Is there really a posh yet practical Volvo? Apparently so, going by marque celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the 164…

If we asked you to picture a prestigious car from the 1960s, chances are you’d envision something rather large. Were we to then ask you to think of a Volvo, it’s likely you’d choose something renowned more for its practicality than its swagger – and it would be predictably large, too.

We could be fairly confident that ‘small yet decadent’ would not be characteristics you’d naturally associate with the Swedish marque. It might therefore come as a surprise to hear that Volvo is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 164, a compact model launched in 1968 that was marketed in the US as ‘the luxury car that shows you have more than money’.

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Upon its first appearance on forecourts around the world, the 164 was undoubtedly a somewhat unexpected package for dealers and customers alike. Volvos were, and still are, known for their efficiency and robustness. They were extremely dependable, and more than worthy of taking on everyday demands.

Celebrating 50 years of the Volvo 164
Celebrating 50 years of the Volvo 164
Celebrating 50 years of the Volvo 164

However, in one 164 publicity shot, Volvo’s new model sits in a cobbled courtyard surrounded by ladies preparing for an equestrian outing. Another marketing shot shows a smart couple inside a parked 164. They look like the kind of people you’d invite to a civilised evening dinner.

Volvo had flirted with the idea of manufacturing a more exclusive model since the 1950s. Impressions from this publicity material from the late 1960s suggest that the manufacturer realised its ambitions in the 164.

To equal the promise of ‘ageless elegance in every line’, not to mention the leather upholstery designed to deliver ‘well planned comfort throughout’, Volvo ensured that the 164 could shift, too. Power came courtesy of the 145bhp that came from a straight-six B30 engine working in unison with dual Zenith Stromberg constant-depression carburettors.

Celebrating 50 years of the Volvo 164

The overall idea was that the 164 would be ‘fast yet unobtrusive’. It was a quick motor, but with the politest of dispositions. Fitting such a large powerplant into the chassis, which had originally been taken from the Volvo 140, necessitated a 10cm extension to the 164’s platform. Transmission options included a manual four-speed or a ‘remote-control’ edition that possessed optional electronically operated overdrive.

Meanwhile, conventional Volvo design cues – including the ‘iron mark’ logo up front – took pride of place, while the interior benefitted from significant enhancement to complete the company’s first venture into the luxury market since the PV60 ceased production back in 1950.

Lavish cabin fittings included thick woollen seat fabric, textile floor mats and the somewhat compulsory ‘plush vehicle’ feature of a rear seat for two complete with central drop-down armrest.

Celebrating 50 years of the Volvo 164

Demand for these extra touches of luxury were popular and so, after the first year of production, Volvo upgraded the interior once again to incorporate leather upholstery, headrests and integrated halogen-type auxiliary lamps. American clients could boast of the inclusion of electric windows and sunroof, air-conditioning and tinted windows.

Clearly, many had opted to buy Swedish rather than from resolute US brands such as Buick and Oldsmobile, proving that there was room for Volvo in the premium saloon market. Electronic fuel injection was added in 1972, three years before 164 production drew to a close to make way for the upcoming 264.

Celebrating 50 years of the Volvo 164

As Volvo celebrates 50 years since the launch of the 164, we can comprehensively say that this particular model remains a notable success in blending the robust and practical elements the company was already known for, with a high level of refinement.

In the 164 Volvo successfully created ‘a civilised car for an uncivilised world’, and paved the way for many more classics that would strive to deliver impressive power and safety combined with a tantalising level of comfort and exclusivity.

Celebrating 50 years of the Volvo 164

Five lesser-known facts about the Volvo 164

  • Only one 164 was turned into an ambulance. Volvo’s special vehicles division built a prototype that was significantly taller and had an extended wheelbase. This became a forerunner of the ambulances that would later be created on the base of the Volvo 265.
  • Volvo 164 production was relocated to Kalmar in 1974. The methods used at the new plant were very modern for the era. The cars were moved on battery-operated trolleys controlled by loops in the floor. Teams of workers assembled the cars. The workers were able to take it in turns to supervise, and job rotation around the various production tasks was possible.

Celebrating 50 years of the Volvo 164

  • The prototype for the 262C luxury coupé, built in Italy, was based on a 164. Coachbuilder Coggiola converted it into a two-door coupé that looked more or less the same as the production model. One major difference was the way in which the prototype kept its 164 front.
  • The six-cylinder B30 engine from the 164 was also used in a number of Volvo’s military off-road vehicles. A marine version of the B30 engine, with three carburettors, was also produced by Volvo Penta.
  • Italian coachbuilder Zagato adorned its stand at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show with the 3000 GTZ sports coupé. This had the B30 engine and was based mechanically on the 164. The only prototype ever built is rumoured to still exist today.

Celebrating 50 years of the Volvo 164

Gallery: Celebrating 50 years of the Volvo 164