Volvo’s PV444 was a revelation in 1944. The swoopy, rounded car was the automaker's first unibody, fronted by a then-modern two-piece laminated windscreen. Its next iteration, the PV544, was still a smallish car even with five seats instead of four, like its predecessor.
The 1961 PV544 was a full 264 millimetres (10.4 inches) shorter than a current Volvo S60. Shoulder to shoulder, the PV544 measured 1,580 mm (62.2 in.); the new S60 saloon is more than 25 cm (10 in.) wider.
With that in mind, try to picture a S60 Polestar jammed into the body of a PV544 and you can almost feel the squeeze. Improbable as that may seem, that’s exactly what MotorTrend TV host Sarah “Bogi” Lateiner decided to do for her all-female build for the 2022 SEMA Show. When the car makes its official debut tomorrow, her goal is to get people talking about her wacky build concept, and it’s clear she’s succeeding.
A Quick History on the PV444 and PV544
After its introduction in 1944 at a Volvo exhibition, interest in the PV444 was off the charts. It was a pleasant surprise for Volvo, which had never exceeded 2,000 of any car before that time. Volvo’s Heritage Manager Hans Hedberg pointed out that co-founder Assar Gabrielsson predicted a total production volume of 8,000 PV444 models. Even then, he was way off; eventually, the model topped the 200,000 mark.
Buoyed by its success, Volvo continued the series with the introduction of the PV544 in 1958. The PV544 came with a single-pane windshield and a larger rear window to improve overall visibility. The funky little Volvo PV544 became a highly successful rally car, cementing its status as an important model in the company's history. And on August 13, 1959, the PV544 became the world's first car with standard-fit three-point safety belts, a fact Volvo proudly embosses into the buckles of its modern cars, like the C40 Recharge and V90.
Squeezing A New Car Into A Classic
In 2021, Lateiner scored a barn-find 1961 Volvo PV544 and she dragged it back to her shop in a humble neighbourhood of Phoenix, Arizona. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it, initially, but she was drawn to the shape. Lateiner’s first car (which she still owns) was a classic 1974 Volkswagen Beetle, and the sloped rear end of the PV544 echoes the lines of the VW; she found comfort in the familiarity.
Lateiner knew she didn’t want to use the original engine, a naturally aspirated 1.8-litre inline-four making 99 bhp, so she decided to call Volvo to see if it would be willing to donate an engine for the Frankencar project she had in mind.
After reaching out on LinkedIn to every Volvo executive to no avail, she stated her intentions as a guest on a podcast, putting it out to the universe. As it turned out, it was the moderator of that same podcast who connected her with Russell Datz, Volvo’s public relations contact.
“When I called him I said, ‘Hey, you don't know me and this is gonna sound like a really weird idea, but we were kind of hoping you'd help us,’” Lateiner remembered, laughing. Volvo was intrigued by Lateiner’s idea – to create a custom Volvo with a team of women from around the world – and her mission to introduce more women to the automotive trade, and it saw an opportunity to do something radical with it.
“Bogi first asked us for an engine,” Datz told Motor1.com. “But because we are moving forward so rapidly toward electrification, we made a counteroffer for her to take the entire PHEV.”
From there, Lateiner shifted the scope of the project. In an S60 Polestar Engineered, the electronics are interconnected, each piece informing the other. It wasn’t just the engine she needed but the entire car, otherwise her project would throw a fault that would scuttle the whole thing. Once Lateiner and her Girl Gang Garage team had the S60 in hand, then they had to figure out how much of the technology they could integrate.
“In the process, I found out that there is virtually no support in the aftermarket for Volvos,” Lateiner said. “On the other hand, there's not a lot of support for standalone control modules that will handle gas, direct injection, the turbocharger, and the supercharger along with the rest of the layers anyway.”
