For decades, Volvo was the world's leading maker of station wagons and a stoic defender of the segment. Yesterday, we broke the news that the Swedes are finally throwing in the towel on our shores. Today, we mourn and reminisce.
Contrary to popular belief, the origins of the Volvo wagon do not lie in its oft-mocked owner base. The Swedish five-door didn't spring forth fully formed from the dreams of some Berkeley hippie, nor did it arise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of a burned-out Earth Shoe. The Volvo wagon stands alone. And it almost didn't happen.
If corporate lore is to be believed, the Volvo wagon was born through an accounting error. In 1953, the company discovered an extra stash of parts for its much-loved PV444 sedan. Lacking a better idea, the Swedes decided to go after the utility market. The sedan's rugged unibody was ditched in favor of body-on-frame construction, the better to cater to commercial customers; the coil springs in its rear suspension were replaced with a leaf setup for the same reason. The model's name, Duett, was intended to represent the duality of its purpose — it could serve as both delivery vehicle and practical sedan.
In July of that year, the first Duett rolled off the assembly line in Gothenburg, Sweden. It looked like a late-1940s Ford and drove like the truck that it was, but no one cared. Sales built slowly, if steadily. Coachbuilders capitalized on the Duett's separate-frame construction, building all manner of weird specials as well as more conventional pickups and convertibles. More than a few Duetts found their way to the United States, where the Volvo brand was just beginning to put down roots.
The five decades that followed saw an enormous amount of evolution. The Volvo wagon grew from a commercial vehicle into a family car, a status symbol, and a cultural cliche. It came to represent both your next door neighbor and Soccer Moms Anonymous, and it was arguably the best — if not always the brightest or most thrilling — answer to the family-car question. When the minivan and SUV crazes took the United States by storm, shrinking the wagon segment to a fraction of its earlier size, Volvo stoically held the line. As other manufacturers abandoned the five-door altogether, Gothenburg persevered, evolving its creation even further. North American sales ebbed, but Gothenburg was always there, always cranking out wagons, always thinking.
Until now. We discovered yesterday that Volvo plans to kill the American version of the V70, its mid-size wagon, at the end of this year, its role filled by the XC-series SUVs. (The European/rest-of-world V70 will continue.) Volvo insiders claim that the company is "very seriously considering" doing the same thing with the V50, its S40-based wagon. It's time to take a look back.
Volvo PV445/P210 "Duett" (1953 - 1969)
Forty-four horsepower at birth and the aesthetics of a brick outhouse: The Volvo PV445 and P210 wagon was nothing if not sexy. It was born into a wagon-mad world, an age where the station wagon was the fastest-growing sector of the automotive market. Duetts didn't so much drive down the road as amble, trundle, gallumph, but they charmed all the same. Over 90,000 were sold over the course of production, and the model lasted four years longer than the sedan that it was based upon.
Volvo P220/Amazon (1962 - 1969)
The Amazon wagon was Volvo's first true wagon; it was also the first Volvo five-door to offer all the roadholding and charm of its four-door sibling. Unlike its predecessor, the Amazon boasted unitary construction and a decent turn of speed. It also looked like, you know, a car. 73,000 were sold, a good percentage of that number in America.
Volvo 145 (1967 - 1974)
The 145 marked the appearance of what would be Gothenburg's most long-lasting basic design. Cues introduced on the '67 145 were carried through to the last 240-series wagons in the mid-1990s; the basic shape is still what people around the world think of when you say the word "Volvo." The 145 wagon was nearly identical to the 144 sedan from a technical standpoint, boasting only extended bodywork and reinforced rear suspension.
Volvo 245/265 (1974 - 1993)
The legendary 245, introduced alongside the 244 sedan, heralded Volvo's domination of the wagon segment. The '75 265 was Volvo's first luxury wagon, offering more features than many sedans of the time. The 245 Turbo was the first turbocharged wagon sold in America. Over 1 million 245 and 265 models were sold. Absolutely delectable in creamy brown. Ask our Matt Hardigree. He owns one. (Yours truly grew up in two of them, in addition to a host of other things.)
Volvo 740/760, 940/960, V90 (1985 - 1998)
Volvo wagon as sybaritic and wholly modern luxury car. Hefty, rear-wheel-drive, and comfortable, the 700- and 900-series wagons were essentially an evolution of the 265 philosophy. Fun, boxy, fast, boxy, and fun. More right angles than a box full of right angles. Over 675,000 were built.
Volvo 850 (1993 - 1996)
The first front-drive Volvo wagon was also the first one imbued with a healthy dose of whoop-ass. As a friend of ours once put it, the five-cylinder 850 was "an Audi 5000 where everything works," a car that embodied everything good about the modern Swedish wagon. Turbocharged versions flat-out moved, and a factory-sponsored British Touring Car effort showed the world that five-doors could dance. This was arguably the peak.
Volvo V40/V50 (1995 - 2011)
The V40 — the V stood for "versatility" — was essentially a longer, fatter version of the first-generation S40 sedan. Like the sedan, it was built on a platform shared with the European-market Mitsubishi Carisma. It was thoroughly competent but forgettable in every way. The second-generation car, introduced in 2003, was inoffensive and capable but largely uninspiring. Let's move on.
Volvo V70 (1996 - 2011)
The first V70 (the second-generation version is shown here) was little more than facelifted and warmed-over 850, a product of Ford's drive to improve the brand while simultaneously cutting costs. The corporate line held that it "expanded on the 850 in every possible way," and Volvo made much of the claimed 1800 differences between the two models. The next V70, built on the company's new large-car platform, followed in 2000. The current model, launchedin 2007, is based on the S80's platform.
That, as the saying goes, is that. These are the Volvo wagons we've been privileged to know. For once, we find ourselves speechless — an America without a new Volvo wagon is an America with a hole in its middle, and we're not quite sure where to go from here.
In times like these, for reasons we don't quite understand, our thoughts turn to film. We are reminded of that paragon of schmaltz, the Oscar-winning 1970 film Love Story:
"What can you say about a fifty-seven-year-old wagon who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved way-backs and utility, furniture-hauling, and me?
What can you say? We say "hejdå, brick tailgate," and "rest in peace." We loved you, and while the world marches on, love means never having to say "My wagon ain't Swedish."
ADDENDUM: No matter what anyone says, we do not count the XC70 as a wagon. We're talking traditional European wagons here, folks. Fat-fendered pseudo-off-roaders with tall springs don't qualify, even if they're based on a trad five-door. Stop asking.
Sources: Volvo, Ford Motor Company