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The sow

Volvo TP21 „Sugga” (1956)

23/06/2013 06:00 |  Comments: 

Editor-in-chief

The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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I won’t stretch your patience by asking what the car you see on the picture is. Just as you, I also noticed that it’s written in the subtitle of the article. But surely, more explanation is needed.

Imagine a modest, be-spectacled, well-mannered, family-oriented, shy veterinarian who is an absolute pro in his job. He is the best type of building block in modern society, the type who keeps all the unwritten rules of big-city living. He doesn't throw stones at old ladies living in the neighbourhood, he would never wear a pink shirt with yellow trousers and he never puts peanut-butter in his tea – the nice guy.

He also has an old-ish sort of Volvo as a daily driver, which probably says the most about his preferences. Would you take your pet porcupine having inflamed tonsils to a vet like him? Absolutely! Where would you have your pygmy rabbit's nails cut? In his clinic, of course. And while being there, would you open a conversation with him about putting a V8 engine in the Daihatsu Charade you bought from a junkyard last week? Of course, not.

Now take a look at these pictures – you just have to click on any one of them, there's a whole gallery behind. This ugly and dangerous-looking frog-green car belongs to the serene aforementioned vet. This is a 2.9-ton car. Its fuel consumption is epic. Wherever our veterinarian drives it, pregnant women abort on the sidewalks, dogs develop rabies, kids run wild, PIN-codes are mistyped on keyboards at ATMs. Society stops dead in its wake and stares with jaws dangling. It's really dangerous to drive around in a Sugga. To put it more exactly: it is more of a revolt. Car and owner make the perfect contrast in style.

But Dr. László Horváth has five more classic cars, and they are all Volvos, except one. He's got a Volvo Amazon, a 142 GT, a 244, this monster and a Beetle in his garage. Oh, and he drives to the countryside to cure horses having volvulus in his official VW Transporter Type 2 – I almost forgot to mention that one. Seeing the list and accepting the fact that some people just search for more excitement in automobiles than what they get from a boring new VW Passat Variant, the next question arises: okay, a classic, but why this green thing? What is it anyways? A truck? A family sedan from a time long gone? An SUV? Heck, we can't even put a finger on its classification.

The Volvo TP21 is a mule just like today's bigfoot cars are. But it comes from a time when the ancestors of today's bigfoots – the Ford F100 pickups – had been all small, rolling ashtrays. And it was an official offering in Volvo's lineup. The popular name given to the car by its users was Sugga that translates from Swedish to “sow” in English. Probably there has never been a better fitting nickname for any car in history.

Its body came from an average (and already pretty old) Volvo taxi, the PV831, but its mechanics were based on a three-axle, all-wheel drive Volvo truck. Of course, by the time the components made it into the TP21, the last axle had been grinded off. Although its ingredients came from far parts of the car-building galaxy, the outcome looked alright, although it might have too much of a whiff of Armageddon around it for the liking of many. But it sure has got character.

Before and after

Volvo had already made an all-wheel drive off-roader earlier than the TP21. That was between 1944 and 1946 with the body coming from the PV801 taxi and the mechanicals from a contemporary 4x4 Volvo truck. It was simply named TPV. To make provisions for spotting fighter planes from the cockpit, it received a full-length canvas roof.

A few years passed without a similar car in Volvo's offering, then in 1953 came the TP21, the vehicle in our test. This was produced for five long years and then came a lengthy stop. The next 4x4 Volvo passenger car only arrived with the 850 series.

Of course there was no absence of small all-wheel drive trucks in Volvo's line-up in the meantime, like the C202, C303, C304, C306, but these weren't considered as passenger cars. One interesting aspect of the smallest, C202 version, the “Laplander” as they affectionately called it, was that they produced it in Hungary, in the Csepel factory from 1974 to 1980 in a batch of about 1000.

