Sainted Swede: The Volvo P1800 and 1800ES

THE P1800 TAKES SHAPE

Frua completed the first prototype of the new sports car, dubbed the P956-X1, or just X-1, in December 1957. Pelle Petterson remained involved throughout, refining the details of his original design, while his father laid out the technical parameters for the P958’s body structure. Unlike the P1900 Sport, the P958 was an all-steel monocoque based on a shortened version of the Amazon sedan floorpan and sharing the Amazon’s suspension, four-speed gearbox, driveshaft, and rear axle. Two additional prototypes, the X-2 and X-3, followed in early 1958. All were very close to Pelle’s original conception.

1960 Volvo P1800 prototype front 3q Volvo Cars 5797_1_5
Another of the Frua-built P956 prototypes, photographed around 1960; this may be the X-3. One curious change from prototype to production was the rear vent windows, which on the prototypes could be swung out for better ventilation, but were fixed in place on the production cars. We’re not sure why, particularly considering the many complaints over the years about cabin ventilation. Note the V emblem on the grille, which was deleted from production cars. (Photo circa 1960; copyright and courtesy Volvo Car Corporation, Public Affairs)

Although Gunnar Engellau was reportedly very satisfied with the looks of the prototypes, there was another obstacle: deciding where to build it. Volvo’s passenger car production was then growing at a startling rate, climbing from around 19,000 in 1950 to more than 41,000 in 1957. Rather than tie up badly needed factory space with a low-volume halo car, Engellau directed Helmer Petterson to seek outside bids for its manufacture.

West Germany’s Karmann initially seemed the most likely choice, but it was forced to bow out because of its existing contracts with Volkswagen (for the Karmann Ghia and Beetle Cabriolet). Discussions with other German body companies produced more dead ends and by the fall, Volvo was compelled to look farther afield. By the end of the year, they had arranged for the new car’s body to be manufactured in Scotland at Pressed Steel’s Linwood facility and assembled in England by Jensen Motors Ltd. of West Bromwich, Staffordshire. While the decision to produce the sports car in the U.K. satisfied Volvo board member T.G. Andersson’s request for a location that would allow him to practice his golf game, it apparently rendered impractical the original plan for the new car to share the Amazon’s floorpan. As a result, Pressed Steel was obliged to make extensive structural revisions, including the creation of a new, bespoke floorpan and a revised front subframe.

Although the three prototypes used the 85 horsepower (63 kW) B16B four from the 122S and PV444 sedans, Gunnar Engellau conceded early on that the production car would need a more powerful engine. After early experiments with modified B16s, Volvo’s development engineers concluded that they need a new engine with greater potential for future displacement increases. Design work on an all-new inline four, the 1,780 cc B18, began in October 1957. (The B prefix, incidentally, stands for Bensin, meaning petrol; Volvo’s diesel engines carry the prefix D.)

There is a persistent rumor, dating back at least as far as 1961, that the B18 was derived from Volvo’s B36 engine, a heavy-duty 3,560 cc (217 cu. in.) V8 used in the L42 “Snabbe” (Speedy) forward control trucks and certain marine applications. Volvo Cars Heritage manager Claes Rydholms says otherwise, describing the B18 as a new design based on the general architecture of the B16, but with a stronger block, wider bore spacing, and five main bearings rather than three. Indeed, in 1961, the British magazine The Motor remarked on the B18’s strong external resemblance to the earlier B14 and B16 engines, which it was slated to eventually replace. The only real commonality between the B18 and the B36 V8 was their common bore and stroke, 84.14 mm (3.31 inches) by 80 mm (3.15 inches).

1966 Volvo 1800S B18B engine 2011 Tyler Brand per
The B18B engine, seen here in a 1966 Volvo 1800S. Among the noteworthy features of the B18 were a reverse-flow cooling system (which sent coolant to the cylinder head first, improving thermal efficiency and reducing knock) and a standard oil-to-water oil cooler. The latter was deleted from the subsequent B20 engine because improved motor oil had made auxiliary oil cooling unnecessary at least for street use. The hose atop the oil filler is presumably for a positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) system, required in California starting in 1966 and throughout the U.S. in 1968. (Photo © 2011 Tyler Brand; used with permission)

The B18 was far from exotic in specification, having neither overhead cams nor hemispherical combustion chambers, but was nonetheless a modern and extremely rugged design. Both the crankshaft and connecting rods were drop-forged steel and the indium-plated hardened main bearings were comparable in size to those of Ford’s later small-block V8. Although both block and head were cast iron, the extensive use of aluminum for lightly stressed components like the timing cover kept the B18’s dry weight to only 315 lb (143 kg), about 5 lb (2 kg) heavier than the B16 and some 220 lb (100 kg) lighter than the B36. In initial production form, with 9.5:1 compression and two S.U. HS6 carburetors, the B18 was rated at 100 gross horsepower (75 kW) and 108 lb-ft (146 N-m) of torque. Net output was a more modest 90 hp DIN (66 kW), still a healthy improvement on the B16B.

THE VOLVO P1800

Although information about the new sports car had been leaked to the Swedish press in mid-1958, Volvo released the first official photos in the spring of 1959. The prototypes, now called Volvo P1800, were shown at the Brussels and New York shows in early 1960.

