Sweden’s Volvo (Latin for “I roll”) began building cars in 1927 when its two founders, engineer Gustaf Larson and economist Assar Gabrielsson, teamed up to design and hopefully launch a car engineered for Swedish conditions. After failing to find funding for their idea, Gabrielsson personally financed the fabrication of 10 prototypes. With cars to demonstrate, Swedish bearing company SKF financed their new company.
Although successful in Sweden, North Americans only became aware of Volvo when the Volvo 444, a stubby two-door sedan, arrived in North America in the 1950s. It had a profile like a 1947 Ford and would prove to have a heart of gold.
When Volvo introduced the 122 Amazon model in 1956, it was widely expected to replace the 444. But the 444 had an excellent reputation and had been continually refined and improved since its introduction in 1947. As the tooling was paid for, Volvo management decided to try stretching a few more years out of it. Volvo depreciation was low and the company thought a lot of 444 owners would buy at least one more.
It needed upgrading, however, to correct such shortcomings as poor visibility and a somewhat cramped rear seat. They replaced the split windshield with a higher and broader one-piece 22 per cent larger and increased rear window area 19 per cent.
The rear seat was widened by 170 millimetres, but the unit-construction body shape constrained the rear seat to only 51 mm of additional shoulder width. Rear legroom was increased 60 mm via thinner front seatbacks.
The instrument panel was modernized with a horizontal “thermometer” type speedometer. A new dished safety steering wheel and smarter upholstery patterns made the interior more attractive, and the tiny round taillights were replaced with larger ones.
With these changes, the 444 became the evolutionary 544 in 1958. While the basic 544 dimensions and appearance were similar to the 444, there were enough improvements to attract 444 owner trade-ins.
Volvos were introduced to North America in California in 1955, although sales didn’t take off until 1956. The eastern U.S. got them a year later when they were shown at the New York Motor Show. One 444 demonstrator was brought to Canada in 1957, and about 50 more were imported in 1958.
Early export 444s had a 1.4-litre, 70-horsepower, overhead-valve, four-cylinder engine, but a 1.6-litre 85-horsepower version made its appearance shortly after exports to North America began.
The 544 was an improvement over the 444, but it was the performance of both cars that really appealed to foreign-car buyers. In an era when small sedans usually meant slow ones, the Volvo was a revelation.
Its 85-horsepower engine proved rugged and reliable and really loved to rev. Peak horsepower came at a high 5,500 rpm and, according to Road & Track, it would run all the way to 7,000.
When Road & Track tested an 85-horsepower, three-speed 444 they reported a very respectable zero-to-100 km/h acceleration time of 14.3 seconds and top speed of 151 km/h. A November 1963 test of a four-speed 544, now up to 90 horsepower, gave zero to 100 in 14.1 seconds and a top speed of 148.
To put this in perspective, the most popular import, the Volkswagen Beetle, took about 28 seconds to reach 100 km/h, and could barely struggle up to 121 km/h.
The Volvo’s spirited performance, while common in popular sports cars — the Austin-Healey 100 Six did 0-100 in 12.2 seconds — was unheard of in a small popular-priced sedan. It was not far off the performance of the well-liked MGA sports car.
With this speed and acceleration, Volvos were soon campaigned vigorously in sedan racing and rallies with considerable success.
To help publicize Volvo in Canada, in 1958, Dave Roat and Trev Jones took a 544 on a 6,400-km dash from Vancouver to Halifax. They made it in 85 hours and 45 minutes, breaking the Canadian coast-to-coast driving record.
Always a safety leader, the three-point seat belt invented by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin became standard on European Volvos in 1959. It came to Canada in the 1960s.
Volvo 544 production ceased in 1965 after almost 244,000 had been built. It was finally succeeded by the more stylish Amazon/120 series.
The 544 retains a solid place in the memories of those somewhat pioneering spirits who bought early Volvos.