Ron Polimeni's Historic Racing Volvo PV-544
A British motoring publication once carried a survey listing the top 100 enthusiast cars as compiled by 200 motoring
enthusiast "experts". Granted, some of the names on the list were impressive. Phil Hill, John Surtees and Eric Carlsson
to name a few. Although I have the utmost respect for the opinions of these people in the matter of automobiles,
somehow this "who's who" of motoring enthusiasts managed to leave out a car that, in my humble opinion,
is one of the great enthusiast automobiles of all time: the VOLVO PV-544.
I personally believe there is no other car that can hold a candle to the Volvo PV-444/544 for versatility and durability.
My "544" Volvo was capable of fulfilling any task that might be asked of it with only minimal modification and on the
shortest of budgets. The PV-544 Volvo always made me think of the caricature of the big Swedish lumberjack named
Oley or Olaf, who would good naturedly perform any task that was requested of him, even if it were impossible,
simply because he didn't know it couldn't be done.
This is the earliest photo I have of my PV in competition. The event is a “Gymkana” held at the
Westchester County Center in White Plains NY sometime in early 1964. A “Gymkana” was similar
to today’s “Autocross” and “Solo” competitions in that it involved timed runs through a course
delineated by traffic cones laid out in a parking lot. Today’s events are generally faster and
dispense with gimmicks such as the “keyhole” which were popular on “Gymkana” courses.
This particular course used both paved and dirt portions of the parking lot and required a versatile
driving technique. As can be seen, this photo was taken after the Spring drivers school at Lime Rock
as the car has already acquired the roll bar and the 5” Dodge wheels.
Note that I’m still wearing my old “Bell Shorty” kart helmet.
The car still has it’s radio antenna and a Community College parking sticker. For some reason I
hadn’t yet got around to removing the rear bumper. Racing rules required a second hood tie down
and I chose to add leather straps as I’ve always been fond of the vintage look
when racing cars sported leather tie down straps.
My interest in Volvo's had got its start through reading of the exploits of Art Riley and Bill Rutan in the Lime Rock
"Little Le Mans" and Marlboro 12 hour endurance races in the late '50's and early '60's. Art Riley's Volvo 444 seemed
able to take on all comers and survive incredible abuse. When Riley snapped a rear axle (the Achille’s heel of the PV)
and rolled the car, breaking the windshield and rumpling the body work, he repaired the axle, kicked out the rear
window, donned a pair of goggles and roared back into the fray (setting the 2nd fastest lap with the damaged car to boot).
The Volvo's twin carb 85 hp four cylinder engine and 4 speed transmission gave it performance such that it could
match a small block Chevrolet at a stop light.
My introduction to small cars took place one day when a friend of mine showed up with a 4CV Renault and offered to let
me drive it. I'd never driven an imported car till then and couldn't believe the difference from the large sedans I was
accustomed to. The little "quatre vaux" handled like the go-karts I was racing at the time. My first car (a standard shift
'56 Mercury 2 dr. hdtp.) was beginning to show signs of strain from my practicing "road racing" on every winding
road I could find. I had my excuse.
I had spotted a green (that awful pea green that mercifully was offered for only two years) PV-544 on a used car lot on
Boston Post Rd in Mamaroneck NY. I test drove it, fell in love and for $1150.00 became the proud owner of a 1959 Volvo
PV-544 shortly before my 18th birthday in the spring of 1962. I had no clue as to it's history beyond the “spike” heel
marks noticeable on the passenger side floor mat and the salesman’s line that he thought, “it might have belonged
to a doctors wife”. Over the next seven years this plucky little car survived every lunacy
a youthful motorsports enthusiast could manage.
It provided daily transportation to work and school, it ran household errands and spent time at the
drive-in on Saturday nite. In short, it handled all the daily chores that one could expect of a compact sedan.
At the same time this little car took it's owner from gymkanas and hill climbs through small club racing to SCCA
regional and national competition, the Sebring 12 hour and the Road Race of Champions at Daytona Speedway.
