Looking back: Volvo PV36
Volvo PV36 full-size scale model
Volvo PV36 was designed by Ivan Örnberg|
who started work at Volvo in 1931 having
previously worked for Hupmobile in USA.
14th March, 2010
Visually different from most of its contemporaries, and
totally different from every other Volvo car. The Volvo PV36, also known as the Carioca, is a distant
chapter in Volvo's history. It is also famous in automotive history if you consider how few examples
were actually built and by such a small manufacturer like Volvo Car Corporation.
In 2010 the PV36 celebrates its 75th anniversary - and Volvo highlight, in particular, one
particular point: it was not a copy of the Chrysler Airflow, despite the fact that some think it
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 less than 1,000 cars. They were
conventional and rather similar models; six cylinder engines in sturdy frames, steel panels on wooden
body framework, separate guards and running boards, outside luggage trunks, upright radiators and
separate headlamps. They looked like most cars did at the time. Responsible for the restrained styling
of the first Volvo cars was artist Helmer MasOlle*.
One man's work
The Volvo PV36 which arrived in the (northern) spring of 1935 bore, however, no traces of the
painter's hand. This car was one man's work and that man was Ivan Örnberg, 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, Örnberg ran the PV36 project from start to finish. Almost. He died suddenly in the
late (northern) summer of 1936 when the car was just little more than a year old.
From where did Ivan Örnberg 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 Corporation did it, almost simultaneously.
In 1933, however, Volvo did show a streamline 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 making 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
Ivan Örnberg 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 they 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 Örnberg had already been working a year for Volvo. It is therefore not
only difficult but merely impossible, to image a contact, let alone conversations, across the
Atlantic between Breer, Loewy and Örnberg on the subject of streamline cars. And pictures could not
be transferred quicker than by mail or personal messenger.
The first streamliners
At the beginning of 1934, the Hupmobile Aerodynamic was presented. From the windscreen and forward
it had a certain plough like 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 De Soto Airflow - that arrived during the (northern) spring of 1934. They had a one-piece
rounded front, a grille that looked like a waterfall and low-positioned faired-in 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
This was also how the PV36 was going to look a year later. Even the Olofström 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 metres,
which gave them a much slender look well in harmony with the styling. The PV36 had a 290 cm 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 Örnberg 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.
But, the Volvo PV36 had a technical upper hand over both the Hupp and the Chrysler, unfortunately
not to be seen from the outside but felt when driving: it used an independent front suspension -
with the front wheels moving independently of each other during vertical movements - which greatly
improved handling and ride as opposed to a beam axle.
The Volvo PV36 was equipped with the latest six cylinder engine version, the EC of 3.67 litres
capacity and with just over 80 horsepower. It sat below a bonnet which was integrated with the
front where the headlamps were faired in, surrounding a traditional but nicely stylised Volvo
radiator grille which followed the shape of the front rather than standing on its own like on
other Volvos. The front guards were still almost separate and if the headlamps had been placed on
top of them, rather than being blended into the front, the streamline ambitions would hardly have
It is, in fact, the position and look of the headlamps that really make this car what it is, and
remind the casual observer of the Chrysler Airflow. But calling the Carioca a 'copy cat' would be
wrong. The differences are too big and too many between these cars. And regarding the Hupmobile,
there is virtually no resemblance at all. The front bumpers of the Volvo and the Hupmobile have
been said to be identical. Far from it. Both are V-shaped, but on the Volvo it is not so
pronounced while the Hupmobile has a sharper angle and follows the wing shape in a more elaborated
way. The bumpers may, however, have been made by the same supplier but to different specifications.
The Chrysler/De Soto bumper is completely different.
Volvo PV36 had both front and rear doors hinged to the B-pillar, like the Hupmobile, whereas the
doors of the Chrysler and the De Soto were hinged the opposite way around: front door to A-pillar
and rear door to C-pillar with the B-pillar used for locking both doors. Like the Airflow, the PV36
also had rear wheel spats with a small chromium decor. These decors, admittedly, are virtually
identical at a quick glance. Maybe Örnberg saw it on the Airflow in 1934, was inspired and hurried
to order something similar, or bought it from the shelf from the same supplier as Chrysler.
The rear-end of the Volvo body was sloping with a split rear-window, and a built-in luggage
compartment (the first on a Volvo) with the spare-wheel on the outside of the lid in its own steel
casing. This was also roughly how the other streamline cars looked, but their luggage compartments
could not be opened from the outside like the Volvo's.
The car of tomorrow - and yesterday
The designation PV36 had nothing in common with the logical numbering used on the other Volvo
models. Instead it was thought to evoke a feeling that "the car of the future has arrived already
today", in other words the 36 already in 1935. If those responsible for this had given it another
thought, they would have discovered how quickly this thought about the future could be reversed
into the opposite. The last PV36s were only sold in September 1938.
Of course all this new thinking could not come cheap. The price for the PV36 at the time of its
introduction was SEK 8,500**** - 1,000 more than the De Soto Airflow and 1,000 less than the more
exclusive Chrysler - which disqualified most car buyers straight away. Secondly, the high price in
conjunction with the looks of the car scared off the potential Volvo buyers who could afford a
Volvo but also wanted a Volvo to look like one. Other Volvo models at the time were priced between
SEK 5,000 and 6,000. For the same price as the PV36, you could buy an American Packard 120
straight-eight or a six cylinder German Wanderer W50, the mini Horch. Beautiful luxury cars both
of them. No wonder sales of the PV36 were slow. The following year the price was considerably
But why is the car called the Carioca, like the dance? It is actually not called Carioca but
PV36. Carioca is only a nickname but it has persistently clung to the car during all these years
and is maybe more known and used than the actual correct designation.
