Thanks to stellar build quality, early Volvos make wonderful classic cars. This treasured PV444 is a prime example...

There are a number of special cars in Volvo’s history. Just think of the beautiful P1800 coupé driven by Roger Moore in the TV series The Saint. And don’t forget its odd 1800ES station wagon spin-off, much loved by certain classic-car enthusiasts.

Before the arrival of these distinctive models, Volvo manufactured more modest fare such as this 1957 PV444. Search the internet for original promotional video material for this particular model and it’s obvious where Volvo pitched this car. As with many relatively affordable vehicles of the era, it was aimed at those buyers seeking a spacious, reliable and stylish means of mobility in the wake of World War Two.

This specific car was acquired 17 years ago by its current owner, who is not only a Volvo enthusiast, but also a classic-car collector and automotive technician and restorer. This PV444 required some work and it was during this process a period-correct black exterior colour was decided upon.

The thin-rimmed steering wheel was originally covered with Bakelite, a phenol formaldehyde resin, but, as that had disintegrated, the owner decided to use the original Volvo wheel but replace the resin with a neat wood rim. Other work included overhauling the radiator and braking system.

Interestingly, the owner deemed an engine and transmission overhaul unnecessary during the restoration, an approach he’s adopted with a number of Volvos over the years. Needless to say, not all of the parts are available for these cars, so he often had to make a plan when restoring this car.

In the dry air of the Free State, the soft curves of the body stand out among the modern trucks and bakkies that pass us on the road. As we lift the bonnet, the chassis plate (indicating the VIN number 182618) confirms this car was manufactured in 1957. There is an abundance of space in the engine bay around the red-painted engine, behind which sits the battery holder.

Although there is an elegant element to the exterior design, the face of the car can appear a touch nondescript. The circular headlights are plainly positioned on either side of the rectangular grille, while the bonnet sees a simple step up towards the split windscreen. The rear smoothly tapers off towards the handle of a deep luggage compartment housing the spare wheel, a crucial addition to any car in the 1950s where many roads were still not tarred.

Climb in and the cabin is dominated by red and black leather trim. The re-upholstered seats are comfortable and the large steering wheel is a delight to hold and operate. For the rear-seat passengers there are grab handles (made from stitched leather) mounted to the B-pillars – again, an indicator as to the condition of some roads during the middle of the previous century.

Through the steering wheel, the driver has a clear view of the instruments, not always a given in classic cars. They display the oil temperature, battery amps, water temperature and fuel gauge. Owing to the metal-trimmed dashboard and hard sun visors, the cabin has  a robust, utilitarian feel, offset on the doors  by neat white beading.

Typical of the time, the Volvo has two doors. Flip forward a front seat and access to the rear is easy, though. Once seated, passengers will find limited legroom but at least there’s an armrest and an ashtray for convenience. The long gearlever kinks halfway down its spine, not unlike those levers you find in many commercial vehicles of the time.

Turn the key, press the starter button and the engine fires easily. First gear is engaged by moving the lever left and down. Although the shifter has a long throw, it’s pleasingly mechanical in its operation.

Acceleration is leisurely. I push the throttle flat and listen to the Zenith single carburettor-fed four-cylinder working hard as the car picks up speed to around 80 km/h before I relax my right foot again. There is little point in going beyond that point in top gear. Rather, you relax, suspend your hands from the bottom of the steering wheel and revel in the absorbent ride quality, shocks cushioned by the Michelin 165 SR 15 tyres.

There is a very obvious solidity to this PV444. From its driving manners to the operation of the controls and thud from the doors, it’s little wonder you often see these robust cars on classic car runs, of which this well-loved Volvo partakes in many.

What you need to know

In the late-1950s, Swede Gunnar Andersson entered his PV444 in the Greek Acropolis Rally, netting a third-place finish. The following year, Volvo employed him as part of an expansive marketing campaign on the back of his racing achievements.