On April 14, 1927, the first Volvo product—the seductively-named ÖV 4, for “Öppen Vagn 4 cylindrar, or “open carriage four cylinders,” which like “quattroporte” undoubtedly sounds sexier in its native language—rolled off a production line in Lundby factory in Göteborg, Sweden.
Eighty-five years later, the Swedish company is building cars by way of China, after dalliances with Ford and the Dutch, in an example that seems reflect the idea that globalism is simply chaos theory with a better line of credit. But it’s been a long, innovative 85 years between then, a period of time where “safe” isn’t a pejorative and square was cool, at least in certain circles.
It’s been a long, safe, square ride, Volvo. And while few companies have established a niche as squarely (pun intended) as Volvo, the company has built some surprising vehicles. To celebrate its eight-and-a-half decades of success, here are eight-and-a-half of our favorite cars to ever wear the symbol of male fertility on its proverbial chest. Rounding up eight Volvos is tough, because they have to be eight different Volvos—less easy when they’re all square. OK, not all of them are. Like the:
Like many European companies at the time, Volvo has tried to emulate the styling of big, decadent American cars time and time again. (Read on for another example, but no spoilers.) In the Amazon’s case, its mini-Chrysler looks are still subtle, eye-catching, and handsome today, more so in coupe form, even more so in wagon form. From some angles, it looks like a derby hat, or a Morris Oxford. It also happened to be the first Volvo—and subsequently, the first car—to feature three-point seat belts. How cool is the Amazon? Here’s one that’s faster than a Ferrari 458 Italia. If you lose to a Volvo wagon in any other circumstances, the ghost of Enzo Ferrari comes back to life and revokes your lease agreement. Clearly, Volvo should have brought out a sportier car to compete. Such as:
Most people will lionize me for not choosing its rocketship-finned P1800 sibling, the car once made famous by Roger Moore in The Saint. (Ask your dad what that was and what a Roger Moore is.) But there’s something inherently cooler and sleeker about the wagon variant—it’s a shooting brake, m’darling, and it’s what sophisticated urbanites drive to whatever minimalistic-designed flat-pack furniture store or Swedish stereotype we automotive hacks can muster. (See: the section on meatballs, fish-shaped candy, or leggy blonde women.) The 1800ES’s goofy toaster-oven shaped glass hatch was even good enough to make its way to the contemporary C30, the chosen ride of teenage vampires everywhere. So there’s your Roger Moore/sparkly vampire connection, then. And speaking of the 1800…
Before the 1800, Volvo president and founder Assar Gabrielsson went on a vacation to America and caught his first glimpse of a strange, exotic beast. It had two seats, whitewall tires, vestigial tail fins, and a fiberglass body, and perky, cute styling. Gabrielsson found out that it was called a Chevrolet Corvette, and he liked it so much that he wanted to build his own. The resulting Volvo Sport P1900 featured a fiberglass body tooled by Glasspar of Southern California. It had two seats, whitewall tires, a 1.4-liter engine producing a delicate 44 horsepower, and vestigial humps for fins. It was also the first Swedish sports car available to a public that thought the phrase “Swedish sports car” was an oxymoron.
Just 68 cars were built for one year, 1956, and the oxymoron stuck: not many people snapped up the Volvo roadster. Gabrielsson’s successor at Volvo took a P1900 on a weekend trip and hated the car so much that he came home and cancelled the entire remaining production run. “I thought the thing would fall apart!” he shouted. Sometimes it’s good to be in charge.
A list of Volvos without the Volvo 240 is like a list of condiments without ketchup, or a list of Baldwin brothers without the crazy one Stephen. The 240 is the icon of not only Volvo but of an entire motoring zeitgeist. A truly class-defying car, it served families and teenagers and hippies and businessmen alike; you’re just as likely to see a dour sales executive commuting to his cubicle hell as you are one festooned with FREE TIBET stickers, which is also known as the unofficial taxicab of Ithaca, New York. No surprise that it’d find so many adoptees, selling over 2.8 million models around the world and making it the number one Swedish export since the 30-pound IKEA catalog (another IKEA reference…drink!) If nothing else, by the time production ended in 1993 the 240 had cemented Volvo’s reputation as a solid, safe, unsexy carbuilder with little extraneous flair—a reputation that, try as it might today to undo, still lingers within the company.
