Volvo 144E: return of The Saint

| 30 May 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

National identity has been all but eliminated from the modern car.

The Volvo 144 was quite a dull vehicle, but for mostly good reasons that had almost everything to do with the fact that it emanated from Sweden.

Although very much an ‘international’ product intended for export markets, its design also reflected the requirements of the place that created it.

There is nothing wrong with that.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

This Volvo 144E is fresh from a restoration

The Volvo 144 was made from above-average materials to a straightforward and proven design, pretending to be nothing more than a dependable, crashworthy 2-litre saloon from a large, sparsely populated country where harsh conditions and long distances made breaking down a most undesirable option.

It hailed from a place where predictable handling on slippery native roads had more value than fancy suspension design, hence Volvo’s long-held faith in rear-wheel drive and live axles.

It was the natural product of an inherently conservative and highly taxed country where only the wealthy could afford to change their cars regularly.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

Early Volvo 140 series cars had SU carburettors, but Bosch fuel injection was introduced by the 140GL and 140E

Thus, it was taken as read that the new 140 – like the PV and Amazon before it – would not change significantly in outward appearance for the following eight years or so.

Moreover, practical Swedes expected their cars not to rust away before their eyes, hence Volvo’s widely promoted boast that its stoutly built, generously undersealed cars lasted an average of 11 years when most others survived three.

All very worthy, but also a winning formula that found wide acceptance in both Europe and North America, where there was a new appetite for the wholesome virtues of the Volvo 144.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

This Volvo 144E is unusual in having front foglights

As well as a ready-made audience of Volkswagen Beetle owners looking to trade up, the 144 found favour with disenchanted former customers of full-sized American cars.

After decades of built-in obsolescence, US buyers, hooked on finance deals that encouraged them to trade in every couple of years, were tiring of the giant, thirsty and often shoddily made domestic products.

Then, when Ralph Nader put safety on the agenda, Volvo could legitimately claim to have been proactive in the field long before it was fashionable or legally required.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

The Volvo 144E’s seats are nicely sculpted

Features such as a collapsible steering column, standard seatbelts and a crash-safe body – with more front legroom than a Cadillac and a bigger boot than a Lincoln – were heavily promoted.

Aided by a genius advertising campaign that was second only to the one that had made VW’s fortune in the same territory, the scene was set for the 140 series’ US success.

One famous ad showed a 140 taking the weight of six other Volvos on its roof to make the safety point.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

In the Volvo 144E, rear seatbelts were a cost option

In an overall sense, the 1966 Volvo 144 was a generic ‘car-shaped’ car: a three-box, four-door, five-seat, rear-drive saloon with a modern, angular profile that moved the game on from the curvy charm of the much-loved Amazon.

But if the PVs and Amazons had a certain enthusiast appeal – which went hand-in-hand with a reputation for toughness and longevity – then the 140 series was all health and safety.

Yet it was more than just a Swedish Hillman Hunter.

The 140 was first seen in August 1966 and crossed over with the 120-series Amazon for four years, with British imports beginning in 1967 – mostly in four-door 144 form, although the two-door 142 was briefly offered.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

‘If some considered it a sports saloon, that was their problem. Safety, durability and reliability were the priorities in Gothenburg’

Volvo’s 145 estates started coming through in 1968, but the UK never got the raised-roof 145 Express with its workmanlike, panelled-in side windows.

The B18 and B20 five-main-bearing in-line ‘fours’ were reckoned to be among the toughest engines ever made.

They could cover huge mileages, were very tunable (as proven by the Ruddspeed versions offered in the UK) and had a highly successful parallel career as marine engines.

As standard they came equipped with single or twin SUs, then latterly with Bosch injection as the overdriven, leather-clad 140GL and non-overdrive 140E.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

The Volvo 144E is stable at speed, but the absence of overdrive makes it feel less than relaxed when cruising

K-Jetronic injection – with the electronic ‘brain’ located under the passenger seat – replaced the analogue D-Jetronic system for 1973 and ’74, latterly with big, Federal-style bumpers and a new, boxier style of dashboard with circular instruments replacing the former ribbon speedometer.

In the B20F-engined ‘E’, power was down from 124 to 115bhp, partly by means of a lower 8.2:1 compression ratio, which meant this 100mph 144 could run on cheaper three-star petrol that somewhat offset its 22mpg thirst.

As a lively £2500 saloon, the injected Volvo 144 squared up to some formidable opposition.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

The Volvo 144E’s fuel-injected ‘four’ makes 115bhp

Similarly priced cars such as the Triumph 2.5 PI, Rover 3500S and Alfa Romero Berlina were all more fun to drive, better looking and more refined, but did not have the cachet of longevity enjoyed by the 140 series, which had already helped to make Volvo the sixth-best-selling foreign make in the UK.

Standard features such as metallic paint and headrests on the front seats somewhat justified the stiff price, but, surprisingly, rear belts and childproof locks were extra-cost options.

The main claim to fame of this particular, M-registration Volvo 144E is that it was supplied new in May ’74 to Leslie Charteris, the novelist best known for The Saint.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

Mudflaps were once required by Swedish law

Like protagonist Simon Templar’s Volvo 1800s, which gave the brand so much publicity throughout the ’60s in the Roger Moore-fronted TV series, the 144E was painted white.

It is reasonable to assume that Charteris – who could presumably have afforded any car he fancied – was gifted the Volvo by its maker, or at least offered a very good deal.

