SAFETY FAST

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By Stuart Grant

In September 1944, Volvo presented the PV444 (four-cylinder, four-seater, 40hp) in Stockholm. Although attractively priced, it showed some innovative engineering (the first monocoque Volvo, featuring a new-tech laminated safety-glass windscreen) and was clothed in some stylish American-influenced bodywork. With a shortage of materials following the war, production only started a few years later. The first PV444 was road-registered in February 1947 and sales far exceeded the planned 8 000-unit mark – when production ended in ʼ58, some 200 000 had been sold. Its replacement, the PV544, was a thoroughly reworked car but carried across similar styling, and pundits thought this old-fashioned aesthetic wouldn’t cut it in the sales race. But boy, were they wrong…

The bodyshell of the PV544 model was close to that of the PV444 but the big news was that the car was designated as a five-seater, hence the figure ‘5’ in its name. It featured a large new, one-piece windscreen, the rear windows were wider and deeper and the taillights larger, and the rectangular grille opening at the front had a tight crosshatch pattern. More safety was added with seat belt attachments for the rear seats (the front already had them in the PV444) and a padded dash top. Under-the-hood power – 60 horses of it – came from the B16 1583cc four-cylinder which drove the rear wheels via a three-speed gearbox. The only colour option was black, but this soon changed with the introduction of the Special I and II versions and, with all the different upholstery and colour options, buyers could come up with 100 different combinations.  

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At this stage, a four-speed manual gearbox became the norm and braking performance was improved with lower pedal pressure. The hand brake lever moved to between the seats and indicators were added, as was a revised steering system.

And they went racing and rallying too, continuing the Swedish marque’s impressive competition record by founding an official motorsport division in 1959 under the watch of Arthur Wesselblad, with Gunnar Anderson as the first factory driver. Other names who took to the wheel included Art Riley, Bill Rutan, Jo Bonnier and Tom Trana. And let’s not forget that here in SA the PV544 was a regular race star with the likes of Arnold Chatz, Danny Alderton, Mario Lupini and Bruce Johnstone.

Towards the tail-end of 1961 some more modernising was done to keep the old-styled Volvo selling: the 6-volt electrical system changed to 12V and the B16 was swapped out for the 1580cc B16B and then the freshly developed B18. With capacity upped to 1778cc, the B18 twin-carb PV544 now good for 90 horses and rose to 95 in the Sport model.

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To celebrate 60 years of Volvo inventing the three-point seat belt and to find out why the Volvo faithful rate the PV544 B18 Sport as one of the top classics around, a trio of us borrowed one from Tom Campher Volvo in Johannesburg and headed out on a 1 300km road test to Durban and back. To get the full Swedish treatment, winter was the chosen time of year for the trip.

The 5am departure was icy, with the mercury below zero (Celsius), but the Beetle-back Volvo had a heater (I’ve never owned a classic that hasn’t had the heater box removed due to corrosion) that outdid my modern in getting the cabin up to liveable condition – the Swedish winter had clearly taught the engineers a thing or two.

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After an hour or so of highway use (comfortably sitting at the 544’s 110km/h sweet spot), it was off the N3 for a brief coffee flask and sunrise session before we headed east on the ‘old’ road. And this is where the car excelled, perfectly matching the road conditions and showing what era it, and the road, came from. Fourth gear was the order of the day, with the impressive torque keeping the car between 90 and 100km/h. The suspension was firm but not jarring and despite having fitted some slightly-wider-than-factory tyres, a decent sidewall profile helped with ride quality – even handling the dirt road detour with aplomb.

Old cars make friends wherever they go – and the PV544 was no exception. In Standerton we found a workshop with an oval-window VW Beetle, there was a large classic Merc collection with a few Pontons, W108s and G-Wagons in Volksrust, while Newcastle turned up another Beetle-back Volvo – only this one was fitted with a six-cylinder engine from a Volvo 164. Road conditions were brilliant, the lack of traffic even better and the scenery the best… although we did meet face-to-face with a stubborn cow at one stage.

Dropping down in altitude (Joburg is at 6 000 feet above sea level and Durban is at sea level) towards Ladysmith, memories flooded back of my old man telling stories about how he would stop at the bottom of Van Reenen’s Pass to change the ignition timing and carburettor mixture while driving down to race the Triumph TR3 at Roy Hesketh. I briefly thought about doing the same, but then wisely decided it was not the right time to learn how an SU carb works.

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Even without this fine-tuning, the performance improvement as you reach sea level is noticeable – around 17% more power than up on the Highveld. As we blasted through to Colenso towards Estcourt, the car misfired and cut out, but luckily the town was less than a kilometre away and we had momentum and gravity working with us. Lesson: when the fuel level warning light comes on, believe it.

Fuelled up again, we blasted through Mooi River, Nottingham Road, Howick, Hilton and Pietermaritzburg. We stopped for another splash of juice before the final run in to Durban along the Comrades Marathon route. The PV544 beat the bends and conquered the Valley of a Thousand Hills like Bruce Fordyce in the 1980s; the cruiser truly transforms when driven with a bit more heel-and-toeing and gusto. It becomes a sporting machine as the steering seems to weight up and become more direct, and the torque pulls the car out the corners and up the hills from low down on the rev counter.

Grinning, we rolled into Durban in fine style and even had a few rand spare to spend on dinner, thanks to skipping the use of the toll roads. For a few days the Volvo was put into action as a daily around Durban. Winter in Durban is still shorts-and-swimming weather but the PV544 has quarter-vent windows, so there’s no need for aircon. Friday afternoon traffic was no problem either, with the water temperature staying slap-bang in the middle of the gauge, and the clutch action doesn’t kill the left leg.

Job done, we left Durbs a few days later. The plan was to use the national highway all the way home, but a jack-knifed truck at Van Reenen’s Pass meant we were diverted onto our friend the ‘old’ road again. Only this time it was dark. Very, very dark. We pottered along at 80km/h, thankful for the 12-volt systems that lit the way.

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A PV544 is really a classic for all seasons and conditions. I get what the 240 000 buyers the world-over saw: a safe sporting bet.


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