Back in ’56, the Volvo PV-444 Was a Real Buy for Under $2,000

In this From the Archives feature, we take a look at the Volvo PV-444, which was available in two-door fastback coupe and wagon (PV445) variations when it first arrived in the U.S. in 1956. This review by Paul Sorber was part of a larger package in the August 1956 edition of Motor Trend called “Drivescriptions of the New Imports,” with the PV444 being called out as a vehicle worth considering as a second car in the garage. The PV444 is now a solid collectible, with concours quality examples selling for north of $25,000. (NOTE: Both 1956 and 1957 model year vehicles are shown, with photos by Colin Creitz, Don Werner, and Dean Batchelor)

Unusual and surprising best describes the Volvo PV444, built in Gothenburg, Sweden. The car is delivered there with a 5-year guarantee, which is good even if the car is sold several times. Here in the U.S., Volvos have been the cars to beat in the sedan class at local sports car road races. Usually, the V leads from start to finish, and easily.

The frame of the Volvo PV444 is an X-braced box-section type, extremely strong and rigid. Fastened to the frame in front are 2 sets of A-frames of unequal lengths, forming the independent front suspension. (The lower A-frame is the longer.) Coil springs are controlled by telescoping, double-acting shock absorbers. Steering is accomplished with a worm and roller gear. Coil springs are used with a rigid axle at the rear. Now that we have a frame, let’s put the engine in it.

All Volvos imported into the U.S. have the Volvo Sports engine. There are 4 cylinders, 3 main bearings, overhead valves, and twin SU carburetors. Bore and stroke are 2.96 x 3.15 inches, compression ratio is 7.8:1, and displacement is only 1414 cc (86.65 cubic inches). This little engine develops 70 bhp at 5500 rpm, and maximum torque rating is 75.9 pounds-feet at 3,000 rpm.

The PV444 engine is connected to a three-speed (plus reverse) transmission with synchro mesh on second and third gears. Gear ratios are: 1st, 3.23:1; 2nd, 1.62:1, reverse, 2.92:1. Between the transmission and the engine is a conventional single-plate dry clutch. The driveshaft is in two sections, with three universal joints, to reduce vibration. The center bearing is mounted in sound-insulating rubber blocks; joints themselves are the common needle-bearing type. All splines are nicely enclosed with dust covers and packing, to ensure long life. The differential gear ratio is 4.55:1. Tapered roller bearings support the axles. The brakes are hydraulically actuated, with one leading and one trailing shoe. They are self-centering and self-adjusting. At the time when the brake linings are worn to their safety limit, the mechanism ceases to adjust, and gradually increasing pedal movement indicates a relining job is due. The emergency brake is mechanical and operates the rear brakes only.

Now you know what makes the Volvo PV444 go and stop, and what it looks like from the outside. Let’s get inside and go for a ride. You slide into the car easily because it is quite large and allows plenty of room inside. The back of the seat folds forward and nearly horizontal, so that climbing into the bench-type rear seat is particularly easy for a two-door sedan. The front seats are cantilevered from their forward ends, allowing plenty of legroom for the rear passengers. The only obstruction on the floor is a low tunnel for the driveshaft. The seats are firm, but very comfortable, even after hours of driving. The upholstery covering the foam rubber seats is not fancy, but it’s very attractive and serviceable. The whole interior was obviously laid out with much thought for the comfort of the occupants and the long life of the car. Everything is handy to the driver and so placed as to allow them to manipulate the controls without stretching or fumbling. The heater controls are to the left of the steering wheel and very simple to operate. The heater itself was obviously designed for use near the North Pole; push the levers all the way down and you almost cook on the blast of hot air that results. There’s no draft though, only heat in a hurry.

The instruments are placed directly in front of the driver and are very legible. They’re also hooded to prevent reflections and glare. A little ring to the right of the steering column is a sort of Mickey Mouse engine temperature control. Pulling it discloses a length of chain, which is connected to a kind of window shade in front of the radiator. The hood latch is about the only item that is inconveniently placed. It’s behind the dashboard in the center, next to the firewall. You really have to stretch to release it, and you have to re-latch it manually when the hood is dropped. The shift pattern is the standard American H, and the travel is short and smooth. Complete equipment for operation by a paraplegic has been carefully designed for the Volvo and is available from the factory on special order.

Insert the key and twist to the right to start the engine. The exhaust sound is really strange, something like a big Bronx cheer. On cold mornings, it might be necessary to pull the manual choke until the temperature nearly reaches the normal zone. There are gauges for oil pressure, temperature, amperes, and fuel, plus a large and very accurate speedometer. After a few minutes, the engine should be warm enough to drive; let’s try it. Remember that the car weighs only 2,140 pounds with all water, oil, and a full tank (9.5 gallons) of gasoline.

As you release the clutch, you immediately become aware of the lack of low rpm torque. Acceleration is nil, at first. As the engine revs up, something happens. With a sudden surge, like a JATO bottle igniting, the V takes off. If you shift to 2nd gear too soon, the engine will bog down again until it gets up to operating speed. But leaving the PV444 in low and winding until you lose your nerve results in really astonishing acceleration for such a small engine. We found that the best shift points were at 34 mph going into second, and 66 going into third. But, by the sound of the engine, you could wind many more rpm from the engine before something gave.

We’ve seen the Volvo winning road races, and the driver was shifting from third to second gear at about 90 mph. More than 8,000 rpm is pretty fantastic for a little four-banger production engine, and it serves as an indication of the quality construction. As for handling and riding characteristics, it is hard to believe that a sedan can do the things this car can. The weight distribution of 51.8 percent front, 48.2 percent rear, was a big factor in the superb cornering. The excellence of the suspension was also shown by the complete lack of nosedive during panic stops. The V ignores streetcar tracks and most bumps; a severe dip, hit at 50 mph, produced a slight jolt, but no bottoming or pitching. The ride is very good and inspires a feeling of confidence in the car’s capabilities. It’s not a soft or mushy ride, but a firm, smooth, and comfortable one.

Steering is quick and positive, with 3.25 turns lock to lock. Parking is easy, visibility being excellent in front, good toward the rear. There are small blind spots caused by the corner posts in front and at the right rear corner. Windshield distortion is absent because the glass is flat, and the vacuum-operated wipers really do a fine job. The rear window is fairly high, slightly curved, with negligible distortion. The rear window placement allows for a very spacious trunk compartment for so small a car.

Fuel consumption averaged 31.1 mpg for our test and could be 6 or 8 mpg better, with less exuberant driving. Considering the low initial price of $1,995 f.o.b. port of entry and the fine quality of the mechanical workmanship, the Volvo PV444 is a real buy.

Volvo PV444 Specifications

ACCELERATION

From Standing Start

  • 0-30 mph 6.1 sec
  • 0-60 mph 18.8 sec

Quarter-mile

  • 21.9 sec @ 63.0 mph

Passing Speeds

  • 10-30 mph 4.4 sec
  • 30-50 mph 7.9 sec

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