There really is no accounting for taste.
A recurring theme with me I know. Like in my “Guilty Secrets” post sometimes you just can’t explain why something appeals. It just does and it’s definitely for you. “A little square and sluggish” is how Jan Wilsgaard described both the Swedes and the Volvo 200 series. He should know – born in 1930 to Norwegian parents in New York who returned to Norway before WW2. After the outbreak of war the family fled to neutral Sweden. 75 years living in a country should give you a good feel for the place and designing the iconic 200 series probably gives you the right to compare the locals to your creation.
The 200 series is still the archetypical Volvo that springs to mind when we think of this manufacturer even though it hasn’t been produced in well over twenty years. The 700 series was originally meant to replace it in 1983 but due to massive demand production of the 200 series was reluctantly continued right up to 1993 (actually outliving it’s putative successor by more than one year!). During it’s almost 20 year production run it ingrained itself indelibly into the world’s psyche.
This however is not the only car penned by Jan, incredibly every single Volvo between 1950 and 1990 (bar two, more of which later) emanated from the office with his name on the door. Incredibly he held the post of chief designer at the company for 40 years. I can’t find any other designer who held such a post at any well known manufacturer for longer than 24 years (Sacco at MB). His motto was “simple is beautiful” and looking at almost every single model right up to 2000 this Swedish (now Chinese) company slavishly followed this creed.The (very) few times they deviated from the script things really went pear shaped.
Case in point: The P1800.
This was one of only two cars during Jan’s tenure that wasn’t his work (and it shows). Volvo wanted a flashy sportscar to sell in the U.S. and they got got the Italian design house of Pietro Frua to lead those staid Swedes to coupe heaven. The “credit” for this design was belatedly given to Pelle Petterson (a sailor and yacht architect I never heard of before or since) who happened to be the son of an engineering consultant to Volvo at the time. You might well be saying to yourself that the association with Roger Moore’s “The Saint” or me just not not wanting Volvo to have produced a sexy looking car that’s putting me off. You would be wrong though. It’s just like an embarrassing uncle at a wedding – trying way to hard. Volvo have repeatedly proven that they are congenitally incapable of building a nice coupe. The 480 and two separate C70s more than prove my point.
That’s not to say that only their iconic estates appeal. Look just a little deeper than their justifiably famous load luggers and their are some really interesting models, some of them 2 door saloons that really don’t deserve the collective amnesia that surrounds them. I’m thinking particularly of the strange feelings of desire that rushed over me when I first saw the 262. What the hell is wrong with me? On first glance (maybe even second and third glance) Jan’s description of being square and sluggish fits like a glove. True it came with a silky smooth V6 (either 2.6 or 2.8) but a piddly 130hp meant it’s 1450kilos went very smoothly very slowly. There is something about it though…..
Being sensible and Swedish they have of course pioneered many safety features most notably the three point seatbelt and big heavy cars that protected you at the expense of the unfortunate you crashed into. They have also committed to having nobody killed in or by a Volvo after 2020. The ethos that form had to follow function coupled with their constant ambition to make their cars safer is the very essence of Gothenburg’s most famous export. This is why the cars that Jan designed to be functional, safe and comfortable are still so iconic and dare I say desirable? The occasional time that this script wasn’t followed we were left with the embarrassing uncle at a wedding trying to chat up a twenty year old with a tie around his head. Even the nomenclature was beautifully simple. Three digits, the first denoting the series, the second telling the world how many cylinders resided under the bonnet and the third reminding us how many doors it had (could we not just look?).
I have to confess that I quite like the look of their new XC90. Sure it’s big and bluff but you could never accuse it of looking “functional”. It’s great that Volvo’s new owners (Geely) are continuing to lead the way in making our roads safer (sensors warning drivers that they are tiring would have sounded like science fiction when Jan was designing cars) but I don’t think any of their current models will have the era defining impact nor lasting legacy of that 200 series that we all still think of when Volvo is mentioned.