Swedish Iron (Part Two)

Continuing the story of Volvo’s long-running 100/200 series.

Image: Veikl

In July 1968, Volvo unveiled its new range-topping 164 saloon, based on the 144. As the model designation implies, the 164 featured a six-cylinder engine, making it the first Volvo for twenty years so powered. The new B30 engine was simply an six-cylinder version of the B20 inline-four and shared many common parts. It had a capacity of 2,979cc and, fitted with twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors, it produced maximum power of 145bhp (108kW).

The engine was mated to a four-speed manual gearbox or three-speed Borg-Warner automatic transmission. An overdrive, which operated on top gear only, was an option with the manual gearbox. From the A-pillar rearwards, the 164’s body was identical to that of the 144. However, the longer engine required a 96mm (3¾”) extension in the wheelbase to 2,700mm (106¼”) while the overall length grew by 63mm (2½”) to 4,651mm (183”).

Volvo took the opportunity to introduce a taller and more stately, if perhaps less modern looking(1) front end, again designed by Jan Wilsgaard. There was a large square-ish chrome front grille with a raised bonnet and lowered central section of the bumper to accommodate it. The headlamps were mounted higher and further outboard on the front wings, with additional driving lamps sitting diagonally inboard. The indicator / sidelamp units sat a little incongruously atop the front bumper beneath the headlamps.

Image: rfhclassics.co.uk

The new front end blended well into the rest of the bodywork and certainly gave the 164 more presence. Perhaps surprisingly, Volvo never offered an estate or two-door saloon version of the six-cylinder model.

Inside, the 164 featured deeply upholstered leather seats but was otherwise quite similar to its more austere 144 sibling. The wood trim on the dashboard was simulated, not real, so the overall effect fell some way short of, for example, the Jaguar XJ6 and Mercedes-Benz W108 250S against which the 164 was nominally pitched.

Car Magazine drove the new 164 and reported its findings in the July 1970 issue. The reviewer was less than impressed with the car’s appearance, describing it as having “plain and heavy styling with little distinguishing character” notwithstanding the fact that “at first glance, it even looks like a Bentley or Rolls-Royce.” Things were more positive inside, where “Volvo engineers have gone a long way toward producing a car which is as comfortable to drive as to sit in.” The reviewer also liked the “simple and uncluttered layout of the instruments with a horizontal speedo with a teak-like surround [and] two clusters of knobs which are clearly marked with drawings as to their purpose.”

Image: rfhclassics.co.uk

The reviewer particularly approved of the novel seat-belt system with its fixed-position slots into which the locking buckle fitted. This could be operated with one hand in a single movement. He opined that “The two-belt system we use in Britain is Heath Robinson by comparison.”

Dynamically, the car was impressive: “Driven normally and sedately it is as smooth a car as you will get at the price [and] if you give it the big stick and wind it up through the gears it goes very well indeed.” The reviewer recorded a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of around 10 seconds and a top speed in overdrive of 102mph (165km/h). The steering was “as light as a feather” at low speeds but “on fast cruising it handles beautifully and has plenty of feel.”

In summary, the reviewer described the 164 as “a thoroughly well-engineered car…really strong and robust…properly screwed together and doesn’t rattle anywhere. You can hammer the engine and it doesn’t complain.” As a long-term ownership prospect, “there are few cars which would remain in one piece despite hard usage in the way Volvos do.”

The 164 certainly found a niche for itself amongst Volvo aficionados looking for a step up from the 144 but, perhaps because of its similarity to its cheaper sibling and an interior lacking in superficial luxury trimmings, it never really provided serious competition for Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz.

The Volvo 100 series received a minor update in 1970 with improved ventilation facilitated by new air extraction outlets at the rear. On saloon models, these comprised a row of slim slots beneath the rear window. On the 145 estate, a plastic grille was fitted to the right-hand rear quarter-panel above the petrol filler cap. At the same time, the estate’s two-part rear side window with its opening rear part was replaced by a single, fixed piece of glass.

Image: source unknown

1971 saw the introduction of a new grille on the 140 models. In place of the bright alloy slotted grille with its central divider came a black plastic item, now adorned with Volvo’s ‘Iron Mark’ logo(2) at its centre, bisected by a diagonal strip of bright metal, an arrangement which would become a marque signature and continues to the present day.

Behind the grille sat a new, fuel-injected version of the high-compression B20 engine, fitted with Bosch D-Jetronic electronic fuel injection. This produced maximum power of 122bhp (91kW). Changes in 1972 were limited to flush door handles, some minor tweaks to the dashboard and the fitment of mounting points for two rear seat belts.

1973 brought the only major overhaul of the 100 series. Larger front indicators were now mounted level with and outboard of the headlamps. At the rear of the saloon models, larger horizontal rectangular tail lights replaced the slim upright originals and the number plate was now recessed into the rear panel.

Inside, a much more modern looking padded dashboard featured a hooded cowl in front of the driver containing circular instruments, four eyeball ventilation outlets and a circular clock at its centre, beneath which was a redesigned centre console. Rocker switches replaced the original pull-push items for the minor controls. The new dashboard might to some eyes have looked rather blocky and square, but it suited the styling of the car rather well.

