The car craze that gripped Europe at the beginning of the last century could not fail to reach the remotest corners of the continent. Among those who risked everything in the name of the Automobile were two Swedes – Gustav Larson and Assar Gabrielsson, who founded Volvo. In 1928 the first truck was assembled at the factory that they founded, from the appearance of which the Volvo Truck division traces its history. In 2003, it celebrated its 75th birthday.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, they worked in the firm SKF, which to this day produces bearings. Unlike most businessmen of those years, they did not call the company by their initials or derivatives of their surnames. As a working version, they chose the word Volvo, which means “I roll” (from the Latin volvere – to roll).
Knowing that there was little demand for passenger cars in Sweden, in December 1926 the company began developing a medium truck called the Series 1. In February 1928 the first LV1 truck was presented. By the way, these trucks “printed” the export, which began with deliveries to neighboring Finland.
One could not expect too much from the first truck. LV1 was powered by a 28 hp gasoline engine with a working volume of 1944 cm3. But the frame, rear axle and suspension were original. In addition, it had a fully enclosed wooden cab, which at that time was quite comfortable: it was heated by the engine heat transmitted through a metal partition which separated the cab from the engine compartment. The original plan was to produce 500 Series 1s with a 4-cylinder engine, before switching to a more powerful 6-cylinder engine. However, the first 500 went off like hotcakes – not in two years, as expected, but in six months.
Speed of Series 1 trucks did not exceed 50 km/h, and even then, as skeptics claimed, on a steep grade and in a crosswind. Thanks to a three-speed gearbox and good ergonomics, it was easy to drive. The designers took care to reduce the noise level in the cab to a minimum.
The reliability and durability of Volvo’s firsts is evidenced by the fact that several Series 1 trucks have survived to this day.
During the first two years, Volvo’s engineers created several different types of trucks from hand-drawn sketches. This was enough to make a number of improvements to the new Series 2. For example, out of two rear axle reduction gears with different ratios, only one, the slower one was used. As a result, the maximum speed has decreased, but traction has increased. The track width of the first truck was the same as a Volvo car (only 1300 mm), which caused problems when driving on roads of those years. It was often a 1.5-meter track, laid out by horse-drawn carts, which the narrow Volvo trucks were unable to fit into. Because of this the Series 2 trucks had a track width of 1460 mm.
In the spring of 1929 the first Volvo truck with a 6-cylinder engine was produced. The company remained faithful to this configuration on all heavy duty trucks for over 70 years. To be fair, it should be noted that its design was outdated even in comparison with the competitors of those years. The wooden wheel rims were totally inadequate for carrying heavy loads, and the rear-wheel-mounted brakes did not provide adequate safety.
As it happened, the planned expansion of Volvo production coincided with the onset of the Great Depression. By this time there were already two truck companies operating in Sweden, and foreign markets were dominated by local or American manufacturers. It was time to “put out the light and drain the water”. But Volvo’s founders were not the kind of people who take the knife and say it won’t work.
A huge step forward was the release of the first three-axle LV64 LF. The main reason for its appearance was the limitation of load per axle due to poor road conditions. The three-axle truck was not used primarily for transportation of goods, but as a chassis for simple buses operating on rural routes. The Series 3 and Series 4 were the last obsolete vehicles to leave the Volvo factory. By this time it was finally clear that the focus should be on heavy-duty vehicles.
In developing the first heavy truck, the company abandoned the idea of using parts of passenger cars – more reliable components were required. In the early stages of development two engine options were considered: 6- or 8-cylinder in-line engines. As a result, the preference was given to the more familiar 6-cylinder engine in conjunction with a non-synchronized 4-speed gearbox. The new trucks, LV68 and LV70, were launched in 1931 and immediately became very popular. Heavy duty models LV66 and LV67 were not so popular. One reason was that the 75 hp internal combustion engine, with overhead valves, did not have enough power to clear snow in the harsh Swedish winters (an important source of income for truck owners of those years).
Because of the high fuel consumption, truck owners wanted to reduce the costs associated with it. For this reason, Volvo began to install the Hesselmann engine in its trucks. With the same (or lower) compression ratio as the gasoline engine, it could run on diesel or any other type of fuel, thanks to a high-pressure fuel pump combined with powerful spark plugs.
