The Volvo Duett that lived through hell in Paradise
By and large, 2020 has been a difficult year, with pandemic, political strife, and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree all playing their part. Yes, our silver linings seem to be made of pewter right now, but there are precious bits out there if you look hard enough. This month, I discovered such a silver lining—in the wretched, revived shape of a 1957 Volvo 445 Duett.
In the spirit of the season, I’d even argue we should all be thankful for this car, not because Duetts are awesome (they are) or fast (they’re not), but because of what this car exemplifies, seemingly against the odds, in this year of years. It has a good, pure, honest, friendly, bend-over-backwards, full-of-love story arc that every so often enters our wonderful old-car sphere.
Back in November 2018, Pam Kirby’s son Cameron didn’t have much work left to get his late grandfather’s old Volvo back on the road. It had been inoperable for several years, but the young mechanic had towed it up from Sacramento to his home in Paradise, California, where he could get it sorted for Pam, who had inherited the car from her father. Now that he had the fuel tank repaired, Cameron just needed to install it. In the meantime, the tank sat on the Volvo’s hood until he could find the time. The morning of November 8, however, driven by 50-mph winds, the Camp Fire, which would kill 85 people and become California’s most destructive wildfire on record, tore through the Sierra Nevada foothills and decimated Paradise in a matter of hours. In the moment, Cameron debated hooking up the Volvo and towing it out, but there was no time, so he fled. “He made it out with his life and his dog and a few things he could throw in his truck,” Kirby says.
In the fire’s aftermath, Paradise residents weren’t immediately allowed back to their properties. “But my husband has a friend, a magazine photographer,” Kirby says, “and he called to tell us he’d been assigned to go shoot in Paradise.” He offered to go look at things for Cameron and check on his property. “It was because of him we knew very early how bad the damage was, that the house was gone, that everything was gone.”
The Volvo, too, was gone. The fire had eaten its paint and warped the sheetmetal beneath it. All the glass, plastic, and pot metal melted. The car sagged on coil springs fully compressed, and the interior was gutted save for a frantic network of dead seat springs.
“I was so heartbroken to lose my dad’s car,” Pam Kirby says. “I grew up in that car. I was a toddler camping in it. I learned to drive in it, and I drove it in high school. It’s been in my life for forever.” In the weeks after the fire, though, she recognized there wasn’t anything she or her family could do for it. She also knew she couldn’t bear to send it to the junkyard. In January 2019 she joined several Volvo groups on Facebook. “I posted pictures and asked if anyone could take it on. Three people responded.”
One of them was Nick Haas, who runs Red Block Performance, a Volvo shop in Portland, Oregon. Haas was fixing up his own Duett at the time and was initially interested in the Kirby’s solely for what he might scavenge from it. Then he and Pam Kirby got on the phone.
“I spoke with her and saw how much she loved her father. I saw how much this car meant to her, and I knew I had to try to get it back on the road,” Haas says. “This Volvo was so important to their family, and I wanted to make sure it didn’t just die in vain.” Kirby still had not been back to her son’s property since the fire, still had not seen the Duett, but she told Haas to come get it.
Soon after, Haas drove down to California towing a flatbed. “When I arrived in Paradise that January, I was surprised by the devastation,” he says. “I came to this hillside covered in crosses and had to pull over and regain my composure. Even just seeing the car and pulling it out of the ashes, it was heart-wrenching.”
Back in Portland, Haas spent two months stripping the car down, grinding and wire-wheeling it to bare metal. He then coated everything underneath with POR-15 rust converter before painting it all with a rust-inhibiting heavy-equipment enamel. “I wanted to preserve everything you don’t see,” he says. “But I tried to leave the exterior and exposed parts as close to as-found as possible.”
Most of those “as-found” bits get regular treatments of boiled linseed oil to keep rust at bay. Rain will kill this car as fire could not, so for the rest of its days, the Duett will need to lead a charmed life, ideally garaged, in a warm, dry climate.