But the only people who might have known about the TP21's (TP=Terräng Personvagn, meaning off-roader passenger car) existence until the turn of the century were Swedish army people. After their duty was over these cars were scrapped, so our 1956 example is a lucky surviving specimen. One of the Suggas had a most inglorious ending: it was souped-up with hot wheels, repainted in the garish colours of Red Bull, used as a promotional car for many years, then left to rot. Many other Suggas received V8 engines (to give them enough power to match their looks), sports seats, huge wheels, few of them managed to stay original. But this one did.

You feel humiliated by this green monster at first. It is not because of the size of it - it's only 4.7 meters long, a normal middle-class car today is longer – but because of the sheer mass of metal in it. The feeling of weight just radiates from it and it's not low either – I'm 187 cm tall and it easily manages to tower above me.

To make it suit a future version of some Mad Max-like Armageddon movie even better, there are bits and pieces of metal with unknown function sticking out of it everywhere. The menacing look on its face stirs deep instincts; I'm worried that it will suddenly reach out with one of its tentacles and tear a piece out of my flesh. It's like a Transformer robot prototype which got stuck halfway in its changing process and was left at that.

Trying to break the air of hostility I decide to make physical contact with it so I grab one of its mudguards. Its thickness isn't far from a door's in your house. But this is made of steel, not wood. That one part might weigh as much as my wife, which isn't a lot for a woman but way over the limit for something that's put on a car for keeping mud off the body. And the whole car is made like that.

I get in and for a brief moment I devour the magnificent panorama from the driver's seat with hungry eyes, but it's time to start the engine. From this moment on any chance of carrying on a conversation with your passengers without shouting are ruled out. The sound waves rolling out of the straight-six 3.7-litre engine are so thick that you can lean on them. Plaster is gently falling from the walls of the building around us, the engine is warming, its hiccups begin to disappear, and its growl becomes smooth and un-mechanic.

This whole drama is enhanced by the exhaust which has just one muffler box on it before sticking out from under the driver's door. Mind you, Peltor ear pads surely weren't on the equipment list of Swedish soldiers in 1956. Did they return to civil life deaf after military service?

Close up, this car is very truck-like anyways. It has a special lockable tow hook straight from a lorry, its wheels and its chassis is plain huge, there is a proper, switchable four-wheel drive, also an off-road ratio. Look, you can even lock up the front and rear differentials with buttons on the dashboard – pneumatically! And one thing says how durable all the mechanicals are: the Sugga has already had a few winter tryouts and after 57 years all of its systems operate faultlessly.

“Why this car?” would be the appropriate question from behind the wheel of a black Ford Mondeo with a modern TDCi engine. “Why eat extra hot beef vindaloo?” could be a proper retort. After all, the vindaloo hurts today, it will hurt tomorrow and you don't feel the subtle tastes of anything after a meal like that for hours.

Anyways, what could László have bought to go with his ivory-coloured Volvo Amazon in the garage? An even older Volvo, such as a PV? That would have been too straightforward, thus an unimaginative solution. But as a serial collector of Volvos, László already knew the Sugga from his books. The spark that really ignited the whole process arrived at an auto jumble in Tulln, Austria. There he got a hint that two Suggas are parking in the garden of a nearby house and one of them might be for sale. You can guess the rest: after some haggling and organizing, the TP21 became a Hungarian citizen.

This is a car that has seen more than five decades, so it might be surprising that there was almost no rust to be found on its body. It was sanded to metal anyways, so now the matte green finish on it is completely new. When László bought it the Volvo had run only 50 thousand kilometers altogether, so the engine and the differentials only needed the regular oil change. The reverse gear in the box had to be replaced though, since the over-enthusiastic new owner broke it at one of his first attempts of driving it. The interior was tear-free and complete, so it only received a much-needed cleaning. There are patches of rust and wear inside, but László couldn't bring himself to destroying the authentic patina. He was right.

There have been great efforts made since to provide some stopping power, all in vain. Everything is new in the brake system from rubber parts to cylinders, from metal hoses to brake pads, but you can just about feel some whiff of deceleration if you stomp on the middle pedal with gusto. Four small drums battling three tons of charging iron – even fifty-something years ago that was a good joke.

