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Volvo was founded by Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson, allegedly during a meal consisting of crayfish, in 1924. Their first car, the 1944cc Jakob, was in production by 1927.
Born in 1891, Gabrielsson had studied economics, and was sales manager for the Swedish bearings company SKF, at the time he joined up with Larson. The latter was four years older, and had worked for automotive company White and Poppe in Coventry, England, from 1911 to 1913, before joining SKF in 1917. In 1920 he left and was working as technical manager for AB Galco when he was reunited with Gabrielsson.
The scheme was to build a vehicle more suited to the Scandinavian climate than were US imports, utilizing high-quality Swedish steel and bought-in components. Gabrielsson financed the completion of ten prototypes, with bodies styled by Swedish artist Helmer Mas-Olle. Marine engineers Pentaverken built and supplied the engines, and SKF was sufficiently impressed to fund the production run of the first thousand cars, built at Lundby, near Gothenberg, from 1927. SKF also allowed the partners to use one of the company's patented names: AB Volvo, which derives from the Latin 'I roll', with its obvious connotations of bearings in action.
The company had planned to build 500 cabriolets and 500 saloons but, in the event, only 205 of the steel-bodied open cars were produced, compared with 721 of the closed fabric-bodied PV4 models. In 1929, a three-liter straight-six was introduced, designated the PV650, and this enjoyed and eight-year production run until 1937, during which time there were capacity increases to 3.2 and 3.6 liters, with a few long-wheelbase chassis made for specialist coachbuilders. The PV36 of 1936 bore a similarity to the Chrysler Airflow.
Concurrently Volvo was also producing 1.5 ton trucks, from 1928, and a range of taxis known as TRs, based on the PV4. The trucks actually outsold the cars until World War II.
By 1932, the company was in profit and operating from its own factory; output was well over 900 cars a year, although demand slackened slightly due to economic factors during the mid-1930s. SKF relinquished control of Volvo with a stock flotation in 1935, and at the same time Volvo took over Pentaverken which, as AB Penta, became in 1949 the marine-engineering unit of Volvo.
Sweden's neutrality allowed Volvo to maintain production during WWII, although the production figure of 2,834 cars in 1939 fell back to a low of 99 in 1942. The 50,000 Volvo was a truck, built in 1941.
Volvo's first post-war car was the stylish PV444, which had been conceived in 1942 and featured independent front suspension and coil springs at the rear. This proved an important model in that it gained Volvo a foothold in the US. For the first time, cars outsold trucks, prompting a major investment program which saw several derivatives of the PV444 produced, including some estates and light commercials. Some 500,000 units were made, including the PV544 development, which was built until 1965, and the PV210 estate which was in production until 1969. In 1958, Volvo invented the 3-point safety belt, considered the most important safety feature of all time.
Not noted for its adventurous styling, Volvo came out with a short fun of 67 glassfiber sports cars, based on the PV444, and styled in the US in 1955 by Glaspar. The project was squashed when the Suez crisis threatened vehicular indulgence.
The company's next venture into the world of the semi-erotic was to be the P1800 coupe of 1961, styled initially by Italian coach builders Ghia and finished off by Frua. To start with, bodies were made by the British firm of pressed steel after Karmann pulled out, and the vehicles were assembled by Jensen at West Bromwich, near Birmingham, England. However, Volvo found sufficient capacity and resourced to shift production to Sweden in 1963, where the car continued to be made until 1973 in the form of a sporting estate-like car called the P1800ES. The P1800 won lasting fame as the car driven by actor Roger Moore in film adaptations of THE SAINT detective stories, and the 115 bhp engine was also used by Facellia and Marcos sports cars.
Gabrielsson retired in 1956, although he remained chairman until his death in 1962. Larson died in 1968, but the pair had already initiated development of the P120 series prior to Gabrielsson's retirement. The 121 saloon was known as the Amazon, but only marketed with this nomenclature in Sweden because of a prior claim to the name by German motor-cycle manufacturers Kriedler.
