Swedish Iron (Part One)

Remembering Volvo’s long-running and highly successful 100/200 series.

Image: autoevolution.com

One of the near-constants of the automotive industry is the model replacement cycle. It typically works like this: a new model is introduced, given a facelift (for better or worse) after, say, four years, then is replaced by an all-new model after a further four years. Of course, ‘all-new’ is a term used pretty casually by automakers. Often, beneath the shiny new bodywork, many carry-over parts will be found.

A number of factors conspire to enforce this cycle. Ever tighter active and passive safety standards and regulations need to be incorporated. Likewise, developments in technology, both for the vehicle itself and the machinery used to build it, will, in the best of circumstances, allow the redesigned vehicle to be built more efficiently(1) and to a higher standard.

Lastly, there are the tastes and sensibilities of potential buyers to consider. A car that has been around for a protracted period of time tends to become overly familiar, hence overlooked in favour of newer, fresher models. This tendency used to be exploited to an extreme degree by US automakers with their annual autumnal facelifts. These were often merely cosmetic and it didn’t matter whether the cars were subjectively better or worse looking, they just had to be different.

The facelifted car would be described as next year’s model and advertised heavily with the subliminal message that this year’s model was now out of date. This cynical practice, known as ‘planned obsolescence’ was devised by GM boss Alfred P. Sloan Jr. as long ago as 1924 in an attempt to boost sales in a market that was becoming saturated. It reached its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s but, thankfully, declined thereafter.

Of course, there are glorious exceptions to the normal model replacement cycle, cars such as the Citroën 2CV and Volkswagen Type 1 (Beetle) that maintained the same basic design for 42 and 65 years respectively. In the case of the Type 1, the first and last examples shared virtually no common parts(2) but they maintained the same mechanical layout and were instantly recognisable as Beetles.

Today, however, the focus of our attention is neither of the above, but the Volvo 100/200 series, a car that remained in production for 27 years, during which time it earned a well justified reputation as a sturdy, safe and reliable family car that, in estate form, was hugely capacious and practical.

Production began in late 1966 for the 1967 model year. Volvo introduced a new system of model designation and the first variant, a four-door saloon, was called the 144. The one represented the model series, the first four was the number of cylinders in the engine powering the car, and the second four was the number of doors.

Image: bestsellingcarsblog.com

The 144 was a large square-rigged saloon with a six-light DLO and a prominent shoulder-line that underscored its sturdy build. It was styled by Jan Wilsgaard, Volvo’s Chief Designer who had joined the company in 1950 as a graduate of the Gothenburg School of Applied Arts and would remain there until his retirement in 1990. The styling was quite different to the curvaceous 1950s style of its predecessor, the Volvo 120 ‘Amazon’. It was clean and handsome, devoid of any fussy ornamentation, and would prove to be remarkably timeless in its appeal. The 144 sat on a 2,604mm (102½”) wheelbase and was 4,651mm (183”) long.

The mechanical layout was conventional, with a longitudinally-mounted four-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels through a four-speed manual gearbox. The 1,778cc ‘B18’ engine was carried over from the 120, where it had earned a reputation for reliability and durability. It was a cam-in-block overhead-valve design with a five-bearing crankshaft. In the 144, it was offered in both single and twin-carburettor forms, the former with a compression ratio of 8.7:1 and the latter with 10.0:1. The former produced maximum power of 74bhp (55kW), while the latter produced maximum power of 99bhp (74kW). Models fitted with the high-compression twin-carburettor engine carried an ‘S’ suffix.

Image: drive2.com

The 144 was followed later in 1967 by the 142 two-door saloon and, a year later, by the 145 estate, the model that would become the definitive Volvo for a generation of drivers who valued its space and versatility. A near-vertical tailgate gave it enormous carrying capacity, while a low sill and wide opening facilitated by slim vertical tail lights made loading and unloading as easy as possible.

To many eyes, including your author’s, the estate was the most handsome variant, looking as though it might have been designed first. That said, it carried one minor design compromise: it retained the saloon’s rear doors, so needed fillets above their falling window line to accommodate its extended horizontal roof-line.

