90 years of shaking the world gently
Across the following 10 decades, Volvo has put Sweden on the automotive map with its approach to building cars that have changed the way we think about safety, luxury, and driving.
Here, I Roll looks at key Volvo milestone models and developments – many of which sent ripples through the car industry.
The lower cost of ball bearings in Sweden compared with the US convinces businessman Assar Gabrielsson that his home country could be a viable place for car manufacturing. He teams up with engineer and designer Gustaf Larson, and on 14 April 1927 the ÖV4 is born. Based on a US design, AB Volvo’s four-cylinder model is nicknamed “Jakob” and available in sedan and ‘open’ versions – with the latter aimed at exports (for warmer climates than Sweden).
Six-cylinder models are started before the previous decade is out but a first safety feature of note is found in the PV652 sedan: hydraulic brakes. Intensive noise, vibration and harshness development is applied to successor models in 1933 – with noise insulation installed in the wall between the engine bay and passenger cabin of the PV653/PV654, and the engine not only suspended by multiple points but also insulated from the chassis by rubber.
A small Volvo called the PV444 makes a big impact in 1947. It’s powered by a compact four-cylinder engine and constructed from a unitised steel body, while a laminated (shatter-resistant) windscreen is a world-first. Priced the same as the ÖV4 20 years earlier, making it affordable to the average Swede, it’s no surprise the PV444 proves hugely popular. Exported to the US from 1955, it helps establish that market as Volvo’s biggest by 1974.
Volvo’s famous wagon lineage starts in 1953 with the Duett – its name based on the vehicle’s philosophy of being two cars in one: a work car and a leisure car. It becomes a popular van for small bakery, fruit and fish businesses. In 1959, a feature developed by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin debuts as standard in the front seats of the Amazon and PV544 models (and all Volvos from 1963): the three-point safety belt. Because Volvo is a company driven to do the right thing rather than doing it for fame or glory, it waives its patents so all drivers can benefit regardless of the car they own. Since its introduction, the “lap-sash” seatbelt is estimated to have saved more than a million lives.
Volvo proves the durability and reliability of its cars by winning the world’s toughest race – the Safari Rally – in 1965, with a PV544. A sexy two-seater sports car called the P1800 debuted in 1961, with the coupe achieving television fame as Roger Moore’s ride in The Saint. The 1966 140 raises the bar for small cars with a collapsible steering column, energy-absorbing crumple zones front and rear, and dual-circuit braking system featuring disc brakes all round. Just a year later, an astronaut-inspired rearward-facing child seat turns conventions 180 degrees. Available as an accessory on the Amazon (or P120 as it was known outside Scandinavia), it aims to provide improved neck support and a better spread of force in the event of a frontal impact.
Volvo’s global leadership in car safety is cemented by the 1974 240 and 260 series models. Inspired by the 1972 Volvo Experimental Safety Vehicle concept, the cars include strengthened construction, extended bumpers front and rear, and new engines. In 1976, the US’s traffic safety administration (NHTSA) buys and crashes more than 20 240s – and concludes it should be its safety standard against which all new cars sold in North America are tested. By 1993, more than 2.8 million 240 Series models are produced. The same year, Volvo innovates again for the benefit of the environment – with the introduction of its lambda sond catalytic exhaust emission control that reduces harmful emissions by 90 percent. Volvo again waives patent rights.
Volvo introduces its first turbocharged engine in 1980, and creates the sport 240 Turbo. The environment continued to be in the company’s consciousness, and the LCP 2000 creates quite a stir in 1983 with it focus on lightweight materials that helps establish fuel consumption of just four litres per 100 kilometres. The decade also sees the introduction of the 760 prestige large car – which in 1985 is joined by the beautiful, Bertone-styled 780 coupe – while at the smaller end of the spectrum there is the 1988 440 five-door hatchback.
1992’s Environmental Concept Car (ECC) previews the potential for hybrid technology. A year earlier comes the big, front-wheel-drive 850 – which the media will soon acclaim as the world’s safest car. It debuts Volvo’s Side Impact Protection System that is designed to spread most of a side collision impact force to key structural parts of the body, including the roof, pillars, floor and beams, while it’s complemented by the world’s first ever side airbag. It’s also a decade for performance. Volvo attracts much attention at the 1994 Geneva motor show with the 850 T-5R, a wagon painted pastel yellow and featuring a 186kW five-cylinder turbo engine that makes it the brand’s most powerful car yet. The same year, Volvo goes racing in the British Touring Car Championship with an 850 Estate. The 850 Estate introduces an all-wheel-drive version in 1996 before passing the baton to the new V70 the following year. The V70 is part of Volvo’s newly introduced naming strategy that comprises one letter and two numbers – denoting type of vehicle and its size.
2000 to 2009
The letters S (sedan), V (versatility) and C (coupe or convertible) are joined by the XC prefix in 2002 for a significant new Volvo: the XC90. Volvo’s first SUV is also the world’s first 7-seater luxury SUV, and it heralds the first serious efforts by a car maker to take other road users into account, having been designed to protect not just those in lower, more vulnerable vehicles but also pedestrians and cyclists. Its navigation screen is also available with a Night Vision infrared system. Volvo’s innovation in this area reaches a whole new level in 2009 with the standard fitment of a unique system called City Safety on the new XC60 mid-sized SUV. Cameras, lasers and sensors all combine to help detect a potential low-speed collision, with the system applying the brakes automatically if the driver is slow to react – or doesn’t react at all.
City Safety becomes standard on all Volvo models at a time when most manufacturers are still yet to develop similar technology. The second-generation XC90 arrives in late 2014, the first vehicle to utilise the company’s new Scalable Platform Architecture and a model that resets the benchmark for luxury SUVs. It’s also brimming with impressive technology, with highlights including a new era of our Sensus Connect system with tablet-style touchscreen, the introduction of Adaptive Cruise Control with Pilot Assist, and a debut for our T8 Twin Engine hybrid powertrain capable of producing 300kW of power yet fuel consumption of just 2.1L/100km. In 2016, Volvo Cars previews its range of next-generation compact cars with the stunning Concept 40 show cars. Of course, this decade is not yet out…