In Hungary, if a car passes the classic vehicle examination process, it just has to meet those technical requirements that were required when it was new. So this Sugga has OT (oldtimer – the word used in Hungary for classic vehicles) plates; we may as well drive out into the traffic with it. It has got directional indicators, freely moving wind-up windows, an instrument panel with beautiful art deco-style letters, even a working heating system. If you look hard enough, you'll also spot the best air-conditioning there is: the windshield can be opened to a horizontal position. The side effect of such a system is the taste of bugs in your mouth but if that disturbs you, wear a helmet.

The TP21 was designed to be a radio car and there used to be a separating glass between the driver in the front and the operators in the back. This piece is missing now, promoting family use, and so was the broadcasting equipment during the first photo shoot with the car. Since then László obtained the radios (now all of them working) and the antennas, he also had the table remanufactured, so in the unlikely event of a war breaking out, he's prepared. In the usual IKEA-way of thinking the rear seats may also be moved to and fro on rails, so it's not a problem if the operator is 190 cm tall or 160 short.

Sitting in one of the back seats you look up and you notice a military version of the Webasto sunroof. With a twist of a knob you open the round manhole cover that is very much like what you would find on the turret of a tank. If you use the seat as a stool for standing you can poke your head out on the roof in true Desert Rats fashion. The Swedes didn't really think of this feature as a sunroof, nor did they imagine that army convoys would be lead with a car like this. Rather, the function was there as a mean for the operators to to spot planes.

It's three tons heavy, but has got a huge engine, so what is it like to drive? Horrible, as long as you compare it to modern vehicles. The speed tops out around 90 kph in theory but in practice you wouldn't dare to exceed the 60 limit due to the combination of short gearing, the heaving of the body and the infernal noise associated with travelling at any speed above 30 kph.

Yes, you're right, the engine is large but it is of a side valve construction and there is only a single Rochester carburettor feeding it, so there's not much power coming from it. In this case we're talking of an optimistic 90 PS and you're putting the weight of a well-loaded Mercedes Sprinter against that. Let it be braking, accelerating or cornering, you don't have to brace yourself, ever – maybe on an off-road course you do, but we didn't try that. Judging from the noise you're driving a GP car on a racetrack, but in reality faster cyclists overtake you when you're not on watch.

Oh yes, there's that issue with shifting gears, too. You start from second, because the extremely short first is strictly for towing or starting on a steep hill. Two clicks take you to fourth speed and no further, since that is how many the Sugga's ‘box has got. None of the speeds are synchronized which means that there is no downshifting without a heavy dose of double clutching, otherwise you're rewarded with an alarming crunching of gears and the gearstick ruthlessly slapping your hand. And if you're trying to rush the car, its solid axles – each of them weighing about as much as a modern downsized supermini does – start doing their jive act, so be prepared that soon you will be welcoming the sight of your lunch consumed two hours earlier.

The sight, the presence, the incredible blare of the engine is phenomenal, and the best part is seeing the look of disbelief on the faces of bald-headed, tattooed tough guys sticking out from the windows of Mercedes ML-s and BMW X5-s. The Sugga just dwarfs those small, plastic playthings in every aspect, and they can feel it. Other cars...well, they're just Christmas decorations disappearing under the bonnet as you drive along. The Sugga gives you the slowest, most exhilarating roller-coaster ride in the world. This is the true mother of all hot-rodded trucks.

Volvo made 720 of these, a third, maybe even half of that amount probably still exists in Europe's hidden backyards. If you would like to find one, the best place to start the search would be Sweden by all means, since the TP21 was a military car for domestic use only.

According to data gathered by László, one of these monsters, complete with radios, tray and antennas might reach 30-35 thousand Euros in value, but if the broadcasting equipment is missing the price will be at least 20 percent lower. If you obtain one and run out of money, you can still get a lot of money for it as junk iron. There, China started making cars in great numbers, so you can massively depend on the price of steel, don't forget.

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