Car Magazine journalists travelled to Sweden to visit Volvo’s new factory outside Gothenburg and test-drive the car, reporting their findings in the August 1968 issue of the magazine(3). On the assembly line, the reviewers were impressed by what they perceived to be the over-engineering of the 144 body shell and the car’s component set, to which they attributed Volvo’s reputation for longevity. On the test drive, they described it as “an extremely commodious four-door family saloon, pedestrian in its outside styling and rather severely functional inside in a way that we happen to like. The doors open wide and shut with a solid thump [and] the boot is simply vast.”

The engine was described as “an ancient four-banger” and they opined that the extra size and weight of the 144 over its predecessor “have finally proved a match for the bhp provided and nobody could call the present example a fast mover.” They did, however, acknowledge that “thoughtful gearing means that it is never embarrassed” and quoted the top speed at “a shade over 90mph” (145km/h) and a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 12.4 seconds, which don’t seem at all shabby by the standards of the day.

Image: erclassics.com

Handling was described as “predictable and safe” but “driven aggressively, it soon runs out of roadholding at the back.” Ride quality (on studded winter tyres) was described as poor and the reviewers were “distressed by the suspension’s performance on any but really good surfaces” and the accompanying high level of road noise. The steering “feels dead and lacks accuracy, although is light enough at all times except parking speeds.”

Controls were “precise but lacking in subtlety”, meaning they had long, positive if heavy movements. However, “everything is foolproof” and shows “evidence of careful thought and attention to detail in their planning.” The seats were praised as “big, comfy [and] anatomical.”

Back at the factory, a conversation with the (unnamed) Chief Development Engineer revealed that the major priorities for the car were reliability and durability, qualities highly valued in both Volvo’s domestic market and in the United States, the company’s biggest export market. The reviewers seemed reluctant to appreciate this, but still had to acknowledge that customers “will continue to buy a Volvo because it is a Volvo – because it is big and strong and long-lasting and reliable and easy to service,” a statement of fact, however grudgingly offered.

In 1969, the B18 engine was superseded by the B20, which had an enlarged capacity of 1,986cc, achieved by increasing the bore size by about 5mm but leaving the stroke unchanged. The enlarged engine was only a little more powerful, but produced usefully greater torque. The dynamo was also replaced by a more efficient alternator at this point.

Image: classiccars.com

Car Magazine returned to Gothenburg in the same year, this time to test the 145 estate with the enlarged engine fitted, and the review was published in the March 1969 issue. This time, the reviewer seemed better disposed to appreciate the Volvo’s qualities. He was complimentary about the “practical features [that] abound. The rearmost panes of the side windows open to give through-ventilation. The rear door is as wide and as high as the load area [and] neat little pneumatic accumulators allow it to be positioned as a rain shield during load or else flung wide open as required. The rear seat is firmly locked in position and has a release handle at either side, cunningly arranged so that either handle can release both catches.”

The reviewer also approved of the rear wash/wipe, quite a novelty in 1969, and clever storage of the spare wheel and toolkit, tucked into the spaces behind the rear wheel arch so they did not intrude into the load space. In summary, he described the 145 as “an efficient and well-planned workhorse [that] looks to us like a sound investment.” The penny had dropped and Car Magazine properly understood what made the Volvo so appealing to many British motorists.

The story of the Volvo 100/200 series continues shortly in Part Two of this series.

(1) Since new models are rarely if ever cheaper than those they replace, the financial benefits of this accrue mainly to the manufacturer, although they might benefit the customer in allowing a higher level of standard equipment to be provided at the same price point.

(2) According to some sources, the only interchangeable part was a single electrical connector.

