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Timeless Volvo classic celebrates 40 years
20 July 2006
Volvo's dilemma of not being able to offer a completely new model during the first half of the 1960s was effectively eliminated in the middle of August 1966 when the new Volvo 144 was first shown. The car was nothing less than a small sensation. It had a new design language featuring clean angular lines, signed Jan Wilsgaard and contained a lot of new safety technology. A future million seller had just seen the light of the day.
With the recently discontinued PV, after 21 years of production, and an Amazon now in its 10th year, Volvo really needed a new model in the somewhat larger format. The 120 Amazon car clearly showed that this type of car was a hit for Volvo. On the 17th of August, after years of hard work in design studios, development laboratories and test facilities, the time had come to reveal the new car. Volvo's CEO at the time, Gunnar Engellau, put it like this:
"This is really a great day for us here at Volvo and it means that we will now start the production of a new car, the biggest passenger car business venture so far in the history of Volvo. The costs for getting the car under way have been SEK 150 millions. Add to that the investments in the production facilities".
That these words were said 40 years ago is best illustrated by the size of the investments. In fact, those SEK 150 million would not even pay for a pair of new tail lights today.
In his introductory speech, Engellau also stressed that the 144 was to continue in the same direction as its predecessors, with an emphasis on safety, quality and economy. A great deal of attention had particularly been paid to make the new car a very safe one. Just like Volvos had been first with standard-fitted three-point safety belts, the new 144 was the first car to feature a unique dual-circuit brake system.
A timeless design
To those who may have seen a mysterious car called Mazuo – sporting small fins on top of both the front and rear wings – in Swedish traffic, it was probably not obvious that this was to be the new Volvo. The final design, however, was much more elegant than this Volvo prototype in disguise. The Volvo 144 proved that function and elegance really can be combined, and Jan Wilsgaard was the man who did it. Wilsgaard's motto was "Simple is beautiful", and that was exactly how the new car was. The straight body sides provided for a roomy and spacious interior. The large glass areas enhanced this impression, besides giving an excellent round view. Large parts of the body, like doors, wheel arches and the greenhouse (glass and roof) was carried over to the 240 series and with only small modifications, was to be kept all through its life to the end in 1993. And the design still holds well.
The interior followed the straight simplicity of the exterior with uncluttered surfaces, no protruding details and with safety padding in places which could be hazardous in a crash and a deeply recessed steering-wheel centre.
A technical revolution
The new Volvo 144 may have been conventionally designed with front engine and rear-wheel drive – 85 hp four-cylinder B18 engine (115 hp with twin carburettors), the same gearbox as the Amazon, a well-functioning yet simple suspension – but underneath its shell, the new car featured many technically advanced solutions that were new for this type of car at the time.
Body and chassis had been thoroughly designed with safety in mind, consisting of a safety cage around the passengers and with real crumple zones both front and rear. The steering-column was split and collapsible in the event of a crash. Four-wheel disc brakes effectively brought the car to standstill.
The most revolutionary solution was no doubt the design of the brake system; two triangularly-split separate circuits, i.e. three wheels (appr 85 per cent of the force available) were always engaged in the braking even if one circuit fell out. There were also twin pressure-relief valves in order to prevent the wheels from locking under heavy braking. This was a first on the market.
As was the case with the Amazon, the 144 (internally designated the P1400) was only available in a four-door version from the start, but already during 1967 a two-door version, the 142, was added. The year after, an estate version, the 145, was also introduced. The 140 series were the first Volvos to use the new three-digit designation system. The first digit was for the series, the second stood for the number of cylinders in the engine and the third indicated the number of doors. Clear and simple.
Praise from the press
The reactions of the press to the new Volvo were very positive indeed. One paper wrote about "the safest car ever built", another about "a car of the highest international class". Swedish bi-weekly magazine Teknikens Värld named the 144 Car of the Year 1966 in Sweden, and the Swedish equivalent of the Automobile Association awarded the car its gold medal for "from a traffic safety standpoint the most important innovation in a any standard car on the Swedish market in 1966".
That safety was and always has been a core value for Volvo was obvious and the 144 clearly illustrated Volvos striving ambition to lead the automotive safety technology development.
Like the previous PV and Amazon models, the 140 series also became a long-runner in production, continuously improved and being added new versions. The B18 engines were replaced by the B20 2 litre engine which in its most powerful version, in the sporty 142 GT, produced no less than 140 bhp. The 140 series cars could also be had as specially-built taxis or as a delivery van with a raised roof called the 145 Express.
On the safety side, pioneering work was undertaken with the introduction of front seat head restraints, inertia reel belts and safety belt reminder. The big energy-absorbing bumpers which were to become the "trade mark" of the 240 series and had first been seen on the safety experiment vehicle VESC, were introduced on the 1974 model year 140 cars.
This year also marked the last season of the 140 series. Thoroughly reworked and much modified it emerged as the 240 series in the summer of 1974 as the new 1975 Volvo, although much of its still looked very much like the 140.
Along with the 140, the robust and simple pushrod iron engines also disappeared and so did the 2600 mm wheelbase which had been carrying Volvo car axles since the introduction of the PV 444 in 1944. At the same time, Volvo had got its first model to sell more than one million cars. Between 1966 and 1974, 1,251,371 cars of the 142, 144 and 145 models were made. With that, Volvo had most certainly established itself as a real world contender on the large international arena.