Cars

The Volvo C303 is the Original Cross Country Volvo

The Willys Jeep, the Land Rover, the Mercedes Geländewagen and Unimog—these mil-spec off-roaders are the stuff of legend, and even those who have no interest in cars can tell at a glance they are something special. But for some reason, history’s gaze seems to have escaped the Volvo C303, also known as the Terrängbil 11 (Terrain Vehicle, Tgb for short).

Photo by Rama

Volvo marketed the C303 to civilians as the Cross Country, a name that would later be applied to Volvo’s crossovers and wagons. The first page of a 1974 brochure shows pen-and-ink drawings of the C303 traversing impossible terrain at ridiculous angles. “If this is what you need…” trumpets the brochure, before listing off the C303’s capabilities: “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.” Yes, Volvo, that is exactly what we need!

Volvo’s Military Truck

Volvo started building this all-terrain box-on-wheels for the Swedish Army in 1974 as a follow-on to the L3314, which dated from the late ’50s. Though designed for the military, the C303 was available to civilian customers as well. All told, some 8,718 were made over a ten-year period.

Volvo brags about the Swedish minimalism of their modern-day cars, and that’s readily apparent in the design of the C303—though “design” might be an overstatement. The body panels are flat, the dash is flat, the glass is flat, and its overall lack of adornment makes the Land Rover Series I look like it was styled by Mansory. The C303’s boxy body was designed as a seven-seater, but they also toted radio equipment and served as ambulances and gun platforms. Though most employed the box-on-wheels body, an open-top model was offered as well. In 1983, a factory-backed C303 entered the Paris-Dakar rally and won the truck class, something that amazed us all the more when we learned what kind of engine it has.

Photo by Kotasik

What makes the Volvo C303 go?

When we first laid eyes on the C303, we expected some exotic powerplant—perhaps an eight-liter three-cylinder supercharged radial diesel. Nope! It’s the B30A, essentially the same 3.0-liter gasoline-fueled straight six that made its way Stateside in the Volvo 164 sedan. In the C303 it’s mounted behind the front axle. The engine is fed by a pair of single-barrel Stromberg carburetors and produces 125 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque, which doesn’t seem like enough when you consider the lightest variant of the C303 weighs nearly two and a half tons and has a max gross laden weight of 6,996 lb.

The C303 employs a four-speed transmission and a two-range transfer case, all shifted by the same lever. The driver first selects high or low range by moving the shifter to L or H (located to the right of the shift quadrant, same place as 5th and 6th in a modern gearbox), then returns the shifter to neutral and shifts into a driving gear. The transfer case automatically switches between rear-wheel-drive in high range and four-wheel-drive in low range. The front axle can be engaged in high range with a button on the dash, and automatically engages under hard braking in order to reduce the chances of rear-wheel lockup. All driven axles have vacuum-locking differentials.

Photo by Dankarl

Secret of the Volvo C303’s success: Portal axles

One of the elements that makes the C303 such a ridiculously capable off-roader is its portal axles—geared axles where the half-shafts enter the hub housing well above the centerline of the wheel. This increases the C303’s ground clearance to a massive 15 inches under the differentials, nearly half again as much as a Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 1″ less than a Hummer H1, which also uses portal axles. With its tidy dimensions—the C303 is shorter than a Mazda3 hatchback and just 1.2″ wider than a Jeep Wrangler—the C303 will fit in places where the Hummer (and perhaps the Gladiator) won’t.

The drop-axle setup also provides reduction gearing of just over 2:1, and the effective final-drive ratio is 6.0:1. 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 breakover angle. It will also tow a 5,500 lb trailer, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Wait, there’s more: Volvo C306 6×6

If an ordinary Tgb 11 isn’t bad-ass enough, they also made extended-length versions with a third axle—driven, of course—designated Tgb 13. At 212.6″ in length, it was roughly half a foot longer than a modern Lexus LS500. The largest variant was the 20-foot-long C306 6×6 troop carrier, which accommodated 19 heavily-armed passengers. It uses the same B30A engine and a lower (7.1:1) final drive ratio, so we can’t imagine that it carried its troops with any appreciable rapidity. (Now you know why Sweden maintained its legendary neutrality until 2009.)

Photo by Janee

Can you buy a Volvo V303?