(3) Bizarrely, the review began with some spectacularly offensive and insulting comments about Sweden and its people, the sort of thing that would get a journalist fired on the spot today, and which I’ve no intention of repeating here.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

41 thoughts on “Swedish Iron (Part One)”

  1. These Volvos had an interesting shift in focus during their model life.
    The hump backed PV and the Amazon were seen as having a definitely sporty bias and the same applied to the initial 1xx. I remember well a dentist living a couple of houses away from my prents who had an early mustard yellow 142S with roll cage and separate rev counter (the speedo was a strip affair) and Halda Tripmaster. I did never find out which rallys he competed in because I didn’t want to wake his professional interest…
    Only later when these cars got ever bigger bumpers the focus shifted more to passive safety, presumably because they simply didn’t have the money to keep up with the likes of BMW. At least Mercedes took Volvo dead serious as a competitor.

  2. Under the surface, the 140 seems to be largely a carry-over from the 1956 Amazon.

    The Amazon was one of the great triptych of mid ’50s premium mid-sized saloons, along with the Peugeot 403 and Borgward Isabella. All had their particular merits, I’d contend the Peugeot was the best for the all-round thoroughness of its design. Only two progressed to future generations, again Peugeot did it better.

    From a casual look at some parts diagrams, the Amazon and 140 front and rear suspensions appear near-identical, with only minor variations such as the rear shock absorber locations. The Amazon was advanced for its time, with coil springs all round and a four-link arrangement with a Panhard Rod at the rear. By 1966 independent rear suspension was becoming commonplace among the Volvo’s competitors. Volvo took another three decades to catch up.

    The ‘chassis’ dimensions of the 144 and Amazon are very close – same wheelbase and the newer car’s tracks are only 26mm wider. However the 144 body is 107mm wider, and 200mm longer, and it does have the look of a car too big for its chassis. The upside is that the 140/240 were remarkably manoeuvrable for their size. Excellent visibility helped too.

    1. Volvo’s reason for sticking with ox cart rear axles was that these always kept the rear wheels perpendicular to the road surface, improving traction in wintery conditions.
      A similar reason was given for the strange rear suspension of the much later FWD 850.

  3. Daniel. The original 144 saloon looks well, but with your critical eye for details, I’m surprised you can forgive that fillet over the rear window enough to call the Estate handsome. More important though is that it underlines that the Estate was built on the same modest wheelbase as the saloon which would have made it even more of a disappointing drive, especially with the requisite load of antiques onboard. Peugeot’s 504 was a direct contemporary and competitor and was a far nicer drive, as well as being a more thoroughly engineered design – the estate had an extended wheelbase and a bespoke rear suspension.

    Dave’s suggestion that Volvo used passive safety as its USP as the car got older is interesting. Of course Volvo had always been pretty responsible in that regard, but maybe what I saw as being the ham-fisted transformation of a good looking design into the tank-like 200 Series was intentional. The 200 series were certainly noteworthy for attracting more than their fair share of the sort of dissociated-passive drivers who probably assumed that a collision would be an inevitable part of their ownership experience.

    1. Themore sports oriented character of the Amazon didn’t prevent Volvo from introducing seat belts or head rests and these extras didn’t harm the essential character of the cars.
      Your suggestion of a possible world perspective of later Volvo owners is interesting. When the main purpose of a car is to have accidents in it then you drive in a way to make sure you have accidents because otherwise you wouldn’t use the car as intended and you cause accidents by trying to avoid them.

  4. Thank you for write up.

    Looking forward for next installation of educational series.

    As a past operator/owner of 1972 164, 1974 164, 1974 144E Final Edition, 760GLE, 740 Intercooler Turbo, and present upkeeper of 1995 940 Turbo given at no cost to me, certainly DTW brightens my day

    1. Hello Faisal and thank you for your kind words. That’s an impressive history of Volvo ownership! We’ll be covering the 164 in Part Two of this series and there’s a follow-up series in the pipeline covering the a 700/900 series, which will be published early in 2023.

  5. Sadly, the 144 marked the spot where I lost interest in Volvos. I was sad when Saab died, but whatever happens to the Volvo brand doesn’t bother me at all.

    1. Volvos never were my kettle of fish but they had some qualities that made it understandable why people bought them. One of them was the fantastic heater, something an old Alfa owner alway missed and the other their incredible durability. These cars lasted a long time and a sometimes incredible number of miles.