A new factory was built with Swedish Government backing at Torslanda, and opened by King Gustav Adolf in 1964. Volvo had already started to build its cars in Canada and Belgium. The millionth car was an Amazon, in 1966, and in the same year, the 140 series was announced. The six-cylinder 164 appeared in 1968 and, by 1970, the Amazon was phased out. The 144s were updated to become 240s in 1974, and a further facelift produced the 244 saloons and 245 estates, which also now include diesel and turbocharged options. The 260 series of 1974 was fitted with the PRV 2.7 liter V6 engine, a unit developed jointly by a consortium of Peugeot, Renault, and Volvo.
By 1983, output has reached five million cars, and included the 760 series, launched in 1982. These somewhat angular cars were powered by a 2.8 liter V6 diesels from VW, or turbocharged 2.3 liter fours, and a spacious estate followed in 1985.
The same year's Geneva auto show also saw the launch of a Bertone-designed 780 coupe, based on the 760 wheelbase. This was hardly a sports model, although it did preface the introduction in 1986 of the Volvo 480ES, a front-drive hatchback which was conceptually rather similar to the P1800 ES. The 480 used a 1.7 Renault engine, and was built in the Netherlands at the Volvo BV plant.
This particular factory came into Volvo ownership when the company acquired a 75% stake in DAF's car division. Volvo had started negotiations with DAF as early as 1969, and gained its controlling interest after a series of financial moves. In 1976, DAF's four-cylinder Variomatic-transmission 66 model became a Volvo, heralding the introduction of the rather mundane 340 series. By 1981, the Dutch government had invested sufficient capital in the company to reduce Volvo's stake to a 30% share.
Throughout the '80s, Volvo launched several new models, including the extremely popular 240, the 740, the 760, the 940, and the 960 (later the S90). These cars were very rectangular, and most were luxurious.
As Volvo started the 1990s, much speculation surrounded it regarding a possible deal with Renault. The deal was to take advantage of economies of scale and maximize the benefits of joint activities in purchasing, with a target of raising the number of shared parts suppliers, and therefore shared components, in order to reduce product costs. The planned link would have put the Renault-Volvo group as the third largest manufacturer in Europe with a 12.3% market share. In the event, the link-up never took place.
In 1992, a new car, the 850, was launched. The 850 was a big departure for Volvo. Unlike its previous large cars, the 850 was front-drive and used an all-new five-cylinder engine. Top of the range was the 850 T5 with a turbocharged 2.3 liter engine. Performance was astounding, and surprised many drivers. The 850 was the first car in the world to have side airbags, too. The car still had Volvo's traditional angular styling, albeit updated, but had the performance of a real sports sedan. Volvo entered the T5 estate in the BTCC (racing) where it competed very successfully against much sportier-looking cars. (The S40 eventually replaced this car in racing).
By the late 1990s, Volvo had dropped the 3-figure model names and extended its range. The biggest shock was a Volvo with curves. The S/V40 range was the result of a joint venture with Mitsubishi. The styling of the car was much more up to date than its predecessor, the 440. In fact, the V40 wagon was named most beautiful estate car by an Italian magazine.
The 850 was facelifted in 1996 with two new cars, the S70 sedan and the V70 wagon. These two cars advanced Volvo technology by adding 4-wheel drive to the list of options available on Volvo cars. A variant of the wagon, the V70XC, was created to battle the now growing sport-utility market. It's suspension was higher than the V70's, and it had added plastic to make it look more macho.
In 1998, Volvo introduced two new cars. The first car was an off-shoot of the S70; it was a coupe named the C70. This car was beautiful, and easily competed with rivals BMW and Mercedes. (a Convertible was launched later) The second car that was introduced by Volvo was the S80. The S80 was on an entirely new platform. The S80 was the replacement for the S90, but it was completely different. For one, it was extremely good looking, with no angles, all curves. It introduced two new safety features: whiplash protection and side impact curtain airbags. It was Volvo's safest car ever.
The S80 recorded huge sales across the world, and it was the first Volvo ever that was really able to compete with BMW and Mercedes, other than the C70.
In 1999, Volvo was bought by Ford.
In the year 2000, Volvo introduced a new wagon, the V70, based on the S80 platform. It was a completely new replacement for the old 850-based V70. It also was the best handling Volvo ever, according to many organizations. Later that year, Volvo would introduce a facelifted version of the S40/V40 and a smaller replacement for the S70, the S60.