The Swedish automaker Volvo is best known for its solid (and often square) sedans and wagons, but starting in 1961, it also offered a sleek two-door sports coupe called the P1800, best known for its role in the 1960s TV version of The Saint. This week, we look at the origins and evolution of the Volvo P1800, its 1800S and 1800E successors, and its ultimate metamorphosis into a sporty two-door shooting brake, the 1972–1973 Volvo 1800ES.
THE BIRTH OF VOLVO AND THE P1900 SPORT
The trade name Volvo (the present indicative form of the Latin volvere, to roll) was first registered in May 1915 as a brand name of the Swedish ball bearing manufacturer Svenska Kullagerfabriken (SKF), but it was not until around 1924 that SKF sales manager Assar Gabrielsson started thinking seriously about developing a native Swedish car. Automobiles were becoming increasingly popular in Sweden at the time, but many imported models were ill-suited to local conditions, which included extremely harsh winters and very poor roads.
SKF management was receptive to the idea of entering the automotive business and in August 1926, Gabrielsson established a new car-making subsidiary company, AB Volvo, with Erik Gustaf Larson, a former SKF engineer who had been at Galco since 1920, as technical director and executive vice president. A factory was established in Lundby, a northwestern suburb of Gothenburg (Götenborg), and series production of the first Volvo first passenger car, designed by Larson, began on April 14, 1927.
Initial sales were below expectations, but grew at an encouraging rate, prompting Volvo to add a six-cylinder model in 1929. By 1941, Volvo was independent of SKF and its business had grown to include commercial trucks, marine engines, and buses as well as a controlling interest in the aviation engine manufacturer Svenska Flygmotor. Although Volvo had not yet established a presence in the U.S., the company did well in Sweden and many export markets; its 100,000th vehicle rolled off the line in August 1949.
While Volvo cars were soundly engineered and robustly built, sex appeal was not really part of the program. The postwar PV444 sedan could challenge many contemporary four-cylinder sports cars for performance and handling, but its bulbous semi-fastback shape was not likely to cause many sleepless nights in the carrozzerias of Turin. By the early fifties, Volvo dealers were asking for something sportier-looking to entice customers into showrooms, where buyers could be won over by the fine road manners and excellent build quality of the sedans.
In 1953, Assar Gabrielsson made an extended visit to the United States, where he became intrigued with the possibilities — and low tooling costs — of fiberglass bodies. After touring the production line for Chevrolet’s new Corvette, Gabrielsson paid a visit to Bill Tritt’s Glasspar, in Montecito, California, maker of the Glasspar G2 and Woodill Woodfire kit cars as well as the early prototypes of the Kaiser Darrin. Gabrielsson negotiated an agreement with Glasspar to develop a plastic-bodied sports car for Volvo based on the running gear of the PV444.
By the spring of 1954, Volvo had four prototypes of the new car, styled by Bill Tritt and riding a new lightweight tubular frame developed by Volvo engineers Raymond Eknor and Eric Quistgaard. Dubbed P1900 Sport, it was bigger than English sports cars like the Triumph TR2 or MG TF, sharing the suspension, three-speed gearbox, and 1,414 cc (86 cu. in.) engine of the PV444 sedan. The P1900 was shown to the press and dealers that summer, but various technical delays meant that production cars were not available until January 1956.
While the production-spec cars were sturdier than the early prototypes, even Volvo engineers worried that the P1900’s structural integrity was sub-par, particularly compared to other Volvos. The final straw came when new managing director Gunnar Engellau took delivery of chassis number 49 in April 1957. A few days’ driving was enough to convince Engellau that the P1900 was unacceptably flimsy and had the potential to do Volvo’s reputation more harm than good. He ordered production ended in May, after only 67 cars had been built. About two-thirds were sold in Sweden, but perhaps 20 ended up in the U.S., where Volvo had recently established a sales organization.
GHIA, FRUA, AND PELLE PETTERSON
Among those dissatisfied with the P1900 was Helmer Petterson, a Volvo engineering consultant who had helped develop the PV444 back in 1944. Extensive road testing of an early production P1900 had left Petterson even more conscious than Gunnar Engellau of that car’s basic flaws, but he still believed there was a niche for an image-boosting Volvo sports car. In late 1956, Petterson met with Engellau and proposed that they try again, this time with an all-new model based on Volvo’s recently introduced Amazon sedan.
Although Volvo had established its own styling studio in 1950, headed by Jan Wilsgaard, Engellau opted against designing the new sports car internally. We don’t know his rationale; he may have thought an outside design would have greater prestige or he may just have been reluctant to tie up the in-house team with what was at that point a fairly speculative project. In any case, he told Petterson to seek proposals from some of the major Italian design houses.
At the time, Petterson’s son Pelle, then 24 years old, was studying design at New York’s prestigious Pratt Institute. Although Pelle’s first love was sailing, his father was keen for Pelle to apply his talents to automobiles and secured him a position at Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin. Naturally, when Petterson went looking for an Italian studio to design the new Volvo sports car, Ghia was his first stop.
Ghia managing director Luigi Segre had recently arranged to buy out another Italian studio, Carrozzeria Pietro Frua, founded in Turin in 1944. Aside from providing an infusion of new talent, the Frua acquisition gave Ghia a convenient way to take on additional business without alienating its existing clients, some of whom were very unhappy to see the Ghia emblem on competitors’ cars. When Volvo hired Ghia to develop a sports car prototype in April 1957, Luigi Segre called for four proposals: two from Ghia’s designers, two from the Frua team. For political reasons, the final product was to be identified as a Frua design regardless of which team actually designed it.
Although Pelle Petterson was in what we assume was a rather junior position (some sources describe it as an internship) his father persuaded Segre to allow Pelle to submit his own proposal for the new sports car. Segre was apparently impressed with the results and added Pelle’s design to the portfolio Segre was preparing for Gunnar Engellau. According to historian Karl Ludvigsen, Segre went so far as to ask Pelle to create new renderings of the other four proposals in order to give all five proposals a consistent look.
Segre and Helmer Petterson presented the five proposals to Engellau in early August. To Petterson’s undoubted satisfaction, Engellau immediately gravitated to Pelle’s design, discarding the others with only a cursory glance. We don’t know if Engellau was even aware that the younger Petterson was at Ghia, much less that he was involved in the Volvo project. In any event, Engellau was not at all amused when Segre told him that the drawing he’d just chosen was Pelle’s. Nonetheless, Engellau admitted — albeit probably somewhat grudgingly — that it was still the better design and gave his approval for the creation of a full-size prototype. He made it clear, however, that the design would be credited only to Frua. Indeed, it was not until many years later that Volvo publicly admitted Pelle had had anything to do with it.