In connection with an errand in Gothenburg, I couldn’t help but think of Volvo. Almost all of us have some sort of “connection” to Volvo: It may have been the family car during childhood, maybe you’ve had one yourself – and if none of these things match, you’ve probably been transported in a Volvo bus at some point in life.
The Volvo Museum is in Arendal, near their large production plant in Torslanda, and quite conveniently for me, both places are close proximity to Gothenburg. Despite Volvo PV (that’s “Volvo PersonVagnar” which translates to Volvo Passenger Cars) and the rest of Volvo having separate owners today, they’ve managed largely to stick together under the same roof.
As soon as you enter the museum, you’re first meet by Roger Moore’s iconic white Volvo P1800 from 1967. After Roger Moore got to know the P1800 in the TV series, “The Saint”, he was so excited about the car that he had to have one himself. His personal P1800 was not only used by Moore to drive in, but was also included in several episodes.
The museum is divided into epochs; so let’s start with the very infant years of Volvo history… Many car enthusiasts will probably already know the story, but it’s so good that it can easily withstand being told again. Volvo is the story of how far you can come when you meet different competencies and understand how to combine them.
The two founders, Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larsson, were economists and engineers respectively, and got to know each other, while they both worked for SKF (Svenska Kullagerfabriken… in english: Swedish Ball Bearing Factory). They got along very well with each other – and one day, in 1924, they had agreed to meet for a traditional Swedish crayfish dinner at the Swedish fish restaurant “Sturehof” in the capital city of Sweden, Stockholm. The restaurant still exists to this day and is located in the town square “Stureplan”, in the Stockholm district of Östermalm. I’ve had the pleasure of eating here myself – why not take the opportunity “to walk in the footsteps” of the two Swedish Volvo inventors yourself? I strongly recommend a traditional Swedish crayfish dinner. It’s definitely a place worth visiting, if you are in Stockholm anyway… You can find more info in this link: www.sturehof.com
Well, back to 1924… During the dinner, Larsson told Gabrielsson about his many thoughts and considerations regarding starting a car production in Sweden. Gabrielsson was immediately interested, since he (through his work at SKF) immediately recognised the potential, due to the fact that the automotive industry already was a big customer for ball bearings. Gabrielsson was, besides being an economist, also a good salesman which had led him to the post as Sales Director at SKF.
Good salesman or not, Gabrielsson had actually already tried to persuade the management of SKF to try expanding production to more complex parts for the automotive industry as a supplement to their ball bearings. However, he did not succeed to persuade them. The management thought that any kind of new activity shouldn’t stray too far from the core business of SKF: ball bearings – and perhaps Gabrielsson’s “product” was too abstract and not well enough explained for the management, so they felt that it was too risky.
But instead Gabrielsson and Larsson agreed to move on and transform their thoughts and ideas into an actual plan. They complemented each other very well: Gabrielsson had the competencies within sales and finance and Larsson had the competencies within technology and production planning. So in this way they ended up having a complete detailed plan, and with this tucked under his arm, Gabrielsson could again approach SKF management – and this time it succeeded…
Not that SKF itself wanted to be a direct part of the new automotive production company, but they did find the plan so convincing, that they accepted to invest in the project by providing Gabrielsson and Larsson with an industrial building in Gothenburg and further to this, they also gave the new project a rather substantial financial support. And as if these things were not enough, SKF even made the name “Volvo” – Latin for “I roll” – available for the new project. The name had already been registered as a trademark in 1915, where it originally was thought of as a name for a new series of ball bearings, but it had never been used. So the management thought this could be a good opportunity to put it into appropriate use.
So now that Volvo was up and rolling – so to speak; and quite characteristically for the teamwork and how this new company was run, the very heart of the Executive Office: the desk, was actually now two desks merged into one… with Gabrielsson having one side at which he managed finance and sales, and Larsson having the other at which he managed technology and production. The loop was closed.
Of course, it was hardly a walk in the park during those first years, which led to a deficit and the debt to SKF grew. But most of the time SKF believed in the project and allowed the debt to be converted into shares in the Volvo Company. In hindsight, SKF choose wisely since the Volvo share was later listed on the Stockholm stock exchange.
