There's nothing quite like it: To sit behind the boat-like steering wheel of a vintage Volvo is to know joy in its simplest automotive capacity. Old Volvos are the meanderers of the road. Putting their way into the better part of a half-century, they are the past and everything you could want out of the future—simple, overbuilt, and a pleasure to the eyes.
Down a potholed street in Seattle, WA, Matt Pollitz, owner of X-Ray Auto, makes his living keeping the country's largest vintage Volvo community on the road and out of the junkyard. Pollitz's garage is a living museum to these mid-century Swedish exports. Hoods and trunks, varied as the colors of a New England fall, line the walls like portraits of adopted children. Each contain a story known only to Pollitz.
"Before I had the shop, I was just an amateur Volvo owner like a lot of other people," he said. "I quickly learned the cheapest way to keep one going was to have a parts car available. Eventually, people started asking me to do repairs for them."
The result of this early epiphany is clear from ceiling to floor—shelf upon shelf of inventory, each piece acquired during Pollitz's long history with barn cars and salvage yards, fill every corner of the garage. To an outsider, it's a cluttered mess. To Pollitz, it's a highly-desired resource in which he is one of the world's few knowledgeable proprietors.
Like the city itself, the vintage Volvo community is in flux. Seattleites who used to drive the cars because they were safe and easy for home mechanics to maintain are either selling them off for newer, more eco-friendly models, or taking the money they have and investing in American-made restoration projects. In response to what Pollitz sees as future environmental and customer demands, X-Ray has begun to experiment with electric conversions on the 50-year-old cars.
The first electric vintage Volvo was produced by Pollitz and a team of Seattle Electric Car Association (SEVA) volunteers in March of 2010. The car of choice was a pearl white 1965 P544 named Gazelle, which from the back looks likes the rounded ass of a stinkbug. (But cuter.) While the car was running well, Swedish owner Jeanette Meade chose to convert it to electric because she liked the idea of the old volvo style with a 21st century twist.
"The original conversion came in Friday and drove out Sunday," Pollitz said. For Meade, the new car took a little longer than a couple days to become familiar with.
"In the beginning, because it was a project car, I didn't really know if it was going to be okay or not," Meade said. After a brief period of getting used to the car and ironing out the kinks, she couldn't have been more pleased with the improved Gazelle.
"I'm very attached to my car," she said, now six years later. "It's easy to drive. It's really quiet. It goes fast. To this day, I often forget to turn my car on 'cause it's so quiet."
Old Volvos roll in and out of X-Ray every day. As of now, all but Meade's still rely on the highly inefficient, yet durable, 4-cylinder internal combustion engines of Volvo's original design. If Pollitz has his way, this won't be the case for much longer. "I can't wait till I don't have to deal with this bullshit anymore," he said as he pulled an engine from the floor and sparked the thing to life with a couple of crocodile clips.
Assuming the source car is in good condition, it doesn't take a whole lot for Pollitz and SEVA members to take customers back to the future: Hoist out the oil-sucking internal combustion engine, haul the now superfluous radiator, starter, and exhaust pipe to the nearest scrapyard, and you're well on your way to total deliverance from the gasoline market. All it takes is deep pockets.
The cornerstone of modern electric cars—rechargeable lithium-ion batteries—have been around for the last 10-15 years. Unlike their predecessors, lead-acid batteries (think standard car battery), lithium offer electric cars an extended drive range and something like a 10-12 year lifespan. That's a big jump from the 24-month-lifetime of lead acid. In addition to enhanced battery technology, the electric car aftermarket, which includes fundamental components like motors, battery management systems, and power controllers, continues to become more and more available thanks to advocacy groups like SEVA and the web.
But while the price of parts is slowly coming down little by little, it still costs a staggering $15,000 to turn an fully-functional old Volvo into an electric alternative thanks largely to the high cost of batteries. With a stock rebuild and installation of one of Volvo's venerable B18 engines running around $6,000 from X-Ray, the price point between conversion and replacement is still too great for many of Pollitz's customers.
