The phrase the Volvo set designates trendy middle- to upper-middle-class people, who are often conservationists, and who, in some cases, have moved from cities and urban areas into country areas.
—Cf. also the British-English phrase gin and Jaguar.
The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the column Downwind, by Lawrence K. Miller, published in UpCountry: The Magazine of New England Living (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) of April 1976:
Just why the Connecticut River community of Walpole, N.H, was chosen to be the site of a $200-million pulp mill does not parse easily. By a vote of 866 to 690 at a special town meeting on the issue in February village voters rejected the project. A year ago on Town Meeting Day, the general proposition without any specifics spelled out was favored by a vote of 252 to 153. Considering the composition of the town the earlier vote appeared unrealistic as to total vote and result.
[…] It was perhaps inevitable that given the demographics of the town, the earlier vote should have been reversed once the elbow-patch and Volvo set got into the act. […] Like most New England small towns, Walpole has a section of town populated by those whose next week’s paycheck is not as secure as those to whom the town is a bedroom and whose income is generated by white-collar occupations elsewhere. Dividend and pension checks of well-fixed retirees are also a considerable factor in the town’s economy. What has happened in Walpole—and many other well preserved and prettily-situated New England villages above and below the 42nd Parallel—is that the hardscrabble natives and the cyclically employed are becoming outnumbered by the long- and short-haul emigrés from the cities and suburbs.
The phrase then often occurs in relation to the U.S. politician John Bayard Anderson (1922-2017) because, when running as an independent presidential candidate in 1980, he gained support among liberal intellectuals and Rockefeller Republicans (i.e., members of the Republican Party who held moderate or liberal views).
This is exemplified by the following, about the U.S. Republican statesman George Herbert Walker Bush (1924-2018), who was then Ronald Reagan’s vice-presidential nominee—from Hail to Number Two, by David B. Wilson, published in The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) of Monday 21st July 1980:
Despite Texan residency and conservative stands on issues, Bush is of the Eastern Establishment, tending to counteract the negatives of Reagan’s cowboy style. […]
His job in this campaign is to prevent the inheritors of Rockefeller Republicanism from defecting to Anderson, and he is superbly fitted for the task, given the social predispositions of the Volvo set.
Herb Caen mentioned the phrase in relation to John B. Anderson on two occasions in his column San Francisco, published in The Honolulu Advertiser (Honolulu, Hawaii):
– Of Wednesday 3rd September 1980:
The Rev. Norman Mealy puts down John Anderson as “the candidate of the quiche, wine and Volvo set.”
– Of Friday 19th September 1980:
This goes right along with the running gag that John Anderson is the darlin’ of the brie-white wine-Volvo set at the Lafayette Club’s candidates’ night, Atty. Joe Hughes delivered a pitch for Anderson entirely in French. Actually, it should be Peugeot, not Volvo, since Anderson’s running mate, Patrick Lucey, drives that French car.
Likewise, the following is from Anderson has made progress, but campaign time running out, published in The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) of Sunday 7th September 1980:
The Anderson constituency that emerged this year tended to be liberal, antinuke, proconsumer. They were the Volvo set, college-educated, 35-ish, high disposable income, receptive to what passes for fresh ideas on the political scene.
Alfred Edward Kahn (1917-2010), who was then President Jimmy Carter’s inflation adviser and chairman of the Council on Wage and Price Stability, used the phrase in relation to John B. Anderson in an interview published in The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, New York) of Wednesday 15th October 1980:
He [= Kahn] says Anderson is not real, not serious, and that he’s appealing to 20 percent of the population—what Kahn called “the Volvo set,” the conservation-oriented liberals.
The following is from So Hateful About Salvation, by Russell Baker, published in The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Saturday 20th June 1981:
At the risk of sounding like a member of the white-wine-and-Volvo set, I confess that I have no idea how badly sex and violence have contaminated prime-time television, since I rarely look at the prime-time shows.
The phrase the Volvo set is in use in Australian English, too. It was attributed to Rod Muir 1 in the text containing the earliest Australian-English occurrence that I have found—this text is Why Barrie joined Fairlane set, by Jack Taylor, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Friday 22nd October 1982:
It was a bargain too good to miss—12,000 kms on the clock, a year old and a lot of car for $9,000, even in 1979.
The car, a Ford Fairlane, has come in for some criticism in the last few days because it is large, luxurious and the personal transport of the secretary of the State Labor Council, Mr Barrie Unsworth 2.
It has been the focus of attention since Mr Unsworth made a quip about the “Volvo set” to the Premier, Mr Wran 3, on Monday. Mr Unsworth and a deputation from the council were meeting the Premier to try to persuade him to support limited logging of the hardwood forest adjoining the Washpool rain forest.
