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Robert Cumberford's Account of the Original V8 1800

Saint-Genies, France-We designers are farsighted people. That's our job. We are supposed to see things before others do and act on our visions. Sometimes those actions give splendid results, sometimes they're just too far in advance of practical realities. Here's a case in point. The presumed marriage of Ford and Volvo--presumed because the hypernationalistic Swedish shareholders haven't agreed to the sale as I write this--strikes me as an excellent idea, one so logical that--on a very small scale, of course--I consummated it a full thirty-five years ago. My reasons were as solid and sound as those motivating the people who just committed six and a half billion dollars to the proposed deal. Far more than Jaguar or Aston Martin, Volvo and Ford are meant for each other.

Some time in the fall of 1963 I drove my '62 Volvo PV544 to the Pontiac-Volvo dealer in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, to take a look at the just-announced Pontiac GTO, basically nothing more than a Le Mans "compact" coupe stuffed full of booming V-8. At the time I was the chief (and only) designer for Holman and Moody, the private firm that operated as principal agent for the Ford Motor Company in stock-car racing. My eye was taken by a Volvo 1800S coupe in the showroom. Why the S?" I asked. Did it mean "sport," and was it more powerful? No, the car remained as it had been-not very powerful at all, slow but rather pretty. Although the design was attributed to a Swede, it was very clearly a copy of the Ghia Supersonic shape that had been expressed on various Alfa and Fiat chassis in the Fifties.

The S suffix made reference to the fact that Volvo, completely disgusted by the rotten quality of bodies made for it by Jensen in Britain, had repatriated the tooling and was putting bodies together itself-in Sweden, hence the initial. And, indeed, the car on the showroom floor was beautifully tight and accurately assembled. A light bulb appeared over my head. Had I not read in Automotive News that there was a serious shortage of engines for Volvo cars, which were selling extremely well in the United States? A new engine factory was under construction but would not be on line for quite a while. Why not buy complete coupes without engines and make a line of seriously fast GTs at seriously competitive prices?

I talked with "Diamond Jim" LaMarre, Volvo's marketing manager in the United States. He thought it a fine idea, and if he wouldn't give me a car to work with, he'd sell one at a very low price and tell me how to equip it for maximum sales impact. Bear in mind that in 1963 Volvo was the number two import make in the States, second only to all-conquering Volkswagen. And know that the architect of that success was very definitely James C. LaMarre. Had he not, before being headhunted for Volvo, actually managed to make unheard-of French Peugeot number two? He had, and thereby earned the hapless French firm the only profits it ever enjoyed in its long, painful presence on our shores.

LaMarre wanted maximum differentiation. Could I put an automatic transmission in the car? Why not? We could do absolutely anything at Holman and Moody Put a 390-inch V-8 in an Econoline van? Sure, why not? Prepare Falcons to attack the Monte Carlo Rally? Why not? We even made some seven-liter '63 Galaxies for European road events like the Tour de France. So, late in 1963, after I'd resigned my position at H&M, we began work on the Volvo coupe. I was at once client and executant, and with the help of the extraordinary craftsmen I'd worked with for a year or so, I hot-rodded the Volvo.

We put the engine well back in the chassis to improve the weight distribution and stuck the battery in the trunk for the same reason. I found that the Studebaker Champion had used the same Spicer 27 rear axle, and that by combining an International Harvester Scout differential carrier with the 3.07:1 ring and pinion from the Studebaker, I could pass the far greater torque of the 289-cubic-inch Ford engine to the tires without exceeding the axle's capacity.

The tiny radiator that was adequate in Sweden was marginal, but by careful ducting we made it work. The car was running in about ten days, but sorting out the details and making it bulletproof and pleasant to drive took a few months, since I was by then in New York, far from the ace wrenches who'd put it all together. But finally it was perfect, or as perfect as cars got in 1964. I drove to Dearborn and let Ford's test drivers thrash the P4700S (that's how I registered it in North Carolina) around the proving ground. The late Trant Jarman, later the first technical editor for AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE, was the principal torturer, and eventually even he agreed that the package was fine. Ford would supply components and "Powered by Ford" badges.

I tiptoed back to New York on near-bald Pirellis, re-shod the beast, and told LaMarre the car was ready. Nothing happened for weeks, but one day I got a call saying that I must bring the car to Volvo headquarters in New Jersey instantly. There would be another Volvo for me to drive away but in no case was I to linger in Rockleigh; the man was coming. Gunnar Engellau was The Boss at Volvo, and his approval would result in untold riches for me, and untold prestige for the stodgy Swedish marque, already known principally for strength and stolidity and stuffy styling.

Engellau looked inside the car, saw the shifter for the automatic, and said, "Ve have automatiks." But he got in anyway hit the throttle, and departed in a cloud of rubber dust. He was going too fast to make the first turn, so he vaulted the curb straight ahead, ripped grooves in the grass, roared through the parking lot, and disappeared. The assembled American Volvo staff could hear the exhaust note rising and falling as Engellau wrung the last bit of performance out of my prototype. Fifteen minutes later he was back. 'Vell;' he said in his slow, deep voice, "Ay hope he knows dat woids his varranty." He "woided" my plans as well. "People will think there is something wrong with our motor," if they sold cars without them. And buying complete cars was economically impossible, bringing that first glimmering of a promising Ford-Volvo marriage to a temporary end.

Jack Spratt could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean…opposites attract, and putting two key attributes together can make a brilliant whole. Fords are very good cars today but for more than seventy years the company trailed the image of the Tin Lizzie behind it. Fords, in popular imagination, rattled and squeaked, but-thanks to the '32 V-8 and the GT4~were thought of as fast. Volvos, on the other hand, are solid, safe, strong, and slow. The latter in imagination, not in fact.

I'll admit that I've thought of sticking a modular Ford V-8 in a Volvo 850 wagon to get something of what I had in the coupe long ago, a rocketing sleeper. Now I won't have to. Ford and Volvo will make the kind of car I want, strong and chic, safe and fast. But now everyone will know it.

Automobile Magazine MAY 1999