I vividly remember first seeing pictures of the new Volvo 144: Wow! What a total change from the long familiar 122. And a mighty good one at that, as the 122’s styling was already a bit old fashioned by the time it had first arrived in 1956, and was looking decidedly out of fashion by the mid-sixties. Of course that applied even more to the venerable 544, but then it had already become something of a timeless car like the VW Beetle.
Unlike the American-influenced styling of the 122, the 144 was a perfect representative of modern Scandinavian design: clean and uncluttered lines, practical boxy proportions, superb visibility, and all the other hallmarks that would come to define this evergreen that would be built for three decades, in the form of the 240 series.
Given its extraordinary longevity, it’s interesting to note that the 144 was hardly all that new under its body, resulting in very familiar Volvo sensations. And unfortunately, at least one or two qualities actually weren’t as good as they had been in the much-loved 122.
The 144’s new body came in for lots of praise, for obvious reasons. It was up to the minute stylistically, functionally superior, had a huge trunk, high quality of materials and assembly, and very comfortable front seats. Ergonomically, it was all good too, except for the quick release central attachment being harder to use than on the 122 and the foolishly-high mounting of the inside rear view mirror, resulting in poor functionality. I assume that was fixed in later years, as it seems a surprisingly silly thing for Volvo to have done.
The 144S inherited the 122’s 1.8 L pushrod four, itself a development of Volvo’s original 1.4 L (and 1.6 L) four from their first postwar PV444. It had developed a reputation as being very sturdy and long-lived, but a bit rough around the edges. The 144’s 999,999 mile odometer was a novelty at the time that has long become standard. Back then it reflected Volvo’s focus on durability, and was an effective marketing tool.
The 144S had the 115 hp version of the 1.8, as also used in the 1800S, but performance was no better than the 90 p 1962 122S R&T had tested back then. Nevertheless, performance was deemed good, in keeping with the other aspect of the brand’s image. Its 12.3 second run from 0-60 equaled the significantly lighter Triumph GT6’s.
Handling was also up to its reputational par, with basic understeer giving way to mild oversteer when called for by use of the throttle and the right gear. “There’s no doubt it can be cornered quickly”. But there was one tradeoff: the steering was deemed heavier, despite there being no apparent reason for it.
That’s not to say the Volvo’s simple suspension design was going to magically elevate it into a class of cars like the BMW, which was setting the standards at the time with its fully independent suspension. The 144 had no material improvement over the 122 in that regard. And of course its engine was rather notoriously unrefined.
Which all means that although the 144S had a number of improvements as a result of its new body, otherwise it was still very much a traditional Volvo, for better or for worse.