Autumn 1955 saw the modest beginnings of what would develop over the years into an enormous success: exports of Volvo cars to the USA.
"The Family Sports Car from Sweden" came to America to stay. What the sceptics initially regarded as "selling refrigerators to Eskimos", developed over the years into Volvo Cars’ largest export operation by far. And it still is.
The first Volvo car to roll on American roads was not, however, the PV444, and it took more than 20 years for Americans to learn to say “Volvo”. Already back in 1933, three Swedish newspapermen shipped a Volvo PV652 across to New York from where they drove it to the World Expo in Chicago. They did the return journey and the only mishap along the entire 3000 kilometre trip was a puncture in one front tyre. There were several stops along the way. One of them was in the capital of America’s own car industry, Detroit, where the Volvo was shown to top executives from several automakers – among them Ford – and aroused considerable attention. There was little then to suggest how things might turn out one day ….
The next Volvo to roll on American roads was a PV444 prototype that was shipped over in early 1947 without any real sales intention but more just to exhibit the car and perhaps to sow a seed of interest. It certainly aroused a good deal of interest and even won an award for its ability to handle city traffic in a remarkably safe way.
But it was not before 1955 that it became possible to by a Volvo car in the US. In Göteborg, Volvo’s top management realised that it was essential to start up a major export drive in order to ensure a more uniform sales curve. Seasonal variations in Sweden were felt to be too large to provide the stability needed, and the hitherto rather modest exports were not really sufficient to meet the company’s needs. A decision was therefore taken to direct an export offensive to the automobile’s Promised Land – the USA – and on 15 August the first trial batch of PV444 cars arrived in Los Angeles accompanied by sceptical comments, like “selling refrigerators to Eskimos”.
One of these first US-cars, a maroon Volvo PV444 HS with whitewall tyres, was unveiled to the public in the Swedish pavilion at the California State Fair & Exposition in Sacramento in September 1955. At about the same time, on 20 September, the first real export batch of Volvo cars was shipped off from Göteborg.
Sports engine for the USA
Although the loading process involved cranes and a lot of human muscle, Volvo had nonetheless taken an important step towards modern logistics by packing the cars on two levels in specially made lightweight racks.
The American version of the PV444 was equipped with the 70 bhp B14A engine that had actually been developed for the plastic-bodied sportscar, the Volvo Sport. This more powerful engine was not available in Swedish-market PV444s, apart from in some police cars.
The reason why the cars were equipped with the sport engine was the American customs regulations. Import duty was calculated according to the car’s sales price on its domestic market and since the B14A engine was not sold in Sweden, the price was instead calculated on the basis of the less powerful and cheaper 44 bhp B4B engine. The US cars were delivered with whitewall tyres and were fitted with sealed beam headlamps upon arrival in the USA.
Two Volvo pioneers
At almost the same time that all this was happening, a Swedish engineer by the name of Nils Sefeldt packed wife, children and car onto a ship and sailed across the Atlantic to New York. His car was a dove-grey PV444HS and Sefeldt had made up his mind to start selling Volvos in the USA. The Volvo contract initially covered seven states and the first place in which Sefeldt established a presence was Fort Worth in Texas. He soon discovered, to his disappointment, that it was not easy to attract customers to Volvo.
However, he didn’t give up and eventually managed to first sell his used grey car and after that another five Volvos. These five grew to ten and soon business was under way. Moving to Houston gave a further boost to his operations, which grew to encompass no less than 16 states in the south and south-east US. In the mid-sixties, Volvo’s own sales company bought out Sefeldt’s agency but he retained his dealership in Houston, where his sons eventually continued the family business.
In the meantime, another entrepreneurial pioneer had begun to sell Volvos in the western states. During a business trip to Sweden in 1955, Leo Hirsch had taken a ride in a Volvo taxi, been very impressed with the vehicle and decided to launch a dealership for the brand on the American west coast. He received a contract to sell Volvos in eleven states in the western US and over the years succeeded in carving out a veritable empire.
