Story and photo by Bill Vance

1965 Volvo 544
1965 Volvo 544. Click image to enlarge

Sweden’s Volvo, (Latin for “I roll”), now owned by the Ford Motor Company, has been building cars since 1927. But North Americans came to know and respect it mostly through the Volvo 544, a stubby two-door sedan that appeared here in the fifties looking like a Ford of the immediate pre- or post-Second World War period. A few 444s, the 544’s predecessor, found their way to North America, but it was the 544 that really established Volvo’s reputation for toughness and performance over here.

When Volvo introduced its lovely new Amazon model in 1956, a car we later got as the 122 model, most observers predicted that the “round” 444 would disappear as soon as Amazon production could be increased. But Volvo management had other ideas.

The 444 had established an excellent reputation through refinement and improvement since it was introduced in 1947. And the tooling was paid for, so why not, if possible, stretch a few more years out of its 544 successor.

Volvo depreciation had also proved to be quite low, and the company felt that there were still a lot of 444 owners out there who would buy at least one more similar car, a prediction that turned out to be correct. It’s good business if it works, and it did for Volvo.

With the appearance of the evolutionary 544 in 1958, Volvo rectified some of the 444’s shortcomings, such as poor visibility and a somewhat cramped rear seat. The previously split windshield was now one piece, and was higher and broader, providing 22 percent more area. The rear window was also enlarged 19 percent. And a four-speed transmission was now available.

The rear seat was increased in width by 170 mm (6.5 in.), although the constraint of the body shape allowed an increase of only 51 mm (2 in.) at shoulder height. And 60 mm (2.4 in.) of rear seat legroom was gained by making the front seatbacks thinner.

The instrument panel was modernized and fitted with a horizontal “thermometer” type speedometer. A new dished “safety” steering wheel was used, and smarter upholstery patterns made the interior more attractive. Outside, much larger taillights replaced the tiny round ones of the 444. All in all, while the basic dimensions of the 544 were similar to the 444, there were enough improvements to make it a significantly more appealing car.

Volvos were introduced to North America in California in the Fall of 1955, although sales didn’t take off until ’56. The eastern U.S. got them in the spring of 1956 when they were introduced at the New York Motor Show. One 444 demonstrator was brought to Canada in 1957, and about 50 more were imported in 1958.

Early export 444s had a 1.4 litre, 70 horsepower, overhead valve, four cylinder engine, but the 1.6 litre, 85 horsepower version made its appearance shortly after export to North America began.

Although the 544 was improved over the 444, it was the performance of both cars that really appealed to North Americans. In an era when a “small” sedan usually meant a “slow” one, the Volvo was a revelation. Its 85 horsepower engine proved rugged and reliable and really loved to rev. It developed its peak horsepower at a high 5,500 rpm, and would, according to Road & Track, run all the way up to 7,000.

Road & Track (9/57) tested an 85 horsepower, three-speed 444 and reported a very respectable zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 14.3 seconds and a top speed of 151 km/h (93.8 mph). A November 1963 test of a four-speed 544, now up to 90 horsepower, gave zero to 96 (60) in 14.1, and a top speed of 148 km/h (92 mph).

To put this in perspective, the most popular import, the Volkswagen Beetle, took about 28 seconds to reach the 96 km/h (60 mph) mark, and could barely struggle up to a 112 km/h (70 mph) top speed.

The Volvo’s spirited performance, while common in the faster sports cars (the Austin-Healey 100 Six could do 0-to-96 (60) in 12.2 seconds), was unheard of in a small popular priced sedan. It was even quicker up to 96 km/h (60 mph) than a favourite sports car of that time, the MGA, and had about the same top speed.

With this kind of performance, Volvos were soon campaigned vigorously in sedan racing and rallies, including ice racing, with considerable success. To publicize the Volvo in Canada, drivers Dave Roat and Trey Jones took a 544 on a 6,400 km (4,000 mile) sprint from Vancouver to Halifax, making it in 85 hours and 45 minutes, in the process breaking the Canadian coast-to-coast record.

Volvo 544 production ceased in 1965 after almost 244,000 had been built. It was succeeded by the more attractive Amazon/120 series. The 544 retains a solid place in the memories of those somewhat pioneering spirits who bought early Volvos. To them there will never by anything quite like the moan of those twin S.U. carburetors, and the Whoopie Cushion exhaust snort as a well tuned 544 whips away from a sports car driver in a stoplight grand prix.

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