The History of my Volvo

by John Southwell

Updated 12/25/07   Retro Electronics Home Page

Front of the Volvo.
I have been the proud owner of a mostly 1959 Volvo PV 544 for over 30 years. I say mostly 1959 because the fact is that the car was assembled with parts from other cars of varying ages from 1958 to 1963 and I’m sure a few other years as well. Fortunately I’m not a purist and I actually like the fact that this car is not an original model but rather a hybrid consisting of salvaged parts that have been assembled over the past 30 years.


The Journey

It started back around 1973 my sophomore year in High school in the central Illinois in the small town of  Pana. I was driving with my brother to Springfield when along the way we spotted a black 1963 544 Volvo in Sharpsburg Illinois with a sign reading “$125”, I knew at that moment that the car would soon be mine. We actually test drove the car and I was transported to another world. It just seemed so neat at the time to driving that old foreign and very funky looking car. That feeling is one that is somewhat indescribable and difficult to recapture in later years. We returned home and I gathered my money earned by working that summer and a few days later talked my mom into driving me to Sharpsburg to get that car. I’m not sure now why she was so willing because I don’t think my father was even aware of the deal but she was always very supportive of my quests. She dropped me off in Sharpsburg and followed me home. The car was actually quite pitiful both cosmetically and mechanically. The floor boards were completely rusted and the engine had piston problems. The interior was actually quite nice for a car that had abused all of its life.


Restoration Begins

I immediately set out start to try to improve this car but I was uncovering extensive rust everywhere. The engine had some major problems as well. Fortunately, there was a guy in Pana who was a Volvo expert…and mechanic, Eldon Hammond. He owned several Volvos including two 544’s. One of these cars was just a body with no engine….and more importantly no rust. He sold me the body less the fenders for an unrecalled amount and in exchange for the rear end of my black 544.

3 volvo 544's (parts)

The transformation then began with transferring all of the parts from my old black rusty 544 to the body of the 1959 544. It was cherry red but not very shinny. It was essentially void of interior and no head liner but it was solid as a rock. It was now time to start overhauling the engine. The removal of the engine was achieved by laying a 4X4 post with a huge nutted eye bolt across the opening of our attic door located in the garage.

A “come-a-long” or ratchet hoist was used to pull the engine. I would never attempt this now with such minimal equipment but I must say it worked perfectly. I even pulled the transmission along with it. I recall my mom’s disbelief as I pushed the car away from the engine leaving it hanging from the board in the attic hole. I lowered the whole thing onto a creeper and began disassembly. I first separated the transmission from the engine. Then removed the intake and exhaust manifold then the head …until I was left with just the  block. The head was taken to Brunners Auto Supply that had a machine shop in the back. They surfaced the head pulled the valves and installed the new ones. The cylinders were bored out .187” to accommodate larger pistons which would yied 2000 cubic centimeter displacement.  Eldon Hammond installed the new pistons. The new assembled engine was then installed into the red 1959 544 in Eldon’s shop. I assisted Eldon in this operation. The motor mounts had to be modified to accommodate the larger B18 engine from the 63 model into the older 59 engine compartment that formerly housed a B16 engine. All of the wiring and instrument cluster was transferred from the 63 to the 59, thus making it a 12 volt system from the previous 6 volt. Over the course of a few months the car came into being a 59/63 Volvo PV544. All I had to do now is come up with some fenders. I decided to use the rusty ones from the black car and start in on extensive body work . I sanded and grinded all of the rust off of those old fenders and riveted aluminum skin around the areas where they attached to the body of the car...and Bondo did the rest. This worked quite well but eventually began to crack years later. I then visited numerous junkyard in central Illinois scavenging all the parts I could from neuerous defunk 544’s. I struck gold when I located a 1960 544 in Effingham for $75.00. This car was actually in better overall condition than the one I had but I was so far along in the work I decided to part it out. The engine was bad as the previous owner had attempted an overhaul and forgot to put the retaining snap rings on the wrist pins and the rods separated from the pistons destroying the cylinder walls. I got a ton of parts off that old car and ended up trading it to Eldon before I went off to college.

1 Volvo made with parts from 3.

The Fire

I finally got the fenders on and brakes overhauled and had begun various stages of body work. The car was multicolored at this stage with orange, red and black colors resulting from the three cars that now had become one. Of course the fuel gauge didn’t work and I ran out of gas one day. I called my mom from a house on the highway and she came to rescue me with the gas can. I poured a gallon or so of fuel in the gas tank and cranked up the engine pumping the accelerator to get some fuel back in those float chambers of the SU carburetors. The grounding strap from the engine to the frame had not been attached and I got a spark from somewhere igniting the flooding carburetors that are notorious for fuel weeping . My mom saw the flames before I did and came running to let me know. When I raised the hood the flames really got wind, destroying the wiring and hoses etc.

This was a huge setback but Eldon came to the rescue and he dragged me to his shop where we redid what needed to be done in order to drive the car home. I spent the next month or so meticulously replacing all of the wiring from the firewall forward. Once that was completed I went after the body work and eventually got it ready to paint.


A new Beginning

I worked several months sanding, priming, riveting, smearing nearly 2 gallons of white diamond Bondo onto that car…and at the end of the summer in 1974 the car got painted.

