Sainted Swede: The Volvo P1800 and 1800ES

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.

1967 Volvo 1800S fin 2007 Murilee Martin per
(Photo © 2007 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

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.

1927 Volvo OV4 prototype front3q Volvo Cars 5344_1_5
Volvo’s first car, the ÖV4, nicknamed “Jakob.” Volvo built about a thousand of these early cars, most of which ended up being the closed PV4 sedan version, introduced in 1928. All were powered by a 1,940 cc (118 cu. in.) inline four with a modest 28 hp (21 kW). (Photo circa 1927, copyright and courtesy Volvo Car Corporation, Public Affairs)

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.

1956 Volvo 1900 Sport 2008 Volvo C70 Volvo Cars 16156_6_7
Volvo’s first sports car, the 1956 Volvo P1900 Sport (right), next to a 2008 C70 retractable hardtop, the sportiest model in Volvo’s current lineup. Although the P1900 is dwarfed by its modern counterpart, it was big for a mid-fifties sports car, stretching 166 inches (4,216 mm) long on a 94.5-inch (2,400mm) wheelbase. With the same 70 gross horsepower (52 kW) optional on the PV444, but only 1,875 lb (850 kg) of curb weight — 265 lb (120 kg) lighter than the sedan — the P1900 was fairly quick, but not as agile as contemporary rivals. (Photo circa 2008, copyright and courtesy Volvo Car Corporation, Public Affairs)

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.

1957 Volvo 122 sedan front 3q Volvo Cars 5612_1_5
A press photo of an early Volvo Amazon sedan. The 120 Series went into production in July 1956 as a 1957 model. In its home market, it was called Amazon — which is how its many fans still refer to it today — but a trademark conflict with a German motorcycle company restricted Volvo’s ability to use that name outside Sweden. In a 2006 interview with Classic Motor, former Volvo styling director Jan Wilsgaard, who developed this car, said it was originally inspired by an early-fifties Kaiser; he didn’t specify which model, but, given the looks of the Amazon, we wonder if it was an export Henry J (described in our article on the Kaiser Darrin). (Photo circa 1956, copyright and courtesy Volvo Car Corporation, Public Affairs)

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 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, 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.

1959 Volvo P1800 prototype P956-X2 front 3q Volvo Cars 5746_1_5
One of the three early, Frua-built Volvo P1800 prototypes; we believe this may be the X-2. Like the production P1800, it is 173.3 inches (4,400 mm) long on a 96.5-inch (2,450mm) wheelbase, although its track dimensions are narrower than the P1800’s and the front subframe (which carries the engine and front suspension) is somewhat different. Unlike the production car, the prototypes used the 1,580 cc (97 cu. in.) B16B engine, optional on the PV444 and Amazon. That engine was rated at 85 gross horsepower (63 kW) and 87 lb-ft (117 N-m) of torque. (Image circa 1959, copyright and courtesy Volvo Car Corporation, Public Affairs)

12 Comments

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    1. The Raketen prototype is swoopy-looking, but while the Volvo board apparently thought it looked too futuristic, I can’t help feeling that the production design has aged better. The Raketen feels very much like a product of its time.

      I do want to emphasize that while that prototype was built by Frua, it was a Volvo design. Some people who’ve seen the prototype on display at the Volvo Museum have assumed that Frua designed it, which as best I could determine was not the case.

  1. There was also the 123GT, a 122 with the mechanicals of a P1800. I don’t have the impression that Volvo made many of them, or sent many to the States.

    There used to be an immaculate 123GT parked near my work in Seattle in the mid-1980s. It had the Federally mandated side marker lights, so presumably it dated from the end of the 122’s life. In the early 2000s I was in stop-and-go traffic and saw a 123GT, which may or may not have been the same one, in the next lane. I rolled down my window, the other guy rolled down his, and I yelled, “Nice 123GT!”

    Did anyone produce any aftermarket bits to address the 1800ES’s handling flaws?