Having written his first The Saint adventure in 1930, Singapore-born Charteris had enjoyed a fairly successful Hollywood career writing scripts for the RKO-produced The Saint films.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

The Volvo 144E’s easy-to-use switches are neatly arranged

Way before his American period, he was indulging himself with exotic cars, including an M45 Lagonda Rapide that was the template for his fictional hero’s Hirondelle.

Not long after Moore started the role in the ITC series, Charteris, having returned to the UK, stopped authoring the books, content to have them ghosted.

After 1.3 million sales, the 140 made way for the 240 series in the mid-’70s (it used the same body from the A-post back, but was updated with overhead-cam engines, rack-and-pinion steering and strut-type front suspension), so this 144E is one of the last built.

It is also unusual in having factory air-con and front foglights.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

The Volvo’s powerful heater works well

With only 34,000 miles on the clock, you will not find a better one.

And, according to Volvo UK, which keeps the pristine 144E on its classic fleet, you won’t find another on these shores full stop: there are currently no other roadworthy examples known to exist.

Charteris gifted the Volvo to his chauffeur who, after the death of his boss in 1993, couldn’t bear to use the car and put it into storage.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

This Volvo 144E’s original owner was The Saint creator Leslie Charteris © Getty

Volvo acquired the 144E from South Western Vehicle Auctions in 2021 and, despite the low mileage, had to embark on a large recommissioning job that included new front wings and new-old-stock bumpers, plus work on the rear arches, sills and door skins: ’70s Volvos did actually rust, which is why they are so rarely seen.

Otherwise it is a nicely made and quite handsome car, in a clean-cut sort of way, and there is a lot to be said in its favour as an honest product of the durable and safety-conscious, Scandinavian engineering of its era.

Its doors open wide for easy ingress and shut beautifully.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

The Volvo 144E isn’t exactly nimble, and soon pushes into understeer

Once inside you have excellent, 360° vision, comfortable, anatomically designed front seats (with lumbar adjustment) and, as you would expect, a really good heater.

You can see all the corners for parking and the lock is tight.

Beyond these, the virtues of the Volvo 144E are somewhat hard to pin down.

Its friends would call the engine ‘lusty’, but others might think it straightforwardly rough and noisy, at least if you want to extract the performance that is there – if you really insist.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

Wide-opening doors offer easy access to the Volvo 144E

The trouble is, low- and medium-speed driving can be a bit of a chore because the torque is nothing special, so you have to play tunes with the gearbox to keep up momentum.

With its stubby remote lever (rather than the long wand of Volvo’s early 140s), the change is precise, with strong synchromesh.

Along with the potent brakes, it is one of the car’s better features, but you miss the overdrive and the 144E feels rather busy at higher speeds.

And that’s a shame, because its general unwillingness to change direction on a twisty road does at least make the 144 a stable straight-line cruiser – and a comfortable one, if the surface doesn’t agitate the very live rear axle.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

This Volvo 144E still has its original Norfolk dealer sticker

The clutch is heavy, as is the steering, which manages to be low-geared and generally ponderous.

Quick cornering results in tyre squeal, understeer and a progressive transition to safe, predictable roll oversteer.

It’s all very well negatively critiquing a 50-year-old car.

In the context of its time, the Volvo 144E was a dependable means of transportation, with a solid, wholesome feel that was attractive to people who were merely looking for faithful service from a motor car, rather than the nuances of finely honed driver appeal.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

This classic Volvo needed a thorough recommissioning

If some considered it a ‘sports saloon’, that was their problem.

Safety, durability and reliability were the priorities in Gothenburg, and 1.3 million satisfied customers apparently shared those sentiments.

So it is respect, not love, as far as the Volvo 144E goes.

Yet I can see the appeal of a 21st-century iteration of this classic boxy-but-good Swede: a simple, rational ‘car for life’ with minimal electronics and no particular performance or luxury aspirations, but elevated durability and repairability.

Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

‘I can see the appeal of a 21st-century iteration of this classic, boxy but good Swede: a simple, rational car for life’

Instead of a box of tricks that takes hours to charge and probably won’t take you as far as you thought, how about an easy-to-repair, combustion-engined machine inspired by the back-to-basics 140/240 Volvo?

Not an SUV that confuses ‘safety’ with ‘obesity’ (or causes huge scars to be wrought in the earth so people can feel better about themselves), but merely a tough, unassuming, family-sized saloon or estate.

The sort of practical device that might keep the joyless, hand-wringing, EV-driving doom-mongerers happy, on the basis that it would last virtually for ever, thus causing fewer new cars to be built, yet would, by means of certain modern techniques, not need to drive like a ’70s-style shed. Discuss…

Images: Max Edleston

Thanks to: Volvo Cars UK


Classic & Sports Car – Volvo 144E: return of the Saint

Volvo 144E

  • Sold/number built 1972-’74/523,808 (all 144s)
  • Construction steel unitary
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 1986cc ‘four’, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection
  • Max power 115bhp @ 6000rpm
  • Max torque 116lb ft @ 3500rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering cam and roller
  • Brakes Girling discs, with servo
  • Length 15ft 8in (4775mm)
  • Width 5ft 7½in (1715mm)
  • Height 4ft 9½in (1461mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 7in (2616mm)
  • Weight 2720lb (1234kg)
  • Mpg 22-27
  • 0-60mph 12.5 secs
  • Top speed 100mph
  • Price new £2490
  • Price now £10,000*

*Price correct at date of original publication

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