Cut To Fit, Weld To Match
To start, Lateiner and the team cut off the shell of the S60 and kept the floor, subframe, suspension, and drivetrain. The big challenge has been fitting as much of the electronics and the bells and whistles of the S60 hybrid into this PV544; Lateiner called it “stuffing 15 pounds of ish into a two-pound bag.” It’s a puzzle without a picture, and Lateiner has no qualms about experimenting because this particular mishmash of past and present is something that’s never been done before.
Even though this car build is radically custom, Lateiner said, it’s still about 80 percent original 1961 Swedish metal. That metal may not be not in its original form, however, as the Girl Gang Garage has repurposed every piece from small patches to major customisations throughout the build.
I got to put my hands on the project as well, pulling the old brake lines and replacing them with flexible hoses and wrenching them back in. The three journalists who joined Bogi at the garage that day (Lalita Chemello, Emme Hall, and me) also learned how to weld with Danae Buschkoetter, an instructor at North Central Kansas Technical College. She explained the differences between tungsten inert gas (TIG) and metal inert gas (MIG) welding and gave me a chance to try my hand at it. Buschkoetter makes it look easy, while my lines looked sloppy and uneven. Luckily, I was practising on scrap metal and not the PV544.
What I learned from the process is that working on a car isn’t an exact science. It’s sometimes trial and error. Sometimes a gut feeling. And sometimes you start over and try again.
“Even if a project is big and scary to you, it's not actually that scary when you break it down,” Lateiner told me. “And especially in the custom car world, this is more about creativity than it is about mechanics.”
Positive Outcomes For Women In The Field
Lateiner was a guest speaker at Volvo USA’s recent national customer service conference for its entire dealer network, telling the crowd about her project and the powerful effects she has seen so far. Knowing she has played even a small part in influencing the perspective on techs in general and on female techs in particular of a major automotive manufacturer, Lateiner said she can die a happy woman.
“Partnering with Volvo on this build has had a far greater impact than I ever could have hoped,” Bogi posted to her Facebook page on August 11. “In Volvo’s words, bringing the Iron Maven project to them alerted them to a problem they didn’t know they had. Since then they have taken serious measures and made a commitment to dramatically increase the number of female technicians in their network.”
Datz agreed, noting that dealers are hiring technicians as independent businesses and Volvo needed to find ways to work with them to hire more female techs. Volvo brass is also thrilled with the results so far, crediting the Girl Gang Garage for giving the company a little push to find more ways to bring more women into the industry.
“When Bogi contacted us, it spurred us to take action,” Datz said. “We took a gut check and have been actively increasing the numbers of women in the dealer ranks since then. I think this is one of the best initiatives Volvo has ever undertaken and we’re grateful to Bogi for helping us do that.”
Part of the reason Lateiner chose the Volvo for SEMA is to spark a discussion both about the car and her shop. Volvos aren’t typically heavily modified cars, which means that people will do a double-take when they see the project at completion.
“You don't see a lot of custom Volvos,” she said. “So why do it? Here’s the thing. You see a really nice Nova at a car show and you keep walking. You rarely even stop to talk to the owner unless it's freaking stunning. But you’ll walk up to this Volvo and we can have a conversation because it draws attention.”
The Humpbacked PV544 Starts A Conversation
Lateiner noted that people aren't going to know what the heck this vehicle is, especially in its heavily modified form, because the PV544 isn’t well-known to begin with. And that spurs questions and curiosity, leading to the opportunity to talk about what the Girl Gang Garage is all about.
“With each conversation, we get to say ‘This was built by all women,’” Lateiner said. “And then I get to see little girls at car shows and say ‘Do you want to come help build?”
Gallery: 1961 Volvo PV544 By Girl Gang Garage
Lateiner is happy with the progress on her PV, now dubbed the Iron Maven.
“It became so much bigger than I expected it to be,” she said. “I knew we were going to build a cool car. I knew we were going to make some great connections. I knew it was going to be about community and building each other up. But I had no idea of the magic that would happen.”