Road Impressions of the Volvo 144S



When I flew to Sweden some years ago to see how Volvos were made I remember being very impressed by the great care taken over assembly and testing, and the many careful checks made of proprietary components. I told Volvo that if they took a full-page advertisement in The Times to describe to British motorists their meticulous standards of manufacture they would reap a rich reward. But the engineers in far-away Gothenburg, who knew no lesser standards, thought that as a mere journalist I was being naive. “How else,” they said, “could cars be properly put together?

This reputation for quality, durability, and freedom from petty faults paid off and Volvos became quite a cult amongst discerning British owners, including V.S.C.C. Committee members. So I was keen to drive the latest 144S, a car which was offered for test soon after my “Short List” article had appeared, telling how I had chosen a Rover 2000TC as editorial transport and in which I remarked that I had had no experience of the latest Volvos. . . .

I was disappointed. The appearance has been changed, so that Volvos are now indistinguishable from other popular family saloons. The old rugged individual look of these Swedish cars has been lost, and, apart from the twin-carburetter engine, few changes have been made, so that the Volvo has dated and by 1967 standards it seems old-fashioned and rather dull.

The 100-b.h.p. engine gives excellent performance, with a top speed better than 100 m.p.h. and s.s. 1/4-mile acceleration in 18.6 sec., at the expense of much intake-roar when the throttles are opened. But a fuel-thirst of 21.8 m.p.g. in rather subdued driving is not very good from 1,780 c.c., especially as 5-star petrol is required. The engine still runs-on badly.

The interior is plain, with rubber mats on the floor. A high scuttle and high-set steering wheel combine with wide screen pillars to restrict visibility but the area of glass has been increased. The front seats are scientifically shaped to give outstanding comfort and even have hand-wheel-adjustable lumbar supports at the base of the back-rests. But the seats are set low, the fully reclining squabs do not have spring-return, although fore-and-aft seat adjustment does, and the p.v.c. cushions are inferior to leather. The squab-adjusting levers obstruct entry in some positions, being on the outside of the cushions. The ribbon speedometer (with a movable pointer you can set to 30, 40, 50, 66 or 70 as a reminder who is “King of the Castle” in this country!) is almost unreadable because light reflects in its glass. Much the same applies to the thermometer and fuel gauge, the latter showing “R” when over 50 miles petrol remains. The facia is uncluttered, with knobs for cigar-lighter, fan, panel-light, lamps, choke and wipers/washers; the knob of the last-named turns to wash the screen, which is a bit confusing. Three sunken knurled knobs control heating/ventilation, a neat and novel system especially the illuminated “caterpillars” which show the position of the knobs after dark. There are no face-level vents, nor openable rear quarter-lights. But scuttle vents on each side cool the feet. The padded facia sill has a moulded hand-grip, there is a big lockable underfacia locker on the n/s. Rover-like except that it isn’t crashproof, a l.h. stalk works the turn-indicators, dipper (the last-named with a flick action), and flashers, a horn-ring the subdued hooter. Tachometer, oil gauge and clock are lacking from this sports Volvo but the warning lights include one for handbrake-on/one brake-circuit inoperative. The r.h. brake lever is well-placed.

Boot and bonnet support themselves (bonnet-release on n/s, however). but the enormous boot requires luggage to be lifted up into it. The bumpers are fully rubber-capped, the doors have sill internal-locks. and nicely-acting angled outside pushes, there is an ignition/steering lock, the key of which is easier to insert than in many of these locks, a compartment under the boot takes an extra spare wheel/reserve fuel can, etc., and equipment includes truly thief-proof front quarter-lights, single Robo headlamps, S.U. carburetters, S.E.V.and Bosch electrics, Tudor battery, Girling brakes, Motorola alternator, and those excellent Pirelli Cinturato 15-in. tyres. The underbody is rubberised; there are no grease points. There are proper rear window de-misting ducts. No oil was consumed; indeed, it could be said that the Volvo manufactures oil, because when checked after 680 miles the dip-stick indicated well above the “full” mark. The trip odometer can be instantly zeroed; the total reads to six figures.

In action the Volvo 144S is very brisk, but noisy. The ride is a bit lively and, although it corners well, accuracy is affected by roll and vague low-geared steering (just over 4 turns, lock-to-lock). On rough roads body and steering shake intrude. The servo disc/drum brakes are very powerful and light. The long floor gear-lever works a terribly notchy change and is too heavily spring-loaded towards the driver. The rigid back axle does not tramp. The fuses are accessible behind a detachable panel on the front compartment bulkhead. The vizors are cut-away to clear the rear-view mirror but they still tend to obscure or move it. The body is well finished, very spacious, but the doors are noisy to shut. The Volvo seat belts are awkward to buckle and adjust, but have quick-action red-tipped release levers. The horrid fuel-filler cap is unsecured. Gearbox and axle are quiet but there is a lot of transmission snatch. As a non-smoker, I did not have occasion to use the ash-trays!

Because it sells at exactly the same price as the Rover 2000TC — £1,415-there is a temptation to compare the two cars. I consider this to be futile. The Volvo 144S is a well-made, well-finished family car. The Rover 2000TC is a luxury saloon with better ride, roadholding and gear-change, greater fuel economy, rather more performance, quieter engine and doors, and nicer seats and driving position, but with less room within. In short, the Volvo has lost the lead it once held. — W. B.