You’re here, and it’s 2020. As such, I can make a few assumptions about you. You’re know at least a little about the automotive world. You probably know about a Hummer is, you definitely know what a Jeep is, and you may even know what a Pinzgauer is. You’ve probably never seen a Volvo C303 in person– if you’ve ever heard of it at all. What’s a C303, you ask? Keep reading.
Officially known as the Volvo Cross Country C303– or Terrängbil 11, in Sweden– the C303 is a Swedish-built military vehicle designed to serve a number of purposes, from ambulance to troop hauler to– I dunno. Let’s say “fire truck” and leave it at that. The point is that the C303 was essentially a box on wheels that could be configured and reconfigured on the fly and in the field as needs and conditions required. It was built in 4×4 and 6×6 configurations, and uses portal axles with locking differentials (more on that in a minute) to maintain high ground-clearance for superior off-road performance.
And, by “superior”, I mean big “S” Superior. With their production-based B30 engines and stout power trains, the Volvo C303s quickly established themselves as go-anywhere vehicles. They were sturdy enough to hit streams and climb rocks at a good clip– even catching a bit of air now and then– yet narrow and light enough to weave between trees and avoid getting bogged down in mud and loose sand. A C303 even won its class at the 1983 Paris-Dakar rally, which is no mean feat!
Paris-Dakar C303 at the Volvo Museum
What made– or, makes, I guess– the Volvo C303 so effective off road? For starters, the B30 inline-six engine that powers it is one of the most durable, dependable motors ever built. Don’t take my word for that, though. Instead, talk to the people at Guinness who certified Irv Gordon’s 3.2 million-mile Volvo P1800. All those miles? They were driven on a B30 engine.
So the engine. The engine is part of it, sure– but still just part. The next trick up the C303’s sleeve is in the transmission. “Even though the six-cylinder might only produce around 125 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque,” writes Caleb Jacobs of the Drive, “it can still crawl over incredibly tough terrain. Just make sure you’ve got the four-speed manual where you want it and shift the two-speed transfer case into its lowest setting, then– voila! Instant four-wheeling.”
You’ve got a bulletproof engine and a robust, crawl-gear transmission for the opening acts– and they’re great. The grand finalé for the Volvo C303’s off-road performance, though, is those portal axles I mentioned earlier. Portal axles– sometimes called “drop axles”– have differential casings at the wheels that not only act as a separate gear reduction for more torque, but allow the axle itself to be mounted much higher than in a conventional axle …
Conventional Axle v. Portal Axle
… that allows the Volvo C303 to easily go over rocks and obstacles that would hobble a solid-axle Jeep or pickup truck, even if all of the vehicles involved had the same floor height. It’s simply a better way to build a go-anywhere vehicle, especially if you have no idea where that “anywhere” might be.
Perhaps it’s that level of capability, combined with how easy the C303’s are to re-body to meet different needs, that made them the go-to vehicle for not just the Swedish military, but the armed forces of Angola, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, and others. And that popularity is only growing as more and more off-road and overland enthusiasts rediscover the Cross Country C303. In 2014, for example, Blipshift– a gearhead-focused t-shirt brand that we definitely do not spend enough time talking about— picked up a C303 on EBay and took some of the Jalopnik guys out onto the Monticello Motor Club’s off-road course.
Blipshift Volvo C303 at Monticello
Granted, the C303 Blipshift and Jalopnik took to Monticello that day hasn’t been kept 100% stock. “We’re going to make some changes,” Blipshift’s main man, Joe Oh, told Jalopnik’s Andrew Collins. “But we don’t want to get too far away from this thing’s natural coolness.” Modifications include an exoskeleton roll cage, nicer interior, and a t-shirt turret on the roof– but it was still stock for this run. 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.”
Collins’ own words about experience is well worth a read, but I’ll give you my favorite tidbits here. “My confidence in the Volvo was swelling,” he writes, “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,” he says. “I gotta get me one of these!”
Volvo C303 vs. Unimog Vs. Pinzgauer
Recently, Automobile Magazine did a great piece that briefly covered Volvo C303’s history before going going on to compare its fortunes to those of other European paramilitary vehicles like the more famous German Unimog and Pinzgauer. It’s definitely worth checking out, but there’s a bit of trivia in there that I want to point out for you even if you don’t. That is: Volvo actually marketed the Cross Country C303 to civilians as a sort-of “proto-SUV” in the 1970s. (!)
“If this is what you need …” reads the copy surrounding a number of C303s in various, precarious positions, “… a vehicle that is not just a four-wheel drive vehicle, but a cross country in the true sense of the word. A vehicle that can climb up and down steep slopes, cross ditches, get through sand, cross over marshy land, navigate big rocks, and wade through water.”
Automobile also managed to get a hold of the C303’s gearing specs, which is nice. “The drop-axle setup also provides reduction gearing of just over 2:1, and the effective final-drive ratio is 6.0:1,” they explain. “With a direct-drive fourth gear, that limits top speed somewhat—125 km/h (78 mph) on paper, though the specs put the cruising speed closer to 60 mph at 4,000 RPM. With the 2:39:1 low range engaged, the C303 will climb an 80% slope. It also has 45-degree approach and departure angles and a 125-degree break over angle. It will also tow a 5,500 lb trailer, if you’re into that kind of thing.”
Great stuff, that.
I’ve collected a few pictures of my favorite Volvo C303 builds from across the web, and done my best to give credit throughout. Take a look at what’s out there, pick your favorites, then let me know how you’d build your “ultimate bug-out Volvo” in the comments section at the bottom of the page. Enjoy!