Of course we had some beer in the car – I, the oldest, was still only 19.
Well, as we were traveling the semi-rural roads, someone appeared to be following us, and we being paranoid kids, especially since the St. Louis County Police had recently obtained a couple of choppers and we did see one, we thought for sure the car was a cop. We just turned on Sinks Road, and the other guy in the car – he was the driver – stepped on the gas and we went speeding down this road at night.
There was one problem – Sinks Road has a nasty, very tight 90-degree curve and we hit that curve going ‘way too fast, plus there was some gravel on the road. One other problem: there was a 30 ft. drop-off protected by wooden posts strung by three cables to prevent erring drivers from killing themselves when attempting to go off the road! Well, the car slid right into the cables. We uprooted three posts, and the only thing that kept us from going over the drop-off was that the top cable caught the car right at the beltline at the outside mirror!
We got out of the car, threw the beer cans as far as we could and desperately started eating pine needles to kill the beer smell!
In any event, the car we thought was a cop was an elderly couple going home!
We had to knock on someone’s door nearby and use their phone to call a hook – my buddy DARED not call his dad!
We finally got home around 1 a.m.
Here’s the photo below of the damage and me and my friend. FWIW, I’m on the left.
We still refer to that curve on Sinks Road as the “Quote -scene-of-the-crime-unquote”, stealing a line from Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”.
Good times back then and we really got away easy. The Volvo? not so much! My friend did fix the car and sold it some time later. Now he has a 1961 PV544 that hasn’t run in at least a year. The fun continues!
Here’s a better look at the damage:
How did we ever survive being young and stupid? Although I know a few that didn’t. A somewhat similar story in my 65 Chevy pu when I was around 16-17. Big wheels and tires no ps, and a aftermarket steering wheel on an aluminum adapter. Was going way to fast up a fire road (Mt Lukens in Southern California). The center nut came loose and the steering wheel just spun freely on the hub, we were near the top. Road turned left, a hole in the road kicked the wheels to the right and we headed off the cliff (no guardrail), at least 2000 ft drop off. I slammed on the brakes, Hand of God reached out and the wheels kicked all the way to the left and we crashed into the mountain instead. The brakes had a bad pull to the left, good thing I had not fixed them yet. I found vice grips on the floor and we headed back down, a whole lot slower.
Great picture :). I also like the detail about the heavy shift knob being enough to shift the transmission from 3rd to 4th – my memory exactly.
Years ago I watched a TV-series about old and new cars. There was this man with a huge collection of classic Volvos, most of them special and rare models. It took a few minutes of googling before I found him. Hans Blokzijl has circa 85 Volvos, here’s his website with a nice overview of specialties, several PVs of course.
As I’ve posted before, I had a red 1965 544 Sport for about 3 years as a university student, from 1969 to 1972.
I’ve pretty much always bought cars based on emotion – the Volvo, a ’69 VW Bus (for a period when I was working and living on the road), a ’73 BMW 2002 (which I bought to drive across Canada), and an ’81 Scirocco (as an aspirational Vancouver yuppie). All of them other than the Scirocco were bought used. After the well-coddled Scirocco was stolen, about 16 years ago, I started to love bicycles instead.
While the 2002 might have objectively been the best all-round car, and was an undeniable pleasure to drive, it’s the 544 that still has the strongest emotional pull on me. Paul notes the ‘cocoon’ feeling, abetted by a very high dashboard and the almost vertical steering wheel (under the influence of some substances it could feel like peering through the vision slit of a tank), and the seductive throb of the twin carburetor B-18. The shifter was a joy, one of the smoothest in my memory, and the length of the stick made for almost comical two-finger shifts from 3rd to 4th with your elbow hanging somewhere up around shoulder height. It’s not a car that would show its best attributes on the freeway (although it would cruise happily and securely at 70 all day), but on the two-lane blacktop more common in Nova Scotia at the time it was a car you looked forward to driving every day, just for the pleasure of the experience. I’ll admit there was a certain snob appeal as well – I was hugely offended when the lady next door commented on my ‘Volkswagen’ (this was when the VW 411 was a fairly common sight).
BTW, it is quite possible that Paul’s example was assembled in Halifax or Dartmouth NS (there should be a plate inside the hood). My understanding was that these plants supplied US markets as well in the post-Auto Pact / pre-NAFTA years. A skimpy Wikipedia entry has some info
and there’s another page at the NS Museum of Industry website.
And this page (scroll down to ‘Foreign Assembly’):
Road test of the 544 in Road & Track, November 1963.
