Evolutionary: How the Volvo station wagon went from brick to beauty

Station wagons have been part of the brand’s image for decades — the Swedes love building wagons, and we love buying them

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No other company does station wagons like Volvo. Put it this way: if driving a Saab is the automotive equivalent of wearing a turtleneck, then a Volvo station wagon is a pair of corduroy pants. It’s comfortable. It’s sensible. It’s Swedish. It feels like it should come with an optional golden retriever in the trunk, one of those dim-witted-yet-affectionate types that looks like Farrah Fawcett’s 1970s haircut grew four legs and a waggy tail.

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Each one of these square-shouldered machines comes with, as the kids say, a whole vibe. There’s a whiff of no-nonsense dependability about a Volvo station wagon, coupled with a slight dash of perhaps wanting a bit more European flavour in your life. If you bought one of these things in the 1980s, then you absolutely also owned a fondue pot.

These days, Volvo is one of the few manufacturers that can point to an unbroken streak of selling station wagons in the North American market. Hatch-backed Audis and BMWs come and go, but if you’d rather not buy an SUV or crossover, Volvo has always been there. Just toddle down to the dealership in your plaid sweater-vest and they’ll have you out the door and on the road in no time.

Volvo station wagons have been part of the brand’s image for decades — and some of them dared to be a little more than merely sensible. Here’s why the Swedes love building wagons, and why we love buying them.

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This is how I Roll

Volvo already had a long history of producing cars by the time the little PV444 arrived at the end of the Second World War. Small, sturdy, and powered by a then-new four-cylinder engine, this little sedan was a smash hit for the company. In 1953, it was joined by a variant Volvo dubbed the Duett.

The idea behind the Duett is the same simple idea behind every station wagon: two cars in one. Shoppers got the same thrifty and comfortable driving experience they got in the PV444 and later PV544 sedans and coupes, just with the ability to also function as a cargo-hauler. And indeed, the Duett was also available as a panel van, and even in an ambulance version.

Volvo translates from Latin into “I roll,” and the company soon had a bustling domestic trade. Exports into the U.S. began in the 1950s, and by 1963, a Canadian Volvo assembly plant had started up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By this time, Volvo was building wagon versions of the 122; this featured a split-folding rear hatch, and a clever mechanism that allowed the license plate holder to fold out, to be visible if you wanted to drive with the tailgate open.

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Clever, and the 122 wagon was also a very pretty car. The 140-series was a little less curvy, but still a handsome machine. However, it was not style, but a reputation for safety that would make the next Volvo station wagon into an icon.

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Brick by brick

Launched in 1974 and built for nearly twenty years, the 240-series Volvos quickly became one of the great automotive success stories. Nearly three million of them were made, and the station wagon versions became a fixture in the pickup line at every Canadian elementary school.

Volvos were safe. The company had come up with the idea for the three-point seat belt at the end of the 1950s, but the 200-series cars boasted innovations like crumple zones front and rear. In the U.S., safety regulators went so far as to purchase a small fleet of Volvo 244s, which they used to set benchmarks for safety standards. Doting parents looking to protect their offspring took notice.

Thus, the Volvo 245 station wagon became the sort of ubiquitous backdrop to ordinary life that was the lot of the VW Beetle or Honda Civic. These sturdy, brick-shaped Swedes were everywhere. Either your parents owned one, or you occasionally caught a ride in one when carpooling to soccer practice. They weren’t fast or flashy, but they were paragons of protective utility.

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A Volvo 240 station wagon
A Volvo 240 station wagon Photo by Brendan McAleer

Volvo wagons also projected a sense of personal steadiness. When the producers of the 1988 movie Beetlejuice wanted to show that the two main characters were nice, normal, yuppie-ish folks about to be beset by supernatural weirdness, only a yellow Volvo station wagon would do.

Further, the 200 series seemed to be invulnerable. With its relatively simple four-cylinder, rear-wheel-drive layout, these wagons could chug along for years. A careful owner had to keep an eye out for rust around the wheel arches, but in most cases the odometers just kept clicking higher but the Volvo kept going. This example is a 1982 version belonging to young architect Douglas Peterson-Hui, and it has been in his family for thirty years.

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Volvo wagons
Volvo’s 850 R British Touring Car Championship “Flying Brick” Photo by Volvo

You just got passed by a wagon

Volvo’s follow-up to the 200 series was the 700 series. Actually, that’s all wrong because Volvo built both of them at the same time. The 700 was more modern, and advanced the breed, but Volvo didn’t want to break the 200’s popularity streak.

By the early 1990s, Volvo was ready to move things in a new direction. The 850 was a front-wheel-drive car with some genuinely exciting performance versions, and Volvo station wagons were about to get a little bit more pulse-raising.

With the T-5R and the 850R, Volvo offered enthusiasts the chance to get a bit of race-bred performance to go with their wagon practicality. And it wasn’t just play-acting; in 1994, Volvo entered a pair of 850 station wagons in the British Touring Car Championship. The drivers of the racing 850s reported that other racers would often ram the vehicles on-track, as they were annoyed by being passed by a wagon.

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Volvo wagons
Volvo’s 850 R British Touring Car Championship “Flying Bricks” Photo by Volvo

Volvo’s wagon-racing efforts were short-lived, but the spectacle of an 850 wagon launching itself off a checkered curb did much to generate excitement in the brand. Eventually, the racing 850 wagon even found itself immortalized in Hot Wheels form.

However, while performance-oriented wagons would continue to be a Volvo tradition, they weren’t for mainstream audiences. Instead, the V70 Cross-Country which debuted at the end of the 1990s presaged the public’s move towards crossovers, with greater ride height and standard all-wheel-drive. Sadly, the end of the 1990s also saw the closing of Volvo’s Halifax plant.

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From shoebox to high fashion

Over the next couple of generations, the V70 continued to offer wagon practicality to the Volvo faithful. However, something was changing — gone were the boxy angles of the 245 and 850, and a new Swedish stylishness was emerging. It all came to a head when Volvo added a second wagon into the range in 2016.

It was called the V90, and it was drop-dead gorgeous. Also available in a higher-riding Cross Country version, the V90 took the nostalgia people had for the 245s of their parents’ generation and polished it to a mirror finish. Coming at a time when BMW and Mercedes-Benz were at each other’s throats with ever-wilder M and AMG models, the V90 underlined Volvo’s effortlessly cool factor. We don’t need to try so hard. We are Swedish.

In its 2022 form, the Volvo wagon is far more stylish than its boxy ancestors, and it’s a great deal more complex. However, its mission remains much the same. It’s still an entirely practical, safety-first machine, and one that doesn’t need to rely on the mild badge snobbery of the German marques to make a statement. It’s also now available as a plug-in hybrid, and further electrification is on the horizon, making the Volvo future proof. Although, yes, it still looks like it should come with an optional golden retriever. But no more corduroy pants.


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