Originally Published November 16, 2018
If lazy Republicans are to be believed, all of us liberals drive Volvos. We use them to get to our jobs as college professors and to load up groceries from Whole Foods. For the not-so-politically minded, Volvos are an icon of Swedishness, alongside meatballs and flat packed furniture. Let us see how this brand earned its place in the competitive automotive world.
Volvo comes from the Latin word “volvere”, which means “to roll”. It was an ideal name as the company was founded as a subsidiary of Swedish giant SKF, which made ball bearings. The first Volvo, an OV 4, left the Gothenberg assembly line on April 27, 1927. The first Volvos were all cabriolets, which was a poor decision given Sweden’s climate. Thankfully, hardtop models were introduced the next year.
Volvo made it through the 1930s with sleek and modern designs. The luxury PV-36 shared a lot with the Chrysler Airflow in its appearance. And just like the Airflow, it was a flop. This was a reminder of the fact that Volvo employed many American engineers in its earlier years.
Sweden’s neutrality during World War 2 meant it would be one of the only countries in the world where civilian automobile production continued uninterrupted. The company began to plan for the postwar era.
The PV444 was Volvo’s first unibody car. It had a modest 51 horsepower and could only manage 76 mph. It was unveiled in 1944 but didn’t go on sale until 1947. Despite being quite expensive, there was soon a waiting list for it. Official exports to the United States didn’t start until 1956. The PV444 would earn a reputation for toughness that was borne out in endurance racing.
Volvo was interested in pushing into the US for a while before that, though. In 1953, they produced the “Philip” concept. Its design, especially around the back, was a ripoff of the Kaiser-Fraziers of the time. Most importantly, it was powered by a V8 engine, far far bigger than almost any other European engine. It sadly never went on sale.
In 1956, Volvo introduced the Amazon. It was a significant step forward in style with the Pininfarina inspired “ponton” shape where the fenders were fully integrated into the body. The US market Amazon was introduced at the New York auto show in 1959. Attendees noticed something strange in the front seats. There were straps for passengers to use like on an airplane to restrain occupants in a collision. This is where Volvo’s reputation for safety began. It was the first automaker anywhere to offer seatbelts and in 1959 it made them standard on all Amazons. By the time the Amazon was discontinued in 1970, 660,000 were produced, 60% for export markets.
Volvo was not however satisfied with just making boring, reliable, and safe sedans and station wagons. They wanted to be sexy. So they went to Ghia of Italy to design a new sports car, the P1800. It came out in 1961 and in 1962 would be immortalized by a Pre-James Bond Roger Moore in the TV series The Saint. Volvo also offered a 2 door wagon version with a distinctive tailgate that was all glass.
In 1966, Volvo brought out the 140. It was the first of their iconic “brick” shapes that would last in one form or the other until the 2000s. The 140 came and went after 8 years. But it was just foreplay to their most famous car ever.
In 1974, the famous 240 came out. And the rest is history. It would be Volvo’s best selling model ever and would launch the little Swedish automaker to superstardom. It was essentially the Swedish Oldsmobile Cutlass. It once again made progress in safety. It incorporated front and rear crumple zones so that the car, instead of the passengers, would absorb the impact of a collision.
It would be at this point that Volvo obtained its reputation as the car for college professors. They did not want a Buick or Oldsmobile because they were too common, used too much gas, and were impossible to park. But now that they had a little money and kids, they couldn’t be stuck in the VW Beetles from their hippie days. So the ultra practical and sophisticated Volvo was their ride. It also helped that it was from Sweden, that bastion of Social Democracy, making it the perfect vehicle for virtue signaling.
The 240 would also change the reputation of station wagons. Even with stuff like the Ford Country Squire, wagons were still considered spartan vehicles, there’s a reason Cadillac wouldn’t build a station wagon until 2008, and even Mercedes was wagon free. But the higher trim level 240s offered a certain class that meant it was ideal for the country club set. By the time production stopped in 1993, 2.8 million 240s were sold.
Volvo’s success made it a little cocky. They began to empire-build. This is always a perilous proposition for any company. DAF was a small Dutch automaker which was running into financial troubles. Volvo bought them in 1975 and proceeded to graft their cars onto their lineup. First the tiny DAF 66 became the Volvo 66. With the larger hatchback that was to become the DAF 77, they were more creative, calling it the Volvo 340. Neither was sold in the US and it’s probably just as well because they earned a reputation for blandness that they did not need in the American market. At this time, Volvo looked into buying their rival Saab, but it never went through.
Volvo’s heyday in the US market would be the 1980s. Their “bricks” earned a reputation for safety and reliability that endeared them to the upper middle classes.
As the millennium came to a close, Volvo began modernizing its lineup. The brick made way for smooth and flowing lines and front wheel drive replaced rear wheel drive.
In 1999, Volvo Group sold their passenger car business to Ford Motor Company. The Blue Oval was at the time on an ill-advised buying spree that saw them acquire Land Rover, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and even junkyards, repair shops, and Hertz rent-a-car. It was not a good move for anyone. Ford was overextended and Volvo’s sales suffered greatly from neglect. They went from .8% of the US market in 2004 to .33% in 2014.
With Ford hemorrhaging money by 2006, the board brought in a new CEO, Alan Mullally. He proceeded to undo the 1990s buying spree. This meant that in 2010, Volvo was sold to Chinese automaker Geely. Their first new car under Geely was the redesigned S60, which replaced the first generation that had been around since 2000.
Geely has proven to be a far superior owner to Ford. They have arrested their decline in market share and are so confident of the US market that they have built a plant in South Carolina. Their cars are once again quite stylish and are filled with unimaginable safety features. This means that this Swedish icon will not be leaving us any time soon.