Volvo PV544 Customisation
By Detlev M. Lehmann and Marianne Munzel
We will now tell the story of a hobby becoming an obsession. We considered different ways of putting the tale of our DIY madness to paper, but the solution came when our PV himself decided to write the report. To us this seems only natural, because he had to suffer the most. So now gentle readers, here is the tale of woe of an innocent car.
I came to this world in the year of 1960 in Gothenburg and was named Volvo PV 544 A. Without any complaints I did my duty as a means of transportation as it was expected from me. Bravely I defied all perils and thanks to regular servicing and low mileage I entered my third decade vigorous and nearly rustless. The automobilistic scene around me had changed more than once - fashions and styles had appeared and vanished - and my fellows and I had become sought-after classics. I was sold for the second time in my life, but this time as a subject of speculative transactions. First my future was uncertain, but after some time I was brought to West Berlin where I was sold for the enormous sum of 4,000DM (about £1,350). That still amounted to more than half of my original price 22 years ago.
At first sight I suspected my new owners of bringing my life to a premature end because they were only a trifle older than me. Despite this fact I was treated with appropriate respect. I also took the hurdle of German registration procedures with little effort. In the following two years my life became more exhausting. It took some time to get accustomed to the hectic traffic in Berlin. But finally I made it. I defended the honour of the House of Volvo by absolute reliability - after all one has to follow one's principles!
Slowly it became obvious that corrosion was going to be a major problem. The TUV date (the German MOT) which was due in November 1984 went by. More and more often my owners looked at me with very thoughtful faces. A growing suspicion told me that my existence would be terminated quite soon. Suspicion became certainty when I was taken off the road and put into a garage. In this place I should meet my destiny I thought. In January 1985 my owners began to dismantle me. At least some parts of me will live on in fellows of mine, for not one wire or piece of carpet was left in me. Little afterwards I was astonished to see four brand-new wings in one corner of the garage. Also different body panels appeared to repair my rotten corners. Before I realised what was going on angle-grinders and electric saws immersed themselves into my hull and cut out the various parts. Scraping noises gave evidence of wild attacks against my old undercoat. And the pleasant tingle of a sandblaster made me feel very comfortable. One day I stood in the workshop completely welded, my underside and inside bare metal.
One began to cover my postoperative scars with pounds of tin. After that I was sprayed with epoxy resin primer and I already dreamt of a second youth. At that time I first noticed some inconsistencies. So my owners fitted a pair of used Recaro bucket seats by welding steel subframes. Then they forced an ugly chequered Ford Capri rear seat into my back. That did not seem to be the right kind of workmanlike restoration! With horror I thought of the fate of some of my Swedish fellows - terribly deformed and mere caricatures of themselves abused by unscrupulous juveniles for their own self-presentation. But my apprehensions went not very far, for in my new home country rigorous engineers watch over the original condition of all cars. It was obvious that both of my owners ignored the warning voices of other German Volvo Club members. They cut a big hole into my transmission tunnel to make room for a shortened back transferred gear lever shaft of a Volvo 142. Experimentally they tried a wooden Momo wheel on my steering column. They also thought tyres of the size 195/60 on 5.5" rims were the least my poor swivel joints had to bear. Into my brand-new left rear wing they cut a hole and adapted the tank filler lid of Mercedes Benz S Class.
At first I grumbled but I had to admit that the now undisturbed line of the wing looks neat. At that time I saw again some of my parts that one had taken off. Thus several panels had been sprayed with molten zinc, for example the front centre piece, the inner wings, and the lower parts of my doors. Part by part my body was completed. But I did not really understand why they just put in and out even my doors eight to ten times only to beat me or my doors with a hammer over and over again.
Out of a 72" x 16" large panel of aluminium under deafening hammer beats a front spoiler developed in two days. At first I did not see the point of it, for I am not what you may call a sports car. But the stylist's eye is certainly satisfied. Soon afterwards I disappeared in a cloud of dust. Vibrating machines moved steadily over my surface. Polyester filler and primer were sprayed layer by layer and sanded down infinite times until at last I stood there absolutely smooth and even waiting excited for my new lacquer. To my great disappointment I was put back into that dark garage to be forgotten for some time. Had my owners run short of money or had they lost their courage? I myself was pretty much disillusioned when a few months later I was transferred again into the workshop. I thought that now they will throw the rest of me together only to get the work finished. I also heard malicious voices of some little known two-legs asking my owners if I will be re-registered in this decade. But apparently they had summoned up new courage and started by lacquering my underside and interior. Only I never understood why it had to be polyurethane lacquer.
All that modernistic stuff! Now I was green inside and my outside was ready for the final lacquer. But what happened now? With a ridiculous small spray gun one of my owners began to paint my surface square inch by square inch. As I learned from their conversations these pictures show the planet Earth recovered from the devastations of the last of all wars. Radiation has mutated all forms of life and created new ones, and the most fantastic beings live peacefully together. The only things mankind has left are now useless war machines. The main motifs occupy bonnet, boot, and doors, the rest is covered with leaves. I like the subject very much but my somewhat conservative mind had strong objections against driving around with it.
Soon after the decorations had been finished, I was sprayed with litres of clear lacquer. Three coats were applied wet in wet, then sanded with 800 grit wet paper, and the final three coats followed. My exterior was now as glossy as never before. I thought now most of the work was done and my owners only had to put in the missing parts. Since one and a half years of restoration had passed it was high time to finish the whole thing. But alas how greatly I should be deceived! For the time being they made a good pace. I was rolled out of the workshop and transported to the other end of the city where I used to be rather often. One of my owners' parents lived there. I had no objections against a conversion from 6 to 12 Volts, but unfortunately therefore my old starter had to be rebuilt completely because no other 12 V starter would fit. The main reason for this trouble was my owners' decision to retain my old engine, a B 16 A. They did not want to go the usual way to replace it by a B 18 transplant. For stronger beats of my old heart two SU H4 carburettors were installed, seemingly found on a scrapyard in Sweden. But when I saw them they had new throttle shafts and were partly lacquered and partly polished. A 55 Amps 3 phase alternator of a VW Dasher was said to produce reasonable energy even at idle speed.
