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Innovators in Boating - Volvo Penta

By: Richard Crowder

The 1959 Volvo Penta Aquamatic drive
The revolutionary 1959 Volvo Penta Aquamatic drive

Having been a diehard fan of this company and its multiple revolutionary, exciting, advancing, and practical innovations in the worldwide pleasure boating industry over the past many decades, I had always wondered on the derivation of the corporate name, Volvo Penta.

It began in 1868 in Skövde, Sweden when engineer Johan George Grönvall started a workshop and foundry to make ploughs, pots, pans, and stoves and later branched into brewery, sawmill, and agricultural equipment. In the early 1900s, it began making steam engines and water turbines.

In 1907, it teamed with a Stockholm engineering company to produce a one cylinder, 3-horsepower, compression ignition engine named the B1. A five-man committee tried to create a marketable name for the engine, was stymied, and settled on “Penta,” the Greek word for five which reflected the size of the naming committee.

Edvard Hubendick stands behind the first Volvo Penta engine, the Penta B1, in 1907
Edvard Hubendick behind the Penta B1 in 1907

The company was purchased In 1916 by the owner of the Stockholm engineering company who then changed its name to AB Pentaverken. They built engines mainly for boats and ships and developed the proven B1 into two, three, and four-cylinder variants. In the early 1920s it developed the U2 outboard motor and subsequently refined it as the U21 which stayed in production and distributed worldwide until 1962.

Meanwhile, the name “Volvo,” Latin for “I Roll” was appropriately registered in 1915 by the (now) world famous Swedish ball and roller bearing manufacturer SKF. The Volvo brand name was never used for bearings, but when the automotive company was founded in Gothenburg in 1927 as a 100 percent subsidiary of SKF it took on the name Volvo.

During the development phase of the Volvo car, it approached Pentaverken who designed the two-litre, four cylinder, side valve, 28-horsepower DA engine which became the standardized engine for the brand. Engine sales to Volvo increased rapidly to the point where Volvo wanted more control over its engine supplier and purchased the company as a subsidiary of Volvo in 1935. Its name was changed to Volvo Pentaverken and specialized in production and sales of non-automotive engines out of Gothenburg. This eventually became AB Volvo Penta as we know it today.

Immediately following World War II, at which time most production was concentrated on trucks and buses, in 1946 Penta introduced its first six-cylinder, inline diesel engine to great acclaim. In 1949, a forward-thinking, dynamic, and bold new leader, Harald Wiklund, was named President of Volvo Penta. He remained in that position for the next twenty-eight years spearheading innovations and expansion of the company’s markets worldwide.

The 1950s saw rapid development including the world’s first serial production turbo diesel engine in 1954; in 1956, the first charged air-cooled marine diesel; and in 1958, the MD1, the world’s smallest direct-injected diesel with a revolutionary reverse gear. But it was 1959 that the name Volvo Penta would become known around the world in pleasure boating circles and would become the focus of its efforts to the present day.

Jim Wynne was an American marine engineer, boat designer, a perfecter of the deep-vee hull design, and one of the first offshore racers in the days of Dick Bertram. In 1958, Wynne and a companion completed the world’s first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in an outboard-powered boat. As an offshore racer, he was able to see the advantages and disadvantages of both outboard and inboard powered boats. He set about in his garage in his spare time to marry the best of the two concepts. Wynne created, tested, and patented the marine sterndrive, or inboard-outboard and set about to market it.

He spoke to Harald Wiklund of Volvo Penta who jumped on the idea and purchased the rights to its manufacture from Wynne. Penta introduced the Aquamatic Sterndrive to rave reviews at the 1959 New York Boat Show. It combined the benefits of both the inboard and outboard propulsion units in one package; a higher horsepower engine located inside the boat, protected from the elements, and with a steerable propeller unit located outside the boat that did not require shafts and rudders. The apparatus was also tiltable to avoid damage in shallow water. Jim Wynne died in Miami in 1990 at the age of 60.

The 1960s saw rapid expansion within Volvo Penta as sales of the Aquamatic sterndrive as well as its industrial engine division producing both fixed and mobile diesel-powered generator sets, compressors, and pumps for irrigation systems grew dramatically. In 1973, it introduced the S-Drive for sailboats and a new line of outboard engines which it raced to some success, but were discontinued by the end of the decade.

in 1974 Volvo Penta of North America was created in Chesapeake, Virginia, and in 1976 opened a facility there to marinize General Motors V-8 gasoline engines for sterndrive use. This greatly added to its in-house four and six cylinder inline gasoline sterndrive lineups. In 1977 it introduced the 40 Series of small displacement six-cylinder diesel engines that claimed to be “the first engine that combined the acceleration ability and quiet running of the gasoline engine with the economy and reliability of the diesel.” This became the TAMD (Turbo-Charged, After-Cooled, Marine Diesel) series as we knew them over the next many years.