The 164 received similar updates to its interior and rear end. At the front, it featured a shallower grille of a new design, allowing the dip in the centre of the bumper to be eliminated.

Image: media.volvocars.com

In 1974, the 100 series’ final year of production, it received much larger and more protruding bumpers front and rear, similar in appearance to the ‘5mph’ bumpers that had become mandatory in the US the previous year. The European-specification bumpers were, however, designed to resist damage from a maximum 3mph (5km/h) impact.

The opening front quarter windows were deleted and the door mirrors were now mounted on a sail panel in the leading corner of the window frame, rather than on the door skin. The fuel tank was positioned further forward to protect it better from rear-end impacts and the filler cap was now located under a flap just behind the rear wheel arch.

Over its eight-year lifespan, the Volvo 100 series was a strong seller and really sealed Volvo’s reputation as a manufacturer of reliable, durable and, above all, safe cars. A total of 1,251,119 Volvo 100 series cars were produced, broken down as follows:

Model: No. Produced:
144 523,808
142 412,986
145 268,317
164 46,008
Total: 1,251,119

Volvo believed that there was still more life and potential in the basic design, however, and it would be replaced by the 200 series, which was not a new model, but a heavily revised version of its predecessor.

The Volvo 100/200 series story concludes shortly in Part Three.

(1) The front end of the 164 was reminiscent of the 1960 BMC Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre.

(2) Although identical to the symbol for the male gender, it is said by Volvo instead to symbolize (gender-neutral) strength, power, durability and safety. One imagines that gender sensitivities were rather less of an issue back in 1930 when the logo was first introduced.


Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

23 thoughts on “Swedish Iron (Part Two)”

  1. There was one 164 estate made in a Volvo factory, so more accurately, a 165. The MD of Volvo Australia decided he’d like a 165, so two of the CKD kits used to locally manufacture the 145 and 164 were used to make the one-off, which was assembled at the Nissan plant also used by Volvo at Clayton, Victoria. This is why the car was painted a Nissan Kansas Red colour. Although there are other 165s extant, converted by specialists, this is the only ‘factory’ 165 with appropriate VIN. https://www.curbsideclassic.com/uncategorized/the-only-factory-built-volvo-165-in-the-world-part-1/

    1. The 262 started life as a 162. As attested by the prototype in the Volvo museum, somehow that truncated turret works better with the longer nose, IMHO.

  2. Good morning, Daniel. I never realized such a small percentage of the 100 series were 164’s. I never liked the 164 front, but the rest of the car seems really good.

    There was a rather tired looking 164 in my area, but I haven’t seen it for over a year now. I hope it found good home.

    1. For a lifespan of around six years, around 8000 164s per year is good going. It was never intended as a mass-market product, unlike the 140s which had ‘Sweden’s national car’ aspirations.

      The Swedish ‘Vanden Plas’ did rather better than the real thing, of which 19,390 were sold over nine years. ‘Sold’ is probably stretching the meaning of the word in the case of most of the 6687 4 Litre Rs produced.

      The 164E was also damn quick, at least when its 160PS was not sapped by the Old Testament automatic gearbox. Performance was comparable with the XJ6 4.2, Rover 3500, and BMW 2800, something most people wouldn’t have expected of a Volvo.

    2. @Robertas, funilly enough almost all those cars shared the same automatic transmission, the venerable Borg-Warner BW35 that was almost the default choice for anything smaller than American v8’s during the sixties and seventies.

    3. Ingvar – BMC, BLMC, and Jaguar used the BW35 in just about everything, from a Marina 1.3 to an XJ6 4.2 , although the higher power capacity BW65 took its place from the mid-70s, even in the A-series Marina.

      The BMW E3 transmission story is too taxing for my brain at this time of night. Something to do with the ZF 3HP22 either being troublesome, or unfamiliar in the USA.

      To digress to more familiar territory, one of the UK Borgwarders has recently fitted his Isabella Coupe with an ex-Volvo Laycock overdrive, still using the Borgward gearbox. An impressive feat of engineering!

  3. Intetestingly enough, Volvo was the single largest buyer of overdrive units from Laycock de Normanville, more so than any other brand like Rover or Triumph. Why they simply didn’t develop a five speed on their own boggles my mind, but well over a million units were sold to Volvo well in to the nineties. I’ve seen numbers somewhere but I think it was close to half of their entire production went to Volvo throughout the years.

  4. 1,251,000 100-series sold in eight years is a pretty impressive number for a small manufacturer. I read somewhere that Volvo sold “only” 716,000 850- series in six years.

    So the B30 engine lived just six years, replaced by the 2.7 PRV in 1974. It would be interesting to know the logic of this decision (perhaps the prospect of having access to the cancelled PRV V8?)

    1. The only logic I can think of is that the 240 and 260 could share the same bodyshell – no need for the long nose and extended wheelbase. And also that Volvo had to show that they got something in return for their share in the PRV project.

