The Volvo VN hit the highway in a very different transport landscape in 1996. The innovations that defined its engineering and design have changed trucking ever since.
The VN was really the first true Volvo in North America. “It really was quite spectacular to look at and more importantly it was spectacular inside,” says Steve Sturgess, renowned industry journalist and the man that wrote Heavy Duty Trucking’s 1996 review of the new Volvo series.
“It was sleek and significantly different. Fuel efficiency was less of a concern back then. Traditional, conventional models were very popular. Now fuel economy has become so significant, everyone is onboard with the aerodynamic features all pioneered by the VN.”
Because it was a leap forward, Volvo Trucks invested heavily in the introduction of the VN. Ed Saxman is a retired product marketing manager and was part of the planning for the 1996 launch, “We created a really comprehensive program that lasted a couple of days. We thought it was important to explain why these innovations were going to be beneficial to customers.”
Group after group, from dealers to customers to industry experts, came to Greensboro to see the future. And they were treated to a big show, fitting for a truck that would ultimately change the industry. “The first night a group would arrive we had lots of entertainment and the finale was always the new 610 VN lit up and turning on a carousel,” says Saxman. The shows went on four days a week, for months.
“Volvo was less familiar at that time,” Saxman says. “The shows were a way to get thousands of people to make a plane trip. We wouldn’t be what we are today if we hadn’t done that. We needed to reach them.” The plan worked.
"For this market at that time, the VN was something very, very different."
MAGNUS KOECK, VICE PRESIDENT OF STRATEGY, MARKETING AND BRAND MANAGEMENT FOR VOLVO TRUCKS
The shape of things to come
In fact, in 1996 Volvo Trucks had only been a brand name in North America for about a year. Volvo had been in the North American marketplace through its subsidiary White GMC trucks. The entire North American perception of the Volvo brand was riding on a big impact from the VN.
“That was the start of the new Volvo in North America,” says Magnus Koeck, then the marketing manager powertrain, now the vice president of strategy, marketing, and brand management for Volvo Trucks. “It was a new era.”
But being ahead of your time can be a risky proposition. The Volvo VN sparked a revolution in the way the industry builds trucks, but the shift did not come quickly.
You could start with the shape of the truck. In 1996, the American road was dominated by loud, long-nosed, boxy traditional trucks, built for power and a certain view of life on the road. Driver comfort was an afterthought. Aerodynamics were trumped by bravado.
Volvo introduced something very different—the shape of things to come. Michael Sorrells was a lead design engineer on the original VN project. He is now the group manager for cab living and interior for Volvo Trucks. Sorrells remembers how much attention was paid to the fit and finish of both the exterior and interior.
“Aerodynamically it was very clean. The exterior had no protrusions into the airstream. You didn’t see exposed grab handles. You didn’t see exposed rivets. The aerodynamic technology of the roof deflectors and the side deflectors and the chassis fairings, the way they were all integrated—it all looked very smooth from top to bottom,” says Sorrells.
" What really speaks to me is when we see competitors try to copy what we’ve done."
MICHAEL SORRELLS, GROUP MANAGER FOR CAB LIVING AND INTERIOR FOR VOLVO TRUCKS
1996 original design - VNL 660 model 2012 styling update - VNL 780 model
One good thing led to another
The changes had cascading benefits. Volvo started re-designing hoods for aerodynamics and quickly realized that the low profile increased visibility and improved driver safety. The same thing happened with hood mirrors. Tweaked for aerodynamic reasons, they delivered more visibility and safety. “You don’t see trucks with little round eyeball mirrors anymore,” Sorrells says.
Volvo Trucks decided not to try to match the look or feel of the classic trucks on the highway in the 1990s. Instead, the VN represented a commitment to the driver. Driver comfort, driver productivity, driver experience—this was where Volvo Trucks planted a flag in the ground. In 1996 the possibility that driving a commercial truck could feel like driving a car was a new idea. But Volvo decided quality should be the buzzword that defined the new truck.
"After the entertainment, the curtain came up and every eye in the place was focused on the 610 VN. An 18,000 pound truck spinning on a carousel for everyone to see."
ED SAXMAN, RETIRED PRODUCT MARKETING MANAGER
For all their size, legacy trucks paid little mind to living space. Sleepers were boxes tacked onto the back of a cab. Volvo built an integrated sleeper body, allowing them to maximize living space and create opportunities for home-like features such as integrated cabinets and refrigerators and bunks and storage spaces.
When the VNL debuted an upgraded interior—with a table where drivers could do paperwork and eat meals, and a comfortable sleeping area—the reaction from people in the industry was palpable.
“There were tears in people’s eyes sometimes when they saw that,” Saxman says. Volvo invited workers from the assembly plant down just to witness some of the reactions. “It was that emotional for us.”
Today, everybody in the industry tries to offer some copy of that integrated workstation. In fact, much of the VN interior established industry benchmarks that competitors still chase. Sorrells and Brian Balicki recently reflected on how groundbreaking the VNL interior continues to be.
Balicki, chief interior designer for the 2017 VNL and VNR products, says the wraparound dashboard is a great example. In traditional trucks, the dashboard instrument panel was flat, similar to an early airplane cockpit. That meant some gauges and switches were hard to see or reach.
“But in the VNL everything was within a hand sweep from the steering wheel,” Balicki says. “There was something there already in those early models making a lot of those controls and functions intuitive, putting functions on the steering wheel.”
No detail was too small to improve. Borrowing from the automotive industry, Volvo introduced the air curtain—directing warmth from the HVAC system to the door panel to keep large door windows warm—which made driving more comfortable and, because it inhibits ice and snow buildup on the glass, safer. Quality interior lighting—and the way the lighting is designed—changed the way the cab feels, shaping the sense of space.
“The truck is a tool, but it’s also somebody’s home,” Balicki says. “There’s a lot of pride and respect to be built from that. When you create a warm environment, a living room kind of feel, you create a sense of space and well-being for the driver.”
"It was sleek and significantly different. Fuel efficiency was less of a concern back then. Traditional, conventional models were very popular. Now fuel economy has become so significant, everyone is onboard with the aerodynamic features all pioneered by the VN."
STEVE STURGESS, INDUSTRY JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR OF ORIGINAL VN REVIEW
The highest form of flattery
Sorrells says that his years in the trucking industry have only confirmed what he believed about the VN when it rolled out 25 years ago. “Over the years, in talking to various technical people from other OEMs, I’ve constantly heard reflections of how the VN set a benchmark for quality that wasn’t there before—and it became the target for everybody to follow and chase. What really speaks to me is when we see competitors try to copy what we’ve done.”
Over 25 years, technologies advance and innovations drive comfort and performance. But Volvo has never lost the sense that a truck must work for its driver as much as it does for its fleet. From instrument switches to the I-Shift automatic transmission to modular cupholders, the Volvo Trucks VN series continues to drive progress.
2021 25th anniversary edition - VNL 860 model
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