When most people learn the name Volvo is derived from a Latin word meaning “I roll” they assume it refers to the cars. The actuality is it refers to the company from which Volvo evolved, the Svenska Kullagerfabriken AB, which translates to the “Swedish Ball Bearing Factory” AB. The company is referred to by the initialism “SKF”.
The Swedish Ball Bearing Factory was founded upon the 1907 Swedish patent granted to Sven Wingqvist for a multi-row self-aligning radial ball bearing system. The SKF Company was very successful from the onset. By 1910, it employed 325 people and boasted a subsidiary in the UK.
Wingqvist, born in December of 1876, was an engineer, inventor and an industrialist. At the age of 23, he was employed as an operating engineer in a textile factory. One of the problems Wingqvist frequently had to repair was a mechanical breakdown due to failed ball bearings in drive shafts. On his own initiative, he worked to develop a bearing system capable of standing up to the conditions the textile mill imposed upon them. In the process he realized his device would serve other industries as well .Wingqvist established SKF to manufacture them in 1907. By 1912, SKF was represented in 32 countries. By 1930, a staff of more than 21,000 people was employed in 12 manufacturing facilities worldwide with the largest being in Philadelphia.
In 1926, SKF managing director Björn Prytz and SKF sales manager Assar Gabrielsson, along with engineer Gustav Larson got Volvo started. Prytz had been responsible for registering the name Volvo in 1915, as a trademark and a subsidiary company to SKF. During the period he worked for SKF in the U.S., he’d noted a number of SKF’s competitors were getting into the automobile business as a way of having a built-in market for their ball bearings. Somewhat presciently, he positioned SKF to do the same.
Eleven years later, when Gabrielsson and Larson approached him with the idea, Prytz was already open to it. Gabrielsson had worked out deal with Larson to develop the first Volvo during his free time away from his day job at a company called AB Galco, located in Stockholm. According to legend, the terms of the deal the two struck were as follows; Larson would carry out the engineering work for a new car, as well as an investment plan for a completely new manufacturing plant to build it; but would only be paid after at least 100 cars were produced—if it all happened before January 1, 1928. With the prototype developed for next to nothing, once Prytz got a look at what the two had been up to it was pretty much a slam-dunk to get SKF on board.
The first ten cars were assembled in Stockholm at AB Galco, while Larson was still doing his regular job there. Other than that, all of the design work was handled offsite, in Larson’s apartment. Further, all the bills for the project were sent to Gabrielsson at his home. Essentially, private parties—albeit taking advantage of their professional positions and situations—developed Volvo.
The first mass-produced Volvo, the ÖV 4, “rolled” off the assembly line and left the factory on April 14, 1927. The model designation was derived from the Swedish phrase Öppen Vagn 4 cylindrar. This translates in English to mean “Open Carriage 4 Cylinders.” A 28-horsepower 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine powered the automobile.
It took a while for Volvo to gain traction with passenger cars, so the platform was adapted to carry a truck body. This was a considerably more successful endeavor. Still, it took ten years to sell the first 25,000 Volvo cars. Once they caught on though, the market was pretty hot. The second 25,000 cars sold in only four years.
One of the things Volvo is particularly noted for is safety. From the very beginning Gabrielsson and Larson were concerned with it. In fact the two are quoted as having said; “Cars are driven by people. The guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo, therefore, is and must remain, safety.” This was recorded in 1927, when they started producing cars.
To that end, over the ensuing years Volvo cars were the first to use laminated glass, three-point safety belts, rear-facing child safety seats, crumple zones front and rear, safety door locks, inertial reel safety belts, an impact absorbing steering column, a roll-over protection system, roll stability control, inflatable side-curtain airbags, collision warning, lane departure warning, pedestrian protection with auto brake, and cross traffic alerts. And, these are but a few among many, many such innovations.
The first Volvo models came to the United States in the 1950s. Leading the way was the iconic Volvo PV444. This was one of the first truly successful Volvo models. In the 1960’s Volvo launched a sports car, the P1800. Available as both a coupe and a compact station wagon, the P1800 was also featured on television being driven by Roger Moore playing the character “The Saint”.
In the 1980’s young urban professionals started heavily favoring Volvo models. The 242 GT model from that period presaged the performance image Volvo would later cultivate with its “R” Series and “R-Design” cars. Leading into the 21st century, a design renaissance took root at the company. The first models to benefit from this were the S40 and C70. Suddenly, in addition to being safe, Volvos were sexy too. This period also saw Volvo move more upmarket with the introduction of the Volvo 850, the forerunner to today’s Volvo S80 luxury automobiles. Volvo introduced its first SUV in 2002.
Today’s Volvo models are as much about luxury and performance as they are about safety. Unfortunately though, it seems to have been difficult to build and sell them profitably since the 1990s. Volvo was originally formed as 100 percent owned subsidiary of SKF. When it was split off and went public in 1935 on the Swedish stock exchange as Volvo AB, SKF sold the majority of its shares in the company. Volvo AB operated as an independent entity until 1999, when the Ford Motor Company bought Volvo for its now-defunct Premier Automotive Group (PAG).
Upon the dissolution of the PAG in 2010, Ford sold Volvo to the Geely Holding Group of China.