The Family SportsCar
The first media spotlight on Volvo’s presence in the USA came from renowned motoring magazine Road & Track which wrote the following in its June 1956 issue: “The Volvo Company is setting up a dealer organisation for their PV444 sedan. This is the 1½ litre car that has been walking away with the trophies in West Coast sedan races.”
And it was as “The Family SportsCar” that the Volvo PV444 was marketed. To support this claim, the car entered – and won – innumerable short and long standard-car races. Something that undoubtedly aroused interest and contributed to future successes.
1956 was the breakthrough year for Volvo in the USA. After just six months, Volvo had established itself as the second-biggest imported make in California. The secret behind this success lay not just in the competition wins but also in the model that had been developed specifically for customers on the west coast, the PV444K Californian. A dream car in pearly white with vinyl interior trim in yellow and black and powered by the 70-bhp engine. It oozed sportiness in every detail.
The first road test was carried out in autumn 1957 by Sports Car Illustrated, with good results. The PV was found to be as sporty as it claimed in its marketing pitch, and its solid build quality made a huge impression.
Own USA organisation
The east coast also came into stronger focus that same year. In spring 1956, the Volvo PV444 was shown in New York, securing a large number of Volvo enthusiasts in the two biggest US sales regions. And it was on the east coast that Volvo’s American headquarters were soon established. Already back in 1927, Volvo had established a purchasing office in Detroit since several of Volvo’s major suppliers, such as AC, Bendix and Eaton, were based there.
1956, one year after Volvo started its import operation, saw the founding of Volvo Import Inc with its head office in Detroit, which was to have responsibility for all of the Volvo Group’s products. In 1958, however, the office was moved to New Jersey and parts of the operation are still located there to this day. The umbrella organisation of Volvo North America Corporation brought together a number of divisions – cars, trucks, marine engines, financing and so on.
With the sale of the Volvo Car Corporation to Ford Motor Co in 1999, the car division was restructured into Volvo Cars of North America. Most of the company’s operations are now located in Irvine, California, where Ford has brought together all its PAG brands under one roof.
Volvo’s US operations – a success story
Volvo’s US sales are a tale of almost unparalleled success. A small humpback car with an old-fashioned appearance, hailing from a virtually unheard-of country far, far away on the other side of the world, created the foundations for a presence in the US that for the average American would eventually become a perfectly natural part of everyday life.
In 1955, Volvo’s first year in the USA, only 26 cars were sold in the US – with considerable difficulty. Just one year later, in 1956, sales had risen to 5047 cars and in 1957 had doubled to 10,319. The real boost came in 1958 with the more modern and higher-specification PV544. By then there were already 400 Volvo dealers spread throughout the American continent.
In 1960, the 50,000th PV had been carried over the Atlantic and to date, a total of about 3.3 million Volvo cars have been sold in the USA. The dealership network currently numbers more than 350 sales outlet, covering all 50 states. As in the company’s infancy, however, the strongest Volvo areas are still the east and west coasts.
Volvo – striking the right note at the right time
In 2004, no less than 140,000 Volvos were sold in the US, the highest sales figure ever. With more new and exciting models in the pipeline, this figure is set to increase. The long-term target is 200,000 sales.
The traditional image of Volvo with the housewife driving around in an estate car has been gradually erased over the years. Volvo’s uncanny ability to strike the right note at the right time has vastly improved over the years, which explains why Volvo has increasingly become the car for youth and for an active lifestyle. Witness to this comes not least from the success of the compact S40 model. Something of a parallel to the way the US took to the compact and sporty PV back in the 1950s.
Today the head of Volvo Cars of North America is Anne Belec, who comes from positions both at Ford Motor Co and who was previously Vice President of Sales Operations for the the Volvo Car Corporation in Gothenburg. She is immensely positive about Volvo’s situation in the USA:
“Volvo is both a well-known and a respected brand on the American market and is the natural choice for all those tens of thousands of Americans who share our values. The new models of the past few years have strengthened our brand,, and the exciting new models that are waiting on the sidelines will boost our position even more. The first 50 years were a huge success. The next 50 will be even better,” she concludes with a smile.