By Stuart Grant with photography by Etienne Fouche
Estate, variant or station wagon. Call it what you like but there is no denying that even in today’s SUV-crazed society this original long-roof, big-booted sedan body style trumps in the family car/workhorse practicality department. When talking of this format there is one name that climbs to the top of the pile the world over…Volvo. Wegot to work and play in a pristine 63-year-old example of the wagon that started the trend for the firm, a 1957 PV445 Duett.
With the 1947 arrival of the 4-seater 2-door PV444 which evolved into the PV544 that we South Africans affectionately refer to as the ‘Beetle-back’, Volvo made its mark on the global sedan car market. While the sales of these impressed it was felt that the addition of a small commercial offering was needed to gain a larger footprint for the brand. Thoughts of converting the PV444 into a wagon crossed the planning table but the advanced-for-the-time monocoque construction meant that this was easier said than done. The solution saw Volvo go backwards on the technology timeline and put together a traditional chassis to which a body could be bolted.
The first of these chassis left the production line in 1949, destined for various coachbuilders who would then clothe them in a PV444-esque bodywork in either pickup, panel van or station wagon format. Enter the PV445.
445 power, 40 horses of it, came via a the PV444 1.4-litre overhead valve 4-cylinder petrol but thanks to a low gear 3-speed manual gearbox, acceleration was good even when loaded with a few more kilograms than the recommended 500kg payload – this carrying capacity made possible by the use of a pair of heavy-duty semi-elliptical leaf springs rather than the PV444’s coil spring setup. With sparse interiors the early 445s were favoured by small business rather than families but their ruggedness and reliability ensured they sold well initially.
It was this durability that caused some head-scratching at head office, though. Reason for the consternation was that Volvo thought a few years of hard labour would see buyers returning to purchase a replacement workhorse, but instead the unbreakable character meant this did not happen and by 1952 Volvo had a stockpile of 1 500 chassis parked in the yard. For Volvo President Assar Gabrielsson this was simply not on and he issued the order to cut out the middle man and build an in-house van and wagon using these completed underpinnings.
Engineer Erik Skoog and a small team jumped into action and designed a body equally suited to carrying cargo or people. Tooling was ordered and 15 months later, on 4 July 1953, the first 445 Duett was delivered to an eager customer, Mr Gabrielsson himself. ‘Duett’ referred to the dual-purpose capabilities of load and people carrying, which meant owners could use it for work in the week and leisure activities on the weekend. With the option of rear side-windows or not the Duett became an instant hit and soldiered on until it was given a refresh and the model name changed to 210 in 1960. The main differences between the 445 Duett and the PV210 being a one-piece windscreen instead of a split item and a fourth cog being added to the 3-speed box. Two years into 210 production, the B16 engine was swapped out for a B18 1.8-litre motor and despite Volvo having already launched the latest generation 122 (Amazon) wagon in 1962, the popularity of the PV445 saw it continue alongside the more sophisticated 122 until 1969, when strict new crash tests were implemented in Sweden. But who can blame the 445; after all it was essentially a 1940s design. 97 000 factory-built PV445s left the plant and its demise signalled the end of all chassis and separate body construction for Volvo.
Although more refined and selling a decent 73 000 units, the 122 wagon didn’t quite gain the status and following that the Duett did and it too stopped being manufactured in 1969. Volvo then took a dramatic turn in appearance with designers seemingly able to only draw right angles on the 140 Series. The new boxy look worked though, with the 144 sedan and 145 wagon selling well. This tendency carried on well into the 1990s with only one slight deviation coming in 1972 with the curvaceous P1800S. Perhaps not as utilitarian as the 445, 122 or 145 wagons, the Pelle Petterson-designed P1800ES must take the rank in the top three of all-time most beautiful wagons being based off the P1800 Coupé and although production only ran for two years, it formed the basis for Volvo design in recent times.
Before getting back to the 445 Duett at hand there is one more model that must be mentioned in any Volvo wagon story, the 850 T-5R. With the aim of taking on the //M and AMG performance arms at BMW and Mercedes, Volvo collaborated with Porsche. The result came in both saloon and wagon format where a turbocharged 5-cylinder engine delivered 243hp through the front wheels. With some trick body kit and reworked suspension and gearbox the T-5R was good for a zero to 100km/h sprint in 5.8 seconds. 850 wagons even hit the track when Tom Walkinshaw Racing prepared a pair for the 1995 British Touring Car Championship with Rickard Rydell and Jan Lammers at the wheel. Although only finishing 8th in the Manufacturers’ Championship, the sight of these unlikely looking race cars proved a marketing success for the brand.
But back to the pictured 445. Only a handful of Duetts are known to exist in South Africa. There might have been more back in the day but their hardworking ethic probably meant they were somewhat abused and although gallant fighters, eventually ended up on the scrap heap. A tendency to rust well could also be the reason for the scarcity. So it is remarkable to see one in such unbelievable condition as this 1957 version at Volvo dealers Tom Campher Motors.
Gerard Campher purchased the car from the proprietors of Maizey Plastic around 18 years ago – the Maizey family being the second owners and having enjoyed many years of work/play with it. Although well used, the condition was surprisingly good and thanks to covered parking and the Highveld conditions the body was completely free of any rust but did have some hail damage. It took the Camphers three years to collect the car after paying for it but once back Gerard began a full restoration in their Johannesburg-based workshop.
The body was removed from the chassis and every part given the once over. Where the original was in a standard high enough to reuse, new parts were shipped in from Volvo Sweden. Yes, that is correct, Volvo still stock new parts for these – and any other classic Volvo for that matter. The result is a factory-fresh walk back in time with even the likes of the moulded rubber floor covering being brand spanking new. The seat upholstery looks new too, but these are in fact the originals, with only a small panel replacement job being done where the sun had taken its toll – unbelievably the exact fabric was sourced locally from Clive’s Auto Trimmers.
Job completed, Gerard and the 445 scooped top honours in the 2009 Volvo Club Concours just after completion. For 2010 and 2011 he entered a different car but returned in 2012 to take the win again. He stayed true to his word of not entering the car for a further five years until 2017, when he once again engraved his name on the trophy.
Another accolade was top of class in the 2017 Concours South Africa event at Sun City but this doesn’t mean the Duett is a trailer queen. It can often be seen on car runs and is always ready for a drive. I requested the use of it for a photo shoot and was able to take it immediately, without any battery charging or preparation needed.
A crank of the key and stab of the accelerator saw it fire up immediately as the single Zenith carburettor mixed the fuel and air needed by the 1582cc B16 engine. It gently ticked over without any fuss as I let it warm up and acquainted myself with the indicators, wing-mounted mirror location and seating position. Good to go I pushed the clutch in, selected a gear and released the pedal to ease forward out the showroom. Only I went backwards. Aha, it’s a 3-speed with first in the downward position.
With this figured out, we loaded the photography gear into the rear wood-lined ‘van’ section and our snapper Etienne Fouche climbed into the rear seat area to catch an over-the-shoulder driver-in-action shot. There you have it, Etienne was working and I was playing. A true multi-functional machine.
Complete the form below to subscribe to the Classic Car Africa mailing list.