    1. I haven’t investigated the 123GT in any detail, but I think it was introduced in 1967. In other markets, it appears it was available through 1970, the end of Amazon production, but at least one source says the two-door models were all dropped in the U.S. at the end of the 1968 model year, so that would make all U.S. cars ’67 or ’68 models. (I shot some not very good photos of one back in December.)

      Since the suspension of the 1800ES was nearly, if not completely identical to that of the 1800E/1800S, which in turn was very similar to that of the Amazon, I would imagine that a lot of the competition pieces developed for the latter would probably fit without too much trouble. The trick, as always, is figuring out a combination that would produce a net improvement in handling without just wrecking the ride or making it tail happy. Based on the complaints of contemporary reviewers, it sounds like greater front roll stiffness and firmer damping might be in order. I assume there are Volvo clubs and mailing lists with folks who have experience with modifying these cars who would be able to speak with more authority as to what works and what doesn’t.

  2. WOW!

    Really, that’s about all I can say is “wow”. It seems like every time you do an article on an automaker you’ve never done before you take it upon yourself to unearth their entire history. Just [i]look[/i] at that source list, incredible! The thoroughness of the research and the skill with which it is integrated into the article is, as usual, second to none. I am continually blown away by the quality of your work. I seriously think that you could base a very respectable college history course on nothing other than your body of work on this website. Just amazing. Please do keep it up! These articles are the highlight of my month in terms of internet reading material.

  3. Just for clarification, the overdrive units name was Laycock de Normanville, not the other way around. Great article as usual Aaron. Brought back a lot of great memories of working on them back in the 70s and 80s. Except for that goofy air cleaner behind the grille. Getting that bloody thing out and back in was like a Chinese block puzzle.

  4. Very interesting as always Aaron, I am a fan of the 1800ES, and it was also great to see the write-up on the shooting brakes in the sidebar.

  5. I love my car, and I have loved them since 1975 but just recently bought one. Yes it is not he best driving car I have ever driven, but I think it is the Coolest car I have ever driven. Being a Swedish American, eventually I had to get one of these cars. It has been my favorite car since I sat in one in Southern Calif. at a Volvo dealer. They feel so good.Thx Volvo

  6. Congratulations for the great article. Very complete and interesting. Keep up the good work.

    Regards from Brazil,
    Fabricio

  7. I never really understood how the P1800 kind of became a success, while the P1900 didn’t. Apparently both models have their flaws. Funnily, some people are willing to pay more than $100.000 for the P1900 (check out this: parabeam. nl/ article/ car-history-%E2%82%AC-94500-fiberglass-model).

    1. Well, the P1900 was a much cruder effort, even in Volvo’s own estimation, and Volvo judged that it would ultimately be better to develop a new, better car than to try to fix the P1900’s flaws. It wasn’t that the P1900 was a commercial failure, but that Gunnar Engellau decided, "We can do better than this," and pulled the P1900 from the market very quickly. The P1800 wasn’t perfect and it was pricey for its performance, but it was a credible offering and much more of a Volvo in the sense of robustness and usability. The likely reason the P1900 is worth more as a collectible is simply that it’s comparatively novel (a lot of people have never heard of the P1900, much less seen one) and exceptionally rare, not because it was an intrinsically better car than the P1800 — which I don’t think even the few P1900 owners would claim.

  8. Thanks! It looks like the location of the overdrive switch changed on 1800S models. On the early P1800 cars, it was a toggle switch on the dash, adjacent to the ashtray (to the right of it on RHD cars, to the left on LHD models), and the lever on the right of the steering column was for the second horn. A 1966 [i]Autocar[/i] article has a diagram showing the control layout of the 1800S, and it does indeed show the overdrive moved to the right stalk, although the indicator light remains in the same place it was before. I obviously missed that, but I did note that a lot of the early reviewers complained that the overdrive toggle on the dash didn’t fall readily to hand, so it makes sense that Volvo would revise the layout. Thanks for setting it straight — I’ve amended the text.

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