One other interesting quirk of the Swedish car industry is verifiable in many of the photos in this posting. Even though Sweden drove on the left until 1967, all their domestic production was LHD, although they did produce RHD cars for the UK.
The switch to driving on the right was made on September 3 1967. At 4:50 am all traffic had to stop, move over to the other side of the road, remain stationary for 10 minutes, and then proceed. It apparently went off pretty much without a hitch.
Interesting article here:
These are sweet looking little cars! Technically, I guess theyd be the first ‘retromobiles’ without even trying. Ive seen a few tricked out hotrod style:
This little number is apparently for sale here in SW Portland. Those Torq Thrusts sell the car!
I’ve never seen a PV444 before, but I’ve seen a few PV544s. 🙂
They seem to have several parallels to the Peugeot 203.
Style-wise the humpback shape is also shared with the Standard Vanguard and Jowett Javelin although they differ mechanically and didnt run for as long.
Wow, is that vintage dealership picture cool! They even sold Borgwords! I wonder what city it was in and if the building still exists.
I’ve never seen a PV444 in person, but I have seen the PV544. While I like the grille of the early 444, I do like the larger taillamps and the more powerful B18 and B18B engines used in later Volvos.
Peoples cars, indeed. Boy do we need more of these.
LSD 🙂 , I can only begin to imagine THAT roll !
I grin from ear to ear as I try
Thanks for these great articles!
My folks owned a couple of these when I was growing up and I drove a hand-me-down for a while. Neat cars.
A couple of entertaining details that come to mind: The chain-operated radiator shutter for cold weather (although the one on mine was in tatters and was never used) and the coil/ignition switch being a one piece deal, the wire from the switch to the coil was armored and permanently attached.
I’ll keep my LSD attatched to my gearbox thanks….
The styling of the 1939 Hanomag 1.3 liter was mentioned in connection with the Volvo, but I can think of a postwar German car whose styling is remarkably similar.
I missed this one first time around, so belated thanks Paul for a perspective on Volvo’s that’s based on the cars and their history, and not just perceptions created by the 140 and 240. Specifically, the stereotype about Volvo’s being dull and boxy. As you wrote, and showed in pictures, the 444 and 544 were considered sports sedans in their day. And while the 122S was a bit more practical, being offered in 4 door and wagon forms, it too was pretty sporty at least in North American dual-SU form. And then there’s the 1800. Sure, the 140 series was pretty square looking, but so were Fiat 124 and Alfa sedans. Within a decade, Volvo started recovering lost power with turbos (though not as cool as twin SU’s). As written here recently, the 850 started softening the looks, and today’s Volvo’s are pretty sleek. And with decent performance as well.
So, the dull and boxy Volvo was actually an anomaly, just a handful of models, maybe even just two (depending on how one categorizes the 140/240 and 740/940). And my mom always called our 544 a fastback; in fact I didn’t hear people call them humpback or hunchback until much later.
The stuff that keeps me coming back here dept:
As a not-young who like Volvos since high school, and is now on his third of them, I’ve never known this.
In 1965, this styling was 25 years out of date! It was as retro as a PT Cruiser, and the 1960 Valiant 170 Hyper-Pak had revealed it’s obsolescence on the race track. It wasn’t a bad little sedan by import standards until the BMW 1600/2 showed up, but what on earth sold them against Valiants?
Did Volvo have better build quality in the ’60s than they did in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s?
I had a 544 in college and playing on its physical similarity to 40s era Fords, I bought a blue oval Ford scripted emblem (think it was from a Model A radiator) at a swap meet and slapped it on the Vo’s front end. Sometime later, I was presented a parking ticket which identified my car’s make as “Ford” which proved that you can fool the parking gendarmes at least some of the time.
I remember seeing a few of these as a young boy in the ‘60’s, and they reminded me of a bigger VW Bug – they even had similar bumpers. I knew they were something different, and once I knew it was an old Volvo I thought they were kind of cool, and as an adult I wouldn’t mind one in my (imaginary) garage. This is the first PV I’ve seen in many years – the last time I saw one was in the late ‘90’s movie “The Frighteners” with Micheal J. Fox. His character drove a battered ‘59 544 – it must have been a hoot rowing that big stick shift. What a great old beast.
The PV544 reflects the sensibility Volvo was trying to sell American consumers on at the time – smartly packaged, safe, and built with extremely durability in mind.
Those amber rear turn signals on that lovely black 444 are not stock. The 444 had one round red light on each side of the car, and that’s it. Somebody added another pair of nacelles and put amber lights on them—to a very high standard of craftsmanship!