A British motoring publication once carried a survey listing the top 100 enthusiast cars as compiled by 200 motoring enthusiast "experts". Granted, some of the names on the list were impressive. Phil Hill, John Surtees and Eric Carlsson to name a few. Although I have the utmost respect for the opinions of these people in the matter of automobiles, somehow this "who's who" of motoring enthusiasts managed to leave out a car that in my humble opinion, is one of the great enthusiast automobiles of all time. The VOLVO PV-544. I personally believe there is no other car that can hold a candle to the Volvo PV-444/544 for versatility and durability. My "544" Volvo was capable of fulfilling any task that might be asked of it with only minimal modification and on the shortest of budgets. The PV-544 Volvo always made me think of the caricature of the big Swedish lumberjack named Sven or Olaf, who would goodnaturedly perform any task that was requested of him even if it were impossible, simply because he didn't know it couldn't be done.
My introduction to small cars took root one day when a friend of mine showed up with a 4CV Renault and offered to let me drive it. I'd never driven an imported car till then and couldn't believe the difference from the large sedans I was accustomed to. The little "quatre vaux" handled like the go-karts I was racing at the time. My first car (a standard shift '56 Mercury 2 dr. hdtp.) was beginning to show signs of strain from my practicing "road racing" on every winding road I could find. I had my excuse.
Gymkana at the Westchester County Center parking lot 1964. Click on photo for more info.
I had spotted a green (that awful pea green that mercifully was offered for only two years) PV-544 on a used car lot on Boston Post Rd in Mamaroneck NY. I test drove it, fell in loveand for $1150.00 became the proud owner of a 1959 Volvo PV-544 shortly before my 18th birthday in the spring of 1962. I had no clue as to it's history beyond the “spike” heel marks noticeable on the passenger side floor mat and the salesman’s line that he thought, “it might have belonged to a doctors wife”. Over the next seven years this plucky little car survived every lunacy a youthful motorsports enthusiast could manage. It provided daily transportation to work and school, it ran household errands and spent time at the drive-in on Saturday nite. In short, it handled all the daily chores that one could expect of a compact sedan. At the same time this little car took it's owner from gymkanas and hill climbs through small club racing to SCCA regional and national competition, the Sebring 12 hour and the Road Race of Champions at Daytona Speedway.
My interest in Volvo's had got its start through reading of the exploits of Art Riley and Bill Rutan in the Lime Rock "Little Le Mans" and Marlboro 12 hour endurance races in the late '50's and early '60's. Art Riley's Volvo 444 seemed able to take on all comers and survive incredible abuse. When Riley snapped a rear axle (the Achilles heel of the PV) and rolled the car, breaking the windshield and rumpling the body work, he repaired the axle, kicked out the rear window, donned a pair of goggles and roared back into the fray (setting the 2nd fastest lap with the damaged car to boot).
The Volvo's twin carb, 85 hp four cylinder engine and 4 speed transmission gave it performance such that it could match a small block Chevrolet in a stop light drag. A feat I performed several time to the chagrin of the Chevvy driver. The trick was to lift before we hit third gear then give him a “thumbs down” as he went by. With its 4:56 gearing, the Volvo would usually put out a hell of a “hole shot” on the V-8. I soon found, as I got waves and "thumbs up" from other Volvo owner’s, that when you own an enthusiast automobile, you have automatic membership in an informal club. It also didn'ttake long to become involved in impromptu contests at traffic lights and on back country roads.
Not only could my PV spar with "283" Chevy's between traffic lights, it even proved a match for a well driven high performance ’63 Ford Galaxieconvertible and a Porsche Speedster on winding back roads. The Ford driver gave me a wave of approval as we went our separate ways. I've often wondered just who that was in the Ford as he sure knew his stuff.
The go-kart racing, in which I was heavily involved at the time, was becoming increasingly expensive and I began to wonder if I could race my Volvo on the same budget. My problem was, how? I had no contacts, and no idea how to get into motor racing. Providence stepped in.
