Volvo Concept You

Volvo's eighty-five-year visual history is rather odd, never quite free of the perpetual "it looks like a..." problem. The earliest Volvos looked like boxes, along with most other cars of the 1920s. The Carioca, introduced in 1935, looked like a Chrysler Airflow; the Philip prototype of 1953 strongly resembled the Darrin-designed '51 Kaiser; and the '50s 122 Amazon was so similar to an Aero Willys that some U.S. car magazines suggested actual American tooling was involved. It wasn't.

The models that popularized Volvo's products outside its native country and the rest of Scandinavia, the PV444 and its PV544 derivative, were no exception. From most angles they looked like early 1940s Fords with a particularly clumsy front end grafted on, but clever advertising combined with outstanding ruggedness and surprising performance -- I remember a couple of them outrunning MGAs on a track near Washington, D.C., and Tom Trana winning the R.A.C. rally in a 544 in 1963 -- helped Volvo climb as high as number three on the import sales charts in the United States before the Japanese invasion overwhelmed European carmakers. After the 544 went out of production, Volvos went back to looking like boxes again, elegant boxes in the case of the 960, but boxes all the same.

When Peter Horbury arrived in Sweden twenty years ago as Volvo's design leader -- he had previously created the interior of the 1985 DAF-derived 480ES, Volvo's first front-wheel-drive product -- he created a gas turbine/electric hybrid concept car, the ECC, that led to some very nice but conservative designs with curved surfaces, very much in the general mainstream of "international" design. Not only did the ECC lead to big styling changes, it seemed to liberate Volvo's engineers to abandon the classic front-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration that had prevailed for decades. Today, there are only front- and all-wheel-drive chassis, some of which have benefited Ford's American lineup.

Volvo has had many commercial problems. There was an aborted merger with Renault that put both companies back several years, an outright sale to Ford, and then Ford's fire sale to China's Geely. Through it all, Horbury has gone to each buyer as part of Volvo's patrimony. After his Ford service in Detroit, Horbury returned to Volvo and gave us two quite similar concept cars last year -- this Concept You and the earlier Concept Universe -- that have recapitulated the blocky hood on top of the flat-fender front end of the 444-series cars. So while one might think that this newest concept car would at last be free of the "it looks like..." problem, that hasn't happened.

The Concept You looks like...a Volvo.

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