The Volvo design tradition
The dawn of Volvo design tradition, as we know it, came with the PV444. Smaller than the American but larger and more dynamic than the European small cars of the time, it made a major breakthrough for Volvo in the US market. The PV 444 was roomy on the inside and had enough horsepower to be known as the ‘family sportscar’.
In fact, it even became popular among racing drivers. In those days, competitors sometimes refused to come to the start if a Volvo had entered the race because it was considered to be a waste of time and petrol!
In the 1950s, the Italians led the design world. Volvo appointed a ‘chief designer’ for the first time and his name was Jan Wilsgaard. This man, who would be responsible for Volvo styling during the next three decades, blended Italian inspiration with Swedish functionality in the P120, also called the ‘Amazon’, which was born in 1956. The P120 emphasized the typical design features that have been part of Volvos ever since: the V-shaped hood, a distinctive shoulder line and the vertical grille, proud to be Volvo.
Safety innovations have featured significantly in Volvo’s history. The PV444 had a laminated windscreen and the safety cage way back in the 1940s and in 1959, Volvo changed the automotive world forever by introducing the three-point safety belt. The three-point safety belt is one of the most important life-saving innovations in human history and has become a standard fitting today, with many countries making its usage compulsory for front occupants.
Superior strength and safety, however, meant that the cars had to be rather large and heavy. Thus Volvos between the 1970s and early 1990s were often cheekily described as being “built like a tank – and goes like one too”. That they were better at saving lives in car accidents was never disputed. Doctors, particularly in UK, liked to own them, probably because they had seen accident victims from Volvos and from other cars.
Another priority of Volvo has been environmental protection. In the 1970s, the company developed the Lambda-sond emission control system which was so effective that it served as a benchmark in the USA where regulations were concerned. Today’s Volvos are also advanced in this area with ultra-low toxic exhaust emissions and even a special feature which ‘eats’ unhealthy ground-level ozone as it blows through the radiator!
From rear to front
Officially, Volvo didn’t support front-wheel drive for decades and its “Swedish models” did not have this type of drivetrain; however, the Volvos made at its Dutch factory had it from the start and this contradiction was often questioned by journalists because Volvo engineers had often argued in favour of rear-wheel drive as being superior.
During the 1980s, Volvo secretly worked on a new strategy for the 1990s as it was expected that the high revenues from the enormous success of the 240/260 series in North America would eventually dwindle. The new strategy called for a major investment by Volvo which became the largest in the Swedish industry.
The outcome of the project was an entirely new model known as the ‘850’ which appeared in 1991. Though having familiar Volvo lines, it was radically different underneath: it had front-wheel drive and a 5-cylinder engine mounted transversely. The 850 was widely acclaimed and even critics of Volvo grudgingly admitted that it possessed impressive dynamics and performance.
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