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Volvo turns 100

From the world’s first sterndrive to the revolutionary Inboard performance system, Volvo Penta has built its reputation on innovation

From the world’s first sterndrive to the revolutionary Inboard performance system, Volvo Penta has built its reputation on innovation

In 1907 five men in a Stockholm office came up with the name Penta for their new Swedish-designed and -built marine engine. The Penta name lives on in present-day Volvo Penta, along with a 100-year legacy of technological advancements.

“It’s a long tradition of innovations,” says Clint Moore, president and CEO of Volvo Penta of the Americas. “Volvo Penta is certainly proud to be in business for 100 years. It’s a big milestone. I don’t know of any other marine engine company who has that kind of history.”

The first innovation came when engineer Fritz Egnell sent one of his employees, engine designer Edvard Hubendick, to Skövde, Sweden, to build a small-boat engine, which would become the Penta. Unsatisfied with the performance of a German engine he installed in a boat, Egnell had decided the Swedes should build their own. What Hubendick came up with was described as the “most modern on the market.” The engine was a success, and Egnell soon bought the family-owned foundry in Skövde where it was manufactured. In fact, many diesels for all divisions of the Volvo Group are built in Skövde to this day.

The company that would become Volvo Penta was off and running, and although it would endure a few difficult stretches during its first half-century — including two World Wars and an economic depression — it would go on to notch more and more advances throughout its history.

In the 1920s the company was buoyed by the introduction of a 2-cylinder outboard, which proved popular internationally, and by a budding relationship with the founders of Volvo automobiles in Gothenburg, who wanted a Swedish-built engine for their new car. Volvo stayed afloat through World War II with the sale of cars, trucks and buses, though production of Penta marine engines was largely suspended.

In 1949 Harald Wiklund became president of AB Penta. Wiklund, who retired in 1977, would see the company through enormous sales growth and numerous technological milestones, including a true industry changer. In 1958 American Jim Wynne approached Wiklund about a new concept in marine propulsion, a setup that would combine the advantages of an inboard engine — inexpensive 4-stroke power — with the performance of an outboard drive system. Volvo Penta quickly went to work and introduced the world’s first sterndrive — the Aquamatic — at the 1959 New York Boat Show.

Even today’s leaders at Volvo Penta — themselves pioneers, having ushered in the revolutionary Inboard Performance System — call the sterndrive the company’s biggest innovation. “The sterndrive, I would say, is No. 1,” says Lennart Arvidsson, IPS project leader based in Sweden. “I don’t think even Volvo thought when we introduced it how big it’s going to be. Even we were taken by surprise.” A key component to the success of Volvo Penta’s sterndrives, the cone clutch, was introduced shortly after, Arvidsson notes.

As higher-horsepower engines were mated to sterndrives over the years, Volvo Penta engineers devised a drive unit to better handle the increased power. Modeled after a World War II double-propeller system for torpedoes, the Duoprop, introduced in 1979, has counter-rotating propellers on the same driveshaft to help the boat track straight, plane at lower speeds, and turn well.

“Without the Duoprop I don’t believe we would be where we are today,” says Arvidsson. “It was a gigantic leap.” Indeed, the IPS has counter-rotating props, albeit on the forward end of the drive unit.

In addition to the sterndrive, Duoprop and IPS, Moore lists the Ocean Series sterndrive — designed for use in saltwater and developed in the United States — and Electronic Vessel Control based on CANbus technology as other key innovations from Volvo Penta. The company is the market leader in marine diesels from 100 hp to 800 hp, he says, is leading the way in the shift from traditional strut-and-shaft inboard propulsion to pod drives, and is the leading supplier of gas and diesel engines to independent boatbuilders. (Volvo Penta also produces a pair of dedicated marine diesels, the D4 and D6, unique in an industry where marinized versions of industrial and automotive engines are the norm.)

Earlier this year the company announced that Tiara Yachts of Holland, Mich., had itself passed a milestone: delivering its 100th Tiara 4300 Sovran equipped with IPS propulsion.