      Over the years I had the opportunity to drive quite some of these Volvos. I remember a 164E as a true Viking express, a 245 turbo with black stripes around the side windows that went like stink and a 244 that had a collision with a Golf Mk1 (not with me at the helm). The Golf was a write-off and nearly the only damage to the Volvo was scratched rubber on its enormous front bumper.

    2. As I´ve said a few times here, a 1984 Volvo 240GLE was by far the best car my dad ever drove. That car demonstrated a lot of excellent qualities that exemplify Volvo and you can see a lot of it in their current large cars though the ludicrous layers of luxury (the market demands this nonsense) gets in the way. It might be just me but I don´t find luxury in cars is luxurious. The Volvo 240 had comfort which matters way more. And it married that to utility and well-considered assembly methods. The dark blue plastic did the job and the blue striped velour seat simply excellent. In many ways this tough, comfortable utility is what I have in the 406 I drive. I had a look at the interiors of some recent middle-market offering and, yes, the materials look nice (Mazda is the leader here) but I´d be happy to live without all that stuff if it only promised to resist wear and tear and weihed a hell of a lot less. That practical, comfortable utility of the Volvo is based on values a long way from where we are today, alas.

    3. It’s true that when I said above that the Peugeot 504 was better engineered, I was not saying that it was better built. The one I had knowledge of would have been built in Sochaux and, although quite robust, a 144 would likely have felt more solid. I do wonder if that particular 504 would have been as durable as the 504s assembled or built in Africa and other markets that had, or still have, such long lives.

  6. Dave,
    Once I read a different explanation for the ‘security issue ‘ becoming Volvo and SAAB’s ‘core business ‘:

    According to what I read, Sweden had around mid 60’s one of the highest rodoviary accident rate on (Europe? The world?)

    So, Volvo and SAAB’s R&D on passive safety were genuinely driven by that issue.

    1. They also had the highest rate of free-ranging elk, which ruins any statistics.

    2. The roads in Sweden, outside of cities, are apparently quite challenging. I believe Saab focused on active safety rather than passive, engineering their cars to keep the driver out of trouble.

  7. Perhaps that puts the elk as the single most efective purveyor of passive safety features development on automobiles!

  8. Volvo’s never were my cup of tea, apart from maybe the P1800ES and 480. Even as a toddler I noticed the estate used the same doors as the saloon, something which OCD me can’t deal with.

    Back in ’94 or ’95 one of my friends had a 240 as his first car. He ran the rear tires with double the amount of pressure, so he could take corners sideways at low speeds. Irresponsible, I know, but it made a lasting memory.

    1. Taking corners sideways at low speeds is the most responsible way of taking corners sideways 🤭

    2. That in itself is true, but I don’t think you should take corners sideways in the congested area where he lived 😉

  9. Hi Daniel! I’m old enough to remember the time when Volvo’s 100/200 series were around. I remember being ambivalent towards them; they certainly looked solid and strong, but they lacked the flair of the Mercedes W114/115 and W123. They were relatively rare, mind you – especially in estate form, a form factor woefully unpopular among Greeks. I’ve only ever been driven in one of these cars once, a 240DL estate. It was owned by a former rector of my alma mater, who had imported it back from the United States, and he offered me a ride home from campus when my own car needed some repair work. The impression I got was it was a car for people who don’t like cars. Lots of room, but little else beyond that.

    Fun fact: the 264 served – in small numbers – as a patrol car with the infamous Greek gendarmerie:

    1. One other point of view might be that it was a car for people who viewed a car as a tool, rather than a car for people who viewed a car as an appliance…

  10. Good evening all and thanks for your comments. I’ve only once been a passenger in a Volvo 100/200 and have never driven one. My impression was that the suspension seemed a bit noisy and agricultural on the bumpy country roads on which we were travelling, but the seats were very comfortable and the car felt strong and, subliminally, safe.