"I'm trying to get some grant money to offset the price of conversions," Pollitz said. Until that day comes, Kent Bakke, local entrepreneur, longtime electric car driver and SEVA member, has taken it upon himself to finance the cost of X-Ray's first two prototypes. "I call it a sponsor. Financing sort of implies like you're loaning money and you're getting it back." Kent said jokingly. That's not the case for Kent.
As a SEVA member, the second-largest chapter of the national Electric Auto Association, an advocacy group for widespread electric car adoption and education, Kent knows the obstacles that come with converting a car from gasoline to electric. Being a man of means, he offers the two things he can: money and access to a vast local network of electric car experts, who play a pivotal role in the labor needed for converting these cars.
In addition to helping Pollitz break away from the gas market, Kent's sponsorship, which he said he gives to X-Ray with no strings attached, invites everyone involved to learn a little more each time. With each successful conversion, old Volvo or otherwise, SEVA members are given a better and better understanding of just what it takes to make electric cars a reality for more and more Seattleites. "Part of it," Kent said, referring to the sponsorship, "is also to promote electric vehicles. The more out there, the better."
The next stage of the experiment is to equip Pollitz himself with his own conversion. The car, a 1959 Volvo Duett, currently used as a daily driver by Pollitz's wife, will act as a representative to present and future customers alike and is set to debut this summer. Unlike Meade's car, which can't run more than 25 miles on a single charge, this second conversion is expected to have between an 80-100 miles range. The message behind the second conversion is simple: If Pollitz himself can commute over 100 miles, five days a week, on nothing but electric power in his vintage Volvo, why can't you too?
One of the original X-Ray Auto signs alongside Pollitz's highly prized roller-rink loudspeaker. Image: Trevor Keaton Pogue
Mid-twentieth century Volvos weren't built like their peers. Their orange B18 and B20 4-cylinder engines are something of modern myth in the vintage car community. Over the last 50 years, it's not uncommon to find these engines running well into the 200,000-300,000 mile range. It's not just the engines, either: A 1965 Volvo body is built of world-renowned Swedish steel that's proven over time to hold up well against the elements.
As a mechanic who specializes in these cars, Pollitz has helped restore a number of cars that have spent the better part of their life on the road. These survivors, while road worn, are by no means as much of a lost cause as other car models of the era facing similar conditions. As Pollitz told the Seattle Times back in 2010,"There's a reason these cars have been running 40 years. With the conversion, there's no reason they won't keep running another 40."
Along with Volkswagen Bugs, Volvos are some of the only cars from the 1960s still being used en masse as daily drivers in the Northwest. With no power steering, automatic windows, or complicated electronics to drag on the batteries and motors, the cars' simplicity makes them ideal candidates for conversions. For Pollitz, the choice is clear: "Get your money's worth out of the engine you've got. But then when it comes time to rebuild, let's talk about electric conversion."
Like all old cars, a converted Volvo demands a sense of responsibility on the part of the owner. As a driver, you have to listen to what your car is doing and how it is responding to the variables of that particular drive. Though the power source might be from 2016, the rest of the vehicle is still very much a creature of the 60s. With none of the turning, stabilization, or braking assistance modern drivers have come to expect out their cars, to sit behind the wheel of a 50-year-old Volvo remains a practice in dedication. And then there's the day to day.
There are no road trips to the border for Meade and her electric Gazelle. Thanks to the limitations of the car's retrofitted battery system, there isn't enough juice in the battery pack to warrant such liberties. But that, along with remembering to plug the car into the wall overnight and planning her 25 miles accordingly, is just part of the small compromise that comes with driving the first gas-free vintage Volvo: For every obstacle Mead encounters, of which there have been none outside of battery life, brake adjustments and wiper blades, X-Ray and SEVA is able to refine the design of the next vehicle appropriately.
Electric-vintage Volvos will never be wide-scale alternatives to modern electrics. There simply aren't enough cars, parts and technicians around for this to ever be the case. What Pollitz, Meade, and Bakke are instead offering is a creative, and—once you get past the initial price of conversion—affordable approach to car preservation in line with the modern demands for a more environmentally conscious future. As we've all seen with Tesla over the last few years, electric cars are no longer the wave of the future. They are here and ready to begin edging out their gasoholic forefathers one model at a time. With the help of X-Ray Auto, vintage Volvos are sure to be along for the drive.