Leaving turn one at Lime Rock - 1966
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In my travels I would occasionally see a particular PV on the road going the other way. The car was white with an offset racing stripe and had decals and racing numbers on the doors. It sat hunkered down on its suspension, no hubcaps, and I could see a rollover bar inside. The driver would always give me a big "thumbs up" when we passed. I thought the car looked neat so I decorated mine similarly, minus the roll bar and lowered suspension. As I was filling up at the corner Gulf station one day, the white Volvo roared in. Out jumped a stocky young man in a very bad temper. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had no right to the decorations on my car. I hadn't earned them. In this manner I was introduced to Norm Horowitz, the local Volvo hotshoe. Norm didn’t suffer frauds lightly. Eventually he had to pause for breath and I took the opportunity to explain that I wanted to go racing but didn't know how. Norm’s anger quickly evaporated and he put me in touch with the British Sports Car Owners Assoc., a club that oddly seemed to have more Volvo owners than anything else.
Over the winter I purchased a set of used Michelin X tires, a set of 5'' wide Dodge wheels from a junkyard, had a simple hoop roll bar installed and a 3" competition lap belt. It's interesting that I had to replace the three point harness that came with the car with a simple lap belt to comply with the racing safety rules of that era. The only plus to the racing belt was the instant release capability. I bought a black cotton drivers suit and with the Bell Shorty helmet from my kart racing, I was set to go. The following spring Norm was my instructor at the BSCOA March competition drivers school at the Lime Rock Park race track in Connecticut.
Hobo Hill climb - 1966
Up to this time I had earned something of a reputation as a driver among the car crowd in my neighborhood. I didn't own the fastest cars, but I could slide through the "esses" on the Bronx River Parkway or the “pipeline” faster than anyone. I knew how to “heel & toe double clutch down shift”. I knew about "racing lines", "apexes" and how to "drift" a corner from my kart racing and the reading I had done on European style road racing. In short I was loaded for bear and ready to set the racing world on fire. It took Norm less than four laps to burst my bubble and deflate my ego. I thought I knew my Volvo pretty well but I soon found it had a whole 'nother personality. My “performance” driving up till then amounted to nothing more than a Sunday cruise in the country by comparison. I had NO idea that a car could be driven that fast and stay on the road. Norm kept his foot down entering the turns till we were RIGHT THERE. I was sure we'd hurtle straight on into the woods (there were no “sand traps” on race courses back then). I had a death grip on the vent window post and the seat frame despite the three point belt still mounted on the passenger seat. As I was bracing myself for the inevitable crash, Norm would stab at the brake, throttle and clutch pedals simultaneously, much like a dance step. While braking hard with the ball of his right foot, he rolled his foot to the right to blip the throttle as he double clutched with his left foot in what is known as “heel and toe” down shifting. He flicked the wheel with his left hand, the gear stick with his right, then squeezed the accelerator to the floor. The PV heeled over with a violence that I knew had to carry it the rest of the way over onto its roof. The little B-16 engine screamed defiantly and my feet floated up off the floor as we howled through Lime Rock's infamous uphill turn. All the while Norm kept up a running commentary about lines, apexes, etc. as if he were in a classroom. Norm pulled into the pits after four laps (which was just as well, one more lap and I would have lost my breakfast) and told me that that was about one half racing speed just to give me the idea. I was stunned and humbled. Some years later Howie Markham, a good friend of Norms, laughed when I told him of that experience and said that Norm was probably going as fast as he could turn a wheel. Norm used the remark about half racing speed purposely to humble cocky students.
Thanks to an instructor who understood the mindset of a 19 year old male, I was able to learn how to go fast without finding out the hard way that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. Due to insurance regulations the club couldn't issue a competition license to anyone under the age of 21. I filled the intervening year and a half with gymkana's, hill climbs and more drivers schools. When the day of my first race arrived it was to be an experience I would never forget.
Turn one at Lime Rock - 1966
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