1959 Volvo PV544
4-cyl. 1583cc/60hp 1bbl
With an experienced team and a lot of data.
Volvo’s first post-war product, the 1947 PV444, looked very much like a pre-war American car—a 1942 Ford to be specific. On introduction, however, the Volvo was little dated as the 1946-48 Ford Tudors were dead ringers for the ’42s. Nevertheless, by 1949, the PV444 was already looking long in the tooth and by 1958 when the visually unchanged PV544 came out, it looked positively antique.
Although visual changes were minor (a curved one-piece screen replacing a flat split screen), under the skin, the PV544 marked the introduction of the indestructible 1.8-liter B18 five-main-bearing, twin-SU carb, four-cylinder engine and an all-synchro four-speed gearbox. A particularly rigid unibody coupled with a well-located live rear axle and decent 9-inch drum brakes made for a reasonably entertaining car that was rallied with some considerable success in period. Road & Track was able to get their test car to go 0-60 in about 14 seconds or around a half second slower than an MGB-GT. Top speed was a bit over 90 mph while 25-29 mpg was possible.
Much like the VW Beetle, there were few significant changes during the car’s production run, the biggest being a change from a six-volt to a twelve-volt electrical system in 1962. When the Swedes discontinued the car in 1965, they anticipated roughly the same reaction their Viking forbears had to an undefended monastery, even running ads calling for calm. Fortunately, Volvo owners tended more toward pacifism than Vikings. The Duett wagon body style was even more beloved of hippies from Vermont to California and actually outlived the sedan by four years.
Inside, the PV544 betrays its 1940s origins. While there’s head room aplenty, the cockpit is quite narrow and larger front seat occupants will be sitting shoulder to shoulder. In true Volvo tradition, however, the seats are first rate even by modern standards. The stock wheel is the size of a trash can lid and the ribbon speedometer takes some getting used to as does the lack of a tachometer. The customarily light-colored interiors (some two-tone) are quite pleasant and durable.
Underway, the PV544 feels anything but ponderous. Although stoutly constructed, the car’s 2100 lb. curb weight works in its favor and the car feels quite nimble and makes decent use of its 90 hp. By today’s standards, the PV544’s performance would see it blown into the weeds by a Ford Transit Connect. Nevertheless, for the day, it was considered brisk and in fact, the Volvo was over a second faster to sixty than two sports cars tested by Road & Track the same year, the Sunbeam Alpine and Triumph Spitfire.
There are few impediments to 544 ownership. The cars are dead simple to maintain, parts are readily available, and with a competent heater and ability to maintain highway speeds, PV544s can be used every day.
As usual, rust is the main bugger, although Volvos were among the better protected cars of the day. Rockers, floors, and front fenders by the headlamps are the spots to look at first. On the mechanical side, the B18 engine might as well have cylinder bores lined with diamonds. With five oversized main bearings and a generally under-stressed design, they simply never seem to wear out. Synchromesh on early PV544s can be a bit weak but this is seldom bothersome to anyone who knows how to double clutch.
From a collectability standpoint, there has generally been a modest demand for Amazons and PVs among college professor types, but widespread appeal continues to elude them. Combine that with their penchant for staying on the road, and a PV544 remains an easy-to-find and easy-to-maintain option for vintage car ownership.