As he dug into the Volvo, Haas also got a glimpse into the Volvo-owning life of Lee Pearce, Pam Kirby’s father, who had purchased the Duett new in Sacramento from John’s Motor Sales. He proved a meticulous record keeper.
“The car came with a five-inch stack of receipts, dealership brochures, a Sears parts catalog, Lee’s notes and calculations for various things, and an original Volvo shop manual with his notations,” says Haas. All of it was pristine, too—no tears, no creases, nothing faded. In fact, Lee Pearce turned out to be a true “Volvo guy,” and he owned several models during his life. In 1970, after an accident totaled his 145 wagon, Pearce brought it and the Duett into the high school shop class he taught, and he and his students replaced the latter’s 85-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder B16 and three-speed manual with the larger 101-hp B18 and four-speed from the 145.”
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Haas didn’t have to open that engine. “Didn’t even replace the head gasket,” he says. “Fire so hot it melted the glass and warped just about everything else, but that motor still runs fine.” Bear in mind the B18 is the same engine that powered famous Volvo owner Irv Gordon’s P1800 for more than 3 million miles. “You can’t kill these engines. You just can’t.”
Haas didn’t touch the engine, but the interior certainly needed help. When he put a post on Facebook looking for parts to restore the car, the Volvo community delivered. A guy in Lebanon, Oregon, donated the steering wheel and the taillights. A family in Reedsport, Oregon allowed Haas to camp on their property for a long weekend and mine their six Duetts for parts. The gauge cluster was donated by a fellow in France. The temperature gauge—“new old stock and totally unobtanium”—came as a donation from someone in Germany. “There are parts on this car from all over the place,” Haas says.
Haas’ own creativity is all over this car, too; the doors and ceiling are a collage of California road maps, Volvo ads and brochure pages, vintage post cards, and 1960s fruit crate labels, all with a Paradise theme. “We weren’t going to get a cloth headliner back in here,” he says, “so this seemed like the next best thing.”
When he got the Volvo to a certain point—as a reliable running, driving, stopping, delicately preserved artifact—Haas felt like he was finished with it, so he called Pam Kirby to offer it back to her. “As a family we went around and round about it,” Kirby says. “But none of us were at a place in our lives to do anything with it. It might just sit in a garage, but no one would see it or enjoy it.”
Haas ultimately decided to put the car on eBay, with proceeds to benefit the American Red Cross disaster relief fund. Before that, however, he needed to take this special old Duett on a road trip.
He set out from Portland on November 7 and the next day, exactly two years after the Camp Fire ravaged more than 150,000 acres, nearly 19,000 buildings, and one 1957 Volvo 445, he arrived in Paradise to meet Pam Kirby and her family and reacquaint them with the car they all loved. “It was such a remarkable feeling,” Haas says. “Next to holding my son for the first time, I’ve never experienced something so powerful.”
Pam Kirby agrees. “That car was my dad’s love. I felt like he was smiling at us, that he knew we did the right thing by saving it.” Despite all the seat time she’d had in the Duett over the years, Kirby decided against driving it one last time. “It was too emotional. It was so neat just to sit in it and turn the engine over, so I sat in there by myself and revved it, and that was enough.”
Haas made the auction listing live that day, a condition of the sale being first right of refusal to Pam Kirby should the buyer ever decide to sell it. By the virtual gavel drop on November 18, fourteen bidders had taken the Duett to $7200. In Portland, Nick Haas cheered on the last-minute bidding frenzy from one of the bays of his shop. In Sacramento, Pam Kirby did the same from her mother’s hospital bedside.
“I’m so happy that it’s going to someone who will love it,” Kirby says. “As a family that was our big concern. We never wanted it to just go to junk.”
For Haas, parting with Lee Pearce’s Volvo, and this chapter of his life, is bittersweet. “I’ll never build another car like this,” he says. “It’s the culmination of a lot of love and support from a community that cherishes these cars and which just wanted to see this thing live. Exponentially, this car is everything that is car culture: history, family, community, love. It makes me cry to think about it.”