“You lead with products, and I think we’ve been demonstrating in the last 10 years that we have traditional industry leaders following us,” says Moore. “Volvo Penta has grown more in the last eight years compared to the first 92.”

Innovation has been directly responsible for much of this success, and Moore says Volvo Penta has a “disproportionately” large research and development budget for a company its size. “We’ve certainly earned the trust and respect of our top management, and with trust and respect comes freedom,” says Moore.

Arvidsson works in the transmission development department, which he says conceives “everything behind the engine.”

“In my department where we work we have a long tradition of being innovative,” he says. “So we are growing and maintaining a climate of attaining patents. We have a big freedom in our department to think in our own way,” Arvidsson continues. “We know that the company is supporting us when we come up with strange ideas.”

Such was the case when engineers suggested electronic steering for IPS. “People thought we were nuts,” he says. And he admits they had good reasons the fly-by-wire steering system wouldn’t work, but that didn’t stop Volvo Penta engineers from developing it.

“Find the right solution to the problem and don’t necessarily do what other companies are doing,” Arvidsson says. “That is the climate that we work in.”

Having the backing of a sound, successful, global company has been key. “It trusts its people, and it’s certainly a wealthy company,” says Moore. “We are a rapidly growing company with the last eight years having more growth than the first 92 years. We are in our 33rd quarter of increased revenue with profits.”

Moore recalls a group from Volvo Penta’s U.S. operation heading to a board meeting in Gothenburg to discuss the steering problems with IPS. “They trusted us to solve [the problems] and gave us the money,” he says. “That’s when we went to steer-by-wire.”

As the company has grown so too has the range of boats it powers. “When I started here in 1990 the biggest sterndrive boats we had power for were just over 30 feet,” says Arvidsson. “Today we have sterndrives [for boats] up to 40 feet, and the IPS drives have taken it up to 75 feet, and they can go bigger.”

Moore calls the installation of triple and quadruple IPS units a breakthrough for the company, which originally designed the steerable pod drives to be installed as twins. In addition to the Lazzara Yachts LSX Quad 75 with four IPS diesels, the new flagship from Tiara Yachts, the 5800 Sovran, will have a triple IPS setup.

“I’ve been in business a long time, and I’ve certainly never seen anything as different as the IPS,” says Moore, who has been with the company 11 years. “It really is amazing.”

Since the 1998 divestiture of Volvo — when Ford Motor Co. purchased Volvo Cars — Volvo Group’s core business has been in heavy trucks and construction equipment, and Volvo Penta has continued to draw off its global-leading sister company.

“To use the cliché, ‘core values,’ its core values have never changed: safety, quality and care for the environment,” says Moore. “And we’ve never really diverted from those at all.”

Another of the company’s guiding philosophies is to not upset its relationship with its primary customers — independent boatbuilders. “We will never build boats,” says Moore. “We will never compete with our customers.”

While Volvo Penta of the Americas ( is based in Chesapeake, Va., it builds gasoline engines and sterndrives for the U.S. market at a facility in Lexington, Tenn.Moore says the company has “a pipeline” of innovations at present, but company policy is to keep them under wraps until they’re in production.

“It’s easy to talk about concepts and show concepts,” he says. “It’s another thing to have an industrialized product in your customer’s hands when you talk about it.”

Moore and Arvidsson — both members of the IPS generation at Volvo Penta — are in agreement about the company’s future. “The development doesn’t stop here,” says Arvidsson. “We have to continue with the developments and innovations.”

Arvidsson adds that employees are proud to work for Volvo Penta. “I was supposed to be here seven weeks to make a casting for a gearcase, and I’m still here,” says Arvidsson, a 17-year veteran. “It’s easy to get stuck here. We are quite proud of our little company and the products we make here.”

To celebrate its centennial, the company invited members of the international press to Sweden in June to commemorate the occasion and introduce new products; produced a booklet that looks back through company history, with an accompanying Web site and a compact disc of images; launched a historical engine database Web site encompassing all 100 years; and donated 1 million Kronor (about $142,000) to the Swedish Sea Rescue Society, which also celebrates a centennial this year.