Why the Volvo Wagon Has Reached Iconic Status
Almost no cars remain iconic through generations, but I can think of a few that have, and along with the Mercedes S-Class and the Subaru Forester, the Volvo wagon is one of them.
Cars become iconic when they broadcast so much to so many so quickly about a car and the person driving it—most of it admirable and good, though virtue can and will be flipped back on itself. The quotable quote of the far-right Club for Growth from earlier this century comes to mind, when they castigated anyone to the political left of Mississippi’s most stone-aged legislator as a “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.”
So there is that price to pay for success.
Iconic status adheres when a car’s purity of purpose lands it at the perfect intersection of reality and marketing. A franchise—and often a brand—is built right at that spot.
Understandably, it’s an easy quality to lose. By way of sad example, think Mini, which has gone from Mini to Not Mini in but a few car lives. Such a squandering of goodwill, the BMW-stan’s bulbous current lineup discards the compelling minimalism of its iconic predecessors (a dwindling quality from the start) and then stomps all over it, psychographically speaking. And all the advertising in the world can’t change that.
Against the tide for more than 50 years, Volvo wagons have kept the faith. The new V90 carries the company’s wagon torch ably upmarket. The company deserves to be commended for a job well done. And this most crucial test: I seriously wish I could afford one.
My idea of what a Volvo wagon is and should be is rooted in the late 1960s, when magazine advertising made a series of ethical promises on the brand’s behalf: that a 122 was safer than most with excellent gas mileage—25 mpg, which many won’t remember is all that everyone’s contemporaneous exemplar of economy, the Volkswagen Beetle, ever got. Volvos weren’t small, but they weren’t grotesque in scale, either. The company explicitly rejected planned obsolescence and annual model changes, stating its expectation that you would keep your handsome but not flashy Volvo wagon a long time. Does anyone ever even bother saying things like that anymore?
My bona fides in the Volvo wagon department can be traced to when I was 8, and my parents ordered a 1967 122S wagon from Kingsfield Motors of Englewood, New Jersey. Turns out it was pretty much exactly the same as my current 122S wagon, the one that accompanied us to South Carolina (page 40). Same light green exterior, same dark green vinyl interior, same year of manufacture, same four-speed manual transmission, same options—gray rubber floor mats and a Bendix AM radio with antenna.
The new one has trim rings, and now that I’m remembering, the old one had a roof rack. With wooden slats that needed refinishing often. But it didn’t have rear lap belts to go with the standard front three-point belts, as delivered. I guess people didn’t know as much then as they do now. My parents fully understood the value of the front belts, and even though they liked their three kids well enough, they waited close to a year to have rear belts installed. Today they’d be arrested. The larger point is, back then it really was hard to go overboard on the options list.
Iconic status adheres when a car’s purity of purpose lands it at the perfect intersection of reality and marketing.
Many years on, after learning to drive in that first 122S wagon, I wrecked it with 165,000 miles on the clock when some dope fiend ran a stop sign in Harlem at 2 a.m. and hit the left front fender of the overloaded car—right in front of my feet—broadside. No injuries to persons was the good news, but what was I doing in Harlem in the middle of the night with six friends in a five-passenger car? Funny you should ask; that is exactly what my parents wanted to know.
Well, I was coming home with some pals (two in the wagon’s way back) from an era-appropriate midnight showing of “Steppenwolf and Siddhartha” at the old Waverly Theatre in the West Village, if you must know, and was experimenting with Park Avenue as a route for late-night uptown travel, on account of all kinds of surprise traffic on other more direct routes back to the George Washington Bridge and northern New Jersey.
We arrived home via taxis and tow truck. A couple of crummy days ensued. Although the wagon wasn’t totaled, it was never the same, and my parents eventually got rid of it.
A few years later, I bought another identical 1967 wagon for $ 200 from my parents’ friend, the New Yorker cartoonist Mort Gerberg, when its timing gear failed. I could’ve fixed it with a $ 35 part, had I figured out what was wrong with it before I went and bought an extremely used but running B18D engine at a junkyard in Staten Island for $ 125. Twenty-thousand miles later, it blew up according to schedule, just as rust was claiming the chassis cross members.
Fast-forward 10 years, and I buy yet another light green 1967 122S wagon off the Hoboken-based drummer of the legendary indie band Sonic Youth, Steve Shelley. Some small subset of aging hipsters among you today will find this connection priceless, though Sonic Youth’s reputation for cosmic coolness has always exceeded any innate quality of their music, in my humble opinion. Unlike some of his swellheaded bandmates, however, Shelley was a nice guy.
I sold that wagon. Then one day in 2006 I saw yet another light green wagon, same everything as before but with a mere 80 miles on the clock, having spent 40 years on a dealer’s showroom floor. Naturally I had to take a loan and walk down Recurrent Memory Lane. By way of a publicity stunt, Volvo covered a token $ 500 of the recommissioning costs to honor the “warranty” that arguably-but-not-really existed. (The car was still on its MSO, never having been registered.) Every little bit helped.
When we set out for Richmond that first morning, the 122S was just about to hit 6,000 miles. The 1,000-plus-mile trip was certainly its longest journey ever. And it was great. But the V90 we drove home felt even better. Faster, safer, more fuel efficient, better riding, air-conditioned luxury. Immensely more complicated. And I think, over time, potentially just as iconic.
Until then, how to build an icon? Start with something good.