Modern Classic: Volvo PV544"Drive it like you hate it"
To qualify as "modern classics," we're choosing vehicles that are comparatively affordable now and that we think will increase in value over time. These are cars that many people would love to have: head-turners, trend-setters in their time, cars that people still see that make them smile, cars that were definitive in their own right, stylish and fun to drive. We're focusing on cars that are at least 25 years old so they can be registered and insured cheaply and aren't subject to annual inspections.
Tastes may vary, as may peoples' own definitions of "affordable." Our theoretical limit is $50,000 for a car in good to excellent condition, which rules out many of the traditional exotics. This month's selection is the Volvo PV544.
Volvo produced its first cars in 1927. Although strongly influenced by U.S. makes, nearly 30 years passed before the Swedish automaker mounted an American invasion, and they did it with a car that looked decidedly outdated. Capitalizing on Sweden's neutrality during World War II, the PV444 prototype was first shown in 1944. Actual production began three years later, but U.S. imports didn't arrive until 1956. By that time, Volvo's first entry looked very long in the tooth.
Volvo plunged bravely headlong into a market that was crowded with diverse brands, all trying for a foothold. A measure of the Swedish firm's confidence (or indifference) was that the conservative PV444 and its lookalike successor, the PV544, resembled a slightly shrunken 1946 Ford Tudor. But competitors like the Borgward Isabella TS and the Auto Union 1000, while newer-looking, weren't so beautiful either.
Basically a carryover from the earlier PV444, the PV544's unit body received a one-piece windshield, larger flip-out side windows, a bigger rear window, a new instrument panel and countless other improvements. About the size of a later Ford Falcon, with a revvy, 1.6-liter, 85-bhp pushrod four, the dated-looking (but very tossable) fastback was advertised as "packing sports car performance in a family sedan."
Although its underpinnings were nothing special-worm-and-sector steering, 15-inch wheels, independent wishbones and coil springs in front, a live axle, radius rods and coils in back, with drum brakes all around-the PV544 was nicely balanced and remarkably nimble. Racing versions competed handily all over Sweden, and notched impressive times in the grueling Monte Carlo and East African Safari rallies. Competition successes served to underscore the 544's ruggedness and dependability. Reportedly, about 15 bolt-on "little Le Mans" competition upgrade kits were exported here for racing customers.
By the standards of its day: 0-to-60 in 13 seconds, comfortable 60-to-70-mph cruising speeds, 27 mpg on the highway, and pricing in the low $2,000s, PV444s and later 544s were comparable to (and even quicker than) many sporty two-seaters. People didn't seem to mind the dowdy styling. Road & Track reported that the top speed of 93 mph "was truly astonishing for a 1.6-liter sedan. With a car like this," R & T's testers enthused, "who needs a sports car-"
Volvo's canny marketers continually took the measure of American requirements, and kept improving the PV544. In 1959, a 4-speed all-synchromesh gearbox with a long, whippy shift lever replaced the earlier three-speeder. Road & Track's testers helpfully suggested "a remote shift in place of the long lever would be like having an egg in your beer, and it should be possible without altering the front passenger compartment." In 1962, U.S. PV544s received the P1800's 1778cc, five-main bearing, 90-bhp engine with 12-volt electrics. Upgraded luxury features, natty trim and new colors kept this decidedly oldish-looking sedan in contention for years, even though it was sold side-by-side with Volvo's larger, more contemporary Model 122S Amazon.
By 1965, Volvo realized it could replace the aging PV544 with a stripper version of the 122 and build both cars on the same assembly line. PV544 production ceased late that year, but a few leftovers were sold as 1966s. Over 440,000 444s/544s had been sold with 160,000 of those exported. Although it didn't incorporate a single technical advance that wasn't featured by competitors, the well-built, sports-oriented PV544 had won many friends and helped establish Volvo as a definite world contender. After 544 production stopped, Volvo symbolically tossed the two-door sport sedan baton to BMW's even sportier 1600/2002s, and moved to the high-volume four-door and wagon market, where they remain today.
If you're seeking a PV544, get a '62 or later with the bigger engine. CPI reports these little tudors retail in the $5,000-$6,000 range. Watch for rust-you usually can't miss it-but some favorite tin-worm haunts are the floorboards, rear fenderwells and rear quarter panels. About 80% of spares for the later engines are still available, as well as a lot of sheetmetal. According to one restorer, "About the only thing that'll kill the rock-solid engine is running without oil."
Dan's Volvo Service, Tampa, Florida, 813-831-1616
Mike Marino's Volvo Classics, Bel Air, Maryland, 800-501-0403
Swedish Classics, www.swedishclassics.com
Swedish Speed, www.swedishspeed.com
Volvo Sports America, www.vsa.org
Cars of Particular Interest, www.cpivalueguide.com
"Great Cars of the Fifties," Consumer Guide, www.amazon.com
"Hemmings Motor News," www.hemmings.com
"The Illustrated Volvo Buyers' Guide," www.amazon.com
"Road & Track," 1956 and 1959 Road Test Annuals, www.roadandtrack.com
"Special Interest Autos," February '85 issue, www.hemmings.com
"Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-1990" (pp.644-648), www.motorbooks.com
"Volvo: Cars From the 20's to the 80's" by Bjorn-Eric Lindh, pp. 111-122, www.amazon.com.
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