I soon found, as I got waves and "thumbs up" from other Volvo owner’s, that when you own an enthusiast automobile,
you have automatic membership in an informal club. It also didn't take long to become involved in impromptu contests at
traffic lights and on back country roads. My PV could match the "283" Chevy's between traffic lights (provided the block
wasn't overly long). It even proved a match for a well driven high performance ’ 63 Ford Galaxie convertible and a
Porsche Speedster on winding back roads. The Ford driver gave me a wave of approval as we went our separate ways.
I've often wondered just who that was in the Ford as he sure knew his stuff.
The gokart racing in which I was heavily involved at the time was becoming increasingly expensive and I began to
wonder if I could race my Volvo on the same budget. My problem was, How? I had no contacts, and no idea how to get
into motor racing. Providence stepped in. In my travels I would occasionally see a particular PV on the road going the
other way. The car was white with an offset racing stripe and had decals and racing numbers on the doors.
It sat hunkered down on its suspension, no hubcaps, and I could see a rollover bar inside. The driver would always give
me a big "thumbs up" when we passed. I thought the car looked neat so I decorated mine similarly, minus the roll bar
and lowered suspension. As I was filling up at the corner Gulf station one day, the white Volvo roared in.
Out jumped a stocky young man in a very bad temper. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had no right to the
decorations on my car. I hadn't earned them. In this manner I was introduced to Norm Horowitz, the local Volvo
hotshoe. Norm didn’t suffer frauds lightly. Eventually he had to pause for breath and I took the opportunity
to explain that I wanted to go racing but didn't know how.
Norm’s anger quickly evaporated and he put me in touch with the British Sports Car Owners Assoc., a club that oddly
seemed to have more Volvo owners than anything else.
Over the winter I purchased a set of used Michelin X tires, a set of 5'' wide Dodge wheels from a junkyard, had a simple
hoop roll bar installed and a 3"competition lap belt. It's interesting that I had to replace the three point harness that
came with the car with a simple lap belt to comply with the racing safety rules of that era. The only plus to the racing belt
was the instant release capability. I bought a black cotton drivers suit and with the Bell Shorty helmet from my kart
racing, I was set to go. The following spring Norm was my instructor at the BSCOA March competition drivers school at
the Lime Rock Park race track in Connecticut.
Lime Rock Park in 1965. Bob Huber of Mayer Volvo in New Rochelle NY is leading in his Volvo 122s
followed by George Sainaiberger in a much modified push rod, four door Ford Cortina. I usually ran
behind these two in my early events although I did manage to pass Bob the following year only to
break a left front wheel as soon as I’d made the pass.
Bob and I had a friendly rivalry but would always help each other out if the need arose. Behind me is
Bill Peck with his twin cam Lotus Cortina shadowed by his arch rival Angelo Oliva in a two cycle Saab
93. Though they were good friends off the track one would never have guessed it from the way they’
d beat and bang on each other on the track. Here Bill is taking a line obviously intended to block
Angelo. Bringing up the rear is another Saab 93 driven by a fellow who worked at Mayer Volvo who’s
name I no longer recall. He rolled it up in a ball before the season was over and gave up racing.
The old Saabs had a peculiar habit of tripping over their outside front wheel if mishandled.
My PV drifting the fast, sweeping left hand bend we are shown entering in the previous photo.
Note the side pipe dispensing with the rear muffler.
Credit: Southern Westchester Press Association
The “Hobo Hill Climb” was a favorite event. The course was narrow, rough and very steep in parts.
Ideal for the PV to show it’s stuff. I ran the event five times altogether, four with my green PV
and once with my sister's car setting a class record with the green car the last time I ran it there.
A fellow showed up with a much modified 122s at one event but didn’t seem to be doing very well.
When I talked to him I found that his car should have been much faster than my PV.
He said that when he tried to go fast the car sounded as it were going to come apart on the rough
surface (and it was rough). My reply was, “SO?”. Mine did too but as it was a Volvo I just ignored
the hammering and banging and kept my foot down.
Though it’s a bit fuzzy I’ve always liked this shot. Note the old style split lens goggles that I’m
wearing. Bridgehampton was built on the sand dunes at the extreme tip of Long Island and I tried
the goggles in the interest of keeping the blowing sand out of my eyes. They were more trouble
than they were worth however. A group of enthusiasts have been trying to save what’s left of
the old track but part of it has already been made into a golf course.