The swinging Carioca was danced for the first time in the Hollywood motion picture "Flying
down to Rio" from 1933 by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, in their first movie appearance together.
It is a very passionate dance from Central America where the foreheads of the dancing couple must
touch now and then during the dance.
Carioca is also the official nickname for a native Rio citizen. Because of the fact that
Volvo's export to Brazil started very early, already in 1933, one can suppose that the name
Carioca was used as a flirt with the Brazilian market in the sense that it would associate to the
people of Rio rather than the dance.
Some Cariocas did finally end up in Brazil.
Gustaf Larson, one of the Volvo founders, drove one - it still exists in private hands in worn
but original condition - and the Swedish police force bought eighteen patrol cars. Most PV36
customers were, however, according to the delivery book people who could afford a pricey car,
people like company executives, industrialists, businessmen, lawyers, doctors etc.
As for special commissions, not much happened. Only one single car with a convertible body,
made by the Nordberg Coachbuilding Co in Stockholm, was built on the PV36 chassis and commissioned
by a wealthy businessman. The car had a two-door body, painted in a two-tone colour scheme, where
most of the original details had been kept except for the roof. It would have been most
interesting to have seen the price-tag of this car at the time. Like many other high-class and
exclusive cars in Sweden during these years it had a short life and was unfortunately scrapped
after some years only.
It may be interesting to know that fewer than 25 examples of the PV36 exist today, most of
them in Sweden and in varying conditions.
Just like the Hupp Motor Co and Chrysler Corporation, AB Volvo in Sweden also had to accept
the sad fact that cars like these did not really have a market in the mid-1930s. They were
twenty years ahead of their time with their streamlined and unconventional bodies. Car customers
- and Volvo customers in particular - wanted conventional styling in harmony with the times,
small visual changes.
It the autumn of 1938 the last PV36 Carioca was sold*****. By then, the Volvo PV51 and PV52
had already been on the market for two years, founding the basis for all other Volvos to enter
the market during the rest of the 1930s. Viewed from behind, these cars showed resemblance to
the PV36 but they featured the traditional Volvo front; separate headlights and an upright
radiator grille leaned slightly backwards. Meanwhile, the Olofström press plant had developed
new tools and solved the problems with large one-piece pressings; these cars had all-steel
Some "streamline" key years
Örnberg leaves Hupmobile and moves to Sweden and Volvo
Raymond Loewy begins at Hupmobile
Airflow available as wooden scale model
Hupmobile Aerodynamic, Chrysler Airflow and De Soto Airflow are presented at the beginning
of the year. The Airflows are of unitary construction. All have beam front axle and live rear axle.
Volvo PV36 is launched in March, featuring independent front suspension
Hupmobile Aerodynamic is discontinued due to slow sales.
Airflow is discontinued after four years of constantly sluggish sales.
Adler Autobahn is launched
The last PV36 is sold, three years after its market intro. In total 500 cars and one bare chassis.
Adler Autobahn is discontinued.
A common fact for all these cars is that they were built in relatively small numbers since sales
never really took off. They were expensive adventures for the companies with regards to tooling and
production equipment and at the same time very interesting from a technical and historical point of
So, on the 75th anniversary of the Volvo PV36 determine and agree that it is not a copy of the
Chrysler Airflow. The Adler Autobahn which arrived in 1937, on the other hand, is more or less a
miniature Airflow. The same front, the same profile, only slightly smaller.
Volvo is neither a copy of the Airflow, nor the Hupmobile Aerodynamic. When Örnberg left for
Sweden in 1931, there were no models or tools to look at. What could he have seen and where? On the
other hand, it is a well-known fact that great minds think alike, and quite often at the same time.
For instance, messrs Daimler and Benz built their respective cars only 100 km away from each other,
knowing nothing of each others existence and they never actually met.
No, cast no shadows on Ivan Örnberg. In order to find a copy cat in the Volvo history, we have
to blame Helmer MasOlle and go back to 1927. The Volvo ÖV4 looks exactly like the 1924 Hupmobile
Touring! But that is another story!
Volvo's theme for this year's TechnoClassica Show in Essen
Volvo Cars is back at Europe's biggest show for classic cars and automobilia. The theme is connected
to Volvo's long and rich history - "Volvo PV36 75 years".
At this year's TechnoClassica in Germany - held 7th-11th April - the Volvo PV36, nicknamed 'Carioca',
will be the focus.
On the stand will be not just one but three of these unusual Volvo models. But three cars in very
different condition: one is just a rusty wreck which has spent most of its life in a peat bog; one is a
restoration project partly assembled; the third example is maybe the most beautiful of all existing
'Cariocas', and there are less than 25 left today.
Only 500 were ever built and sold. Five per cent of them have survived and ten per cent of the
survivors will be present on the Volvo Cars Heritage stand at TechnoClassica!
Volvo Cars Heritage
Beside this jubilee exhibition, there will be information about the yearly VROM meeting in Gothenburg,
which will be held 14-15th August this year. A week-end for Volvo enthusiasts, filled with things that
make the Volvo enthusiast heart beat faster.
There will also be information about two other activities that are under the Volvo Cars Heritage
patronage: Viking Classic Autoshow 2010, 11th-13th June at the Château de Beauregard in the French Loire
valley, specially celebtrating the 1800 and also the 2.IVM/Volvo Club Deutschland which is 26th-28th
August near Itzehoe in Germany. This is the interantional version of VROM which tours European
Responsible for the Volvo Cars participation at TechnoClassica is Volvo Cars Heritage, the department
that is dedicated to the task of keeping the Volvo history and rich heritage 'alive' and to take it out to