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

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - News -

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.

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