Sporty Swede: The Volvo P1800

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Written by The Staff of Motorsport Marketing

From the March 2010 issue

Posted in Buyer's Guides ,Features


Story By Andy Reid • Photography Courtesy Volvo
Volvo’s image is hard to shake: They’re a maker of durable, boxy sedans, not sports cars. Look back through the history books, though, and Volvo did, in fact, build a very nice GT car: the P1800 series.

Not only was it a good vehicle, but Volvo somehow managed to stretch its production from 1961 all the way to 1973 with only subtle changes. It might have featured Volvo’s standard—yet tough—mechanical bits, but the P1800 was unlike anything built by the brand before: beautiful, and not just in the eye of the beholder.

The Car That Almost Wasn’t

The P1800 was not Volvo’s first attempt at building a sports car. The vehicle with that dubious honor was the P1900, at best an awkward-looking car with a fiberglass body built in the U.S. by Glasspar.

To say that the motoring press was unimpressed by the mid-’50s P1900 would be a understatement. The final nail in the car’s coffin was hammered the first time Gunnar Engellau, Volvo’s then-new CEO, took it for a weekend trip. He found the car so terrible that he immediately canceled the project. “The car shook so much I thought the doors would fall off,” he said.

That would seem to be the end of the story for a company with no history of sports cars, even though the brand’s 544 and 122 models were enjoying great success in rallying at the time. Engellau, however, still wanted a product to sell to the growing sports car market.

Volvo chose Helmer Petterson, a contractor for the brand, to lead the project. As a contractor he was granted greater flexibility in developing the car, which proved to be critical in the launch of the P1800.

Engellau suggested that Ghia of Italy handle the design work, as they already had a contract with Volvo. However, Ghia didn’t have the capacity and subcontracted the work to Pietro Frua, another Italian designer and coachbuilder.

Helmer Petterson had a different idea for the design work. His son, Pelle Petterson, was a young designer who had made a name for himself with his boats. The younger Petterson had always wanted to design a sports car, so Helmer went behind Engellau’s back and offered his son a chance to pen the P1800.

When both design drawings were presented to Engellau, he approved the one done by Pelle Petterson. When Engellau found out that his favored design came not from Ghia but from his contractor’s son, he was furious and almost canceled the P1800 project. After a further review of the design, however, Engellau believed it was still the best choice. Frua received the order to build the car with assistance from Pelle Petterson.

Even then, all was not smooth sailing for the P1800. The original idea was for an outside firm to build the bodies, and Helmer Petterson had an agreement with Karmann. Unfortunately, Karmann was producing Volkwagen’s Ghia model at the time. The P1800 was seen as direct competition, and VW threatened to take their Ghia contract elsewhere if Karmann went ahead with the Volvo project. With no one to build the body of their sports car, Volvo again considered canceling the project.

When the elder Petterson heard this, he presented a proposal to build the cars himself as an independent contractor. He would use the Volvo running gear but market the car himself. Volvo agreed to the proposal and decided to continue working to get the car built. Petterson met with Jensen shortly after. They would build the cars using panels sourced from Pressed Steel LTD of Scotland. Jensen welcomed the contract and built prototypes for Volvo’s review. Volvo accepted the Jensen cars, and the P1800 was finally underway.

It’s Sort of a Souped-Down Ferrari

Now that the P1800 was finally a reality, Volvo came up with some creative marketing campaigns. The car was a little slower than its competition from Italy and England, but it was also much more reliable. Plus, the Volvo sold for $3995, about a third the cost of comparable machines. “It’s Sort of a Souped-Down Ferrari” was a popular ad tag line.

For mostly aesthetic reasons, the P1800 was compared to many of the day’s Italian GT cars. Styling elements such as the rear fins, egg crate grille and lines of the roof and fenders strongly recall cars like the Ferrari 410 Superamerica and Lamborghini 350 GT—not bad styling influences at all.

Another favorite ad for the P1800 directly attacked the reliability of the pricier alternatives. “Does your mechanic have more fun with your sports car than you do?” was printed below an image of a mechanic smiling under the hood of a Ferrari.

