China Takes the Mother-in-Law Ride from the Land of ABBA
In the 1980s the joke went that Sweden’s chief exports were rock and roll. Rock was exemplified by the hugely popular pop group ABBA and roll was the car. Yes, the car — Volvo.
Volvo means ‘roll’ in Swedish and ‘I roll’ in Latin. If at the time and for a long time to come ABBA’s music ruled the world’s airwaves and discotheques, it was Volvo that rocked the roads worldwide as Sweden’s foremost automobile brand.Built in Gothenburg from 1927 to withstand and beat the tough and extreme weather conditions of Sweden and northern Europe, sturdy Volvo is to this day known for safety, comfort and longevity.
Forget the longevity (19.9 years) and safety for which it has won awards and competed favourably with Mercedes and BMW in later years. In East Africa, and especially in Kenya, it is comfort that has always counted and is considered synonymous with Volvo.Dashing Kenyan journalist William Omoga, now deceased, famously boasted in 1992 that he drove a Volvo because “it’s the car that was made to carry, and meant to carry, a mother-in-law”.
Omoga’s moral was you don’t carry your mother-in-law in any old jalopy. If you are going to carry your mother-in-law, give her a real treat in comfort and Volvo fitted the bill.Though for a long time Volvo was not known to be sleek and stylish, but predictably box-like, it is worth noting that the Volvo 144, launched in 1966, was promptly voted “Car of the Year” and “Safest Car in The World”.
Indeed, the stylish P1800 Sports car was driven by Roger Moore, he of James Bond fame, in the title role of The Saint television series of the 1960s that was based on the novels of Leslie Charteris.Volvo’s gears have since truly shifted since then. Yes, they have.
China last year overtook the US as the world’s largest car market. And, a little-known 24-year-old Chinese firm named Geely in late March signed a deal buying 84-year-old Volvo from Ford. Ford had in 1999 bought Volvo Car Corporation from the Volvo Group.
Volvo had fallen on hard times indeed. Ford bought Volvo for US$6.4 billion in 1999. Ford sold Volvo for US$1.8 billion. Geely, who bought Volvo in March, say they will pump in another US$900 million in a bid to bring the Swedish icon back into the black.
Oops! Before Volvo Group sold Volvo Car Corporation to Ford, it had cleverly and confidently sold itself as being in the company or an accessory of the affluent. It headlined golf – the Volvo Masters – polo, horseshow-jumping and yachting tournaments.
Geely, on the other hand, may be China’s leading private car-maker, but its turnover, at least going by the 2009 forecasts, is only 16 per cent of Volvo’s and it has half the icon’s workforce.
Geely has however made a major business statement and arrival on the international car market by buying Volvo. Many in the industry too will see Geely’s acquisition of Volvo as announcing China’s arrival as a global business power — on the road.
With erstwhile ABBA not performing anymore, struggling Volvo may yet rock and roll again
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