I can’t recall who actually painted the car but I had gotten a referral from someone about this guy who I was told: "when he was sober he was an excellent painter" and he was also the only one I could afford. I had selected cherry red Dulux enamel. I dropped the paint and the car off at this guys house and walked home. A few weeks later I was home sick from school and was staring out my bedroom window from my bed when I saw this shimmering dright shiny red something coming up the road. I totally freaked out when he pulled up in our driveway ….it was my 544. I could not believe it nor could the guy that painted it . I remember his comment “ that ferin you got paint flowed out like glass”.

This put a whole new light on everything.  The 544 was no longer a mismatched junker but it had become a beautiful foreign classic. By Labor Day of 1974 the car was worthy of being in the Labor Day parade, and so it was.

The following year I was constantly adding accessories to the car. 8 track, FM converter, cb radio, oil gauge, tachometer, water temperature gauge and at one time even a vacuum gauge. I also put these huge fog lights on the front.

 I drove the car all through high school and college; it took me anywhere I wanted to go. When I graduated from college and moved to Texas I left the 544 at my Dad’s creamery and drove my 1972 144 Volvo to start my career in the oil field by this time the 544 had become my second car and the 144 had become the main driver. The 544 sat up for about three years at the creamery when I started to miss it. I took the train home and spent a few days working on the car to get it ready for the long journey back to Texas. I also had planned first to go to Bean Blossom Indiana to attend a bluegrass festival. I worked hard on the car and got it ready. I drove it the festival and discovered I had a u joint problem. I dropped the drive shaft at the festival and carried it into town and got new u joints pressed in. The great thing about an old Volvo is that all of the brake and suspension parts are of American manufacture and are readily available. My friend Willie from New Mexico had met me at the festival and we caravanned home. On the way back in Osceola Arkansas I spun the bearing in the water pump and sent the fan blade crashing into the radiator. I carried the radiator into town while I waited for my friend to arrive and got it soldered back up. He towed me to West Memphis where we got a water pump off a 67 model, we fashioned a gasket out of a milk carton we found in the ditch and were on the road again.


Back In Texas

The car sat in my back yard for 7 years absorbing the intense rays of the west Texas sun. I rarely drove it…about once a year. Although I ignored the car for quite a while I still loved it. Every year or so I would drain the varnished gas, rebuild the brakes and carbs and drive it around for a while. I got transferred to Kansas and the car was transported there. A few years later I was transferred to Dallas and once again the Volvo was transported along. I never considered getting rid of the car. Ever. Twenty years has flown by and I still had the red car. It still ran pretty good but it was starting to look ragged again as the old multicolored paint from the individual cars was starting to show through the once shiny red paint.


The next restoration

At some point I decided that I had the resources and the desire to really get the old red 544 looking good. The car was worth it. It deserved it after having owning it longer than any other vehicle and having been through so much together. Mechanically the car was still strong but the interior had never been replaced and needed re upholstering. I first did the head liner and then later did the seats. I ordered a new dashboard. The big restoration came about in 2003 in preparation for the 30th anniversary of the Labor Day parade. My plan was to trailer the 544 back to Illinois for the parade. The car spent most of 2003 in the body shop, receiving a complete redo of the body work I had done 30 years ago while I was ordering parts for the car that back in High school I only dreamed of. The World Wide Web had come to the rescue. Entire websites dedicated to vintage Volvo’s provided anything I wanted to get . Hard to find parts.

Volvo on the trailer.

On the trailer, getting ready to go to Pana for the Labor Day parade.

Dodge van and Volvo on trailer.

Driving in the parade.

Driving in the parade.

71 Volvo and 59 Volvo.
I also have a 1971 Volvo.

Rear seat.

Rear seat.

John and his mother with Volvo
This picture is of my mom and I with the car in 1974.

John and his mom with car, 2004.
And, in 2004.

Here are some pictures from July 10, 2005:

Looking in through the door.
The car has had all new floor material installed, the seat upholstery redone, and the dashboard has been replaced.

Volvo dashboard view 1.
The Stromberg-Carlson AM tube type radio works well. The speedometer has a red band that slides across the display as you accelerate.

Volvo dashboard view 2.
There is also an 8-track player installed.

Volvo engine view 1.
The Volvo uses a 4-cylinder overhead valve engine with dual SU carburetors. It was converted to 12-volt operation from the original 6-volt system. The jar is the brake fluid reservoir (the master cylinder is down under the brake pedal).

Volvo engine view 2.
Other side of the engine.

Volvo driving.
Driving down Marienfeld St.

Here is a partial listing of all that has been done to this car over the years:

Engine overhaul

Fuel pump

2 water pumps


Header (installed in 1974, $46.00 from JC Whitney and still in service)

12 Volt Delcotron alternator and regulator replacing old Bosch unit (came from a junk yard in Tower Hill Illinois in 1974).

The brakes have been redone numerous times, this past year I got new drums(new used) from the Revolvestore in Tuscon Arizona

Axle seals


Transmission mount

Motor mounts


New Su carburetors (totally reconditioned Su carbs purchased on Ebay)

Rebuilt heater blower motor

Floor mats

Glove box

Temperature gauge


Clutch linkage

Complete front-end rebuild included upper and lower control arm bushings and Kingpins. Tie rods

Gas tank coated due to rust

Speedo cable

YouTube Videos (New, Dec. 2007)

Here is a YouTube video of the Volvo in the 2004 Pana, Illinois Labor Day Parade.

If you cannot see the YouTube image this is a link to the video.

Volvo 544 Parade Video

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