In appreciation of Jan Wilsgaard
Loyal readers will know that I have a Stockholm syndrome-type love for Volvos (pun intended), and my Twitter feed has recently reminded me that three landmark Volvos are celebrating landmark anniversaries: 2016 marks the 60th anniversary of the introduction of the Amazon, sold in our market as the 122S; the 50th anniversary of the 140 series, progenitor of the iconic 240 series models that saw its legacy through 27 years of continuous production; and the 25th anniversary of the 850, which set the template that Volvo would follow into the 21st century.
One fact that seems to have escaped notice amid the celebrations is that Jan Wilsgaard, Volvo’s first chief designer and the man responsible for overseeing nearly every Volvo’s design from the Amazon to the 850, died on August 6 at the age of 86.
New York-born Wilsgaard, who grew up in Norway then fled to Sweden with his family during the Second World War, was just 20 years old in 1950 when he was plucked from his studies in Art and Design in Gothenburg, Sweden, to become head of Volvo’s new design department. Among his first assignments was to perfect the design of the windows for the new PV445 Duett station wagon, foreshadowing the extent to which the wagon variants of his designs would become the company’s iconic products over the course of his tenure.
His first major accomplishment at Volvo, the Amazon, was only the second postwar model developed by the company, and continued the American design inspiration of the 7/8ths-scale 1942 Ford look of its companion model, the PV444; while the Amazon bore an uncanny resemblance to the 1955-56 Chryslers, Wilsgaard himself said that its styling was inspired by a Kaiser he had seen at the Gothenburg harbor.
The 140 series cars introduced between 1966-68 – the 144 sedan, followed by the 142 two-door and 145 wagon – represented a major stylistic leap, achieving timelessness if only by virtue of their unadorned simplicity. Volvo’s Experimental Safety Car of 1972 provided inspiration for the updates that transformed the 140 series into the 240 series in 1975.
Wilsgaard was quoted by a Volvo press release in the 1980s as saying,
Follow the laws of nature and don’t complicate matters! Functional and sensible designs are often the best looking.
If, by the end of his tenure in 1991, Volvo’s uncluttered, rectilinear styling had become the butt of jokes about monks with T-squares, the fact that Wilsgaard’s 200, 700, 900, and 800 series cars have aged far better than most of their contemporaries proves the wisdom of his philosophy.