Design Essays

The Boxy Beauty of a Classic Volvo

By Will Hersey

Feb 15, 2024

The Boxy Beauty of a Classic Volvo

There are few cars which possess such cultural symbolism as a classic, boxy, indestructible Volvo estate. No carmaker in history has been as synonymous with one bodystyle as the safety-conscious Swedes and its ever-faithful load-lugger, the design of which, some said, appeared influenced by a brick but for many marks a golden spell in the history of the automobile.

My first family car in the sepia-toned mid-Eighties was a 245 GL in metallic silver. Unbeknown to me as a seven year-old at the time, we were living out the Volvo estate playbook straight from central casting; multiple children, a Labrador in the boot, with a tartan rug and a fading, dog-eared Michelin roadmap of France on the backshelf.

I can still see the fascia of the Blaupunkt car stereo, the ‘Brothers In Arms’ cassette in the tray, and the patterns of scuffs and creases on the black leather seats, which were roasting hot on summer day trips and, in winter, ice cold to the touch of bare legs on the way to some early morning sports practice. The hulking doors made such an industrial clunk when they shut, that I made sure to know where my fingers were at all times.

The car was one of the family, mocked and loved in equal measure. We referred to it as the tank, until a rattling noise on a French motorway changed its nickname – and, sadly, my relationship with it - forever.

The story of Volvo and the estate car can be traced back to 1953 with the Duett model, named to signify its twin role as a van for the working week and a family-focused wagon at the weekend. “I began by drawing a van, but soon realised that this would make an excellent estate car too,” remembered engineer Erik Skoog. With its upright sides and high roofline, it packed a lot in and its popularity paved the way for the estate car’s inexorable rise over the next four decades.

Norwegian Jan Wilsgaard designed the rear windows of the Duett and would go on to lead the charge as Volvo’s head designer for almost the rest of the century, reinventing the estate car at each iteration.

His elegant P220 continued the message of practicality and pleasure combined, but it was the 145, launched in 1967, that marked the beginning of the Volvo estate’s status as a true cult classic.

Its all-steel body, energy-absorbing crumple zones and ‘take it or leave it’ design, confirmed it as a machine built to serve, dutifully ferrying children, animals and detritus from schools to parks and dumps without protest. The signal it sent out to the world was not one of status but of values. That wholesome Swedish family-first approach wrapped up in an unshowy and self-deprecating package that itself became desirable, and somewhat ironically, expensive too.

"There is often beauty in functionality. Natural, uncomplicated solutions based on sound common sense are often the most attractive ones as well," said Wilsgaard of his design principles, and natural is a word that comes to mind for Volvo’s next estate, the iconic 245.

In some ways it’s aged the least well aesthetically yet its impact and influence kept it on-sale for nearly 20 years, selling over 1 million units. Even in its heyday, it felt a little too Seventies, with flared sills that brought to mind bell-bottomed trousers and a black line down the side drawn with all the elegance of a marker pen. At best, you might call it jolie-laide. Yet it was so safe that even 10 years after its introduction, it was used as a benchmark in US safety tests. This ‘unkillable’ reputation made it ruggedly attractive in its own right.

In the mid-Eighties came an entirely new design direction, the extreme boxiness of the 700 series, with corners so sharp they could pop balloons. This was the Volvo estate cars heyday with two iconic models onsale at the same time. Its American-style wedged panelling didn’t win everyone over at the time but its comfort and interior features propelled it into the luxury conversation, enhanced further by the 900 which succeeded it. It’s these sharp-edged styles of the late 80s and 90s that stand up so well today.

Into the 21st century, Volvo’s estate models became harder to distinguish or even remember with each passing update. The high-riding SUV began its own rise, and the dependable estate car its slow decline.

In a moment that passed many of us by in August 2023, Volvo quietly announced it would no longer be selling estate cars. At all. Yes, perhaps you should sit down. The reasons, as you’d expect, involved dreary phrases like ‘changing consumer tastes’ and ‘declining sales’. It’s almost like hearing Marmite is no longer in the business of making a savoury food spread made from yeast extract.

Of course, times change, and enduring symbols that seem destined for immortality crumble out of favour. As Rome’s Forum, so the Volvo 245. Yet as a snapshot into Western human civilisation in the late 20th Century, with its sunroof, dog grill and wonderful, boxy silhouette, the estate car of suburban dreams will live on.



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