Planned in Sweden, designed in Italy, unveiled at the car show in Brussels, built in Britain and a huge success in the USA: The P1800 is perhaps Volvo’s most internationally renowned model and the one that arouses most emotions.
In 2011, this remarkable people’s favorite turns 50. It was in 1961 that it entered production and reached showrooms after four years of planning and development, remaining in production for the next 12 years.
From the sales perspective, it played a marginal role for the company, but from an image viewpoint, it played a bigger role than any previous Volvo model.
The P1800 was born to attract attention to Volvo’s showroom. Volvo had already tried its hand at a sports car back in the early 1950s – the open, two-seat, plastic-bodied Volvo Sport, which was built from 1955-57 with a total production run of just 67 cars. For the new car, design proposals were taken from Italy, where Volvo consultant Helmer Petterson had got his son Pelle a job at Pietro Frua thanks to Pelle’s degree in industrial design from the Pratt Institute in New York.
When the time came to unveil the four proposals to Volvo’s board in 1957, Helmer sneaked in his son Pelle’s fifth design – and that was the one everybody picked. Volvo President Gunnar Engellau particularly liked it since he had very definite views about wanting an Italian-designed car. That, of course, is precisely what he did get, but it was penned by a 25 year-old from Göteborg, who would later make his mark as a boat designer and win Olympic medals in yacht racing. Eventually, the truth behind the winning design emerged. Engellau blew his top, felt he had been hoodwinked and promised that Pelle would never be recognized as the designer. And indeed, many years went by before the truth was known and Pelle Petterson received the credit he was due.
The new sports car had a fixed roof, steel body, many mechanical components lifted from the Volvo Amazon, and a newly developed B18 engine in its 100hp sports version.
Three prototypes were built by Frua in Turin in 1957-58 on Amazon chassis and these cars were used for a variety of purposes, such as templates for the production press tools, in testing, at shows, for press work and advertising photos. All three have survived and are still on the road. Volvo found itself in an expansive phase and realized it did not have sufficient in-house capacity to manufacture the new model – not for pressing body panels, nor painting or assembly, not even on a small scale.
The hunt for a suitable partner got under way, led by Helmer Petterson, and after much deliberation a decision was taken to use two British companies: Pressed Steel would build the bodies and Jensen Motors would paint and assemble the cars. Production got under way but constant problems with personnel, working methods, quality, suppliers and logistics meant Volvo eventually transferred production back to Sweden.
From spring 1963 – after 6000 Jensen-built cars – production of the 1800 started in Volvo’s Lundby factory, but it was not until 1969 that body pressings were transferred from Pressed Steel in Scotland to Volvo’s press shop in Olofström. The move also coincided with a change of name for the P1800. First it was badged the P1800 S, later in 1963 it was simply known as the 1800 S, with “S” standing for Sweden. During the coupe’s long life, no radical changes were made to the exterior lines. Only details such as the grille, trim moldings, wheels and colors differentiate the various model years.
From a technical viewpoint, the 1800 shadowed the development of Volvo’s other models and was continuously upgraded. Disc brakes all-round, more powerful engines and electronic fuel injection were the most noticeable changes. In 1971, a new body variant was presented, the 1800 ES. A sporting hatchback with an extended roofline and a station wagon rear featured a large glass tailgate. The ES was designed in Göteborg and attracted considerable attention, but it also divided opinion. It nonetheless achieved cult status along with its coupe sister and many have survived to this day.
Volvo’s 1800 models are sought-after by enthusiasts – there are several clubs serving the model – and they were for many years relatively inexpensive to buy, although in recent years their prices have started to rise. Renovating an 1800 is neither easy nor cheap. Many parts are no longer available, particularly for the Jensen-built cars, but owners who have taken the trouble can expect many miles behind the wheel of an exceptionally pleasant, agile and robust car. Actor Roger Moore was fortunate enough to drive a P1800 in his role as debonair crime-fighter Simon Templar in the British TV drama series based on Leslie Charteris’s “The Saint”.
The TV production company was looking for an attractive sports car that would suit a gentleman of independent means and, after being turned down by Jaguar, approached Volvo to ask for a P1800. Volvo was quick to oblige. It was a brilliant PR move for the new model. To this day, the P1800 is still referred to as The Saint’s car.
Another person who can testify to the car’s ability is New Yorker Irv Gordon, who has covered more than 4,500,000km in a 1800 S he purchased in 1966, making him the holder of a Guinness world record. Irv Gordon has spent a total of almost 12 years behind the wheel of his car and is aiming for 3,000,000 miles (or 4,800,000km) on the same engine!
The Volvo P1800 was never intended to be a mass-produced car. It was and still is a niche product. Yet it was viable enough to be within the reach of ordinary people who wanted a car that looked like a Ferrari but cost and functioned like a Volvo: pleasant, reliable and economical.