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Hemmings Motor News subscribers will soon be receiving their April 2011 issues, and on page 40, they’ll find the “Antique Ads” story detailing Volvo’s humorous, eye-catching and ultimately successful attempt to sell station wagons by promoting their speed and sex appeal, in addition to the typical wagon push of family-friendly practicality.
From 1986 through 1990, Volvo ran a series of magazine advertisements that took the cars, and the brand, in a cheeky new direction.
While Volvo had been selling turbocharged versions of the 240 wagon since the early 1980s, they had a really upscale product in the new intercooled 740 Turbo Wagon (internally, 745T). Bob Austin, former public relations manager for Volvo North America Corporation, told us how the automaker’s American branch tried to get the word out about this car’s surprising blend of performance and practicality.
Our Volvo friend, Dan Johnston, reminded us of how Bob masterminded Volvo’s corporate-backed 740 Turbo Wagon entry into the 1985 One Lap of America race, which Dan himself participated in. And while they eventually finished in 16th place, the racer, the journalist and the PR guy all proved that the 740 Turbo Wagon had what it takes to drive across the country and back in six days.
That durability and stamina would allow the 745T to compete in SCCA racing, as the 1986 advertisement above explains.
We’ll allow Bob to tell that story:
Volvo automobiles participated in racing almost from the moment that they landed on the shores of the U.S. in 1956. The vast majority of Volvos were raced by independent entrants, participating in amateur events across the country.
The Little Le Mans race welcomed all entrants from Austins to Volkswagens. Perhaps the most famous person in that early race was one of the drivers of a Volvo 444; he was a journalist in a relatively new media known as television. His name was Walter Cronkite. While his Volvo did not win, it finished and was quite competitive, setting the stage for many more Volvo racers in years to come. You could even find racing as a theme in some of Volvo’s earliest advertisements in this country.”
As Volvos grew larger and safety became a larger part of their reputation, it appeared that racers moved away from Volvo cars. There were some very competitive 122s and there were 140 that were raced and rallied. But by the early 1980s, when Volvo was building their 740 series cars, it was getting pretty tough to imagine using the words racing and Volvo in the same sentence.
Still, inside Volvo’s U.S. import organization, there were some people who really loved racing, and who knew that cars like the Volvo 740 Turbos were really very competent, with surprising power, great brakes, and very predictable handling. Frankly, the group was a little tired of listening to jokes like, ‘Volvos, they’re boxy but good,’ and ’It may be a very nice car, but why don’t you take it out of the box it came in?’ Bill Hoover, the Executive Vice President of Volvo Cars North America, longed to demonstrate that Volvos could perform in areas besides safety.
Bill was an SCCA club racer himself, driving a Volvo 242 in an Improved Touring class. He noticed that every time he raced his car, people were really impressed with its performance… and, frankly, were shocked that a Volvo handled that well, and was fast enough to be really competitive in its class. He was burning to take Volvo to the next level of racing, but he knew that the idea of a Volvo factory (importer)-backed team was out of the question. Also, whenever you go racing, there is a big chance that you will not win, and that could be bad for the company’s reputation.
I was the head of Public Relations at Volvo Cars of North America, and was also an SCCA racer, having raced a Royale C Sports Racer, an E Production MGB GT and a Sports Renault. In my department was another serious racing enthusiast and longtime Volvo employee, Fred Hammond. The three of us would spend evenings and weekends trying to figure out how to get Volvo the on-track exposure we believed the company needed, without the expense and risk of failure that is part and parcel of racing. It was a tough problem to solve.
In January 1986, Fred received a letter from John Overton, an amateur racer from Pasadena, California. Overton proposed that our company sponsor his team to run in the SCCA/Escort Endurance Championship Professional Racing Series. He wanted to run a two-car team in this professional series, which would see the cars competing across the county on a wide variety of tracks, in races between four and twenty-four hours long. Overton had been a racer for some years, and he knew what it was like to run a racing series on a very, very thin budget. That was appealing, so Fred took the proposal and shared it with Bill and me.
All of us liked the Overton proposal. He was not looking for a major factory-backed operation; he wanted to remain operating like a small independent team, but he needed access to two cars, parts, and some level of budget, to cover entry fees, travel, and expenses. Overton believed the Volvo 740 Turbo had what it took to be competitive in the Showroom Stock B class. Almost any level of participation in professional motor sports starts with sponsorship levels in the millions, if not tens of millions of dollars, and even then, satisfactory results cannot be guaranteed. With the Overton proposal, the entire year of racing in a professional series would cost the company less than $150,000… including the two cars.
Bill Hoover liked the plan, but was concerned about how it would reflect on the company if the cars didn’t do well. He asked Fred and me to go back and see if we could figure out a way to accomplish two things: ensure Volvo would get the maximum amount of exposure for each of the company’s marketing dollars, and to figure out a way that the company would not look bad if the cars failed to win.
Sitting in my garage one night while smoking cigars and drinking scotch, Volvo’s PR department cooked up the perfect solution. Virtually all the cars in the SCCA/Escort Championship were coupes and sedans. Why not enter a Volvo 740 Turbo Wagon? The Volvo wagons actually had better weight distribution, and better aerodynamics than the sedans! And, if your sedan failed to beat another sedan, you were a loser. But if your wagon even made it on to the starting grid, you were already a winner! Yes, it just might work!
But, what about the guarantee of maximum exposure that Hoover had requested? Well, it had been a successful session in the garage that night, because Fred and I had solved that challenge as well. We would require that Overton run every race with at least one journalist as a co-driver in each car. There are many automotive journalists who are very capable racing drivers, and virtually every one of the races in this series required a driver change, so at least two drivers would be needed for each race.