When I was a kid, a family friend had a 740. Their father took a New England corner in the winter with a little too much exuberance, and it gently ended up on its roof. After a burly Teamster flipped it back on its wheels with a tow truck, the father calmly drove back home with it, with nothing more than a bruised ego. As a kid, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. “Volvos are built like tanks!” I proclaimed to everybody in the middle school cafeteria, and to our principal who drove the high-zoot 760 model and didn’t care for my automotive-related shenanigans.
The 740, 760, and 780 models may have been strange cars for an adolescent to obsess over, but less strange for automotive journalists at the time. They may have had doubts with Volvo’s attempt to move upmarket, but those were quieted when they drove the turbocharged, intercooled, ferociously quick Volvo 740. It was one of the last strange Volvos, one of the last rear-drive models, and a car that celebrated its squareness with aplomb even more than many other Volvos.
In 1994, Volvo decided to go racing in the British Touring Car Championship, in a goal similar to the events that inspired the movie “Operation Dumbo Drop.” Why? Because, that’s why. The TWR-prepped wagon—yes, a wagon—became an icon for solely that reason: It may not have garnered solid championships, but it kept people talking about Volvo.
People kept talking about Volvo when the 850 T-5R came out. It was the very epitome of a “sleeper,” the underassuming box from an underassuming company that ended up slaying dragons. Porsche helped develop the car. In total, the T-5R had twenty valves, a water-cooled turbocharger, piston cooling nozzles, and a forged vanadium steel crank and connecting rods. It could reach 60 in around 5 seconds on its way to a top speed of 155 mph. It was painted screaming yellow with aggressive gunmetal wheels. Volvo had never built anything close to it before—it was as if Betty Crocker launched a uranium enrichment facility.
And in true Volvo tradition, it even came in wagon form—if you can swing a T-5R or later 850R wagon, you’ll laugh as you beat all the other suburbanites to Yogurtland. See, it’s the little victories in life that count.
If the 740 celebrated its parent company’s squareness, the Volvo S80—like a temperamental teenager forced to listen to his dad’s Bob Seger tapes on his way to a parent-teacher conference—rejected as much as it could about it without moving out of the house. The S80 was the biggest styling change for Volvo since it discovered the T-square, sometime after the aforementioned Amazon came out. It drew from the Amazon’s stepped “shoulders,” and ended up changing the entire company’s design philosophy. And the first-generation still looks good. While later Volvos are all weird creases and bulging grilles, but the S80 was the perfect tipping point between recognizable squareness and an actual implied effort at joining the 21st century. What was not so modern: the GSM phone built into the center console, perfect for dialing back to Gordon Gekko so you can secure a landing space for your DeLorean time machine. The S80 may have heralded some curves into the company’s design, but another Volvo did it better.
Hey, the C70 might be one of the rare Volvos that can actually be called “pretty.” Look at it, all rectilinear curves and soft-topped goodness. Sure, it didn’t really go fast, and it didn’t really drive well, and it was expensive and broke down and snapped up by the sort of people who would ask if it comes with storage space for a dog the size of a Hot Pocket…but look at it! The second-generation looked even better. Buy Peter Horbury a drink, because he not only designed this, the S80, and the hot-hatch C30, but also brought Volvo into a decade where it’s able to celebrate its 85th anniversary, and we’re able to write this list. Here’s to more years of kicking butt and saving lives, Göteborg.
And the half: Volvo 262C Bertone
And now, the black sheep of the Volvo family: The Americanized Volvo, the 262C by way of Bertone. “Americanized” in this case means lots of chrome, an upright side window line that inspired a generation of K-Cars, a heavy black vinyl top with fake badging (complete with crown!), a face only a shovel could love, and a handgun and a KFC coupon in the glovebox. It could have only come around in the 1970s, when Royal Brougham Landaus and 20-foot Imperial LeBaron Club Coupes roamed the streets fearlessly, while Volvo’s version was like the nerdy kid in high school putting on a gold chain and Hai Karate aftershave to fit in with the football players. Of course it didn’t succeed—snarky auto journalists like me always put one on our “Top 10 Most Abhorrent, Cancerous Cars” lists. But you know what? Unlike those snarky guys, I love the 262C. It’s got the right amount of earnestness and unintentional hilarity to earn a special place in my ironic, cheese-filled heart. At least Volvo tried, and the result looks exactly the way you’d think a coupe-ified, Americanized 240 would look, like a goat wearing one of Dolly Parton’s dresses. This is Grand Ole Opry with a touch of aquavit. Skål!