Swedish Airflow, anyone? Volvos weren’t always boxy

To headline its display of historic Volvos at this year’s Techno Classica, the world’s largest vintage car show, held annually in Essen, Germany, the Swedish-Chinese automaker will be bringing a 1935 Volvo PV36 “Carioca” that was once owned by Gustaf Larson, one of the firm’s founders.

As with the Chrysler Airflow and the Hupmobile Aerodynamic, both introduced in 1934, the PV36 took inspiration, if not precise information, from the nascent science of aerodynamics to cut a smoother figure through the air. Designed in the Streamline Moderne style by engineer and designer Ivar Örnberg, the PV36 was as modern as tomorrow — perhaps too modern for the audiences of the day, who preferred to pay less for its more conventional PV51 showroom mate. About 500 examples were built.

Streamline Moderne caught on in a big way in the early 1930s, influencing everything from architecture to appliances. The style, which merged existing Art Deco aesthetics with the futuristic romance of airplanes and new-generation trains, was particularly popular in America. Yet its influence extended to Europe as well.

If you ever wondered why some early Volvos look like scaled-down American cars, there is a good reason. After a stint as the chief engineer for Detroit’s Hupp Motor Co., Örnberg returned to Sweden in 1933, where he was hired by Volvo and assigned the job of designing and engineering a new sedan. The resulting PV36 had a sloping radiator grille that flowed into the shape of the front end as well as faired-in, narrow mounted headlights and a V-shaped front bumper.

Volvo PV 36 side
Volvo PV 36 Volvo
Volvo PV 36 front
Volvo PV 36 Volvo

Besides the aero styling, the PV36 was mechanically advanced for its era, with an independent front suspension that used coil springs, an anti-roll bar on the rear axle, and a pressed-steel body. Power was provided by an 80-hp 3.67-liter inline-six. While it may look fairly conventional to modern eyes, the aero-esque Volvo was considered a bit exotic for its day, which may be the reason for the car’s “Carioca” nickname, taken from a Brazilian dance popularized by the Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger film, “Flying Down to Rio.”

Larson, the engineer who had started Volvo in 1924 with economist Assar Gabrielsson, took possession of PV36 #85 and used it as his personal car for three years. Other than being repainted once, it is still in original condition.

Joining the PV36 at Techno Classica, which runs from April 10 through 14, will be a 1929 PV4 (Volvo’s first sedan), a 1966 Amazon, a 1969 164, a 1981 240 Turbo (Volvo’s first turbocharged passenger car), and a 1995 850 T-5R performance sedan.

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