C303s aren’t particularly easy to find; less than 9,000 were made over a ten-year production run, though several were sold to civilians, and few made it to the US. You’ll find a few in the States, some done-up as go-anywhere RVs, some as rusty relics, and all inevitably expensive… but perhaps worth it for one of the most exclusive and capable off-roaders this side of a Pinzgauer. We love our Volvo wagons, but this might be a new favorite.

Volvo C303 (Tgb11) Cross Country fast facts

  • Engine: 3.0 liter OHV I-6/125 hp @ 4,250 rpm, 165 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
  • Transmission: 4-speed manual
  • Brakes: 4-wheel drum with redundant braking circuits and twin vacuum boosters
  • Layout: 4-door, 7-passenger, mid-engine, 4WD van
  • Cruising speed: 62 mph
  • Top speed: 78 mph
  • Production timeline: 1974 – 1984

Volvo C303 Dimensions

  • Length: 166.9 in (4,240 mm)
  • Width: 76.0 in (1,930 mm)
  • Height: 88.8 in (2,256 mm)
  • Wheelbase: 90.6 in (2,300 mm)
  • Turning circle: 37.7 feet (11.5m)
  • Fuel tank: 33 gal (125 l)
  • Service weight: 4,759 lb (2,163 kg)
  • Maximum loaded weight: 6,996 lb (3,180 kg)

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Volvo C304 Dimensions

  • Length: 176.0 in (4,470 mm)
  • Width: 76.4 in (1,940 mm)
  • Height: 89.0 in (2,260 mm)
  • Wheelbase: 99.6 in (2,530 mm)
  • Turning circle: 38.4 feet (11.7m)
  • Fuel tank: 40 gal (150 l)
  • Service weight, mortar carrier: 5,337 lb (2,426 kg)
  • Service weight, gun tower: 5,293 lb (2,406 kg)
  • Service weight, ambulance: 6,009 lb (2,731 kg)
  • Maximum loaded weight: 8,131 – 9,235 lb (3,696 – 4,198 kg)

Volvo C306 6×6 Dimensions

  • Length: 233.5 in (5,935 mm)
  • Width: 82.0 in (2,082 mm)
  • Height: 110.23 in (2,800 mm)
  • Wheelbase: 107.9 + 41.3 in (2,720 + 1,050 mm)
  • Turning circle: 46 feet (14.0 m)
  • Fuel tank: 40 gal (150 l)
  • Service weight: 6,888 lb (3,131 kg)
  • Maximum loaded weight: 13,938 lb (5,881 kg)

Volvo C303 / C304 / C306 Off-Road Specs

  • Ground clearance: 15 in (380 mm)
  • Approach angle: 45 degrees
  • Departure angle: 45 degrees (C306 6×6: 40 degrees)
  • Breakover angle (C303) 125 degrees
  • Maximum water fording: 18 in (70 cm)
  • Maximum slope: 80%
  • Maximum side angle: 40 degrees

Volvo C303 vs Pinzgauer

The Pinzgauer is an Austrian-designed off-roader originally built by Steyr-Daimler-Puch in both 4×4 and 4×6 models. Unlike the C303, the Pinzgauer had a specially-developed engine, an air-cooled gasoline four-cylinder. The first-generation Pinzgauer was produced from 1971 until 1985, with over 18,000 built. The second-generation Pinzgauer had diesel power, an available automatic transmission and disc brakes. Steyr-Daimler-Puch sold the design to British-based BAE systems in 2000, which kept the Pinzgauer in production for military service. The Pinzgauer is narrower, lower, and lighter than the C303, but it has less ground clearance. Because it remained in production longer, the Pinzgauer had the advantage of additional development, while the C303 changed little in its decade-long production run.

Volvo C303 vs Unimog

The Unimog is actually a full line of vehicles produced by Daimler AG (parent company of Mercedes-Benz) that was originally developed just after World War II and remains in production to this day. Unimogs are available in 4×4 and 4×6 models and, like the C303, make use of portal axles to increase ground clearance and torque. The original Unimog was designed for agricultural applications, and was technically not intended to be a military vehicle as such production would have been restricted in post-war Germany. However, the Unimog had obvious military applications, and the Swiss army was an early customer. Unimogs have been produced in a variety of sizes, capacities, and cab and body configurations that far exceed the parameters of the Volvo C303. The Unimog lineup remains in production for both civil and military applications to this day.

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