Open Menu
Open Menu

A history of Volvo, as told through its concept cars

Published in

Story and photos by Ronan Glon.

Editor’s Note: Ronan Glon of Ran When Parked recently took in the Volvo Museum and sent us this piece on the various concept cars housed there.

Volvo’s first-ever concept car was the Venus Bilo, a highly aerodynamic sedan that debuted at a private event held in Sweden in 1933. Motorists never warmed up to the design so the project was quickly canceled, and the Bilo was eventually purchased by a Danish scrapyard owner who converted it into a pickup and drove it into the ground.

The executives who ran the young Swedish car maker learned a valuable lesson, and they decided to hold on to subsequent concepts and prototypes. Volvo displays a few of them in its official museum in its home town of Gothenburg, Sweden, to provide insight into what was going on behind the scenes of its research and development department during the second half of the 20th century.


rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-philip-2 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-philip-3 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-philip-4 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-philip-5 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-philip-6 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-philip-7 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-philip-8 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-philip-9 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-philip-10 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-philip-11

1953 Philip prototype

You wouldn’t be able to guess by looking at the new V90, but Volvo’s design language used to be heavily influenced by the American auto industry. A good example of the similarities is the Philip prototype that was built in 1953. The generously-sized chromed bumpers, the kink in the windshield, and the distinctive shape of the C-pillar were all styling cues inspired by cars like the Kaiser Deluxe.

The American influence was more than skin deep. Under the Philip’s clamshell hood was a Volvo-designed 3.6-liter V-8 engine that sent 120 horsepower to the rear wheels via an automatic transmission. The Philip remained a one-off model that was never approved for production, but Jan Wilsgaard, the man who drew it, again looked across the Atlantic when he penned the Amazon a couple of years later.


rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-rocket-2 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-rocket-3 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-rocket-4 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-rocket-5 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-rocket-6 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-rocket-7 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-rocket-8 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-rocket-9

1967 Rocket

In the late 1960s, Volvo began toying around with the idea of introducing a more spacious version of the P1800 coupe. The Rocket prototype was a design proposal built by Italian coachbuilder Frua and submitted to Volvo in 1967. It was all but identical to the 1800 from the tip of the front bumper to the A pillar. Beyond that, it stood out thanks to a longer roof line, tail lamps underlined by a chromed bumper, and an upright glass hatch.

Volvo explains it decided not to approve the Rocket for production because it was “too radical.” The P1800 ES that launched in 1972 did boast a shooting brake-like silhouette, but it received a more conventional look with bigger side windows, smaller tail lamps, and shapelier quarter panels. The glass hatch, however, made the jump from concept to production.


rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-vesc-3 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-vesc-4 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-vesc-5 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-vesc-6 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-vesc-7 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-vesc-8 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-vesc-9

1972 Volvo Experimental Safety Car (VESC)

Based on the 140, the Volvo Experimental Safety Car (VESC) was a rolling laboratory of futuristic safety features. Its bumpers had seven inches of travel to protect the sheet metal in the event of a low-speed collision, it was equipped with front and rear airbags, and it was even fitted with a primitive ABS system.

The motor mounts were designed to push the engine under the passenger compartment during a crash, but one of the most interesting – and forward-thinking – features found on the VESC was a rear-view camera provided by Mitsubishi Electric. It consisted of a 6.5mm Cosmicar lens mounted between the tail lamps that transferred footage to a television-like screen installed on top of the center stack.

Some of the innovations inaugurated by the VESC trickled down to the 240 that launched in 1974, while others didn’t reach production until much later. Notably, the government recently passed a law that states all new cars will need to be equipped with a rear-view camera starting in 2018.


rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-263-gl-2 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-263-gl-3 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-263-gl-4

1975 263 GL

The P1800 ES convinced Volvo that, against all odds, there was a solid market for a three-door hatchback that blended sportiness and practicality. With the ES out of production, the company began to look at ways to make a three-door version of the 240- and the 260-Series cars. The 263 GL developed in 1975 was one of a few shooting brake-like prototypes that came out of the company’s design department during that time period.

Volvo admits the 240- and 260-based shooting brakes were experimental and never seriously considered for series production. The P1800 ES didn’t get a true successor until the 480 ES was introduced across Europe in 1986. Interestingly, the 480 was developed for the United States – one of the most popular markets for the P1800 ES – but it never left the Old Continent due to the unfavorable exchange rate between the dollar and the Swedish Krona.


rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-electric-prototype-2 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-electric-prototype-3 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-electric-prototype-4 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-electric-prototype-5 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-electric-prototype-6 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-electric-prototype-7

1976 Volvo Electric Prototype

This 90-inch long prototype showed what Volvo believed the city car of the future would look like. It was powered by an all-electric drivetrain made up of a 660-pound lead battery pack and electric motors integrated into the rear axle. The prototype had a top speed of 43 MPH, and it could drive for roughly two hours on a single charge.

Volvo built another, similar electric prototype that was a delivery van instead of a four-seater. The two models were fully functional and they participated in a pilot program held in Gothenburg, but they were deemed too impractical for production because of their weight and their limited range.


rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-lcp-2000-2 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-lcp-2000-3 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-lcp-2000-4 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-lcp-2000-5 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-lcp-2000-6 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-lcp-2000-7 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-lcp-2000-8

1983 Light Component Project (LCP) 2000

Volvo launched the Light Component Project (LCP) in 1979 as a follow-up to the canned electric car project. Simply put, the company was looking for ways to manufacture lighter cars in order to build more capable electric vehicles. Four LCP prototypes were tested during the early 1980s.

Prototype number four was powered by a turbocharged 1.4-liter three-cylinder engine that sent 66 horsepower to the front wheels. It primarily burned diesel, but it could also run on other types of fuel including pure vegetable oil. It tipped the scale at just 1,560 pounds thanks to the use of lightweight materials such as aluminum, magnesium, and fiberglass, and its sleek lines gave it a drag coefficient of just 0.25. In comparison, today’s Toyota Prius has a 0.24 drag coefficient.

The wedge-shaped look loosely inspired the 480 ES, though it was markedly less aggressive. And while Volvo’s downsized engine never saw the light at the end of a production line, the company will return to the world of three-cylinder engines in the next few years when it introduces a 1.5-liter triple developed to power its small and medium-sized cars.


rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-ecc-concept-2 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-ecc-concept-3 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-ecc-concept-4 rg-volvo-museum-gothenburg-ecc-concept-5

1992 Environmental Concept Car (ECC)

Volvo traveled to the 1992 edition of the Paris Auto Show to introduce the Environmental Concept Car (ECC), a sedan that was ambitiously billed as the family car of the year 2000. Looking much more futuristic than any member of the Volvo lineup in the early 1990s, the ECC was powered by a 95hp hybrid drivetrain made up of a gas turbine and an electric motor linked to a nickel-cadmium battery pack. The turbine was used as a generator that either powered the electric motor or topped up the battery pack. Surprisingly, the concept was fully functional.

It goes without saying that the turbine drivetrain never made it past the concept stage. However, car shoppers who walked into a Volvo showroom in 1998 were undoubtedly surprised at how close the then-new S80 was to the ECC. The ECC ushered in a design language that Volvo is barely starting to move away from with its new 90-series models.