The press fell for the P1800 from the beginning. The Volvo was a bit slower than other GT cars, but it was generally more durable and just as nicely styled. The price was also hard to beat, and the car became a hit.

While the first cars were built by Jensen, in 1964 production moved to Sweden. Along with the move came a name change: The car would now be called the 1800S—the S denoting the Swedish manufacture.

Many believe the move was based on dissatisfaction with the quality of Jensen’s work, but the facts show that this wasn’t the case. Thanks to a new assembly line, Volvo simply had the manufacturing capacity at home in Sweden.

The car continued to receive favorable reviews as it aged, though most critics were quick to admit that the design was a bit long in the tooth. Volvo didn’t ignore those criticisms.

In 1968, they addressed the performance issue by moving to a high compression version of their B20 engine. For model year 1970 the car received fuel injection and another name change to 1800E. Performance was up, but the car was still an 8-year-old design.

The 1800E soldiered on unchanged until the 1972 model year, when a sport wagon model called the 1800ES was added to the lineup. This can be called the world’s first sport wagon, and while some got the concept, others didn’t. It was a love-it-or-hate-it styling exercise, with equal numbers on both sides. (Today the ES is sought-after due to its increased storage capacity and quirky looks.)

Thanks to federal safety regulations that continued to grow stricter, the P1800 model line’s last year was 1973. Volvo chose to phase out the then-13-year-old design instead of trying to meet these new regulations. In the end, Volvo built a total of about 47,500 P1800 cars.

Almost a Bond Car

While not built by Q Branch, the P1800 was driven by actor Roger Moore before he became 007. In his role as Simon Templar—better known as The Saint—Moore drove a 1800S.

The producers of “The Saint” originally wanted to use one of the then-new Jaguar E-types for the show, but Jaguar declined to offer a car. Jaguar executives felt that demand would be fine without the television tie-in.

Apparently, Volvo’s management heard about the production company’s search for a proper car for Simon Templar and offered the P1800. The show used a total of five different cars during its run, all of which are still accounted for.

The cars were not only used on television, as Roger Moore himself owned three P1800s while the show was on the air. All of them were white and bore “The Saint” logos on their hoods.

We had the opportunity to speak with Sir Roger about the cars. “They were delightful cars and an absolute joy to drive,” he reports. He adds that they never let him down in service.

Driving Isn’t Bad for It

Despite all of the various ad headlines used through the years, one seems to best sum up the P1800: “Driving isn’t bad for it.” The P1800 is possibly one of the best classic sports cars to consider if you’re looking for a daily driver.

Need some facts to back up that claim? Don’t forget, the world’s highest-mileage car is a 1966 Volvo 1800S. At last count, Irvin Gordon’s red Volvo has covered more than 2.7 million miles. (You can track his progress online at vcoa.org/irv-o-meter.)

It’s no surprise that someone would want to pile on the miles in a P1800. The leather seats are very comfortable, while the steering wheel—more vertical than those in most other cars—has a nice feel to it.

In typical sports car fashion, the gear lever is perfectly located and the spacing of the pedals allows for nice heel-and-toe shift work.

Acceleration is not brisk, but it’s more than sufficient to keep up with modern-day traffic. Its performance is close to that of an MGB GT. If you need to hit the highway, seek out a car with the optional overdrive; you’ll get relaxed touring plus as much as 30 miles per gallon. You can drive this car for hours without feeling worn out when you reach your destination.

The handling is also MGB-like. The body is very stiff but the suspension is on the soft side, making for a car that is very forgiving and difficult to land in trouble. Remember, the folks at Volvo like things safe.

The neat styling isn’t limited to the car’s exterior, as the dash and instrumentation—at least in the early cars—has a bit of that 1950s American sci-fi styling. Overall, we like the look and prefer it to the later cars’ “modern” instruments, plastic three-spoke wheel and faux wood-grained dash covering.

At the end of the day, this car is a Volvo. It’s as durable, practical and tractable as every other car the company has made. The P1800 just happens to be drenched in a beautiful, head-turning design.

