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Electric cars in the history of Volvo Cars

Did you know that the first Volvo electric car was launched in 1976? Join us on our electrification journey from the early 1970s to the present.

In 1976, we were already emphasising the importance of charging electric cars with climate-neutral electricity.

Hans Hedberg, heritage manager at Volvo Cars, stands in front of one of Volvo's first two electric cars - a small device resembling a cardboard box on wheels. It is one of the hundreds of cars at the Volvo Museum in Arendal.

Some years ago, he left a fast-paced career as a motor journalist and took the role of heritage manager for Volvo Cars Heritage.

“I am part of the brand team and make sure we bring our core values into the electric future,” says Hans. “We have a 95-year tradition of building cars and have become part of the Swedish culture. It makes us unique in a way many challengers can only dream of.

“As a Swede, it's easy to take Volvo for granted,” Hans continues. “Especially for me, born and raised in the area, close to Volvo Cars. But now that I have travelled around and tested almost all vehicles, I have gained an outsider perspective. Volvo is a brand I am proud of.”

As a car manufacturer we are part of the problem, and therefore we must be part of the solution.

Volvo’s Elbil (electric car in Swedish) 1976 was partially financed by Televerket (the Swedish telecommunications company). At that time, car companies discussed injection, catalysts and turbocharging. Despite the national discussion on electric cars, and early development of clean electric vehicles by what was then called Volvo Personvagnar, the public interest was low.

Electric cars were seen as slow, heavy and cumbersome to charge — and were not taken seriously at the time compared to vehicles with combustion engines that were becoming increasingly efficient and less harmful to the environment. That was a shame since both of Volvo’s first two fully electric service cars fulfilled their tasks: to drive shorter distances to deliver mail and help the staff at Televerket in Gothenburg without generating emissions.

The press release from the fall of 1976 emphasised the importance of charging the Elbil with climate-neutral electricity. Twelve six-Volt batteries powered the vehicles for a range of 50 kilometres or two hours of driving. Documentation from the 80s and early 90s make it clear that the advantages and challenges of electric cars were the same as those observed today. They were considered more environmentally friendly, quieter, cheaper to maintain and with a longer life span. The battery was the challenge.

Hans Hedberg, heritage manager at Volvo Cars

A luxurious concept car
In a car showroom in Paris in 1992, Volvo Cars displayed the luxurious concept car ECC. Even though its hybrid solution in the form of an electric motor and gas turbine was impressive, its design hinting at the coming S80 model received the most attention.

In retrospect, 1995 yielded a more interesting development from an electrification perspective. That was the year Volvo Cars presented a prototype based on the innovative 850 model introduced four years earlier. Volvo 850 was unique with its front wheel drive and side airbags and was launched as “the safest car in the world.”

Hans explains that Volvo 850 was Sweden's most significant industrial investment at the time and included an electric solution.

A hybrid before its time
The prototype car HEV 98 was a charging hybrid that worked largely the same as modern charging hybrid cars, with both a chargeable electric engine and a standard combustion engine. It was developed to fulfil a planned American legal requirement that, in the end, was never implemented.

“In my view, the HEV 98 is fascinating,” says Hans. “With a battery range of 85 kilometres, a total range of about 400 kilometres, and a well-packed battery package, it was just too early and too good for that time. The actual prototype is also fully driveable. Like many of our concept cars, it was driven hundreds of miles for testing.”

But just as the charging hybrid was fully developed, Volvo Cars decided not to invest further in electric and hybrid cars. At that time in the car industry, people were discussing performance rather than fuel consumption and sustainability.

The company car Volvo C30
Volvo Cars kept experimenting. In 2001, the ISG solution was presented as an integrated starter generator that charged a 42-Volt battery and was a forerunner to today's hybrids. 2011 saw the introduction of the next chapter when a smaller series of fully electric Volvo C30s were developed, partly financed by Energimyndigheten (the energy authority) for company car drivers at corporations and in the government. The cars were charged from a wall socket, and the range was about 150 kilometres.

“Volvo C30 Electric demonstrates that we had a clear electrification strategy over ten years ago,” Hans explains. “The cars were gaining interest, but we were still a bit early. The general debate was about environmentally friendly gasoline and ethanol cars, diesel engines with low carbon dioxide emissions, and sparingly trimmed gasoline engines.

“Everyone who's driven a C30 Electric knows what a good car it is,” Hans continues. “Simple, fast, and with practical solutions to heat the interior. C30 Electric was so famous that we developed another series a few years later. Even today, these cars are standard on the staff parking at Volvo Torslanda.”

Electric cars as part of the solution
Hans is yet again standing in front of the Elbil 1976. The project was developed after the UN's Environmental Protection Conference in 1972, during which the Volvo Cars Manager at the time, Pehr G Gyllenhammar, said the famous words: “As a car manufacturer we are part of the problem, and therefore we must be part of the solution.”

“Who doesn't want a small, sleek electric-powered city car these days?” Hans asks. “Today, car buyers everywhere like a vehicle that is manufactured and charged sustainably. In other words, the time has come for Elbil 1976. Volvo Cars’ view on the sustainable production of safe cars that always put people first has never been more relevant.

That is why it has never been as exciting as today to work with the history — and the future — of Volvo Cars.”