1927 Volvo; courtesy of Volvo Car Corporation. Click image to enlarge
By Bill Vance
Sweden was relatively late getting into automobile mass production. Scania-Vabis of Sodertalje, and Thulin of Landskrona, had assembled a few cars during the 1910s and ’20s, but their output was more build-to-order than regular production.
Most of Sweden’s automotive demand, a few thousand cars a year in the 1910s, and 10,000 to 12,000 in the ’20s, was filled by American manufacturers. That would change when the home grown Volvo arrived in 1927.
It wasn’t that Sweden lacked the technical capability. Gothenburg-based Svenska Kullagerfabriken (SKF), for example, made world famous ball-bearings. It was just that the Swedish automobile market hadn’t been considered lucrative enough to attract entrepreneurs.
As demand rose in the 1920s, two visionary Swedes, Assar Gabrielsson, an economist, and Gustaf Larson, an engineer, began discussing a Swedish car. Both men knew of the great automobile populations abroad. After graduating from university Gabrielsson spent four years with the Swedish Government before joining SKF. By 1920 he was managing director of its French branch, and three years later returned to SKF’s head office as sales manager.
Upon leaving technical school Larson worked in England with Coventry-based engine builder White & Poppe. Enthralled with engines, he soon returned to Sweden, joined SKF, and studied internal combustion engines at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology.
Gabrielsson and Larson met at SKF, and in about 1924 began discussing a Swedish built car. Gabrielsson had the business expertise, and Larson, now technical director for a steel fabricator, was a competent engineer. They envisioned a more rugged vehicle better suited to Swedish conditions than large, American cars, and they thought such a car, reasonably priced, could be profitable.
Working on a part-time basis, while keeping their day jobs, Gabrielsson sought financial backing as Larson designed the car. Working with a bright young engineer named Henry Westerberg, Larson’s planned an “assembled” car using as many components as possible from outside suppliers.
By 1925 Larson had the car engineered, but Gabrielsson had not yet arranged the financing. SKF was not willing to commit, and banks were cautious about a motor car venture. Their dream was faltering; without a car to show, they couldn’t obtain financing, and without money, a car seemed out of the question. But Gabrielsson was so determined and confident that he personally financed the building of 10 prototypes.
His huge gamble paid off; a running prototype was completed in Stockholm in June 1926, driven to Gothenburg, and demonstrated to SKF officials. With a completed car to consider, rather than just blueprints and enthusiasm, SKF financed the enterprise.
SKF revived a name, Volvo (“I roll” in Latin) that they had registered in 1915 but never used. SKF had a spare factory available, and with Gabrielsson and Larson in charge, AB Volvo prepared for production.
Larson’s no-nonsense car was powered by a 2.0-litre, 28-horsepower, side-valve four capable of propelling the approximately 907-kg car up to about 80 km/h (50 mph). Power went to the rear wheels through a three-speed, non-synchromesh transmission. Springs were semi-elliptic all around, and the foot-operated brakes acted on the rear wheels only, with a handbrake on the transmission.
The first Volvos had a 2,850 mm (112.2 in.) wheelbase, which was 221 mm (8.7 in.) longer than the Model A Ford’s, although its 1,300 mm (51.2 in.) track was 122 (4.8 in.) mm narrower, causing Volvo drivers to complain that they wouldn’t follow the ruts made by larger cars. It rolled on 20-inch wheels.
Volvo’s first run was 500 open cars, designated OV4 (Openvagn, four- cylinders), and 500 closed PV4s (Personvagn, four-cylinders). But Sweden’s climate favoured closed cars, and by 1929 the OV4 was discontinued.
After the first production Volvo, nicknamed “Jakob,” came off the line in April 1927, car building accelerated slowly; only 297 cars were built that year. This rose to 498 in 1928, when truck production was added.
Refinements came quickly. Four-wheel brakes were fitted, bodies restyled, and the four-cylinder engine was replaced with a six in 1929. Truck production outnumbered cars until 1940.
The Depression reduced Volvo car production, and not until 1937 did annual output exceeded 1,000. It reached almost 3,000 in 1939, but fell sharply during the Second World War. Just 99 were built in 1942, although car building didn’t halt completely during the war as it did in other countries.
Volvos were largely unknown to North Americans until 1955 when the first Ford-shaped PV444s, followed by PV544s, came to the U.S.A., and Canada shortly after. Volvos quickly established a reputation in North America for high performance. They also proved to be very durable, just as Gabrielsson and Larson had planned from the beginning.