Hoover gave Fred and me the go ahead on the project, but reminded us to be discreet: Overton racing was to be the official entry, not Volvo. Volvo was simply offering minimal support to an independent team. Contracts were signed, cars were delivered and prepped, and arrangements were made. Overton racing was a go for the 1986 season.
When they showed up at the first race and two wagons backed out of the trailer, they were greeted with raised eyebrows and laughter. On several occasions, the team found a competitor had placed “Baby On Board” stickers on their rear windows. But the laughter died down when the wagons hit the track.
The Volvo wagons were the fastest qualifiers in their class at 50 percent of the races in the series. They started from the front row of their class in 66 percent of the races. They set track records for their class (Pro Showroom Stock ‘B’) in 50-percent of the races. And they out-qualified Porsche 944s, Pontiac Trans Ams, Saleen Mustangs, Mazda RX-7s, Mitsubishi Starion Turbos and Dodge Shelbys. The Volvos also finished every single race in the series.
And, what about exposure? Well, the wagons were the favorites with families. They always made virtually every child stand up and cheer. Everyone was impressed with their ability to perform on a race track surrounded by Corvettes, Pontiacs, and Mustangs. Our journalist team of co-drivers delivered plenty of coverage, too: Len Frank covered the wagons for SportsCar Magazine, Joe Rusz told of his experiences in Road & Track, and Rich Taylor placed stories in several newspapers. Canadian journalists and drivers Jacques Bienvenue and Mark Dankose covered the wagons in print and on TV all across Canada. The Volvo wagons generated tons of exposure -and all of it positive- for the entire racing season.
Now you are probably asking yourself, ‘But did they win anything?’ In a word, no, the team never won a single race! The number one problem they encountered was the frequency of fuel stops. The Volvo was required to run its standard fuel tank, which held about 18 gallons of gas. A 2.3-liter turbocharged engine running under racing conditions is lucky to get 10 miles per gallon. In racing, there are basically two pedal positions: full throttle and full brake. At full throttle, you could almost watch the fuel gauge drop during each lap. The Volvos ran in Showroom Stock ‘B’ class, and also in this class were smaller cars like the Honda CRX, because they had a similar power-to-weight ratio. While the CRX didn’t have a turbocharged engine, it did have a similar-sized gas tank! So the Volvo team ended up making almost twice as many pit stops as the Honda, and in the end, this meant that the Volvos could never actually win a race because they had to stop too frequently.
There was really no way to dramatically improve the fuel economy of the Volvo’s turbocharged engine, nor was there a way under the rules to put in a significantly larger tank. That meant that while the Overton and Volvo had made a great showing in 1986, and had attracted plenty of attention, it was an act you could not repeat. To go out a second year and fail to win would look bad. At the end of the season, the two Volvo wagons made their way to the crusher. Overton and his supporters from Volvo management, Bill Hoover, Fred Hammond and I, all shook hands and parted as friends, knowing we had written another chapter in the history of Volvo racing. Finally, just as Volvo had done nearly 30 years earlier, we created a racing themed ad – shown above – to commemorate our on-track adventure.
That racing ad was the first 745T ad to exploit the Wagon’s performance potential, and as Bob says, to “communicate this wagon as a want instead of a need.” Working with Volvo’s advertising agency, Scali, McCabe, Sloves, they came up with the the first print ad and subsequent television commercial pitting the Turbo Wagon against some truly exotic machinery from Maranello.
This commercial was conceived with a famously different background tune, as Bob explains:
We wanted the commercial to cut to the Rolling Stones song, ”You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Sometimes you get what you need- it was perfect! We developed it that way, and it was ready to go. Our ad agency called the Rolling Stones’ music agent, and told them that we would like to get their song to use in our commercial. The Stones and publishers didn’t disagree, but they told us the fee would be $1 million.
While Volvo is a company with a huge brand, they have a modest budget. What they wanted may have been fair, but it was light years beyond what we could afford. We were crushed. Apparently what happened, as I wasn’t in on this at the beginning – they hired a composer and pick-up musicians, and wrote a song that sounded like that Rolling Stones song, and had similar lyrics.
The commercial went on television, and all of a sudden, they got a call from the Stones’ representatives who said, “Hey- that music is WAY too close. We’re not saying that you have to kill your commercial, but you cannot re-write our song for your commercial, and have the words be parallel and the tempo be the same.”
So we ended up settling with the Stones and re-writing the soundtrack for the commercial. That was the closest I ever came to meeting the Rolling Stones… when the letter came in that said, “Cease and desist!”
The next ad, dating from 1987, proved that the 745T compared quite favorably to Porsche’s equivalent four-cylinder sports car, the 944.
In 1988, they debuted the bold and humorous ad that, after the Ferrari, garnered the most comments. After all, it’s not every day that you see a trailer hitched to a Lamborghini Countach.
And this ad highlighting the Esprit Turbo SE appeared in 1990, the last year of the 740 Turbo Wagon’s reign as Volvo’s premium performance wagon:
Our thanks to Bob Austin for sharing his wonderful tales!
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Tagged Bob Austin, featured posts, Ferrari Testarossa, Hemmings Motor News, Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, Lamborghini Countach, Lotus Esprit Turbo, One Lap of America, Porsche 944, publicity stunts, racing, Rolling Stones, Scali McCabe Sloves, SCCA, SCCA/Escort Endurance Championship Professional Racing Series, station wagons, videos, vintage ads, Volvo, Volvo 740 Turbo