Rolling Down Memory Lane at the Volvo Museum

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 24, 2020

The Volvo brand is changing directions, with a future firmly wedded to plug-in power. The company even plans full carbon neutrality by 2040. But Volvo—the only Scandinavian car brand still standing—has a long history going back to 1927, and it’s preserved in a very well-appointed museum in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city and Volvo’s home (albeit now with Chinese parentage) since the beginning.

The OV4 didn't catch on--an open car in frigid Sweden! (Jim Motavalli photo)

The museum is now a bit out of the way in the Arendal industrial park; it's shortly to close and will reopen, with a smaller collection, near the city center. So this tour might not be possible in a year or two. Let’s begin at the beginning, with Volvo’s first model, the OV4. An open car when those were the norm, the 28-horsepower OV4 was not very practical for Sweden’s nine months of winter, so only 205 were sold. The museum’s example had a rakish, mustachioed dummy at the wheel. The OV4, with wood-framed body, was followed by the closed PV4, which sold much better.

The PV36 Carioca was another early failure--too far ahead of its time, and similar to the also-ill-received Chrysler Airflow. The world wasn't ready for strealining in 1936. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Volvo built commercial vehicles from the beginning, and a 1928 LV4 bus—with cozy wood-paneled interior—was on display. It was on from there to the very cool PV36 “Carioca” of 1936. Like the Chrysler Airflow of the time, it featured advanced, streamlined styling. And like the Airflow, it flopped—just 500 were built. The more conservative PV52 followed, and that one moved 20,000 copies. You could probably get some extras on your American-sized TR802 of 1938, but a heater wasn’t on the list—in frigid Sweden!

This 544 won the East African Safari race in 1965--with Sikh brothers at the wheel. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Volvo entered the modern era in 1944 with the 444, a model that aped the 1940 Ford in styling. The company continued to refine that look for decades with the 544, which was finally phased out in the 1960s. Steel availability problems meant that some customers waited three years for their PV444s. Export to the U.S. began around this time, and soon America was the company’s largest market.

Racing wasn't Volvo's thing, but it loved rallying--and this 122S was a big winner. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Volvo never embraced racing, though rallying was in favor. The 544 that won the East African Safari in 1965 (driven by two Sikh brothers) was in the lobby, and a 122S rally car was also in the halls. The company decided it needed something of a sporting nature in the lineup, so the Sport, also known as the PV1900, was born.

A misfire was this cute Sport (a/k/a 1900) convertible. Just 68 were built. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Volvo was always influenced by American practice, and the fiberglass-bodied Corvette of 1953 inspired the 1900 of 1956-57. It was a cute two-seater with a fiberglass body and nice leather seats. Unfortunately, new owners took over right after the Sport launch and deemed it not up to Volvo quality—too floppy, apparently. Just 68 were built, so the museum’s example is rare.

The very first 1800 cars were built in 1958 as prototypes in Italy. Then Jensen of England messed them up. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The sports car that succeeded was the gorgeous 1800, designed in house by Pelle Pettersson. The tail fins reflect the continued American influence, but the car looks good from every angle. Early examples were built by Jensen in England, but—once again—failed to be of Volvo quality, and production was moved to Sweden (hence the “S” in the model name). The museum has a 1958 prototype, built in Italy.

This wild variation on what became the production ES was built in 1967. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The 1800S evolved into the 1800E, with fuel injection, and then the 1800ES, a station wagon variant that caused a minor sensation when it was released in 1972.

The front of the 1800ES prototype is stock 1967 1800. (Jim Motavalli photo)

One of those is on display in Gothenburg, but also a fascinating early prototype built in 1967. The rear window treatment is impractical but quite striking.

The 142 (two doors) and the 144 (four doors) succeeded the 122. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The 122S sedan had the same 1,800-cc (later, 2000 cc) running gear as the 1800, and was quite popular around the world for solidity and reliability. It also came in a station wagon variant. I should know—I owned four of them, the last a 1967.

The legendary 444, with its U.S.-influenced styling, put Volvo on the map internationally. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The 122 was succeeded by the boxy 142, with the B20 engine carried over from late-model 122 and 1800s. I had one of those 142s, and very durable it was—surviving not only two falls from a flatbed truck but an errant soy sauce spill. The 140 series cars share space with the 1972 Volvo Experimental Safety Car (VESC) of 1972. Safety isn’t always pretty, and the VESC certainly wasn’t. It sported an enormous backup camera that looked like a machine gun on a James Bond Aston Martin.

Only Volvo would have an incentive to build an XC90 out of Lego blocks. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Other halls move Volvo into the modern era, with the hugely popular 240, 740 and 850 series. In the museum, these are seen in many iterations, including race versions and police cars (with stuffed dog cages in the back).  A favorite was the 780 Coupe, with styling by Italy’s Bertone. Contemporary Volvo history probably begins with the curvy S80.

The SCC Safety Concept Car. Note open front pillars. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The displays continue with a whole host of concept cars, including the Your Concept Car (YCC), designed by an all-female team in 2004. Among its features were a non-opening hood (maintenance happened only every 30,000 miles, and required removing the front end), an externally mounted capless windshield-washer-fluid filler, run-flat tires (because women disliked changing them), keyless entry, and interior storage for handbags.

The 2001 Safety Concept Car (SCC) featured see-through a-pillars, four-point seatbelts, a collision-avoidance system, and brake lights that grew in intensity as the pedal was pushed down.

Volvo's Environmental Concept Car (ECC) was a forwrd-looking hybrid--in 1992. The styling eventually made it to the S80. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The displays culminated in a hall showcasing the future—which at Volvo is arriving now. There was an electric bus and truck, and the fascinating Environmental Concept Car (ECC) of 1992. This car, with an aerodynamic aluminum body that previewed the S80 and a hybrid drivetrain, could have been the Prius before the Prius existed. Unfortunately, the Ford ownership wanted to keep hybrid motoring for itself. Some of the ECC tech went into the Ford Escape Hybrid, but that didn’t appear until 2004—by which time the Prius owned the market.

Volvo's concept for an autonomous car interior. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Volvo won’t be stopped again! It’s pushing forward with electrification, presumably with full encouragement from Chinese parent Geely. The museum is currently at Arendals Skans, 405 08 Göteborg, Sweden. Telephone is 031-66-48-14 and email is museum@volvo.com. Here's a look at the museum on video:

 


Get the Car Talk Newsletter



Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One