Concepts that time forgot: the Volvo Tundra

By topgear, 14 June 2020

What is this racy vision of an alternative Swedish universe?

Volvo was stuck in a bit of a rut in the late 1970s – it was transitioning from key models of the 1960s and early 1970s and the whole industry was struggling to emerge out of the global oil crisis.

This Volvo Tundra concept – which despite the badge on the front was never really a Volvo – was given as a commission from the Swedish firm to Italian styling house Bertone to sex up the slightly nerdy 343 hatchback, and Marcello Gandini was the man they set to work.

And bear in mind that this is the chap who did the Lamborghinis Miura and Countach, what did they expect?

Weren’t Volvos just big boxy antique dealer estates back in the day?

Volvo had gained a certain reputation for angular, roomy designs by the end of the 1970s, but remember it was only in 1973 that the P1800ES – driven by Roger Moore in The Saint, no less – had gone off sale, so it wasn’t like Volvo had lost all of its mojo.

But yes, you could say that the Volvo range of 1979 was lacking a little pizzazz. The lineup consisted of the teeny 66, the slightly dull 343 family hatch and the 240/260 saloon/estate models. Something like the Tundra would go a long way to spicing up Volvo’s image around the world.

Were there any nifty concept car touches on the Tundra?

The interior of the Tundra featured the requisite 1970s digital instrument panel and on the outside it got an eccentric offset grille and pop-up headlights. Really it was well ahead of its time with wraparound glazing and a floating roof that are fashionable must-haves right now.

But really the racy styling was meant to speak for itself. Bertone was presenting an oven-ready car that would wow the crowds and show that Volvo was a company worth looking at. It was still fairly sensible – the engine in the Tundra was a 1.4-litre four-cylinder number pumping out 70hp.

Wait, have I seen the Tundra somewhere else?

Angles and wedges were the order of the day back in the 1970s, so lots of concepts from the period seem to look the same, but this Volvo concept does have a slightly familiar air to it.

When Volvo – spoiler alert – passed on the Bertone concept, the Italian company looked around to find a car firm crazy enough to buy the design. And in 1979 there was no carmaker crazier than Citroen. A few tweaks and the Tundra duly became the best-selling Citroen BX.

Why did Volvo say nej to the Tundra concept?

It seemed that Gandini followed his brief to make a sexy Volvo a little too well – this concept was racier than the Swedes thought they could handle.

The company’s official history says that Volvo “politely declined” the Bertone design, opting instead to keep the 300-series range almost exactly the same when it came to facelift time.

The 300 range was a bestseller in the 1980s (1.1m sales between 1976 and 1991), but likewise Citroen had a hit on its hands with the BX (2.4m sold between 1982 and 1994). What might have been…

What happened next at Volvo in the 1980s?

Despite passing up the glorious opportunity of a Tundra-style 340, Volvo plugged on, slowly revamping its range and bringing it up to date with a particular focus on safety.

That crazy edge couldn’t be kept down for long, though (it’s likely the long Swedish winters that do it), and the company came up with the 480 coupe in 1986.

It took on some of the Tundra’s sexier themes, such as the digital cockpit display, pop-up headlights, low down grille and glass hatchback, and fused them with a design that paid angular homage to the classic P1800 model. This was the car that showed Volvos could work just as well for business and pleasure. 

Did Bertone work on anything else for Volvo?

The most fruitful collaboration between Bertone and Volvo (ie it actually made production and sold fairly well) took place in 1985. The Volvo 780 coupe made its debut at the Geneva motor show in March and was designed and built by Bertone itself, selling over 8,500 cars over five years. 

What happened to the Tundra concept car?

The original concept car remains with the Bertone collection in Italy, which has had a tumultuous few years. Nuccio Bertone started to gather examples of his work in 1970, building up a vast personal collection of some of the 20th century’s iconic cars.

Following the bankruptcy of Bertone in 2014 some of the best examples were cherry picked to raise funds, and the remaining museum collection of 76 cars was auctioned off in 2015 for €3.5m and now sits inside the Volandia museum in Milan.

The Volvo Tundra concept is part of that collection, and thousands of visitors each year walk past it to see more exciting and better looking examples of Bertone’s work.

STORY Sam Burnett
PHOTO Andrea Volpato from pv Novara, Italia 

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