’Jakob’ – the first Volvo
1927 is officially recognised as the year in which Volvo started operations, hence the 75 anniversary this year. On April 14 that year, the first Volvo car (nicknamed “Jakob”) left the factory in Gothenburg, a city along the southern coast of Sweden. It was a significant development in Sweden’s industrial history too.
Predictably, the first Volvo was based on an American design and had a strong chassis and live axles with long leaf springs at the front and rear. The 4-cylinder 2-litre engine developed 28 hp at 2000 rpm to give a top speed of 90 km/h – but Volvo recommended a cruising speed of 60 km/h.
The car had 20-inch artillery-type wheels, with wooden spokes in their natural colour and detachable rims. The open 5-seater body had four doors and was covered in sheet steel on a frame of ash and copper beech. The upholstery was made of leather.
Sales were slow during the first year – a total of just 297 cars was sold. Interest in the covered model proved to be greater than expected and the original plan of 500 open and 500 covered cars had to be quickly revised.
Volvo also introduced a truck, the Type 1, in the same year. A couple of small vans had already been built on the chassis of the Jakob in 1927 and the production of trucks had been planned since 1926, when the first drawings were produced. The truck venture was a success. Trucks, and subsequently buses, dominated Volvo’s production during the first decades in terms of numbers.
Establishing core values
The founding fathers spoke about safety at a very early stage and the first collision ever involving a Volvo occurred even before the first car was sold! In 1926, on the road from Stockholm to Gothenburg, one of the nine prototypes collided head-on with an American car. The imported car became a wreck, while the Volvo emerged with just a few scratches.
Just how seriously safety was considered – and it would later become synonymous with Volvo cars – can be seen in a principle which the two founders established for the company. It was in a document which was only ‘discovered’ in the 1990s but to all those at Volvo, it was profound: “Cars are driven by people. The guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo therefore is – and must remain – safety.”
The domestic market was small and so Volvo had to look for markets outside Sweden. Its export figures were initially modest: 24 cars in 1928, 27 in 1929. Early Volvos appeared in Denmark, Cuba, the Netherlands, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Morocco and Argentina but exports to the United States only started in 1955. Competing with the giant American brands was considered to be a daring adventure or as a wise Swede put it: “Like selling refrigerators in the North Pole”. In spite of this, the PV444 became a hit in the USA, which soon grew to be the largest market for Volvo cars.
Few people know that Volvo was close to becoming an American company back in the late 1920s. The legendary car manufacturer Charles Nash took the boat to Sweden to close the deal, but Assar Gabrielsson himself and SKF made a joint effort and managed to keep the company Swedish… just a few hours before the American guests arrived in Gothenburg. In September of the same year, Volvo made a profit for the first time.
During the 1930s, inspiration came mainly from the USA. Skilled Swedish engineers, who had worked for American car manufacturers in Detroit, returned to Sweden and Volvo. They brought with them technological know-how and design influences.
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