The first Volvo model was the ÖV4 “Jacob” (ÖV is short for “Öppen Vagn” in Swedish which translates into Open Car) and the number “4” was referring to the 4-cylinders… a simple no nonsense name! One could argue that the Swedish climate wasn’t taken much into account when planning the first car to be an open one – not entirely logical in a country like Sweden… And soon after, there was a “closed car” model as well: The PV4 still with 4-cylinders (PV is short for “Person Vagn” in Swedish which simply means Passenger Car, also known as the Saloon in English).
Anotherof Volvo’s fortes has always been that they’ve never been afraid to work with subcontractors. Their line of thought being, that if you were to do everything yourself, it would simply prove too complex and too slow. As an example of this; the engine in the ÖV/PV4 models came from the company Pentaverken in Skövde, who’s core business was to manufacture boat engines. While it’s not uncommon to use car engines in boats, it was in this case the opposite way around. But this innovative collaboration worked and therefore Volvo was happy doing business with Pentaverken as their subcontractor.
Of course, it’s rather obvious that the engine in a car is one of the key components, so when Volvo eventually had become financially stronger, they ended up taking over Pentaverken. For Volvo, it was a given that Pentaverken should continue to manufacture boat engines as well, but now under the brand name: Volvo Penta. This is also the historical explanation of why the engines from Volvo are produced in the small town of Skövde.
But in the early 1930s, the world was in financial recession and thus also in Sweden. There were fewer people who could afford their own private car. Volvo’s answer was simply to expand the chassis so that it could equally be used for a bus or truck, and in that way diversifying their business during a financially challenging period in Sweden and beyond.
The Volvo Museum is of course a presentation of the various Volvo models over time, but it equally tells the story of how Sweden – along the way – evolved into today’s modern welfare state… and how Volvo came along for the ride. Now very rare Volvo models, used in the early 1930s as taxis and doctor’s cars, contribute to telling that story.
Again, telling more than merely the history of Volvo, the museum also has on display the Volvo which was owned in period by the famous Swedish author and Nobel prize winner, Selma Lagerlöf. However, she didn’t drive the car herself, but needed a private chauffeur, as she had become an “oldtimer” (metaphorically speaking as we’re in the classic car universe… She was born in 1858 and died in 1940).
Among many other books in her extensive authorship, Selma Lagerlöf was the author of the globally renown children’s book: “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson” which was published in 1906-07, and for which she even won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909 – impressively, as the first woman (and Swede) to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The book is about a Swedish boy, Nils Holgersson, who is a naughty boy who tortures animals and never listens to his parents – until one day he gets cursed by a “tomte” (the word is used in Swedish for a mythological creature, which in English would be similar to a goblin) and wakes up as an elf. Deeply puzzled by his new status, he climbs on a tame gander’s back and flies away with him, joining a flock of wild geese. As he is carried around Sweden, Nils learns everything about birds, animals, nature, his country and not least good behavior and good human values… it’s an epic book – and as many other children (in Scandinavia, probably even the majority), I have fond memories of reading it myself when I was a child…
At the museum, the Volvo history is continued after World War II, where we see Tommy and Annika in front of the family Volvo PV444. Tommy and Annika are the sibling couple from the “Pippi Longstocking” stories where Pippi is of course the main character in the series of children’s books by the famous Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. Tommy and Annika represented the archetypical Swedish “lagom family” (the Swedish word: “lagom” can be translated to “conventional and average” in this context) – unlike their rebellious best friend, Pippi. And of course, the conventional Swedish family were seen to drive a Volvo.
When you say PV444, you equally have to say: “Duett” – which in this context means: “the car is two”… Yet, the Duett was probably much more: the practical estate for the family, the police car, the service car, you name it…
Moving on in the chronology of the exhibition, we are on the threshold of the 1960s and Volvo were now dreaming of producing their first sports car, primarily for the export markets with the United States at the forefront. Assar Gabrielsson got the idea when he – on a trip to the United States – saw a Chevrolet Corvette. The immediate result was the Volvo P1900, but with its fibreglass body (like the Corvette), it sadly never became a success.
However, Gunnar Engellau, who in the meantime had replaced Assar Gabrielsson as managing director of Volvo, managed to address these problems, rethought the concept, and developed the now so famous Volvo P1800…
Admitted, in that process the Volvo P1800 probably turned out as more of a 2-seater Grand Touring car, rather than a sports car. Engellau was – just like Roger Moore – so excited about the P1800 that he also wanted one himself. The car in the picture is the actual car owned by Gunnar Engellau; in a very special colour – “Engellau-blue” and even with a fully matching interior.
