Tearing up tarmac in a 225bhp 1958 Volvo PV544 Racer
After starting life in the USA as a humble family car, this Volvo PV544 was pressed into hill climbing duty before starting a second competition life at the sharp end of a Goodwood grid. Today we take the wheel. Words Ivan Ostroff. Photography Glenn Lindberg.
Flat-out in the unlikely Volvo PV544 racer that keeps getting faster
This isn’t my first encounter with the Volvo PV544 being unloaded off the transporter. I had the pleasure of driving this unlikely red racer back in 2008, shortly after Andy Rouse and owner Shaun Rainford brought it home third in the St Mary’s Trophy at that year’s Goodwood Revival. Watching John Cleland and Shaun’s son Charles drive the car to second place in the 2019 race, it was clear that it was now even quicker than before. So when Shaun offered me the chance to drive it again, I jumped at it.
Naturally, being a racer it has picked up a few scuffs and battle scars in the intervening decade or so, but the brightwork, the Swallow emblems on the flanks and the ‘moustache’ trim up front thankfully remain in situ and untouched. Emblazoned across the windscreen sunstrip is the phrase ‘Full Fart’ – stop sniggering at the back there, it’s Swedish for full speed. For Goodwood, the car was required to run with front and rear bumpers. Shaun Rainford was unable to locate decent original Volvo items, but the Morris Minor parts that he managed to fit instead look just perfect to my eye.
‘Flannery would remove the exhaust silencer and hub caps, tape up the lights and off he’d go’
I take a look under the bonnet while Shaun carries out some final checks. Last time I looked there were twin SU carburettors peering back at me; however, since then the engine has been rebuilt with steel internals, a modified cylinder head, an uprated camshaft and two big Weber 45DCO carburettors. This is going to be interesting. After clambering over the FIA regulation safety cage, I lower myself into the heavily bolstered Sparco. To my right is a passenger seat pilfered from an Austin-Healey, and a large red tank for the fire extinguisher system. Ahead of me the old strip speedo reading to 100mph is still in place, but it hasn’t been active for decades. To my right, conveniently angled towards me, is a large dash-mounted tachometer calibrated to 10,000rpm. The Dymo label beneath it reads, ‘DON’T BE STUPID YOU MORON’.
‘It was every bit as quick along the Goodwood back straight as the Jaguar MkIs’
Those aren’t fresh instructions for my benefit, but are apparently a reminder-to-self from the car’s first owner.
John Flannery of Pennsylvania took delivery of this car, chassis 199118, in 1958, and initially used it as family transportation. He was an avid motor sport enthusiast and in 1964 he went hill climbing in a borrowed Jaguar E-type. After coming second in both his first and second events, the owner of the E-type withdrew permission to use it. Flannery was left without a car to compete in, but by then the bug had bitten so he prepared the Volvo for racing up the Pennsylvanian hills for the remainder of the 1964 season.
Flannery would drive it to Pennsylvania Hillclimb Association events, remove the hub caps and exhaust silencer, tape up the lights, and off he would go. Over two seasons, his driving developed and he soon became so quick that he was bettering the times of far more powerful machinery. He started setting record times for the PHA’s Touring III category, and then decided to modify the Volvo further so that it would be competitive in the Touring IV class, which allowed greater flexibility for modifications. He fitted stiffer suspension, a larger 1778cc racing engine, a close-ratio gearbox and a limited-slip differential. In this new guise, Flannery’s PV544 would achieve six class records, numerous fastest times of the day, and two regional championship titles on the trot. In 1966, Flannery claimed two class victories at both the Rose Valley and the Weatherly hill climbs.
Flannery and the Volvo became quicker still, and in 1969 and 1970 he drove to victory in eight out of 10 races to win the back-to- back class championship titles, claiming various class records on the way. More wins, class records and FTDs followed until 1975, when he bought a Volvo 142 and put the PV544 into storage.
‘Don’t forget, there’s pretty much nothing below 4000rpm,’ Shaun reminds me as I secure my racing harness. I nod, flick the red ignition master switch and press the rubber starter button – appropriately marked ‘Varoom’ – and the un-silenced 1778cc straight-four now fitted roars instantly into an almost deafening crescendo. I blip the throttle to warm it up, the tacho needle flickering staccato-like between 1500 and 2500rpm. Even with earplugs and a helmet on, the noise is tremendous; the single exhaust exits via a oval big-bore pipe just south of the driver’s door.
I slide the long, angled gear lever easily into first. The clutch bites without drama as I accelerate and the Volvo drags away straight as a die. On the move the exhaust retains its thunderous, resonating bark, but it’s less intrusive now than when the car was at rest.