In the early 1930s, Volvo suddenly became a respected manufacturer of light- and medium-duty trucks. Produced by the company until 1932, they were not distinguished by modern technical solutions. It became clear: it was necessary to create a new small truck of modern design. As a result, the LV71 and LV73 became so popular that the company was becoming a major exporter of trucks, often to countries far from Sweden. The difference between the LV71 and LV73 was in the design of chassis, which helped to cover a wide range of transportation needs.
Despite the fact that in many countries, particularly in the U.S., the trucks with a hood covering the engine in front of the cab were considered as a classic, the natural alternative was always a truck with the engine located under the cab (by the way, the first truck in the world, released in 1896, had this design). This has attracted the interest of Volvo, and in early 1933 at an exhibition in Amsterdam, the LV75 was presented. Soon it was widely used, in particular for garbage collection. But more widely it was used as a chassis for small and medium buses for rural areas. LV75 was the only cabover model, produced by Volvo until the mid-50s. As for buses, the fashion soon changed dramatically. In buses produced by the company since 1935, the engine was placed either in the body or under it.
The cabover design was used for extremely popular LV8 and LV9 models, which by the end of the 30s received the title of “standard truck” in Sweden. Compared with previous Volvo and other companies truck models, they had aerodynamic shape with rounded corners in contrast to older models, whose contours consisted of vertical and horizontal straight lines in combination with razor blade style. Before the LV8/LV9, most Volvo heavy trucks were delivered without cabins, but with their appearance, it was common to mount a steel cab (though at first mostly with a wooden frame and cloth roof). The popularity of the company’s products was confirmed by its distribution throughout the world: by the end of 30s Volvo trucks were working in Central America, South Africa, the Middle East, China and Japan.
During the Second World War, production was affected by shortages of gasoline and rubber (primarily for the production of tires). Sales of civilian equipment fell to a minimum. On the other hand, sales of gas-generator vehicles and solid contracts for the purchase of military equipment, along with occasional sales of cabs and buses saved the company from bankruptcy. Serious success came only in the second half of the 40’s, when diesel trucks of two different classes of capacity were put into production.
It should be borne in mind that before the war the main world manufacturers of heavy trucks were in the U.S., Britain, France and Germany. For this reason, the design of Volvo trucks in the mid and late 30’s was significantly influenced by the prevailing trends and approaches. Even the design of Volvo passenger cars was mainly developed by engineers trained and apprenticed in American car companies. But in the middle of the 20th century everything changed. The 50s were marked by a complete renovation of the entire Volvo lineup. There was a pneumatic brakes, power steering, but the most significant innovation was the turbocharger. By increasing the curb weight by a small amount, with little or no change in fuel consumption, it was possible to give the engine extra power, which had a positive effect on performance.
Interestingly enough, Volvo remained a relatively conservative company for a long time. There is an explanation for this. Since the research laboratories were limited at the beginning of the last century, it was more reliable to continue using proven solutions than to try to innovate. This was fully in line with the principle of responsibility established by the company’s two founders: “the customer should not be the test driver.”
One of Volvo’s most famous trucks of all time was the Titan, launched in 1951, whose main purpose was long-distance trucking and heavy-duty construction work. The name Titan was given to them somewhat later due to a number of legal problems: the ability of Volvo to use this name in marketing and sales operations was disputed. Nevertheless, the problems were resolved, and the Titan became one of the most famous models in the history of the truck industry. The Titan played a pioneering role when, in 1954, it was one of the first trucks in the world to be equipped with a turbocharged engine. The idea was not new – similar marine, railroad and aircraft engines already existed, but Volvo’s legendary team of engineers, led by John Steelblad and including renowned engine designer Bertil Högga, managed to place a relatively small turbocharger under the hood of the truck. The result was stunning: by increasing the weight by only 25 kg, it raised the engine power by 35 hp (150 to 185). The result was stunning: it gave the engine an output increase of 35 hp (from 150 to 185).
The most famous in the history of Volvo trucks was undoubtedly Viking, which probably can be explained by two reasons: firstly, the two letters “V”, which began both the company name and the model name, and secondly, the Scandinavian roots of both the ancient Vikings and Volvo cars. Technically Viking was a relatively simple machine without any fancy solutions, which probably explains its huge popularity in many parts of the world. At the heart of the Viking was a 7-liter engine with direct injection (originally the volume was slightly more than 6 liters) with low power, but very reliable. In the first year of production, the L38 had a power of only 100 hp, but was gradually increased to 125 due to the use of turbocharger.