Later came the 140 series and through this, Volvo really cemented their strong focus on safety. That was perhaps best expressed with their safety car: the “VESC”, which most will probably agree was safer than it was elegant.
It’s clear though, that many of the innovative designs and details of the VESC later appeared in their production cars with the 240 series. But Volvo wasn’t only about safety. There could also – occasionally – be new and different technical solutions such as the rear subframe on the first S90, where the suspension element is a transverse leaf spring in fibreglass.
Eventually the tour leads you to the concept cars, where the museum has a really exciting collection. In this regard, it is utterly unavoidable to mention Jan Wilsgaard… He joined Volvo when he was only 20 years old, in 1950. Assar Gabrielsson had “spotted him” at the “Konstindustriskolan” (in English: The School of Industrial Art) in Gothenburg. Wilsgaard ended up having a decisive influence on most Volvo designs right from when he started working at Volvo in 1950 and up until the production of the Volvo 850.
The first project overseen by Wilsgaard was the Volvo Philip. In case you’re thinking that “Philip” seems an odd name for a car, it simply comes down to the car first being shown on the 2nd of May and that day having the name Philip in the Swedish almanac. In fact, all the days of the year have names in the Swedish almanac – for example, the 4th of October is called “Frans” and is at the same time “Cinnamon Cake Day”…
The Volvo Philip was a large saloon with a very obvious American expression – a theme which was followed through under the bonnet where you found a 3.6-litre V8. There is more than a passing resemblance with the American Kaiser-Frazer. However, both Gabrielsson and Larsson gave it the “thumbs down”. Still, they did at least show mercy for the V8 which ended up being used in several smaller lorries/trucks and as a boat engine as well.
Later, when Volvo wanted to build the shooting brake version based on the P1800 – the ES – they initially built two versions. One was the more “conservative” version while the other was the more “controversial”, like the one showed in the photo: “Raketen” (in English: The Rocket). As we know, Volvo ended up choosing the more conservative model…
After Jan Wilsgaard, it was Peter Horbury who took over as the new Head of Design – and we’re now up into recent times. It is also at this time that an all-female design team submitted their bids on what a Volvo – for women – should look like. One amusing detail was that the place for filling up consumable fluids – i.e. fuel and windscreen washer fluid – were assembled in one place… And why not? Why should it continue to be necessary to open the bonnet to refill the washer fluid?
NB! I think I would rather point out myself (before others do), that this little detail is of course already to be found on my Porsche 911 from 1979.
Another example of newer designs was this Volvo SCC, which was particularly positively received for having special deformation zones within the cabin which could absorb collision energy and thus better protect passengers.
Or what about this S60 concept with frameless windows and rear doors which were hinged at their trailing edge?
Finally, with our current modern times so saturated be talk of zero emissions, I feel it’s highly relevant to mention this Volvo ECC (Environmental Concept Car) from 1992. The Volvo ECC is nota zero emission car, but instead a gas turbine hybrid car. Gas turbines are not particularly good when it comes to quickly revving up or down, but then that wasn’t its purpose here. Instead, it was intended to merely drive a generator. Gas turbines can be designed to be thermodynamically more efficient than other internal combustion engines. Gas turbines are also highly fuel tolerant and can thus burn CO2 neutral rapeseed oil or hydrogen. Furthermore, the Volvo EEC is made from materials that can be manufactured with low environmental impact and high recyclability. Bear in mind, this concept saw the light of day all of 26 years ago!
ViaRETRO bonus information: Last but not least, I shouldn’t forget to mention that the museum has a whole section on lorries/trucks as well, for those of you who are so inclined.
As I’m sure it is quite obvious from my article, I personally feel that the museum is definitely worth a visit. I can really only think of one downside: the café at the museum. Top-tip, either eat before or after your visit… Luckily, Gothenburg is a lovely city in so many ways, with archipelago, beautiful surroundings and great restaurants. I strongly recommend you pack your retro duffel bag and spend the weekend in Sweden – including a Volvo Museum Tour.
Further info about the museum:
SE-405 08 Gothenburg