In 1982, AB Volvo Penta became an independent company within the Volvo Group, and in 1983 the introduction of the revolutionary DuoProp outdrive was announced. The revolutionary DuoProp featured a pair of counter-rotating propellers on the same propeller shaft reverberated around the world. The drive provided better efficiency with better fuel economy, better acceleration, and better handling and maneuverability at all speeds.

At the same time, Volvo Penta introduced the compact 2000 Series of small, reliable, and easy to service 9 to 43 horsepower engines for sailboats and small powerboats. In 1987, its Industry Division introduced the TID 162, 16-litre diesel as well as the flexible GenPac concept Genset kit assembly package.

Around this same period, the Gothenburg production facilities were expanded and a product test centre was established at nearby Krossholmen to ensure all marine products received full and extended real-time on-water exposure. This facility is claimed to be the largest and best-equipped of its kind in Europe. I was most fortunate to be invited by Volvo Penta in the early 1990s to test drive some of its new products at the Krossholmen Test Center.

Early 1990s saw the introduction of the KAD concept of a high performance marine diesel which combined mechanical compressor and turbocharger in a high torque, low rev diesel. The KAD 42 quickly became the world’s best selling diesel sterndrive. A bit later, electronic fuel injection (EFI) was standardized throughout the gasoline and diesel engine lineup. The revolutionary low resistance three-blade folding propeller for sailboats was patented in 1996.

The new D series of cleaner, faster, and quieter diesel engines was introduced in 2003 as well as the highly flexible, expandable, and comprehensive Electronic Vessel Control (EVC) platform, which "enables a boat’s engine, control systems and instruments, as well as other onboard functions to communicate and exchange information.”

2005 brought the most worldwide attention to Volvo Penta when it introduced the Aquamatic sterndrive. This time, it was the introduction of the Inboard Performance System (IPS), or pod drive as it was often referred to, which the company sold as a complete engine and propulsion package. While podded propulsion systems had been around since the early 1990s, first used on Arctic icebreakers for better maneuverability, Volvo Penta’s adaption of the technology to relatively smaller pleasure boats was beyond forward-thinking.

The following year brought another breakthrough with the introduction of the IPS Joystick control where each IPS “pod” is electronically and independently controlled with a simple twist of the wrist to propel the boat in the direction of the movement on the joystick. This made the potential stress of docking and low speed maneuverability, especially in tricky wind and current situations, a thing of the past. The concept caught on like wildfire in the marketplace.

The second decade of the twenty-first century brought more breakthroughs to the pleasure boat market. Starting in 2013 the company introduced the unique Glass Cockpit System providing high-tech touchscreen access on a single interface of engine data, alarms, EVC data, navigation, and Dynamic Positioning Systems data.

Then in 2015 came another breakthrough; the Forward Drive system (FWD). The FWD system works as a DuoProp sterndrive mounted on the transom of a runabout, but with the propellers located under the hull and facing forward. This allowed family runabout manufacturers to offer a safer sterndrive for the fast expanding wakesurf and wakeboard markets. In 2016, the e-Key Remote allowed a one-key remote control of a boat’s engines.

Volvo Penta took Joystick control to the next level in 2017 with its award winning Joystick for Inboard, the first and only joystick for twin-engine inboard shaft configurations. This system takes control of rudders, thruster, gears, slip, and throttles to offer similar fingertip control for low speed maneuverability.

Perhaps the most reverberating development of 2017 was Volvo Penta’s purchase of majority interest in high horsepower outboard motor manufacturer, Seven Marine. Within a couple of years, the horsepower range had been extended from 527 to 627, and innovations like DuoProp lower units, Joystick docking, Electronic Vessel Control, and Glass Cockpit had been introduced to outboard purchasers. But at the end of 2020, Volvo Penta announced it was ceasing outboard production in order to concentrate on the Volvo Group’s commitment to achieving the Paris Climate Accord’s objectives of net-zero emissions by 2050.

In 2018 the new Easy Connect interface and mobile app provided onboard and remote engine and stored navigation data, plus maintenance issues and troubleshooting codes on mobile devices. In late 2019 and early 2020, Volvo Penta introduced and integrated its Silent and Smooth Shifting technology across its entire range of gasoline and diesel sterndrive and IPS offerings to provide seamless and soundless gear shifting.

And finally, in 2021 came the Assisted Docking technology which counteracts the effects of wind and current in tight maneuvering situations by allowing the user to direct the boat with the a joystick without having to compensate for these external forces.

Today, Volvo Penta is comprised of four business segments; Marine Leisure, Marine Commercial, Off-Road (construction-type equipment), and Power Generation. As part of the Volvo Group, one of the largest manufacturers of trucks and buses in the world for which Volvo Penta supplies the engines and drivetrains, Volvo Penta is said to be the largest manufacturer of commercial diesel engines in the world.

Almost a century and a quarter after its formation as Penta in 1907, and its history of remarkable innovation during that time, there is every indication that this trend will only continue to grow and to expand in the future.

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