As we’ve covered at length before, Volvo is suffering from a bit of an image problem right now. With an aging, uncompetitive lineup in the U.S., the company has been stuck on the ropes even while auto sales continue to surge for just about everyone else. But that’s likely to change soon, as the company has the all-new (and fantastic) XC90 SUV at dealers now, with the BMW 5 Series-fighting S90 on deck for next year, as well as seven other new models due by the end of the decade that all share the company’s crisp, sexy, new styling language.
For the past 50 years or so, Volvo has been known as the safety brand, and with good cause. After all, it pioneered features — like safety cages, three-point safety belts, dual-circuit brakes, child booster seats, energy absorbing bumpers, side airbags, and blind spot warning systems — years before most of its competitors caught on. But with safety first, Volvo’s styling has always been a bit of an afterthought. Sure it’s upright, boxy 200, 700, 800 and 900 series cars from the last 40 years have long had a cult following (Disclosure: This author has owned several), but their beauty is certainly lost on some, if not most, other gearheads.
That said, over its 91-year history, Volvo has certainly built its share of beautiful cars. Later this month, it will show a few of them off at the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance. Following Mazda’s lead, who picked five of its favorite cars to show at last month’s Japanese Classic Car Show in Long Beach, California, Volvo is doing the same with some of its historic models, displaying five classics along with a 400 horsepower hybrid XC90 T8, the most advanced vehicle to ever come from the automaker.
Looking over Volvo’s selection of cars, it’s like cracking open an old photo album and seeing that your grandparents were once really cool. With nary a ’70s- or ’80s-era brick in sight, here are five historic cars chosen by Volvo to prove that safety never has to be boring.
1. 1927 PV4
The First Volvo, the ÖV4, appeared in 1927 as a steel-bodied, open-topped tourer. Pragmatists from the start, Volvo realized that convertibles weren’t desirable in Sweden for six or seven months out of the year, and that the steel body was prone to rust. So it quickly introduced the PV4 later that year, with a closed cabin and an insulated wood and imitation leather body. Of the 694 PV4s that were built over its three-year run, only four survive today. The fully-restored car at Hilton Head is believed to be the first PV4 to ever come to the United States.
2. 1933 PV654
Built between 1933 and 1937, the PV 653 and 654 cars were Volvo’s range-topping luxury models. The 654 was the deluxe model, and had amenities like dual spare wheels, a reverse light, and a plush interior. Available in four colors (a broad color palette for ’30s European cars), it was not only Volvo’s first foray into luxury cars, but it was also known to handle Sweden’s treacherous winter roads with ease. With only 361 cars ever built, Volvo’s restored example will also be the first of its kind to touch U.S. soil later this month.
3. 1955 PV444
For drivers of a certain age, this is probably the first Volvo you remember. Introduced in 1944, the PV444 caused a sensation in Sweden with its modern styling, advanced safety features, and cheap price. At 4,800 Swedish kroner, it cost the same as the ÖV4 did in 1927. The PV444 debuted in the U.S. in 1955, the same year Ford was lambasted for putting seat belts in its cars and trying to sell safety. It had advanced features like unibody construction, laminated glass, a safety cage, and after 1957, three-point seat belts. In 1958, it was replaced by the evolutionary PV544, which soldiered on until 1965. Together, these two tear-drop models (and their combined 21-year production run) established Volvo as one of Europe’s leading export brands. Before Volvos were boxes, they were gumdrops.
4. 1957 P1900
Despite the lessons learned from the ÖV4 in the ’20s, Volvo decided to try its hand at a convertible again, and in 1954, it took a page out of Chevy’s playbook and introduced a fiberglass-bodied roadster called the P1900. But production delays meant the P1900 wouldn’t see production until 1956, and despite the company’s plans to sell it in the U.S., its high price coupled with the complete lack of a market for convertibles in Sweden meant that it never got off the ground. Despite its delicate good looks, production ended in 1957 with just 67 cars built.
5. 1967 P1800S
Before he was James Bond, actor Roger Moore was best known as Simon Templar, a Robin Hood-like bon vivant who stole from the rich in the popular ’60s TV series The Saint. And while 007 had his iconic Aston Martin DB5, Templar’s ride of choice was a gorgeous white Volvo P1800s. Introduced in 1961, it caused a sensation in the sports car world, slotting between cars like the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia and Jaguar E-Type, and becoming the attainable sports car of choice for the sporting set. Today, the P1800s is almost universally hailed as the most beautiful car to ever come from Gothenburg. At Hilton Head, the company will show the actual car that Moore drove in the TV series.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.
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