Volvo history: Founded over fish, survived by quality
How, exactly, does a premium Swedish car company take root from nothing but a conversation over a plate of cooked crustaceans?
How does a name become synonymous with safety? And how do Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson, two men with three simple rules, go down in history as the team responsible for creating the legendary Volvo brand?
The story is, as the historians tell it, quite literally a fishy one.
Gabrielsson, an economics major and a sales genius for a Swedish ball-bearing company became the money guy. Larson was the idea man and an engineer and designer who had worked as a trainee at White & Poppe in Coventry, England, where he was involved in the design of Morris engines.
After working together for a period of time in the early 1900s, the two friends were reunited over a dinner of crayfish one July evening in 1924. There, they hatched out a plan to create a uniquely Scandinavian car company that would be well-respected, well-regarded and generally a pillar of the premium auto market for years to come. The idea was to offer Swedish buyers an alternative to the American cars that were rolling into the country at that time.
"The Swedish Car," they called it.
The concept was Scandinavian in its simplicity: build a vehicle suited to the climate. The principles of the execution would be followed for nearly another century.
They came to a verbal agreement in August of 1924 and began putting their ideas to work.
Using high-quality Swedish steel and components, Gabrielsson and Larson created 10 prototypes. Gabrielsson financed everything, with bodies styled by Swedish artist Helmer Mas-Olle. Larson, working most of the time from his home, made sure the engineers got it right.
Built in Lundby, near Gothenberg, Sweden, the first car, nicknamed Jakob, rolled off the line at 10 a.m. on April 14, 1927, less than three years after the crayfish dinner.
Once there was a legitimate product, interest began to really pick up.
SKF, Gabrielsson's ball-bearing company, wanted a piece of the action and provided credit for an initial run of 1,000 cars; 500 open-top cars; and 500 covered.
SKF also provided the factory and the name, which they had patented. Volvo was derived from the Latin term for "I roll", an obvious reference to the ball-bearing company. Gabrielsson and Larson created the circle-and-arrow trademark that was meant to represent strength and took its shape from the traditional alchemist's symbol for iron ore.
At a time when cars were built from kits derived from ready-made parts found it catalogs, Volvo wanted to outsource its own components to car builders they could trust.
Quality, as the saying goes, was truly Job One.
The plan was to build 1,000 vehicles, but only 205 convertibles made it off the line the first year, compared with 721 closed-car bodies. The Swedes were truly interested in what Volvo could offer in the cold climate and the name quickly gained prominence in the country.
The four-cylinder car had a top speed of 37 mph and it was meant to withstand the rigors of Sweden's rough roads and cold temperatures.
Volvo's trucks, which followed a year after the cars, were also a hit and became a large part of the sales portfolio in the early going.
Within three years, the company was profitable and by 1933, Volvo had delivered 10,000 vehicles as a new generation of cars with more rounded exteriors were taking shape. Gabrielsson and Larson would play vital roles in the expansion, right down to the design of the sales manual, which went out to every employee and included the golden rules of how to sell a car.
Rule Number One: Let the customer drive the car.
Rule Number Two: Let the customer drive the car.
Rule Number Three: Let the customer drive the car!!!
Interestingly, both men left as they began . . . together.
In 1952, exactly a quarter century after forming the company over a feed of crayfish, they went out for dinner again and decided they would leave Volvo's day-to-day operations behind for good.
Larson, ever the engineer, led technical development and was vice managing director of Volvo for 26 years before retiring to the Swedish countryside at 65. He died on July 4, 1968, at age 80.
Gabrielsson, the money man, was Volvo's technical manager and executive vice president for decades. He stayed on as a member of the board and consultant, but died in that role in 1962.
Volvo would motor on using the same founding principles as guidance: quality, safety; and Swedish simplicity.
A fishy story? Hardly.