My instincts are to take it easy at first. Then I remember Shaun’s words of advice - it needs revs, so I floor it. The Volvo’s straight-four engine is tuned to peak at 7100rpm, and the tachometer’s redline is set at 7400. Nevertheless, Sean admits seeing 9000rpm while dicing with Grant Williams’ Jaguar MkI at Goodwood back in 2008. The engine has steel innards and I’m told it can take abuse, but I don’t want to be the one to disprove that theory so I restrict myself to 6400rpm.
Though the throw of the lever is long, the straight-cut gearbox is delightfully easy to use; now it’s toasty I floor it through first, second and third, holding it until I see six-four before pulling back into top. Strewth does this thing fly; weighing just 920kg and laying down 225bhp through the rear wheels, perhaps that isn’t surprising. Sean had told me to expect the 0-60mph dash in a tad over five seconds, but those seconds seem to scroll by mightily quickly when you’re at the helm of old Fifties saloon.
Because of the period and the type of vehicle that this is, I had been expecting the rear end to break away with little warning, but it doesn’t. You can easily induce a little oversteer on the throttle, but this PV544’s honed cornering characteristics are quite neutral. It might look like a heavy old thing but it certainly doesn’t feel it from behind the wheel. Confidence instilled, I can brake late, turn in and steer the car through a bend on the throttle. I approach a bend that would be a second-gear corner in a racing situation, but with deference I leave it in third and use the B18 engine’s impressive torque to balance the Volvo on the limits of adhesion before pushing us out onto the straight.
The standard cam and roller steering box is not particularly quick but it’s much more accurate than I had expected, with zero lost movement and plenty of feedback through the non-standard wheel. As I turn in there is no feeling of steering forces loading up, but I can sense what the front wheels are doing and when they are about to let go. Once the brakes heat up, there is good feel through the pedal and little effort is needed to slow the car, although I need to be careful to avoid locking all four wheels; I find trail braking to be the most effective method to set things up for a corner.
I imagine Craig Danks discovered the same, having liberated the car from Flannery’s storage in 1992 before refurbishing it for a second career competing in Pennsylvania Hillclimb Association events. Over the subsequent decade he added several more wins to the Volvo’s impressive honours list before things went quiet again; the car then resurfaced for sale in 2007 in the USA, where it was bought by Julius Thurgood and brought back to the UK.
Thurgood displayed it at the Autosport show in January 2008, where it caught the eyes of Shaun Rainford and Graham Smeeton of CCK Historic. They had previously developed a Marcos for racing that used a similar drivetrain; the fact the Volvo was such an unusual choice sealed the deal. Graham explains, ‘The Marcos used the same four-speed Volvo ’box, although now we’ve taken out the original helical gears and put a straight-cut gear set into it. We had all the know-how; we just had to transfer our thinking. So we took it on and christened it Viktor the Volvo.’
Shaun takes up the story, ‘The first time we tested it was at Brands Hatch; it understeered horrendously, especially around Druids and Clearways. I remember thinking that it was never going to work, but we like a challenge so we persevered. We realised that the front end was much too softly sprung so we bought some 900lb front springs and changed the dampers. The old Konis that were still on the car wouldn’t adjust any more, so Graham opted for AVO adjustables and cunningly fitted double dampers at the front, having discovered that the factory had made this modification to its works rally cars.’ The PV544 proved quite the special-stage weapon; it scored victories at the 1959 Rally of 1000 Lakes, the 1964 Acropolis and the 1965 East African Safari, where Joginder & Jaswant Singh led from start to finish.
With the handling transformed, they entered the car into a Masters Series race at Brands Hatch, where Shaun brought it home first in class and third overall. However, although the car looked reasonable, it did need some bodywork repairs, so five weeks before the 2008 Revival, Shaun decided to strip the car down; the main body was fine (and still has never been welded) but the wings were peppered with corrosion. Shaun explains, ‘We cut out any rust or damage and welded in fresh metal to the wing edges. We painted inside the wheelarches and the exterior bodywork but we left all the period stickers in place. We just masked them up very carefully because they’re all irreplaceable. The engine bay, boot and cockpit were left as it was.’
Graham Smeeton set about the engine. Although the car was delivered with a 1.6-litre unit installed, Goodwood rules allowed them to go up by 25% of original capacity. This would allow an increase to two litres, but it was decided to stick with a 1.8-litre limit and use the experience gained working on the company Marcos 1800. Graham changed the camshaft, to gain more lift and duration. At the same time they also did some porting work on the cylinder head. When the car was dyno-tested it showed 180bhp, which represented a healthy increase of around 25bhp; Sean and Graham realised that had a genuine front-runner, proved when Shaun and Andy Rouse came third in that years St Mary’s Trophy.
