Motoring | Features

Volvo PV544

Despite its small inline-four, the Volvo PV544 became one of the most successful rally cars at the end of the Fifties and beginning of the Sixties. One victory in particular stands out from all the rest

  • By Imran Malik, wheels magazine
  • Published: 15:15 December 6, 2012
  • Wheels

Volvo PV544
  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Not many gave the Volvo PV544 or Joginder Singh much of a chance but both car and driver went on to prove the doubters wrong at the 1965 East African Safari Rally.

My dad’s told me the story millions of times before. But I always bug him to recount it any chance I get because it’s just so good. Basically, you’ve got an inexperienced driver in a car that flopped during testing, set to compete in the toughest rally on the calendar. Not many gave the Volvo PV544 or Joginder Singh much of a chance but both car and driver went on to prove the doubters wrong at the 1965 East African Safari Rally.

When Volvo began building the PV series of cars during the Second World War, the aim was to ensure the carmaker’s survival with the small, fuel-efficient vehicle — not to dominate motorsport. The 444 was launched to a car-hungry Swedish population in 1944 and their response to it was extremely positive. It was Volvo’s first uni-body car and the first in almost two decades that had a four-cylinder motor.

The 1.4-litre, designated the B4B, started out with just 40bhp but that soon grew to 75. The revised PV544 was introduced in 1958 but changes were minimal at most. Out went the two-piece laminated windscreen for a larger, convex type to help improve visibility. It gained the ‘thermometer’ type speedo, which was a familiar feature on cars during that period and it got a new dashboard with a padded upper half to improve interior safety.

The highlight was a new four-speed manual gearbox that was also made available for the first time when earlier, all you could get was a three-speed. By the early Sixties, it had a new 1.8-litre engine (the B18) which was initially developed for the P1800 sportscar and it now had a healthy 90bhp. It was produced at the new Canadian Dartmouth/Halifax plant, making it the first Volvo plant to be located outside of Sweden.

The car was gaining something of a reputation having filled the first five places in the Sports Car Club of America’s endurance race at Lime Rock, winning the series in both 1958 and 1961. The following year, Volvo was heavily involved in racing and the PV dominated both touring car and endurance events including the six and 12 hours at the Nürburgring. One of the most successful rally drivers of all time, Tom Trana, steered it to some of its most memorable victories.

He drove it to first place at the 1963 British RAC Rally, the 1964 Acropolis Rally and the 1965 Rally of Sweden. But its claim to fame was during the East African Safari Rally in 1965. Volvo took four cars with it to Kenya but they failed to finish during the preliminary rounds. Three cars were sent back to Sweden but one was left to Singh and readied for action at Volvo’s Nairobi workshop. During interviews before the big race, he admitted that he’d be happy to just finish the contest.

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He couldn’t have dreamt of a better fairy tale ending as he led the race, with co-driver and brother Jaswant, from start to finish to win by an incredible 100 minutes and hand the 544 its most impressive victory. It was a heck of a story, but for the full and dramatic version, you’ve got to hear it from my dad...

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