This is the “Millstone” corner mentioned in the story. These photo’s may have been taken on the
day of my first race as the PV is sporting a set of Goodyear Blue Streak racing tires. Note the “Drift”
attitude through the bend with the front tire inside the line and the rear tire outside. Although the car
appears without it’s license plate in most of the photo’s, it was street licensed throughout it’s racing
career. On one occasion I drove it in a track race at Lime Rock on a Saturday and then, on a whim,
drove up to the County Center on Sunday and ran in a Gymkana.
I won my class at the Gymkana and was pleasantly surprised to receive a compliment from Harry
Fanelli, the president of the sponsoring club, when he presented me with the trophy. Harry pointed
out to the assemblage that my PV and I were a great example of what sports cars were all about.
Harry had been at Lime Rock the day before and had seen me racing and now here I was having
driven to the Gymkana and run it too. I thought it interesting that I should be a great example for
sports cars with my Volvo sedan.
Denrae Photo Lab
Marlboro Speedway in Upper Marlboro MD in 1968. Unfortunately I have only this one photo of
my PV at the old Marlboro Speedway. Marlboro was the extreme opposite of Bridgehampton.
It was flat and only half the distance per lap yet required about four times the gear changes per
lap. How tight the course was can be seen in the photo. The pavement in the middle background is
the approach to the turn I’m in and the pavement behind that is the back straight traveling from right
to left. Notice the complete lack of barriers. “Mickey Mouse” as it was, it was fun place to race.
By this time I was racing with the SCCA as well as the local New York area clubs. My PV was
gradually “morphing” into a racing car.
Note the “chin” spoiler under the grille. This was actually a splitter intended to direct air to the
scoops on the backing plates of the front brakes which had been drilled for ventilation. The larger
racing tires that I was using necessitated reshaping the rear fenders and “curling” the top of the
wheel arch on the front fenders.
Up to this time I had earned something of a reputation as a driver among the car crowd in my neighborhood. I didn't
own the fastest cars, but I could slide through the "esses" on the Bronx River Parkway faster than anyone. I knew how
to “heel & toe double clutch down shift”. I knew about "racing lines", "apexes" and how to "drift" a corner from my kart
racing and the reading I had done on European style road racing.
In short, I was loaded for bear and ready to set the racing world on fire.
It took Norm less than four laps to burst my bubble and deflate my ego. I thought I knew my Volvo pretty well but I soon
found it had a whole 'nother personality. My “performance” driving up till then amounted to nothing more than
a Sunday cruise in the country by comparison. I had NO idea that a car could be driven that fast and stay on the road.
Norm kept his foot down entering the turns till we were RIGHT THERE. I was sure we'd hurtle straight on into the woods
(there were no “sand traps” on race courses back then). I had a death grip on the vent window post and the seat frame
despite the three point belt still mounted on the passenger seat. As I was bracing myself for the inevitable crash,
Norm would stab at the brake, throttle and clutch pedals simultaneously, much like a dance step. While braking hard
with the ball of his right foot, he rolled his foot to the right to blip the throttle as he double clutched with his left foot
in what is known as “heel and toe” down shifting.
He flicked the wheel with his left hand, the gear stick with his right, then squeezed the accelerator to the floor.
The PV heeled over with a violence that I knew had to carry it the rest of the way over onto its roof. The little B-16
engine screamed defiantly and my feet floated up off the floor as we howled through the turns. All the while Norm kept
up a running commentary about lines, apexes, etc. as if he were in a classroom. He pulled into the pits after four laps
(which was just as well, one more lap and I would have lost my breakfast) and told me that that was about one half racing
speed just to give me the idea. I was stunned and humbled. Some years later, a good friend of Norms laughed when
I told him of that experience and said that Norm was probably going as fast as he could turn a wheel. Norm used the
remark about half racing speed purposely to humble cocky students.
Thanks to an instructor who understood the mindset of a 19 year old male I was able to learn how to go fast
without finding out the hard way that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. Due to insurance regulations the club
couldn't issue a competition license to anyone under the age of 21. I filled the intervening year and a half with
gymkana's, hill climbs and more drivers schools. When the day of my first race arrived it was an experience
I would never forget.