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1953 Volvo Duett (Volvo)
1953 Volvo Duett (Volvo)

Classic cars: 1953 Volvo Duett

The rise and fall of the Volvo wagon Add to ...

Volvo has just one station wagon in its Canadian lineup, the crossover-like XC70, having driven full circle from the start of its wagon saga six decades ago when it introduced its first, the “two-cars-in-one” Duett.

It was no miscalculation by the marketing department that resulted in Volvo, whose wagons have been the transport of choice for middle-class moms for decades, axing its last mainstream wagon, the V70, from the range here a couple of years ago.

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The move was its reluctant, if inevitable, reaction to the North American market’s preference for first, minivans – which arrived in the 1980s – and now, for SUVs and crossovers. There are some 200 variants of the SUV/crossover available, including Volvos XC60, XC70 and XC90, but only a comparative handful of true station wagons survive.

It was a marketing misread that led to Volvo getting into the wagon business in 1953, although we have to step back a few years before that to start the story.

Volvo began developing its first post-war passenger car, the PV444, in 1944 – and it went into production in 1947 – but it was also aware of a growing need for light commercial vehicles. It decided a commercial variant of the unit-construction PV444 wouldn’t provide the ruggedness required, so a different model with a ladder-type separate chassis was designed. The Volvo PV445, as it was designated, went into production in 1949 as a chassis/cab model, with PV444 front-end sheetmetal and suspension, a 1.4-litre, 40-hp, four-cylinder engine with three-speed transmission, and a solid rear axle with sturdy leaf springs, giving it a 500-kilogram payload.

Simple, often crude bodies – including pickups, vans, hearses and ambulances, and even a few “estate cars” or station wagons – were built by 30 or so Swedish coach-building firms.

The 445 proved tough, reliable and popular enough that Volvo ambitiously ramped up production. But, according to the company’s historical spin, “they were simply too good,” resulting in few needing to be replaced, and about 1,500 unsold units were cluttering up the factory parking lot by early 1952.

Volvo president Assar Gabrielsson, who had been one of the company’s founders in 1927, probably boiled his mental radiator on a daily basis looking at these vehicles through his office window, and likely influenced by the increasing popularity of station wagons in other markets, decided Volvo would build a van/station wagon “crossover” of its own, using up the surplus chassis in the process.

What became known as station wagons in North America emerged here and in Europe in the 1920s, grew rapidly in popularity in the 1950s, peaked in the 1960s, and have been in decline ever since.

Gabrielsson handed the job of creating Volvo’s first wagon to young engineer Erik Scoog, who came up with the dual-purpose Duett, which went into production in July, 1953.

It was available as a panel van, or a more comfortably equipped model with side windows that could be used for work through the week and as weekend family transport. Gabrielsson grabbed the first one off the line for himself.

The Duett motored through the 1950s essentially unchanged, and its only significant revamp came in 1960 when it was given a one-piece windshield, a four-speed gearbox and a new designation, 210. Two years later, it received Volvo’s tough B18 engine and 12-volt electrics but, by 1969, could no longer meet new Swedish crash regulations, and production ended after just more than 100,000 had been built.

The Duett/210 was one of those ubiquitous vehicles that become part of a country’s streetscapes.

By the time it had received its last major updates, the Duett/210 had already been joined in 1962 by the station wagon version of the Volvo 120, which had arrived in the mid-1950s, and was the vehicle that introduced North Americans to the brand. It was known as the Amazon in Sweden, and later, the Canadian here.

1953 Volvo Duett

In 1966, Volvo launched its 144 model, the first of the breed whose styling would result in the “boxy” sobriquet it would bear and boast of for the next few decades. The 145 Estate version arrived in 1967 and, for a couple of years, all three wagons were available.

The early 1970s were great years for Volvo and, in 1974, it introduced its new and sharper-edged 240/260 sedans backed up by increasingly popular 245 and 265 wagons. These were joined in 1985 by the 740/760 generation, and the follow-on 940/960 of 1990, which became Volvo’s last rear-drive wagons.

Volvo introduced its first front-drive model, the 850, in 1991, but wagon buyers would have to wait until 1993 for the 850 Estate, turbocharged versions of which could reach almost 250 km/h. A new vehicle family arrived in 1996, the compact S40 sedan and V40 and then V50 wagons. The S70 sedan and V70 wagon appeared in 1996, followed by the all-wheel-drive XC70 (Cross Country).

The new century has seen Volvo’s crossovers largely replace the station wagons its name and reputation have been so closely associated with for so many years. But it’s not giving up completely: a V60 Sportwagon version of its S60 sedan is to arrive in January.

Back in 1953

Royal Canadian Navy aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent takes part in the coronation fleet review for the new queen, Elizabeth II.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival opens.

The top-grossing film is Disney’s Peter Pan ($87.4-million U.S.).


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