I already had some time to get accustomed to the reservoir of ideas my owners have. So I was not surprised when they started to decorate my engine compartment with chrome parts. The exclusive use of stainless steel nuts and bolts can also be seen under the aspect of longevity. But when they began to build up my interior they must have lost their minds! Electric window winders, central locking, lots of electronic instruments inclusive driving computer, stereo system with 12 speakers, forced ventilation with additional suction fan, four automatic seat belts with concealed reels. a modern multi-function switch unit behind the steering wheel (once in a VW Polo), two-speed window wiper, servo-driven bonnet lock, electronic controlled heating and electric operated air valve, all of which had to be forced into my inside. Of course, that took such a long time that the summer was over and I still looked like a building site. All of a sudden my owners lost their drive. Besides some sporadic visits I did not see them for the next few months. Around Christmas Eve 1986 they started again to work on me. A material completely new to me covered my interior with fine dust: mahogany! Out of 2" planks they planed, sawed, milled, rasped, and sanded piece by piece a new dashboard which at first sight seemed to me better suited for a living room. Now there was a possibility to let the electronic equipment of the centre console disappear behind a stainless steel shutter - just like father's radio-phonogram console of the fifties. I like that very much! All the wooden parts of my new interior amounted to 44. It took a long time - about 450 hours - until they all fitted together. Thus I had to hear some swearwords. For example the totally different constructed roof lining with integrated switchboard and clock took some of my owners' nerves. But after all, it was not my idea, was it? Now it became spring for the third time and chaos reigned in my interior. They took all the wood out of me and took it somewhere for lacquering. New two-legs appeared and began to force hundreds of yards of differently coloured wires through my cavities. They soldered, crimped, put sensors here, relays there, and fuses elsewhere, but I was not to be excited anymore. A second battery was placed below my rear seat to provide energy for my future electronic memory bank - as if I could not go along without one!
My owners also paid some attention to my underside. Aluminium inserts in my wings shall protect my sensitive parts against dirt and stones, adjustable Spax shock absorbers improve my roadholding, and new coil springs help to restore my original ground clearance. New brake cylinders, brake liners, hand-brake wires, copper brake tubing, wheel bearings, and a new exhaust system were the least I could expect. As one can see I had adapted to the new standards! About the beginning of summer the wooden parts of my new interior re-appeared - clear lacquered six times. My owners began to do my upholstery in tasteful beige and brown. At least I myself consider it tasteful. When doing the previous work my owners did it more or less in equal shares, but now - as also during the woodworking - the pleasantly rounded one of them did a remarkable job. I got a new door and rear side linings and an additional glove compartment. Of course, the new carpet had to match my new interior. They put in the windshield and the now heated rear window. Bumpers, headlamps, tail-lights and body trim completed my exterior. It was obvious that some vital date was approaching since one was working on me through the nights.
On Friday, August 21st 1987, it was about time. Equipped with a temporary registration plate I drove for the first time after they had worked on me for more than 1,800 hours in 2 years and 8 months. Of course, my first way was to go to the "rigorous engineers" of the TUV for re-registration. I stole the show in an incredible way. Nearly everybody of the whole staff came out to see me. Only my new front brakes pulled to the left, so we had to come again a second time - maybe it went a little bit too quick in the last days.
On August 26th I was re-registered and received the number B-NV 644 (B for Berlin; in Germany a car loses its number when it is not registered for more than one year). It is said that NV means "New Volvo" and 644 stands for the successor to the 544 series. After all, I am not an original 544 anymore. If I remember correctly, Volvo had also built a prototype of the same denotation. As soon as I was on the road I was handed around everywhere. At "Jansch & Lindner's",a Berlin Volvo Dealer, I provided public interest on a city district fair. At the beginning of September I made my first journey to Wiesbaden/West Germany to participate in the first German Custom Car Show where I got my first 1. prize (for best painting). October saw me visiting my old home country. I held triumphant entrance in the Happy Car Show in Stockholm - I left with not less than five cups.
The winter of 1987/88 was rather quiet compared to the previous ones. One only tinkered on my electric system which was running in a very basic version. In March they deprived me of my wonderful steel wheels with the painted-on leaves and replaced them by chromed wire wheels, knock-on type, and suitable adaptors. But now the space for my rear wheels was exhausted. Only tricks could prevent the tyres from touching the wheel arches. A 1.5" aluminium sleeve under and rubber spacers in the rear coil springs and at last inflatable shock absorbers do the job while giving me a very speedy look because of the raised back. The '88 season was even more exciting and successful, considering all the meetings and shows in which I participated. A total of 20 trophies were crammed on the shelf at the Berlin Car Show AAA '88 in autumn. There on the Volvo stand I easily outsmarted my oh so modern grandchildren. My most cherished trophy is, of course, the People's Choice from Vallakra/Sweden (the biggest Volvo custom meeting) which fulfilled the dream of every custom Volvo. My new role as a bird of paradise I like very much. Only my owners get a little stressed sometimes answering always the same questions. But as it is, who wants to be beautiful has to suffer. I think in my new life it will go on like this, because during my writing of this story I heard my two loonies - sorry, what I mean is, of course, my beloved owners - talking about disc brakes, chromed suspension parts, and a stainless steel exhaust. I am only curious if one day they will run out of ideas. But until then perhaps even my leaves will wither.