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Classic Profile: The Volvo P1800’s Road to Redemption and Fame

The story of a beautiful Swedish sports car with a grand-touring soul.

Eleonor SeguraWriterManufacturerPhotographerGetty ImagesPhotographer

Classic Volvo: The P1900 Blunder

Volvo in 1954 moved away from its wholesome, play-it-safe-image and rolled the dice by pulling back the cover on a fiberglass-bodied sports car, the Volvo Sport P1900. The dashing two-seat convertible was unlike any model from the Volvo lineup, and the public's response to the car's reveal prompted the Swedish automaker to put the P1900 into production.

The ambition-loaded Volvo Sport cruised out of the factory in 1956 and into the hands of then-Volvo president Gunner Engellau. As the story goes, Engellau spent a holiday weekend with the P1900 and disapproved of its quality. After his test drive, he supposedly thought the car would fall to pieces; at his behest, Volvo halted Sport P1900 production in 1957, after building just 68 examples.

Classic Volvo: Revisiting the Sports Car

Acknowledging the P1900 blunder, Volvo returned to the drafting board to begin work on the P1800, with engineering consultant Helmer Petterson leading the project. Under the direction of Italian designer Pietro Frua, Pelle Petterson—a young sailor, yacht designer, and Helmer's son—cleaned up the P1900's flaws. Helmer Petterson in 1957 then drove the first hand-built P1800 prototype, also called the X1, to automotive specialist Karmann's West Germany headquarters.

Pettersen and Volvo chief engineer Thor Berthelius had tested the P1800 and met with Karmann in hopes of getting development underway.  But before Karmann and Volvo could formulate an agreement, Volkswagen stepped in. Anticipating the threat of an invigorating Swedish sports car, Volkswagen—already a Karmann client—cautioned Karmann not to do business with Volvo. If the deal carried on, Volkswagen would cancel all contracts with Karmann.

This impediment, together with other financial hurdles and a production capacity shortage in Gothenburg, Sweden, nearly crushed the P1800 project out of the gate.

 

 

Classic Volvo: Saved by a Revealing Photo

Right when Volvo lost confidence in a way forward, it turned to Jensen Motors Ltd. in West Bromwich, England, to begin P1800 production. Following a leaked press release that revealed the souped-up P1800, Volvo brought the project back to life, and the production model made its first public appearance, at the 1960 Brussels Motor Show. A true classic Volvo was on the horizon.

Volvo and Jensen agreed to a contract for 10,000 examples, which included a subcontract for the unibody shells to be made by Scottish company Pressed Steel. Designed as a 2+2 grand tourer in a sports-car disguise, the Volvo P1800 for the 1961 model year finally saw the light of day in September 1960.

Classic Volvo: A Stylish Swede's Grand Arrival

Based on the classic Volvo 121/122S platform, the front-engine P1800 had a shorter wheelbase and came with a sensible price of $3,995. The rear-wheel-drive sporty Swede arrived with a new 1.8-liter dual-carb B18 engine; it initially produced 100 horsepower, mated to an M40 four-speed manual gearbox.

Styling elements were typical of Italian design, as illustrated by the gradually sloping roofline, egg-crate grille, subtle tail fins, rearward-opening hood, accent lines, and fenders. Technically, the P1800 was a four-seat coupe competing in the sports car segment; it offered mild performance and Volvo marketed it as a grand-touring vehicle. By reinventing the wheel and using graceful design, Volvo proved it could produce a car for a hot date and not just for hauling the collie and kids.

Variants: P1800, 1800S, 1800E

Quality-control problems ensued in 1963, forcing Volvo to abolish the contract with Jensen Motors after 6,000 cars. That same year, the M41 gearbox upgrade with Laycock overdrive made two overdrive types optional; this effectively added a fifth gear, resulting in less drivetrain wear and better fuel efficiency. For the 1963 model year, the P1800 nameplate lost the "P" prefix to gain an "S" suffix; horsepower in the 1800S increased to 108 and later to 115. The B20 engine replaced the B18 in 1969, boosting displacement to 2.0 liters and power to 118 hp.

In the final coupe configuration before transforming into the 1800ES station wagon, the 1970 Volvo 1800E received a Bosch fuel-injection system, and engine power rose to 130 hp. Additionally, other considerable updates included an improved ventilation system, a matte-black grille, four-wheel disc brakes, optional BorgWarner three-speed automatic, and aluminum alloy wheels.

Classic Volvo: 1960s Television Icon

Jaguar's refusal to provide up-and-coming British television show The Saint (1962-69) with an E-Type was Volvo's golden ticket to promote the 1800S. The show's lead character, heroic outlaw Simon Templar (played by future James Bond star Roger Moore) drove his 1800S "ST1" on London's streets, usually accompanied by a lovely lady, where he'd outrun the bad guys. Moore enjoyed driving the car so much during filming that he personally purchased a handful of 1800Ss. The Saint was an instant hit with audiences around the globe and it catapulted the classic Volvo 1800S to celebrity status. Indeed, the sporty Swedish coupe with Italian influence would go on to become one of the most famous cars in television history.

Classic Volvo P1800 Fast Facts:

  • Swedish born race car driver Ewy Rosqvist entered the RAC Rally in 1961 with a Volvo P1800
  • 1966 Volvo 1800S with more than 3-million miles (formerly owned by Irv Gordon) holds the Guinness world record for the highest-mileage vehicle
  • Corgi Toys made a miniature version of the Volvo P1800, today found for sale on eBay
  • British actor Martin Benson once owned Roger Moore's Volvo 1800S ST1
  • The original 1967 Volvo 1800S ST1 from The Saint was featured on an episode of Jay Leno's Garage.
  • In 2021, the Volvo P1800 will celebrate its 60th anniversary
  • The classic Volvo P1800 made its first U.S. appearance during the 1960 New York Auto Show