Since then the car has been further developed so that it handles better and the engine now produces 225bhp. Over the last couple of years Shaun has pulled back from racing and his son Charles is now driving the CCK cars. Therefore, when the Volvo was invited to take part in the 2019 Revival, it was Charles who shared it with touring car maestro John Cleland.
Cleland explains, ‘Being a Volvo, dealer it made good sense. When I first saw the car at Goodwood for qualifying, I wondered how such a big lump could be so quick. But looks can be deceiving because it’s actually remarkably light. Shaun has spent a lot of time getting it to go well, both in a straight line and around corners.
‘At the start, I went from the second row of the grid straight to the front and was third by the first corner just because the traction off the line is so good. During the race I was able to drag round the outside of Nick Minassian in his A40, then I had Tom Kristensen in his A40 diving down the inside of me in the corners but on the exit the Volvo would pick its heels up and away she would go, so every time I was able to pull a bit of a gap down the back straight. ‘It was every bit as quick along there as the Jaguar MkIs.
Through ‘No Name’ I held it flat and then through St Mary’s, I went diving down the inside of Stuart Graham in the Jag, but he’d not seen me and pulled across to clip the apex so I ended up driving all over the kerbs. I thought that was going to be it, but the car remained composed. There was just the slightest little touching of paint but I managed to avoid a spin and a calamity.
‘By the end of the straight it was getting close to the rev limiter so that’s easily around 125mph. It would carry a heck of a speed through Woodcote, but the brakes are excellent and it always pulls up straight. There was never any concern of the car jumping all over the place or diving around, it was absolutely great.’
Today, as I push the car closer to its limits, it’s clear there’s a final challenge for the CCK team to overcome, though. A by-product of the clever double-damper/thick anti-roll bar set-up at the front, the car pitches considerably. Just as the back end settles into a corner, the car will try to lift the inside front wheel; when I’m pushing on it feels like it’s pitching almost diagonally.
Tame this and I feel they could save a few tenths; crucial in the rapidly developing world of historic racing. But from its humble beginnings as a family car via a competition career spanning more than half a century, the fact it exists in that world is a marvel; that it plays at the top level is something of a miracle. Super Swede, indeed.
Thanks to: Goodwood Revival and Daniel Lakey at cckhistoric.com
Engine In-line four-cylinder, ohv, 1778cc, twin Weber 45DCO carburettors, special camshaft, modified cylinder head
Front: wishbones, coils springs, double AVO dampers, anti-roll bar.
Rear: live axle, coil springs, AVO dampers, semi-trailing swing arms, Panhard rod
Brakes Front: discs with Volvo three-piston calipers; Rear: drums
Performance: 0-60mph: 5.7sec
Top speed: 125mph (with current 4.8:1 final drive ratio)
Cost new $2330
Value now Approx. £70,000.
Volvo PV544 racer 55 years at the sharp end of competition, and counting...
RACING A VOLVO PV544
Back in 2013, when Charles Rainford was 15, his father Shaun decided to sell the Volvo. Says Charles, ‘I told him that I really wanted to race that car, and pleaded with him to keep it. Fortunately he listened.
‘When we got the invitation to the 2019 Revival I hadn’t driven it so I did a day of testing at Brands. Before the race, I’d told Dad that my main concern was getting a clean start.
He said rev it up then come straight off the clutch. It worked. The wheels spun for a bit, then it just shot off. ‘I had a really good battle with Justin Law’s Jaguar MkI and Matt Manderson’s Austin A40. I would catch Matt on the straight but Justin would keep getting by. Eventually I sold Matt a dummy at Woodcote and took Justin at Fordwater when they came together at St Marys – I was up and away.
‘The main thing to get used to is when the back end feels like it’s sitting down through a corner, the front wheels start to bounce and then as you get back on the power the rear starts to skip and the inside front pitches up in the air.’
‘I use the B18’ engine’s torque to balance the Volvo on the limits of adhesion‘
Power is now supplied by a B18 straight-four, developed for the later Volvo P1800.
Strip speedo doesn’t work; would be too short anyway.
Irreplaceable period stickers were carefully protected during a repaint.
Ivan finds it less snappy than he expected – but it pitches violently The standard PV544 instrument set didn’t cut it, hence additions Fun fact – Dymo tape was launched in 1958, as was the PV544 Sparco bolsters provide a clue about just how wild the ride will be.
Hardly the most sporting silhouette – but don’t be fooled by appearances.
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