    They were certainly the antithesis of, for example, BMW in that they were no driver’s car and, as Konstantinos says, were often chosen by people who were at least ambivalent if not antipathetic about driving. Such drivers sometimes displayed a rather arrogant “I drive a Volvo, ergo I am a safe driver.” attitude. That’s absolutely not a generalisation about Volvo drivers, most of whom are, I’m sure, courteous and considerate at all times. 😁

    By the way, my partner and I are moving house (and country) in a fortnight so, while my DTW pieces already in the pipeline will continue to be published, my below-the-line comments (and replies to yours) are likely to be a bit erratic, so I hope you won’t think I’m ignoring you!

    1. To Ireland, Charles. We are moving to a town called Cobh on the south coast, to the east of Cork city. Cobh (pronounced ‘Cove’) is most famous as the last port of call of the Titanic before her fateful transatlantic voyage. We’re very much looking forward to our new Irish adventure. From a DTW perspective, I’m sure it will provide new inspiration for future pieces!

    2. Gosh, back to the old country… any particular reason (that you’d like to share)? As I understand it, you’ve been gone a long time. In any case, I hope you enjoy your new domicile!

      More on topic: tantalising piece, so much more to come. When I came of (car appreciating) age, the 200 series was in full swing as the vehicle of choice of self-proclaimed “practical” people who disdained any kind of “image” (and revelled in that image…). The 100 series seems less burdened by that, if only because it’s a nicely balanced design – even if it isn’t particularly handsome – much more so than the 200. That said, the black window pillars on the later 200 series work well on the estate, I think.

      I’m sure they’ll come up in the series, but even Bertone couldn’t make it into a looker with its coupé, and the racing models were hilarious. Its Dutch-developed smaller brother, the 300 series wasn’t any more handsome and slightly less balanced to my eyes, with it’s woefully underwheeled stance.

      Of course, in the case of Saab and Volvo (and some other small manufacturers) the longevity of their models had as much to do with a lack of funds to develop fully new models, as with conscious planning. Saab only got round to it under GM ownership (and we know how that went), Volvo just took a long time to scrape the funds together, but rather knocked it out the park with the 850.

    3. I’ve had a look on Wikipedia and it looks lovely – I must say that I’d love to live by the coast.

    4. Good luck with the move. I hope you and your partner will be happy in your new home.

    5. Daniel, the 240 experience was the same for me. It felt agricultural and strong. It’s only redeeming feature to me were indeed the seats.

    6. Considering the PV and Amazon were defnitely seen as driver’s cars and the early 14xs were, too, it’s interesting that the late 2xx were cars for people who wanted to show the world they didn’t care about cars.
      Did the competition move on so much? BMW moved from Neue Klasse to E34 during the lifespan of the Volvo, Mercedes moved from Fintail to W124 and Audi moved from nothing to something acceptable. Peugeot moved from 404 to what exactly?
      At least Mercedes marketing alway saw the big Volvos as a true competitor to their stuff. I remember the father of a friend who wanted to replace his W123 and test drove a Volvo two-something. He was shocked by the lack of build quality and the agricultural character of the Volvo.

    7. Great news Daniel – once the Macroom bypass is finished you will have easy access to The Kingdom !

    8. Cobh should certainly provide you with facilities to conduct parking brake tests…

    9. Good morning Mervyn and Michael. Yes, Cobh’s steep hills will come was a bit of a shock after East Anglia. After our first trip to see our new house and explore the town, my calf and thigh muscles ached for days!

  11. Thanks for the write up, Daniel. I have a soft spot for the 145 as it’s the vehicle in which I learned to use a stick shift (not long after I got my licence at the ripe age of 16). And by stick, of course, I mean the almost 2 foot long lever that the early 140s had, replaced in ’72 or ’73 I think, by a more normal lever. I’m pretty positive that if I drove one today, I’d find it slow and stodgy but the estate’s practicality and utilitarian style still appeals and I think I’d have a blast in spite of the stodginess. The 140/240s were very common sights here in Canada (where, in fact, they were assembled) until recently but they all seemed to have vanished in the last decade, sadly.

