FORGOTTEN HERO VOLVO VENUS BILO
The Venus Bilo looked years ahead of its time. But what made it more extraordinary was that Volvo was behind it – nearly changing the manufacturer’s design direction
Extraordinary in every single way, and we bet you've never even heard of it.
When you think of manufacturers of svelte, stylish, even avant-garde classics, Volvo doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Rugged, reliable and chiselled from granite are all attributes that might be applied to Sweden’s sensible automotive giant, but when it comes to looks, Volvo has usually erred on the side of prudence. Until recently, only the P1800 and its derivatives really stood out as anything designed with much more than a ruler and an assortment of Lego blocks.
However, during the mid-1930s, Volvo attempted something radical by any standards, let alone its own. In 1933, it unveiled an Art Deco aerodynamic leviathan dubbed the Venus Bilo – and accidentally invented the concept car as well. It’s things like that which almost put the seatbelt and Side Impact Protection System in the shade.
When the Venus Bilo appeared, it was only six years since the very first Volvo had been driven off the production line at Lundby in Gothenburg… in reverse, because the rear axle had been put together incorrectly. Still, after that hiccup, the company got much better at building cars and by 1929 was even running at a profit – all of 1956 Kronor, which was the equivalent of a giddy £110 (about £6000 in today’s money).
However, then the Great Depression spread across the globe following 1929’s Wall Street Crash in the United States, and the bottom started to fall out of Volvo’s financial world. Looking for a way to halt its decline, the conservative carmaker stumbled upon
the emerging trend of streamlining and decided that injecting its cars with touch of aviation-inspired exuberance might be just the thing.
Some independent stylists were already experimenting with smooth, rakish looks rather than traditional upright lines, but Volvo was one of the first mainstream manufacturers to embrace the ideas, pre-dating the much better known Chrysler Airflow by a year.
The company turned to design consultant Gustaf Ericsson – son of the founder of the Ericsson telephone empire. During 1932, he was commissioned to build a one-off body on a PV653 six-cylinder chassis and given carte blanche to let his imagination run riot. Which he did, fashioning something like nothing that had gone before.
It was utterly distinctive. Painted flamboyant twotone blue and yellow – the colours of the Swedish flag – the air-smoothed monster was more than 16ft long. That meant it could carry six passengers with ease, along with all their luggage thanks to the nine specially-designed suitcases made to fit inside it.
Some of these could be stowed in a wing compartment behind the right front wheel; an equivalent on the left side held tools and a spare tyre – something that pre-dated Bristol’s similar use of forward storage by two decades. These cutouts gave access to the engine as well. There was another spare wheel at the rear, which also served a secondary purpose. Protruding from the sweeping tail, it acted as a pneumatic bumper. An early example of Volvo safety consciousness perhaps?
However, as innovative as these features were, it was the car’s appearance that was the most revolutionary thing about it. Constructed by Gustaf Nordbergs Vagnfabrik AB, it had full-width styling, with no hint of the usual running boards or separate mudguards. The cascading grille was framed by faired-in headlamps and front wings that tapered down to a rounded point, concealed behind a curved bumper that almost make it look like the car was manically grinning. Their style would be vaguely echoed by the cowhorn bumpers adopted by the first P1800s three decades later.
The streamlining was even extended to the underneath of the car, which was completely smooth, something that helped improve fuel consumption and cut down on swirling dust, as many Swedish roads were unsurfaced at the time.
As an individualistic and futuristic concept car, the Venus Bilo was perhaps a little more than Volvo was expecting. Somewhat concerned about how mildmannered Sweden might react to such a wild flight of automotive fancy, it wasn’t officially badged as a Volvo, despite the trademark logo (the Swedish ‘Mars’ symbol for iron) appearing on the grille. Ericsson was given the credit for it, although the ‘Venus Bilo’ title – a corruption of ‘Venus de Milo’ – was chosen by Volvo’s own house magazine.
The car was revealed to an aghast Scandinavian public in November 1933. It didn’t receive a positive reaction. Nevertheless, a couple of years later, Volvo introduced the streamlined PV36 Carioca, which incorporated a number of its stylistic cues. That too was a flop; just 500 were sold up until 1938. After that, Volvo buttoned its design dreams down and, with a few exceptions, they stayed firmly buttoned down until quite recent times.
The Venus Bilo was a brave attempt to introduce something very different to a world that just wasn’t ready for it. Had it been more favourably received, it might have altered Volvo’s whole design philosophy – it could have been the stirring Swedish marque, while Saab built domesticated loadluggers for generations of antique dealers and middle class suburbanites across the world.
But the Venus Bilo was unloved, and remained so. Volvo didn’t even want to hang onto it, selling the prototype after World War II in Denmark. It was rebuilt during the mid-1950s into a pick-up truck by a Danish scrapyard owner, but all trace of it disappeared after 1956.
The Bilo’s streamlined style predated Chrysler’s Airflflow by over one year.
Adventurous looks – yet the conservative Swedish market didn’t take to it.
The rear-mounted spare wheel also served as a useful safety bumper. Clever thinking, Volvo.
Venus Bilo lines have been echoed in many later cars.
Although no more Venus Bilos were built, its aerodynamic ideas did lead on to the PV36 Carioca of 1935. Beneath the Venus Bilo was the chassis and mechanics from the PV650 series of models, standard bodies of which looked very different. The Venus Bilo had its own specially-designed luggage to fifit its various nooks and crannies.