Updates and Changes


The Volvo P1800 model enjoyed a very long career. While it was basically the same car throughout its run, it did receive a number of changes over the years.


1961: Volvo launches the P1800, with Jensen manning production in the U.K.
1962: Right-hand-drive production commences.
1963: Jensen builds their last P1800 that April, with 1800S production starting in Sweden that June. After 2000 units are built, the 1964 model is released; upgrades include a bump from 100 to 108 horsepower, an improved braking system and modified seats.
1964: The updates continue, as the 1800S receives straight bumpers with rubber inserts—so long to the old “cow horn” pieces. Slotted wheels fitted with stainless steel hubcaps and a revised interior round out the changes.
1965: Volvo increases horsepower again, this time to 115. Other upgrades include a diaphragm clutch, sealed chassis greasing and improved brakes.
1966: The grille is tweaked to feature paired bars. The chrome side trim also changes; the new trim runs straight down the side of the car, where the old brightwork curved up at the door handles. Harold Radford offers a very limited convertible model.
1967: Minor interior changes include a new three-spoke steering wheel plus a different ashtray.
1968: The B20 engine bumps displacement from 1.8 to 2.0 liters, increasing horsepower to 118 at 5800 rpm. A dual circuit braking system is introduced.
1969: The fuel-injected 1800E is released as a 1970 model. Bosch fuel injection replaces the original twin-carb setup. The injection helps the car make 130 horsepower at 6000 rpm. Other changes include four-wheel-disc brakes, alloy wheels, a matte black grille and a new dashboard. An improved ventilation system features matte black extractors in rear wings. Transmission choices now include a stronger Volvo-built, four-speed manual gearbox or an optional BorgWarner three-speed automatic.
1970: The transfer of body panel manufacture from Pressed Steel LTD in the U.K. to the Olofström works in Sweden is complete
1971: The body line is expanded with the summer introduction of the 1800ES sporting estate car, which debuts for the 1972 model year.
1972: The car receives collision bars in the doors, while interior appointments are now fire-resistant. The U.S. gets the lower compression 112-horsepower B20F engine.
1973: Only the wagon is available for 1973, the final year for the P1800 line.

Things to Know

The Volvo P1800 has been a bit of a niche collector car almost since its introduction, with many owners admitting that its appearance in “The Saint” influenced their purchase. While not super-fast, these well-built, enjoyable touring cars can turn heads just about anywhere.

The Volvo P1800 wasn’t an inexpensive car when new, with a starting price of $3995—quite a bit of money in the early 1960s. As a result, many cars went to good homes and received good care. That being said, they are not nearly as easy to locate as, say, an MGB or Triumph from the same era.

When seeking a P1800, we recommend the online avenues—eBay and craigslist—as well as the Volvo enthusiast message boards. Local Volvo specialists are another good source for cars.

Today’s selling prices are strictly based on condition, with early cars sometimes getting a small premium. Nice drivers usually sell between $6000 and $10,000, with the very best examples selling for around $20,000. This is where the P1800 has been trading for years. While we don’t expect to see prices rise soon, we also don’t think they’ll drop. Automatic cars are worth quite a bit less, as they offer less performance as well as reduced sportiness.

Our pick would be an early Jensen-built car—white, of course, like the one Simon Templar drove. If you’re lucky, maybe you can get an “ST1” license plate to go with it.

Body and Interior

Look for rust, although when compared to other cars of the time, the P1800 is very durable and well built.

There’s a conception that the Jensen cars are more rust-prone, but this really is not the case. The Jensen cars were completely hand built, including the lead-filled seams. In many ways, they are equal to an Aston Martin or Jensen Interceptor. While the quality is strong, the same can be said for the body repair prices. If you’re looking to buy an early Jensen-built P1800, buy the absolute best one available.

The interiors feature a mix of leather and vinyl. Every piece is available, but they can be pricey. For example, correctly redoing the front seats will cost more than $1000.

The P1800’s gauges, especially the early ones, are notorious for having problems. They can all be rebuilt, but this can get expensive. If everything works as it should, count yourself lucky and don’t be surprised when the gauges fail.