  12. Another great series, if part one and the responses are anything to judge by. Thank you once again, Daniel. I’ve owned two 145s in my time – both bought very second hand. The first, in an apologetic shade of yellow, was bought at about 10 years old and replaced a Renault 6. It served us well for a few years as a do anything vehicle; as others have already noted, it was an ideal tool for many jobs. Both front wings rotted – I replaced them with fibre-glass items – but apart from fuel, road tax and an annual service it cost nothing to run.

    The second 145 was blue and 17 years old when we bought it (from a farmer). Having just moved into a 250-year old property in need of renovation we needed a cheap van as a general workhorse. Bedford HA vans had all rotted beyond redemption and Escorts were grossly over-priced; the Volvo cost £250 with 12 months MoT and was the obvious choice. Despite a slipping clutch it did everything we asked of it, including transporting multiple 15-foot lengths of timber joists on the heavy-duty ladder rack. Eventually it was sold for spares to an enthusiastic collector of 140-series Volvos.

    I know I’ve used the phrase on more than one occasion, but the whole point about machines like these is that they were entirely fit for purpose. Not perfect by any means and certainly never intended to be gloriously exciting to drive. But neither were they in any way unpleasant to drive and in the inevitable compromises necessary to be rugged, reliable, attractive & accommodating, they were a great success. IMHO. Roll on part two!

    1. Hello Peter and John, and thank you for your kind words. Likewise, I have a soft spot for the Volvo 100/200, especially the early 100s and the 200s with the sleeker front end. I’m pass on the ‘snowplough’ early 200 models though!

      Speaking of working vehicles, I’m thinking about buying an old van when we get to Ireland as we will be undertaking some refurbishment on our new house and neither of our cars are the most practical of load-luggers. If I do so, my new drive will undoubtedly feature on DTW in due course!

    2. A Citroën Berlingo would seem to be the goto choice these days! Or if you need something bigger I’m sure you can find a Renault Trafic. We’ll look forward to reading about your motorised adventures. Best of luck with the renovations either way…

  13. Agricultural though they often were I think the big Volvos always had the real engineering and build quality that Mercedes owners believe their cars to have. W124s have issues with rust, dissolving wiring looms, and head gaskets but 700 and 900 series Volvos just go forever with the odd alternator or starter motor required every 200,000 miles or so.

    The quality of rust protection alone elevates them far, far over the massively overrated W124.

  14. Daniel – how about an old Toyota pick-up? I can imagine buying one and never selling it. I thought of it, as my next door neighbours are having some building work done and I’ve really come to appreciating why pick-ups are so useful.


  15. Good morning Michael and Charles. Having previously owned a pick-up (a Ford Ranger) for a number of years, they are indeed very useful, but have the major disadvantage that whatever you’re carrying is insecure. You can fit a lockable tool chest behind the cab, but that robs you of space in the load bay. The other issue is weather: trying to keep materials dry can be a pain and, apparently, it occasionally rains in Co. Cork. 😁

    An old van with a decent service history, even one with very high mileage (kilometrage in Ireland? 🤔) should fit the bill nicely. I’m not wedded to any make, or even size, so I’ll just see what’s out there when we get settled.

    1. The list of available diesel engines Volvo could have bought in wasn’t too long.
      Perkins or VM as traditional engine suppliers had offerings that were agricultural and slow.
      Think of a Giulia Diesel with Perkins engine and all of 49 PS.
      Peugeot diesels sold to Ford weren’t too convincing.
      The VW diesel used by Volvo was from the LT light truck where it had all of 75 PS. In the Volvo it was even more powerful at 82 PS which gave it enough acceleration to compete with a shifting dune.

    2. Found it a bit strange Alfa Romeo claimed a slightly higher 54 hp output for their Giulia Diesel, when other 4.108 Perkins powered cars were typically rated at 49 hp? One can only imagine the pace of the 49 hp 140 Perkins prototype against the petrol 75 hp 140 1.8.

      Would the 2.1 Douvrin diesel have been similarly less convincing for the 200, 700 and 900 as the Peugeot diesels supplied to Ford?

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