Before Volvo melted into just another European sedan brand, they were known for two things; "squareness" and "safety." What you might not know is that they also made army trucks, like the 1975 C303 we just had around the off-road course at Monticello Motor Club. And as we found, out it's damn near unstoppable.
So, what exactly are we up to here?
Cool car-t-shirt company (and friend of Jalopnik) Blipshift was in the market for a "unique" company vehicle. After pouring over eBay and Craigslist like we all do every day, they ended up with This Thing. Apparently it was languishing as a billboard for a gym somewhere in Massachusetts when the Blipshift boys swooped in and came to give it a new lease on life.
Standing about two feet off the ground with an overall length of 171" and incredible climbing angles (45º entry and departure, says the spec sheet) the Volvo C303 was the "refined" version of Volvo's early light all-terrain vehicles, built from the 1960's up through the 70's.
The C303 was designed by a man named Nils Magnus Hartelius, who (I'm guessing) drew the vehicle as a tribute the t-square, which must have been the only tool in his studio. Good thing aerodynamics don't count against you much at this Volvo's preferred cruising speed (40 MPH) because this thing might have been mistaken for microwave in a wind tunnel.
But a rig like this isn't about swoopy, sumptuous lines, says this redundant transitional sentence. It's for as many getting guys and as much gear around as possible, usually at a walking pace. And for that my friends, you build a box. This box featured portal axles that gave it more clearance than its predecessors as well as "a more usable" transmission and wider track to mitigate tipping; apparently a favorite activity of the C202 from which the 303 was derived.
At least that's what it says on C303.de, which you should absolutely go to if you want to burn the entire workday learning every facet of knowledge there is about these old trucks.
Blipshift's truck had some kind of Swedish registration sticker from 1999, so it looks like this rig had a pretty substantial service life on the other side of the Atlantic. It either spent the last forty years on incredible adventures, or parked in some European motor pool. Probably a combination of both with a little more of the latter, based on the rig's tidy condition.
I already mentioned the truck's high enough off the ground to be a shelter for your German Shepard. Front-and-rear locking differentials keep the machine moving through mud. It's also got seven seats; two up front just ahead of the axles, five in the middle, all as uncomfortable as an elementary school desk chair after two hours of standardized testing.
Behind the seats is a caged-off cargo area, that could probably hold another two seats or about 300 bottles of Kopparbergs Bryggeri brewskis. What else would you need on a peacetime camping trip?
"We're going to make some changes," Blipshift's main man Joe Oh told me. "But we don't want to get too far away from this thing's natural coolness." Planned modifications include an exoskeleton roll cage, nicer interior, and a t-shirt turret on the roof. Blipshift has already spent a couple grand replacing crusty hoses, but all up they're still only into the truck for less than the price of most used Jeep Wranglers out there.
After much discussion of t-shirt cannon mounting techniques, it was finally time to drive. I walked out of the air conditioned waiting room/gift shop/bar that is the Monticello Motor Club and into the blistering heat of a fresh-paved parking lot in summer. Joe, Paul, and Sebastian from Blipshift piled into the rig with practiced familiarity, I flew into the passenger seat after burning my hand on the metal strip I picked to pull myself up.
A tiny key and button like a doorbell brought this C303 to life readily, its inline six-cylinder hummed inoffensively just below the center console.
Not a whiff of diesel here; the Swedes opted for gasoline power in this truck... I suspect for easier cold-weather operation. They might have sacrificed a few MPG's but the power is adequate and the engine is almost unbelievably quite, especially considering you pretty much rest your elbow on it from the driver's seat.
On pavement it's just like driving any other car, from atop a lifeguard chair that's plopped where a hood ornament would go. The transmission is just advanced enough that's easy to get a hang of as any other five-speed, and mercifully does not require double-clutching or otherwise usual footwork.
We got Monticello Motor Club's off-road area after a 500-meter drive from their race track (I'm told long highway trips in the C303 can get tedious) but I found it rather pleasant on the road. Regardless, the trip across town might have been short but it looked like we'd driven to another planet.
The track is a sexy, clean, glass-and-chrome, car enthusiast's bat cave. The entrance to the off-road course could have been the set the moon landing was filmed on (/joke), and once we were on the trails I was sure a couple Ewoks were going to swing down from vines and start stoning the hell out of our ride.
"Just point it and go ahead," yelled Sebastian, camera at the ready, as I raised an eyebrow at him from behind the flat windshield. Between us were two foot-deep ruts in wet, squishy, chocolate-cakey mud that disappeared around a corner.
Paul, in front the passenger seat, nodded in agreement; "Lets's do it!"
I flicked the differentials to lock, each hooking up with a big and satisfying dash switch. Easing on the gas, the C303 lumbered into the mudpit... and motored right on through.
"Stay on the gas, stay on the gas," pleaded a passenger from the back... it was far too early in the day to call a recovery rig without getting taunted by the Land Rover driving instructors back at the clubhouse. But I needed no reminder; my foot was pegged at about a quarter throttle as I watched the Earth's muddy claws clutch at the heels of our tires directly below me.
No sooner did the seemingly endless gentle curve of "quicksand" recede to a hard surfaced straight than the trail disappeared into what looked like a vertical drop.
"Will she walk it?" I asked, thinking about how it'd feel to faceplant the truck into the rocky surface at the bottom of the hill. But the response was a confident nod from the vehicle's manager, so in first gear, low-range, with just a tap or two on the brakes, we tip-toed from the precipice back down to easy and open ground.
My confidence in the Volvo was swelling, and we charged ahead toward what looked like the surface of a hostile ice planet. At a walking pace, the truck bumped across the rock garden like it was nothing more than a set of speed bumps. Inside, the experience was a little rougher– my passengers and I were bounced like babies on an overzealous uncle's knee until the rocks dropped into a river.
"Keep rolling!" somebody said, and before considering they might have been speaking sarcastically I nudged the truck into the chocolate stream. Which promptly swallowed the rig up to its headlights.
With a firm, but light foot on the throttle we exited the other size of the water with hardly much more fuss than we'd had driving over on asphalt.
"I gotta get me one of these!" is what Will Smith would have said at this point, if my life were one of his early-career movies.
The rest of the day was spent mostly in the forest, picking our way through rutted single-lane trails and walking up slick rock obstacles. Once I got used to the feel of the pedals and became re-acquainted with off-roading from a seat in front of the front wheels (I put a lot of trees into the side of the last cab-over truck I hustled through a forest) the Volvo C303 made pretty easy work of just about every mud pit and rock pile we came up against.
The C303 is much smaller than a "Deuce-and-a-half," and a little under the size of most Unimogs. A short wheelbase is great for maneuverability in the woods, but an under-appreciated edge this has over the more common hard-core off-roaders is conversational nature of the interior. You just don't see that many (any) seven-passenger crew cabs with center-facing seats, which is a shame because it's really fun to roll around and hang out with people at the same time. The roof-hatch is just icing on the cake.
Fox News' Gary Gastelu, who was along with us as well, shot some video of the rig in action. See if you can spot my cameo.
Images: Blipshift, Andrew P. Collins