Volvo might not currently sit at the top of South Africa’s sales charts, but the introduction of outstanding advanced products has the Swedish firm gaining ground and re-establishing the popularity that it held here in the 1960s and ʼ70s. Stuart Grant gets behind the wheel of a 1971 Volvo 144S – the car that took the firm’s popularity, created by the 122S, up a level with technological developments, performance and practicality but failed to carry the company to greatness locally.
Volvo was not the only manufacturer who didn’t capitalise on the popularity gained in the period though – think of Alfa Romeo and Renault here… The common thread, of course, was the withdrawal from the SA market in the late 1970s and early ʼ80s. Sanctions against our government were a good scapegoat, and while the rumour mill suggested that Sweden’s backing of the then-banned ANC was to blame for Volvo’s demise, those in the know put the reason for the pull-out down to the importers, Lawson Motors, not being able to pay the supply bills. Whatever the story, it soured a large portion of the South African motoring public’s opinion of Volvo and only the die-hard fans looked past this and remembered the positive aspects of the Swedish cars.
And they had good reason to stick to the brand. Despite the harsh South African conditions differing vastly from the country of origin, Volvo vehicles delivered an almost unbreakable ruggedness, practicality and performance. Traits that were further enhanced in true South African style with success in the toughest motorsport environments such as the LM Rally and 9 Hour endurance races – initially with the 544, then the 122S and finally the 144 and 142 (two-door model imported just for competition) models. Local assembly of the 122S showed the firm’s seriousness in the South African market, which was further enhanced on 1 November 1967 when the all-new 144S, built at Motor Assemblies in Durban, was stamped with ‘Manufactured in South Africa’, becoming the first Volvo to be completely produced anywhere outside of Sweden. South African 122 assembly and 144 manufacture dovetailed until December 1970, when the world’s last 122S rolled out the plant (yes, we put together the very last 122S ever).
The new 144S, which went on sale here in February 1968, was a major styling deviation from the curvaceous 122S and ushered in a boxy aesthetic for the brand that hung around for 40-odd years. It introduced the firm’s new numbering system, with the ‘1’ referring to the series, the first ‘4’ the number of cylinders and the second ‘4’ the number of doors. When the rear-hatched wagon arrived a year in, it took on the 145 badge and the higher-end six-cylinder saloon wore the number 164.
But back to 144. It was bigger than the 122S too, being 190mm longer and 110mm wider, which made for a decent improvement in interior space, and the fully reclining front seats upped the comfort game with adjustable lumbar support. Safety has always been a consideration for both Volvo engineers and marketers alike (remember Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seat belt in 1959) and the 144S made strides in this department, meeting 20 (and a few more) of the American safety legislation requirements before they were even published.
To prevent accidents, minimal suspension travel and firm shock absorbers made for controllable handling, and disc brakes with a rear lock-inhibiting device featured. If these weren’t enough to keep you safe, a rigid box cabin structure was added, along with a built-in roll bar hoop (claimed to hold the weight of a dozen cars), front and rear impact-absorbing body sections, three-point front seat belts, rear lap strap anchor points, padded dash and collapsible steering column – this last item taking a bit of stick from the press, who felt that the two-section column joined by a shear-plate and designed to collapse under 18kg of pressure was anything but safe when it removed steering control in a prang.
The extra size and additional safety measures did however add weight and cost to the package. When the last 1967-made 122S B18 four-door units sold in 1968, they set the buyer back by R2 642, while the 144S would have cost them R3 150 on the same day. Surprisingly, although early models sported the same 1780cc twin SU carb engine as the 122S B18, the gap in performance between the pair was negligible with both hitting the 60mph mark in just over 12.5 seconds in manual guise. Keep the foot planted and the 144S maxed out at 100mph. The ’68 122S and 144S ran in extremely close in the sales race too, with 2 012 of the former leaving showrooms against the latter’s 2 085. For 1969 the 122S upped its spec with the B20 1986cc engine, and the 144S followed suit. Again the boxy shape managed to outsell the 122, with 2 543 units compared to 1 465.
Off the line performance between the B18 and B20 models was almost exactly the same, although the power output went up from 100 to 118hp – most likely as a result of the reworking of the gear ratios for better open-road cruising comfort. The B20 144S continued selling steadily through to 1976, with cosmetic changes the only major difference – first in 1971, with a new grille wearing a diagonal grille bar, and then again in ’73 when the dashboard received a revamp, the indicators moved to sit alongside the headlights and the grille was fettled and blacked out. In 1973 a fuel-injected 144 was also added to the line-up. Badged as the 144E and priced at around 10% more than the carb version, it sold in relatively small numbers. Both the 144S and E were on South African showroom floors when the firm upped and left.
South African Volvo fans had to endure a twenty-odd-year hiatus, frustrated by watching the 144’s squared-off look continuing overseas through to the 240 model sold between 1974 and 1993. Launched in 1993, the 850 ran through to 1996 and carried on the same trait, and as the new South Africa dawned, so Volvo took some tentative steps back with the 850. As luck would have it, broadcasts of international motorsport programmes became more frequent in this period and a new breed of South African Volvo lover sprung to prominence – enamoured by the exploits of a pair of 850 station wagons squaring up against more traditional saloons in the British Touring Car Championship.
While you won’t see anything square-edged in the current Volvo line-up, it’s clear that as was the case with the 144S fifty years ago, the values of innovation, quality and safety are still of at the forefront of the design thinking.
SOUTH AFRICAN 144 SALES
144S 144E & TE
1968 2 085 (R3 150) -
1969 2 543 (R3 350) -
1970 1 867 (R3 350) -
1971 1 645 (R3 550) -
1972 1 365 (R4 098) -
1973 1 700 (R4 265) 343 (R4 695)
1974 869 (R4 480) 353 (R4 995)
1975 898 (R4 980) 759 (R5 298)
1976 118 (R5 498) 181 (R5 995)
KINGS OF CONSISTENCY
Volvo’s South African racing success kicked off in 1958 when the pairing of Francis Tucker and Michael Renton won the Index of Performance in that year’s Roy Hesketh 6 Hour in a Volvo 544. 544s then featured prominently in the 9 Hour events at Grand Central in 1958, ’59 and ’60. Index of Performance honours were the 122’s forte, with Jan Hettema/Gary Wilson winning this award in the 1963 9 Hour. In ’65 Hettema repeated the result, this time sharing with Frank Wingels. Arnold Chatz drove his Volvo to the 1965 Natal 3 Hour Index and repeated this at Hesketh and Killarney in 1967 (with Wingels as his partner). He wasn’t done yet with the 122, taking the 1968 9 Hour Index with Spencer Shultz. On the 122 rally front Hettema was the man to beat, securing the 1963 and ’67 SA title with Volvo. The arrival of the Volvo 144 saw Lawsons Motors enter cars for both Chatz and Clapham in production car racing, but it wasn’t until the team imported a 142 that the boxy Volvo won something – Index again in the Lourenço Marques 3 Hour. 144 rallying was slightly more successful, with Jannie Kuhn and Kassie Kasselman in the hot seats between 1971 and ’73, where they won two nationals and recorded a handful of podium spots. Volvo then left SA and the Volvo motorsport flag was only briefly flown by Fanie Els in a heavily worked Volvo 164 – the most notable performance being in the 1981 9 Hour where he joined forces with Hans Kruger and finished sixth overall behind a gaggle of Porsche and Lancia prototypes.