“I used to have a Holden, but because there is often a need to drive four or five people around it was decided we should have a bigger car,” said Mr Unsworth. “This was available cheap from a deceased estate at the time.
“As far as we are concerned, its main virtue apart from its size is that it is a Ford, which is now the only car made in NSW and all the cars bought for Labor Council staff are now Fords.”
Criticism of the Fairlane had come from leaders of the conservation movement who were reported to drive Datsuns and Mazdas, he said.
“The phrase Volvo set was coined by Rod Muir of 2-DAY FM to describe the chic, trendy set of the middle class.
“What I said to the Premier on Monday was that while he is looking after the Volvo set he didn’t want to lose the support of the Holden Kingswood 4 set, which is not quite how it has appeared in the media.”
1 This is what Kate De Clercq wrote about Rod Muir in the Australian Financial Review (Sydney, New South Wales) of 17th September 1999: “Rod Muir, 57, has been described as the father of FM radio in Australia. Born in New Zealand and brought up in Smithton, Tasmania, Muir worked as a disc jockey in the United States in the 1960s. He returned to Australia and lobbied for the introduction of FM radio stations, starting 2MMM in Sydney in July 1980.”
2 The Australian politician Barrie John Unsworth (born 1934) was the Secretary of the Labor Council of New South Wales from 1979 to 1984. He was a Member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales from 1978 to 1986, and the Premier of New South Wales from 1986 to 1988.
3 The Australian politician Neville Kenneth Wran (1926-2014) was the National President of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) from 1980 to 1986, and the Premier of New South Wales from 1976 to 1986.
4 The Holden Kingswood was a popular, affordable, durable car manufactured in Australia.
Rod Muir did use the Volvo set, according to the following from Judge rejects 2UE action to stop FM joint advertising, by Richard McGregor and Joe Cizzio, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 16th October 1982:
Radio station 2UE has failed in a court action to prevent two of its competitors, the FM stations 2MMM and 2DAY-FM, using a combined advertising card.
2UE sought an injunction in the Federal Court under the Trade Practices Act on the grounds that by using the joint card the two FM stations substantially lessened competition.
Justice Lockhart said in his judgment that the combined card, which set out the stations’ advertising rates, was a marketing exercise aimed at attracting advertisers to buy time on the two stations together, thus giving them access to listeners of a broader age group than either could reach on its own.
Mr Rod Muir, the executive director of 2MMM, described this age group in court as people “moving into the Volvo set.”
But it was Barrie Unsworth who popularised the phrase in Australia by applying it to well-to-do environmentalists during the debate over the logging of rainforests in New South Wales—as mentioned in What they did in Macquarie Street 5, by Greg Turnbull, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Wednesday 20th October 1982:
The secretary of the NSW Labor Council, Barrie Unsworth, took a trade-union delegation to see Neville Wran yesterday about the logging of rain forests. Mr Unsworth said the trade-union movement would oppose any Government decision to stop the logging. He is believed to have been critical of something called “the Volvo set,” which he said was emphasising the environmental issues against the interests of the silent majority. Mr Unsworth, who drives a largish Ford car provided by the Labor Council, said the Wran Government would risk being thrown out of office like the Whitlam Government 6 if it caved in to the wishes of this Volvo set.
With this threat hanging over it, State Cabinet discussed the rain forest issue and decided to defer a decision until next Tuesday. After the meeting, the Minister for Industrial Development and Decentralisation, Don Day, said there were “ratbags” in the environmental movement who lived in concrete jungles and only saw rain forests on television. “I can’t see any point in vast areas of forest which no one can get into except some hardened young scientist with a back pack,” Mr Day said.
5 The key government institutions of the state of New South Wales are all located on Macquarie Street, in the central business district of Sydney.
6 The Whitlam Government (1972-1975) was the federal executive government of Australia led by Gough Whitlam (1916-2014), of the Australian Labor Party. It was terminated by Sir John Kerr (1914-1991), Governor-General of Australia.
This probably is why Mike Steketee attributed the phrase to Barrie Unsworth in Barrie Unsworth—the terror of the trendies, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 23rd October 1982:
Unsworth is really highlighting a growing cultural rift in Australian society which is tearing at political parties, too. It is clearest of all in country areas, where there is enormous resentment over the image often conjured up of people lounging on their Paddington patios, drinking white wine and feeling emotional about trees—the middle-class, Volvo set, in Unsworth’s terms.
Compounding the resentment are the trendies who have moved into country areas and become activists on issues such as rainforests.