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Boxy, but timeless – Volvo’s 144 turns 50

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The first Volvo 144 rolls off the assembly line in 1966. Photos courtesy Volvo Car Group.

On August 17, 1966, Volvo gathered an estimated 400 journalists in Gothenburg, Sweden, to show off its latest automotive creation. Six years in the making, the conservatively styled Volvo 140 series would go on to become the Swedish automaker’s first million-seller, setting new standards for automotive safety and (eventually) laying the groundwork for Volvo’s all-time best-seller, the 240 series. On the Volvo 144’s 50th birthday, here’s a look back at this milestone automobile.

Work on the successor to Volvo’s 120 series, or Amazon (which remained in production into 1970), began in earnest in 1960, when the company’s management finalized the design goals for P660, the car that would become the 140 series. The car was to be larger than the Amazon, with more interior space, yet it would share the same 102.4-inch wheelbase as its predecessor.  Several variants, including a four-door, a two-door and a station wagon were planned from the start, and the new automobile would emphasize safety, exceeding government requirements in place at the time of its launch.

Volvo 142

Volvo introduced the 142 two-door sedan in 1967.

Volvo adopted a new naming system for this model as well, with the first digit being the series, the second citing the number of cylinders and the final digit defining the number of doors. First to market was the Volvo 144, a four-door sedan powered by the same B18 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine found in the Amazon, and this 140 variant entered production just two days after the car was revealed to the press. In 1967, the 144 was joined by the 142, a two-door sedan also fitted with the B18 engine, and in 1968 the product line was rounded out by the 145, a five door station wagon with the 1.8-liter four.

Volvo Torslanda plant

Assembling 140 models at Volvo’s Torslanda plant.

Though the B18 engine was offered in both single-carburetor, 75-horsepower, and dual-carburetor, 96-horsepower, form, the 140 series in U.S. trim weighed in at 160 pounds more than the Amazon. To offset this weight penalty, Volvo introduced the 2.0-liter B20 engine for the 1969 model year. In single-carburetor form this upped output to 82-horsepower, while in dual-carburetor form this engine produced as much as 118-horsepower in high-compression tune, while lower compression B20 engines initially produced 105 horsepower. Later fuel-injected B20s would make as much as 135 horsepower.

Volvo 145

Volvo’s 145 station wagon followed in 1968.

The 140 series emphasized safety, as Volvo management had intended from the beginning of the project. The body was equipped with crumple zones, which helped to dissipate energy in the event of a collision, and the roof structure was reinforced with a hidden roll-over bar, something that Volvo demonstrated in period advertising by creating a stack of 144s seven-cars high. In Mark Mc Court’s recent 1974 Volvo 140 brochure piece, Robert Austin, then the head of P.R. for Volvo, chimed in about this exercise:

After a hurricane Volvo had dozens of storm damaged cars at one of its ports along the Gulf of Mexico. The company took the opportunity to take these cars and actually try to see if they could stack them up in practice, as they calculated they should be able to in theory.

The only thing they had to do that was in anyway unusual was:

-place supports between the bottom of the chassis of the lowest car and the ground….the reason for this was that no one would reasonably expect the spring and tires of the lowest car to support the weight of 6 additional cars.

-on the roof of each car in the stack was a wooden frame that spread the load of the cars above along the edges of the roof of the car below….it also stopped the cars above from sliding off the roof of the cars below.

These cars were in no way reinforced. The stacking exercise was recorded on film and a TV commercial and a print ad was made from it. The claim was, as I stated before, that the roof of a Volvo could support the weight of six more Volvo cars. During the filming, the crew successfully stacked 6 cars on the bottom car…..that is why you will always see a stack that is a total of 7 cars high.

Of course, the team on the ground wanted to see if they could make the stack even higher! So they prepared to add one more car to the stack. As they were doing that, the wind picked up. With the 8th Volvo car in the air moving towards the top of the stack, a large gust of wind hit the stack and sent the cars tumbling end over end….so they never did get to see if it could have held that additional car.

Further upping safety, 140 models also received disc brakes in front and rear, activated by dual-circuit hydraulic systems. Each hydraulic system controlled both front brakes and a single rear brake, so that if a single hydraulic circuit failed, the driver would still be left with a redundant circuit operating two front and a single rear brake. The braking circuits also used a reducing valve designed to prevent wheel lock under heavy braking.

Volvo 144

Volvo redesigned the grille on 140 models for the 1971 model year.

Like the Amazon, the 140 was designed under the supervision of Jan Wilsgaard (who passed away on August 6), and the two series have more in common than most realize at first glance. The Volvo 140’s original split grille was evocative of the Amazon, and both models used vertical taillamps. The 144’s doors featured “shoulders” below the windows, widening the body in a manner similar to the Amazon. Still, the 140 series was viewed as a conservative and sensible design, a gamble that would go on to pay big dividends for the Swedish automaker.

The Volvo 140 series remained in production until mid-1974, with final production topping out at 1,251,371 units. The model’s chassis would also serve as the basis for the Volvo 240, which debuted in 1974 and would go on to become the automaker’s most-produced vehicle, selling more than 2.8 million examples worldwide before production ended in 1985 1993.