In the early 60’s the company’s management once again undertook to update the range of trucks. In no small part this was explained by the fact that good national and international road networks were already providing fast, safe and efficient road transport. The System 8 range was a real revolution. Equipped with new engines (turbocharged or prepared for it), modern reliable transmissions (including those with a demultiplier), and a rugged chassis, these models had long served as the benchmark for the development of new Volvo trucks.
In the summer of 1965 the F86 was introduced as part of the System 8 range. The first Volvo truck with a tilt cab was also the first European vehicle of this type in large series. The cab was designed by Volvo’s truck design department in Gothenburg, under the direction of Sigvard Forssell, in close cooperation with the Nystrom body plant in Umeå in northern Sweden (which soon became Volvo’s main plant for producing cabs). The new cabin could be tilted to provide access to the engine and the trucks with this cabin received a special name “TIPTOP”.
All major mechanical units were unified with the units of the updated model, the successor of the L48 Viking. The turbocharged engine and 8-speed fully synchronized gearbox R50 became totally new. With the new engine and gearbox came completely new frame side members, suspension, brakes and steering system.
It was not the technical innovations, however, but the striking success of the F86 on the foreign market that mattered most to Volvo as a truck manufacturer. In the mid 60s the F86 was introduced in Britain, and production of the F86 soon began in Scotland. The F86 became the most popular truck in the UK and Volvo became the main truck manufacturer in the British Isles as a result! A similar story took place in Australia, where the F86 gained the widest popularity among buyers and drivers. The third market in which the F86 did Volvo an invaluable service was the United States. The F86 appeared there in 1974 and soon became the most beloved truck, although it was present in relatively limited quantities in the United States. The reason for success of F86, along with utmost reliability and unlimited life span was the ability to adapt this truck for any transport tasks, from hauling goods around town to public utilities, construction (even four-axle model with two driving axles were available) and long-distance hauling (with a folding seat that could make a sleeping place in the cabin).
In 1969 the Volvo Trucks company was formed. It became the first independent truck division of Volvo AB. A program to create the so-called global platform of the 70’s was begun. In 1970 was presented the model F89, designed to operate in particularly difficult conditions: for timber hauling, multi-track Australian trains, high-speed domestic and international transportation over long distances.
The 70’s were the decade of changes for the truck industry. Many European manufacturers began equipping their trucks with tilt cabs (an idea introduced by Volvo in 1962) and turbocharged engines (the first of which was created by Volvo in 1954). The power of engines increased, resulting in an increase in average driving speeds. With the advent of the Globetrotter cab (translated as “Wanderer”) in 1979 the company offered the most comfortable truck for truckers.
In the early 1970s, the so-called Club of Four was established with a design office in Paris, France. The club included Volvo, DAF, Klackner-Humboldt-Deutz (Magirus) and Saviem (a French company that later merged with Berliet to form Renault Vehicules Industriale). All four companies sought to develop a modern, ergonomic, high-quality medium-duty distribution truck. “The Club of Four turned out to be quite a successful joint project. Although the trucks produced by all these manufacturers looked very similar, the Volvo trucks were quite different. Light cabover trucks were introduced by the company in 1975 in a large range of models for various applications.
The F7 was able to further strengthen Volvo’s position in the light truck class. The F7 was developed in parallel with the F10/F12 models, and was intended to carry a narrower cab. But the designers have come to the conclusion that this cab was too heavy and difficult for the new F7, and instead developed a wider version of the small F6 cab. It was installed also on the lighter model F6S, but for the F7 was available another version of light sleeper cab. In addition, sometimes twin cabs for 4-6 people were offered. The F7 model turned out to be a world truck in the truest sense of the word. Soon it became the most popular on the market in almost all European countries, as well as in some distant markets of Australia and the U.S. Has not changed the big picture, and the fact that in developing countries the F7 was not so eagerly purchased, because consumers traditionally preferred the bonneted trucks. In 1979, a demanding jury of journalists from the transport industry gave the F7 the title of “Truck of the Year” (Volvo equipment received this title four more times: in 1984, 1986, 1994 and 2000).
There are virtually no blank spots in the modern history of Volvo. After the acquisition in 1981 of the U.S. White Motor Corporation, once the largest truck manufacturer in the world, the Swedes have further strengthened its position among the competitors. Numerous models developed under the “global platform” concept were sold in more than 130 countries, and their total volume exceeded a quarter of a million vehicles. Cars of the Swedish brand are sold on all continents of the Earth, with the exception of Antarctica, of course. The Volvo brand has become one of the most recognized brands in the world. As for the Scandinavian vehicles of the latest generations, this is a subject for another detailed discussion.