1960 Volvo P1800 prototype rear 3q Volvo Cars 5798_1_5
Another view of the X-3 prototype. Like the Amazon, the Volvo P1800’s suspension used coil springs and tubular shock absorbers all around with double wishbones and an anti-roll bar in front and a live axle in back, carried on twin trailing arms and located by two radius rods and a Panhard rod. The sports car had a stiffer anti-roll bar, softer rear springs, and different damping rates, along with slight modifications to the front suspension arms to accommodate the standard front disc brakes (not yet offered on the Amazon when the P1800 was launched), but was otherwise very similar to the sedan. (Photo circa 1960; copyright and courtesy Volvo Car Corporation, Public Affairs)

Despite optimistic press releases, the first pre-production P1800s weren’t finished until late summer and Volvo was not particularly happy with them. A team of Swedish engineers had been dispatched to West Bromwich to work with Jensen, quickly discovering that they and the British had very different ideas about building cars. Volvo had extremely high standards for build quality and the company’s expectations of its outside suppliers were equally demanding. It was not until October that Volvo felt comfortable releasing cars to customers, and then only after inspecting the finished cars in Gothenburg. One of these early models went to HSH Princess Birgitta of Sweden.

The P1800 was far from cheap. Starting price in Sweden was 17,900 SEK (equivalent to about $3,500), over 50% more than an Amazon sedan. U.S. cars started at $3,795 POE, while in the U.K., price with purchase tax was a wince-inducing £1,836 12s 9d (equivalent to nearly $5,200 at the contemporary exchange rate). Volvo advertising tried to soften the blow with comparisons to exotica like the Facel Vega and Mercedes 300SL, but it was hard to ignore the fact that the P1800 cost more than a six-cylinder Jaguar Mark 2 sedan.

The P1800’s performance was certainly adequate for a four-cylinder sports car of this era, but it was not in the exotic league. Volvo claimed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 12.5 seconds (which most independent testers found optimistic by at least a half second) and a top speed of 106 mph (171 km/h). That was comparable to the MGA 1600 Mk2, but a good deal slower than the Austin-Healey 3000, which was also quite a bit cheaper than the Volvo. Like the PV444 and PV544, the P1800 handled well, with modest body lean, but a nicely controlled ride, good grip, and moderate understeer. The Girling disc/drum brakes also provided good stopping power. However, both acceleration and agility were somewhat limited by the P1800’s weight; at about 2,450 lb (1,110 kg) with a full tank of fuel, it was actually about 65 lb (30 kg) heavier than a 122S sedan.

1962 Volvo P1800 front 3q © 2010 Micky Aldridge CC BY 2.0s Generic
An early Jensen-built Volvo P1800, showing the original turbine wheel covers. Some critics found the latter a bit gimmicky for an otherwise cleanly styled car, so subsequent 1800S cars would have plainer wheel trims. The P1800 was initially only available in gray, red, or white and had no outside mirrors, although they were commonly fitted by dealers, not always in consistent places on the front fenders. Note the stylized Volvo emblems on the sail panels, deleted on the later 1800S. (Photo: “Volvo P1800” © 2010 Mickey Aldridge; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Where the Volvo won points was as a grand tourer in the classical sense: a car for carrying two occupants and their luggage over long distances at high speeds. (The P1800 was nominally a 2+2, but the rear seat was essentially a smallish padded bench with removable cushions, better used for bags than people.) The B18B engine was perfectly capable of cruising at 90 mph (145 km/h) or more, and with the Laycock de Normanville overdrive (optional in Sweden and the U.S., but fitted as standard in the U.K. and some other markets), on-road fuel economy of 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km) or better was easily obtainable. The P1800’s weight, meanwhile, paid dividends in structural rigidity and sound insulation. Some cheaper sports cars could outrun the Volvo, but very few could match its comfort or civility. Perhaps its most direct rival was the new Mercedes 220SEb coupe, launched in early 1961, but the 220SEb was twice the Volvo’s price.

Despite its heft, the P1800 did see some racing use, albeit with mixed results. Swedish rally driver Ewy Rosqvist took the female championship in the British RAC Rally in November 1961 and Richard Hull drove one to a Sports Car Club of America F Production Championship at the 1964 SCCA Runoffs. Other efforts, however, were less successful and even the factory’s competition efforts focused mainly on the PV544 and Amazon.

15 Comments

Add a Comment
  1. I wish that the Frua prototype of the ES made it into production.

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

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

    Regards from Brazil,
    Fabricio

  8. 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.

  9. I am the original owner of a 1970 Volvo 1800E. I am restoring the interior. I’m having difficulty wiring the 3 way interior light switch under the dash on the driver’s side. Does anyone out there know how this switch should be wired or know of someone that does. If so, please return this comment.

    1. I’m afraid I’m not qualified to help with repair or restoration advice, sorry!

  10. As the owner of both a Jensen Healey (not GT) and a Volvo 1800ES, I particularly enjoyed this article. The 1800ES is a joy to drive in modern 2016 traffic and it turns heads wherever it goes. It is a efficient, dependable classic with the most dependable engine ever build (See Irv Gordon Guiness record) which was designed by Italians in the vein of 1950’s Ferraris. Really you could not do much better than that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click here to read our comment policy. You must be at least 18 to comment. PLEASE DON'T POST COPYRIGHTED CONTENT YOU AREN'T AUTHORIZED TO USE!
Except as otherwise noted, all text and images are copyright © Aaron Severson dba Ate Up With Motor. (Terms of Use – Reprint/Reuse Policy) Trademarks referenced herein are the property of their respective owners and are used here for informational/nominative purposes.