Volvo might not be the first brand that comes to mind when discussing sporty coupes — actually, for most people, it would never come to mind — but in the Swedish carmaker’s long parade of boxy cars, there was one standout exception. The Volvo 1800 was as appealing as any of the European coupes of its era, a low-slung two-plus-two that, for more than a decade, stood in contrast to the brand’s utilitarian mainstream offerings.
The coupe was hatched in the late 1950s, when Volvo was looking for a halo vehicle to enhance its image in the all-important export markets. The design work was farmed out to the Italian firm Frua, although the proposal they worked from had been submitted by a Swede, future Olympic sailor Pelle Petterson.
The car made its debut at the Brussels motor show in 1960 and went on sale the following spring as the P1800. Early cars were assembled (sloppily) by Jensen in the U.K. The engine was a Volvo unit, a 100-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder; the suspension — control arms in front and a coil-sprung live axle at the rear — consisted of modified Volvo Amazon components; brakes were discs in the front and drums at the back. A four-speed manual with electric overdrive was standard.
Assembly moved to Sweden in 1963, which spurred the coupe’s first name change, to 1800S, for the ’64 models. (Bodies, however, were still shipped from Scotland.) There was also a slight power increase that year, to 108 hp, and a leather interior. The 1800S carried on through the 1960s with mostly minor changes: another power bump (115 hp) for ’66; a switch from upswept to straight side trim along with an optional engine-tuning kit (for 135 hp) for the American market in ’67; and a larger, 2.0-liter engine (118 hp) for ’69, at which point Volvo took over body stamping as well.
Bigger changes arrived with the 1970s, starting with Bosch fuel injection, which brought the 2.0-liter’s output to 130 gross hp and triggered another switch in model designation, to 1800E. Four-wheel disc brakes arrived the same year, as did a major interior revision. An available three-speed automatic transmission followed for 1971.
A sleek, two-door-wagon sister model, the 1800ES, made its debut for 1972. It was identical to the coupe from the A-pillars forward as well as under the skin, but it had a wagon like rear end capped by a frameless glass hatch (reprised decades later on the 2008 Volvo C30). The final year for the coupe would be 1972; wagon production ended in 1973.
It was around this time that Michael Dangelo was fresh out of college and looking for his first car. “I stumbled across a ’63 P1800, and I bought it on the spot,” he recalls. The Volvo’s fortuitous star turn in the 1960s TV show The Saint, starring Roger Moore, had made an imprint on Dangelo. Perhaps for that reason, it had an air of romance. “Nobody had foreign cars back then — you saw Volkswagens, but that was it. This was so exotic.” Unfortunately, his P1800 attracted someone else’s attention as well and was stolen after only six weeks.
Dangelo forgot about P1800s for a while — a long while — but then four years ago, when he decided to get a classic car, he went looking for another one. He bought a red 1971 1800E, but it suffered an engine fire and was totaled. “This gold one is my third-time’s-the-charm car,” he says. It’s another ’71, purchased fully restored from Volvo 1800 guru Don Thibault in Sandwich, Massachusetts. It has factory air-conditioning, an AM/FM radio, and the four-speed manual gearbox with electric overdrive.
The factory gold livery really sets off the body style. It’s remarkable that a car designed in the late 1950s could still be contemporary in the early ’70s — and the clean, simple design and classic coupe proportions still look good today.
The outside door handle that’s integrated into the chrome trim is an interesting design detail that you appreciate every time you open the door. The cockpit is low, but getting in is easy. The bucket seats have a distinct mod-lounge appearance, and they’re wide and soft. The standard leather is quite supple. Reclining seatbacks and adjustable lumbar support were unusual items in 1971. The tiny back seats are more of a parcel shelf than a place to put passengers.
Period road tests criticized the high beltline, but it’s no worse than today’s cars, although the roof is low. You face a full complement of gauges, set in what may be the least-convincing fake wood ever applied to a dashboard.
The fuel-injected four-cylinder starts readily. For 1971, the 2.0-liter was rated at 130 hp, although this is a robust engine that can be tuned for even higher output. The big four is actually fairly torquey at relatively low revs, so there’s not much reason to explore the upper reaches of the tach. The manual gearbox has long, although positive, shift action, but the clutch has an extra long amount of travel and uses every bit of it. The steering is very heavy at parking speeds, but it’s not bad once you’re moving along. The chassis is set up more for predictable understeer than lively oversteer. Cozy, comfortable, and coupe like but also a bit truck like, the 1800 isn’t so much a sports car; it is more of a tourer.
Dangelo doesn’t mind. “I like the body style,” he says. “Plus, you don’t see them all over the place. These cars are available at a reasonable price,” he adds. “And nearly all the parts are readily available.” In other words, the 1800 offers a marriage of exotic-coupe style and Volvo practicality. That’s a combination that makes this Volvo a compelling choice among GTs of the era, even if it’s not an obvious one.
1.8-liter OHV I-4, 100-115 hp, 108-112 lb-ft
2.0-liter OHV I-4, 118-130 hp, 123-130 lb-ft
4-speed manual with electric overdrive
Control arms, coil springs
Live axle, coil springs
Discs/drums or discs/discs
2500 lb (est.)
1961-1972 (P1800/1800S/1800E), 1972-1973 (1800ES)
39,414 coupes and 8077 wagons
$4840 (1971 coupe)
$5000-$20,000 (wagons carry a slight premium over coupes)
Buyers of a certain age will remember the dashing coupe from The Saint, while others will simply appreciate the car’s enduring style. The 1800 is a relatively inexpensive example of a European GT, and reproduction parts (including sheetmetal) are readily available. The early, British-built cars suffered from poor assembly and paint quality, but the Swedish cars are better and the components are robust — even the rustproofing is better than most of its contemporaries. More performance is available to those who are unafraid of sacrificing originality for aftermarket tuning.