      The V6 should have done better in its Volvo applications, but was surpassed for both performance and durability by the 2.3 litre Redblock fours.

      The B30 continued in small scale production for the C303 family of military vehicles and Penta marine applications until the mid ’80s. An OHC successor with capacities of up to 3.5 litres could have been a nice and useful engine.

    2. Volvo also used the B30 in 8718 C303 AWD offroad/military vehicles and many Volvo Penta AQ 170 stern drive units in addition to it’s main use in the 164. So it’s use wasn’t confined solely to the 164.

    3. Thanks, I didn´t know the B30 had other applications. As always in DTW, I learn something new every day.
      I suppose Volvo was the main affected when the V8 was written off. A “280” for the US market would had been interesting.

  5. I know you’re somewhat pre-occupied at the moment Daniel – but next time you feel in need of a distraction, try removing the diagonal line & badge from the 164’s grille and substitute an oval Wolseley badge centre top which lights up when the ignition is turned on…… and suddenly you will have what should have replaced the 6/110. I bet every police force in the UK would have bought it.

    1. Good morning all and thank you for your comments. As John rightly noted, I’m a bit preoccupied at present, but still enjoying your feedback on the piece.

  6. Am I correct in my recollection that Volvo delayed the introduction of face level ventilation on safety grounds? Concerns that the vents might blow ash from drivers’ cigarettes into their eyes.

  7. A 2.7-litre Six was considered at one time. As for the 200 recall reading on Volvo forums a long while back that a V8 version of the Redblock was said to have been contemplated or schemed in as a possible B30 replacement based on its slant design yet dismissed on grounds of cost and possibly expediency, hence explaining their involvement with the PRV joint-venture in 1971.

    Am fascinated by the apparent similarities between the Volvo B18 with the B-Series as the former was slightly heavier yet about as tuneable if not more potent, as for the B30 is it known what the weight of the Six was?

    Another interesting comparison would be with the Chevrolet 153 / Turbo-Thrift, depending on who one believes John DeLorean was said to have preferred a reliable OHV 4-cylinder like the 153 or B18 to have powered the Vega.

    Other marques could have learned from Volvo on how to develop cars of that size off the same platform (including coupes such as the GTZs and P172) to atomise costs in the upper and sportier sectors instead of building either unfashionable unprofitable and at times underpowered models with a single engine size or models that straddled between segments while appealing to no one.

  8. That late-model 164 in orange looks really good – a very effective facelift that makes the car look modern within its time-context. I’m really enjoying this series about a car in which I’ve never really shown much interest until now. The joys of DTW.

    1. Thank you so very much Daniel for another nice piece, despite your still unsettled new settlement.

      Just to share, once I pushed my 1974 fuel injected 164E to 120mph with five adults comfortably cocooned, legs near vertical, majestically enjoying the scenery outside.

      At legal American interstate highway maximum cruizing speed, I can hear the clock ticking.

      Cabin ventilation is superb. With air-conditioner not turned on, Summertime interstate runs are still pleasant….

    2. Hi S.V. and Faisal. I previously hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to the Volvo 100/200 series, other than being aware of its existence, but it was enjoyable to research and write about and I developed a greater respect for what was a highly practical, durable and unpretentious car. A 164 in a nice colour would definitely have a place in my fantasy classic garage:

      It was actually Eóin’s suggestion that I write about the later 700/900 series that made me look more deeply at its predecessor. The 700/900 will be the subject of a forthcoming series early in 2023.

  9. The version of the PRV ustilised by Volvo had cylinder heads with smaller ports than those used by Renault, AMC & Chrysler and Peugeot. The Peugeot 3-litre was the best of them all*.
    The smaller ports Volvo deployed, particularly on the inlet side, reduced the power output and also reduced the tuning potential.

    *I’m comparing all the sohc 2-valve PRV engine types here. Peugeot also produced a 4-valve cylinder head and WMP had its own 4-valve head for the PRV as well. Of the sohc 2-valve heads for PRV the Peugeot one is the best one for performance.

  10. Ah, the 100-series… I remember when my father owned a first-generation Seat Ibiza 1.2 GL, sometime around 1987-1988. Somebody among his circle of business partners tried to offer him a second- or third-hand Volvo 164. Given Greece’s punitive engine displacement-based taxation system at the time, which determined not only your road tax, but also your income tax, he suspected – rightly, as it turned out – it was not an original example: it was an 144 that was converted to 164 spec with the “τροπέτο” (pronounced “tropéto”) method. This involved cutting taking the front part (compete with engine, gearbox, and front suspension) of the donor vehicle, cut at the middle of the A-pillars and the middle of the front sills, and welding it to the rear (from those points and going aft) of the car that was to be converted. Some of those conversions were declared to our IRS. This one wasn’t, as it turned out. So, he politely declined the offer, and I don’t blame him at all. After all, for all its shortcomings, the Ibiza was a very recent car, which he had brought new, and not a mongrel of dubious provenance and service history.

    1. I had the misfortune to buy a car made of two other cars. I got out of the deal eventually but it was very, very stressful. What a horror.

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