- The Washington Times - Friday, February 12, 2010

Visually different from most of its contemporaries, and totally different from every other Volvo car, the Volvo PV36, perhaps better known as the Carioca, is an exciting chapter in the Volvo history. It is also quite famous in automotive history if you consider how few examples were actually built and by such a small manufacturer like Volvo Car Corp.

In 2010, the PV36 celebrates its 75th anniversary - and let us right from the beginning state: It is not a copy of the Chrysler Airflow, which it has been accused of.

The history of these cars is yet another version of the eternal question about whichever was first, the chicken or the egg. What is the truth? Yes, Chrysler was first to put its Airflow on the market in 1934, but that does not automatically mean that Volvo copied its styling. That could not have worked from a timing point of view, since the Volvo made its debut less than a year later. Such short lead times do not exist even today, and definitely not 75 years ago.

At the beginning of the 1930s, annual sales of Volvos amounted to fewer than 1,000 cars. They were conventional and rather similar models; six-cylinder engines in sturdy frames, steel panels on wooden body framework, separate wings and running boards, outside luggage trunks, upright radiators and separate headlamps. They looked like most cars did at the time, however unusually well-designed and built. Responsible for the restrained styling of the first Volvo cars was artist Helmer MasOlle.

The Volvo PV36 that arrived in the spring of 1935, howevr, bore no traces of the painter’s hand. This car was one man’s work, and that man was Ivan Ornberg, a headstrong and versatile engineer who came to Volvo in 1931 from the Hupp Motor Co in Detroit, makers of Hupmobile. Without the interference of either Assar Gabrielsson or Gustaf Larson, the usually very engaged and interested founders of Volvo, Ornberg ran the PV36 project from start to finish. Almost. He died suddenly in the late summer of 1936, when the car was just little more than a year.

From where did Ivan Ornberg get his inspiration for the PV36, and how? At around 1930, aerodynamics and streamlined vehicles had become the objects of many a thinker and progressive engineer. This was the age of the large airships, and their shape is maybe the most concrete example of these theories, plus a number of early locomotives, airplanes and car prototypes. There were several different prototypes around, but no car manufacturer dared to put anything in production until Hupmobile and Chrysler Corp. did it, almost simultaneously.

In 1933, however, Volvo did show a streamlined car, but afraid of the reactions of the public used a private person as responsible front figure - Gustaf L.M. Ericsson of telephone company fame. Ericsson was named designer of the car, and the project was his brainchild. “Venus Bilo” used a Volvo 655 chassis and had a full-width body with a front not unlike that of the Hupmobile Aerodynamic a year later. Its smooth shape was rounded at the rear with the spare wheel slotted in horizontally and acting as rear bumper. The idea of the car was to cut fuel consumption and prevent the creation of swirling road dust by using a streamlined body with a fully covered underside. Interesting and daring, it was a prototype, and as such it stayed, disappearing in the 1950s.

To conceive, design, style and manufacture a car takes a lot of time and effort today, and did so also in the 1930s. To proceed from idea via drawings and scale models to a real car with all that is needed in terms of tools, components and production development, is a process that takes several years.

Ivan Ornberg moved back to Sweden in 1931. At that time neither Hupmobile - where he worked as an engineer - nor Chrysler had come very far with their streamline plans. Hupmobile not at all in fact, because it only got started in 1932, when Raymond Loewy - maybe the most famous of all industrial designers and automobile stylists in automotive history - was hired by the company in order to boost sales of the slow-selling cars.

At the same time, Chrysler’s streamline man Carl Breer was still occupied with different scale models in the wind tunnel and Ornberg had already been working a year for Volvo. It is therefore not only difficult, but merely impossible, to imagine a contact, let alone conversations, across the Atlantic among Breer, Loewy and Ornberg on the subject of streamline cars. And pictures could not be transferred quicker than by mail or personal messenger.

First streamliners

At the beginning of 1934, the Hupmobile Aerodynamic was presented. From the windscreen and forward, it had a certain plowlike streamline shape, but the rest of it was rather conventional. It was good-looking, though without any particular individuality. It had a fully-pressed steel body, including the entire roof, fitted to a separate frame and was from a technical standpoint not in any way extreme.

Extreme, however, describes the definitely more daringly styled Chrysler Airflow - and its cheaper sister car, the De Soto Airflow - that arrived during the spring of 1934. They had a one-piece rounded front or face, a grille that looked like a waterfall and low-positioned headlamps.

The body was streamlined with rear-wheel covers and a rear end matching the front end. As opposed to the Hupmobile, and later the Volvo, the Airflow was of unitary design, with a very sturdy welded body construction that did not need for a separate frame. But those who did the Chrysler body pressings, however, were not yet capable of such a large pressing as the roof, which meant that this had to be filled up in the usual way with wooden rafters, chicken net and wadding, covered with fabric.

This was also how the PV36 was going to look a year later. Even the Olofstrom press plant was not capable of such a large one-piece pressing as the entire roof. Still, the PV36 was Volvo’s first car with a pressed-steel body. It rested on a separate frame with substantial cross-bracings, but with a relatively short wheelbase. Both Hupmobile and Chrysler had long wheelbases, over three yards, which gave them a much more slender look, well in harmony with the styling. The PV36 had a 290-centimeter wheelbase, which gave the body a round and chubby look that couldn’t really transmit the feeling of flowing speed that the styling was supposed to do. It is interesting to toy with the idea of what the car would have looked like if Ornberg had used the 310- or 325-cm wheelbase instead, both of which were standard at Volvo at the time and used for other models. The artist who did the drawings for the sales brochures and other promotional material did his best to stretch out the car in order to improve its looks, but the reality was still there.

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