Chassis

The majority of chassis components are standard Volvo 122 parts. Supplies are plentiful and durable. They’re also not very expensive, but due to their durability many cars have shocks and springs that are long overdue for replacement.

The early cars have grease nipple fittings that can lead to worn-out parts if ignored. Many cars have been upgraded to the later sealed units.

The carbureted B20 cars have a dual-circuit brake servo that is no longer available new. It can be rebuilt, however.

Drivetrain

The manual and automatic gearboxes used for the P1800 are the same as those used in the 122- and 140-series cars. They are very durable, and all parts are available.

The P1800, like many other cars from this era, can often be found with nonfunctioning overdrive units. However, lately we’ve noticed more cars with good overdrives than bad ones.

The B18 and B20 engines used in the P1800 are also legendary for their reliability. It’s important to make sure that the car has received regular oil changes with a Volvo filter. The factory-spec oil filter has a check valve that prevents oil from flowing back when the engine is switched off; this helps extend engine life.

Oil pressure should be at 40 psi or so at warm idle and 50 to 55 psi during cruising. That being said, these cars have been known to stack up huge mileage with only 30 psi when cruising. Did we mention they’re reliable?

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Reader comments:

wspohn
wspohn Dork
Nov. 18, 2017 1:19 p.m.

Early cars were made in Britain by Jensens until they and Volvo had a falling out.

The Volvo engine were rugged and (slightly) more modern than the BMC equivalents. The bodies had the usual rot problems that all cars of the period did (some worse than others - think Fiat), and the P1800 was a tad on the heavy side, but they were good solid stylish cars.

procainestart
Nov. 18, 2017 2:08 p.m.

Nice article - thanks for posting. 

A friend of mine who was once heavily involved in the local Britcar community said they would sometimes get requests by 1800 owners to participate in Britcar-only events.

Toebra
Toebra HalfDork
Nov. 21, 2017 11:59 p.m.

Guy who lived behind us when I was a kid had one just like that red one pictured, same hubcaps and everything.  I loved that thing, just looked right to me.

oldeskewltoy
oldeskewltoy UltraDork
Nov. 22, 2017 5:52 p.m.

I had one as my first car.   1964 1800S Jensen body - pretty rusty... but not yet horrible in 1975 when I got it.  I had the 10:1 (115hp) engine.  I managed to pull 35mpg in it on a trip from NJ, to upstate NY - yes O/D!

I've had 3 overall 2 S models, and one E

RoddyMac17
RoddyMac17 Reader
Nov. 22, 2017 6:14 p.m.

I don't know if this builder frequents the GRM board, but there's a build log on a slightly modified P1800 on the locost board:

 

P1800

Gary
Gary SuperDork
Nov. 30, 2017 8:03 p.m.

I loved the design when I was 15 years old in the early sixties drooling over it in the local Volvo dealer showroom, and I still love it today. Meanwhile, I owned one, a '68 1800S, from '70 to '76. I'd own another today, except ... after test driving a '66 a few years ago that was for sale locally, and after owning a Miata for a number of years, I was extremely put off by the overall "feel." I'd actually forgotten about the driving experience. It was like driving a '66 F100 pickup compared to the Miata (although installing an EZ power steering unit would probably fix that). So I'll just continue to admire the design, but I doubt I'll ever own another one. On the other hand, I'll keep my '96 Miata forever.

BTW, I started a sh*tstorm here a few years ago (and endured a lot of hate-posts) over a Wayne Carini piece in another publication where he said we were on the cusp of the $100K P1800. I wholeheartedly disagreed and disputed that. (Nobody should challenge the Great Carini). Anyway, I confronted Wayne about that prediction at the Boca Raton Concours d'Elegance shortly thereafter. He backtracked and hedged heavily, and consequently I felt vindicated. So I doubt we will ever see even a $50K P1800. But they sure are pretty cars.

And kudos to Andy Reid who wrote that great piece originally for CMS. Andy once owned (or maybe still does) a beautiful 1800S which I considered buying from him a few years ago at Lime Rock.

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