Sainted Swede: The Volvo P1800 and 1800ES

SIDEBAR: The Saint and the Volvo
Leslie Charteris’ gentleman adventurer Simon Templar made his literary debut in the 1928 novel The Saint in New York and soon found many fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the next three decades, his adventures would fill more than 50 books, a newspaper comic strip, several radio programs, an RKO movie series, and various later film adaptations produced in Britain and France.

In late 1961, ITC producer Robert S. Baker licensed the Saint for a television series, casting actor Roger Moore in the title role. Among the challenges of adapting the character for television was finding him an appropriate car. While the James Bond stories had featured real (if exotic) vehicles, the literary Simon Templar favored fictional makes, the most iconic of which was a fearsome — and entirely imaginary — eight-cylinder model called a Hirondel. British television budgets being what they were, the cost of creating a one-off custom Hirondel would likely have been prohibitive, so producers and star set about looking for something more tangible.

Contrary to legend, their first choice was not the E-type Jaguar, but the Mark X, Jaguar’s latest top-of-the-line luxury saloon. Like Simon Templar himself, Jaguar sedans of this era were handsome, sophisticated, athletic, and a trifle roguish. Conservative buyers tended to prefer Rovers, but a big Jag was eminently appropriate for a dashing fellow of independent means and ambiguous profession. However, at that time, Jaguar’s business was booming and factory reps showed little interest in product placement opportunities. When production manager John Goodman tried to order a pair of Mark X saloons for the show, he found he would have to join an already lengthy queue.

1963 Jaguar Mk X saloon front 3q
Can you picture this car in white with ST 1 number plates? The Mark X saloon, introduced at the 1961 London Motor Show, was the largest car Jaguar had ever offered, with a curb weight of over 4,000 lb (about 1,840 kg). It shared the E-type’s three-carburetor 3,781 cc (231 cu. in.) DOHC six, independent rear suspension, and inboard rear disc brakes, but added standard power steering, power brakes, and a lavish interior with Vaumol leather seats, walnut trim, and folding ‘picnic tables’ for rear passengers. For all that, the Mark X was capable of 120 mph (193 km/h) and was surprisingly nimble for its size. (author photo)

After a similarly fruitless overture to Mercedes-Benz, Goodman received a considerably more enthusiastic response from Volvo, whose local concessionaire swiftly delivered a pair of gleaming white P1800 coupes, one for the show and the other for Moore’s personal use. (The idea of ordering two identical cars had come from Moore, who proposed that his personal car could serve as a backup for the primary car in a pinch. He would own at least two 1800s during the course of production.)

The Saint and his Volvo made their television debut in the U.K. on October 4, 1962, and were subsequently shown in first-run syndication in the U.S. Simon Templar’s TV exploits reportedly displeased Leslie Charteris, but the show became an international hit. After 77 black-and-white episodes, it switched to color in 1966. The 118th and final episode aired in February 1969. Naturally, the TV car (or cars; more than one was used in filming) received periodic updates to keep it current with the latest styling revisions.

1963 Volvo P1800 ST 1  front 2006 Andrew Stawarz CC BY-ND20Generic
One of the original cars from The Saint, seen here at the Bressington Steam Museum in 2006. (The Saint emblem on the bonnet is a later addition; cars on the show had no such markings.) We’re not certain exactly how many different cars wore the fictitious ST 1 number plate during the show’s run. Most estimates suggest five or six, but Sir Roger Moore’s account suggests that there may have been as many as a dozen. Complicating the count is the fact that earlier cars were sometimes updated to keep pace with styling changes rather than actually being replaced. The fate of the original car, registration 71 DXC, is unclear. According to some accounts, it was partially dissected and used as a ‘set’ for interior shots. (Photo: “The Original?” © 2006 Andrew Stawarz; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license)

Television stardom became a far greater marketing tool for the P1800 than racing probably would have, making the coupe immediately recognizable to audiences that otherwise might never have seen the car. Any young fans who successfully pestered their parents into stopping into Volvo showrooms to see the Saint’s car were strictly a bonus. (Starting in 1965, fans not yet old enough to drive could console themselves with a Corgi die-cast car, which included a small plastic figure of Simon Templar.)

Jaguar would get a second chance in the late seventies when the XJ-S was featured in the Return of the Saint series with Ian Ogilvy, but even now, more than 40 years after the original show ended, the P1800 remains almost as closely associated with the Saint as the Aston Martin DB5 is with James Bond.

FROM P1800 TO 1800S

Early P1800 sales were modest, averaging around 2,700 units a year — well below Jensen’s ultimate capacity. Nonetheless, the publicity the coupe generated probably contributed to Volvo’s continuing robust growth. By the end of 1962, annual automobile production had reached nearly 80,000 units, prompting Volvo to expand production with new plants in Torslanda (west of Gothenburg) and the Belgian town of Alsemberg.

The additional capacity meant that Volvo now had room to bring P1800 production in-house, which they were more than ready to do. Volvo engineers remained dissatisfied with Jensen’s quality control and Gunnar Engellau can’t have been pleased by press reports that the P1800’s workmanship didn’t meet Volvo’s customary standards. In early 1963, P1800 production was transferred to Volvo’s Lundby plant, even though the move obliged Volvo to pay Jensen an early termination fee; the British company had so far built only 6,000 of the 10,000 units originally contracted. Pressed Steel would continue to produce the body stampings through 1969, but Volvo would now assemble the cars itself.

1964 Volvo 1800S red front 3q Volvo Cars 5801_1_5
A 1964 Volvo 1800S model D, distinguishable by its wheel covers (borrowed from the 122S) and the absence of the Volvo emblems on the C-pillars. The B18B engine now had 10.0:1 compression (up from 9.5), a hotter ‘C’ camshaft, and stiffer valve springs, raising output to 108 gross hp SAE (81 kW) and 110 lb-ft (149 N-m of torque. (Photo circa 1963; copyright and courtesy Volvo Car Corporation, Public Affairs)

The initial Lundby-built cars were little changed, but for the 1964 model year, Volvo made a host of minor changes to address previous quality complaints. Visible changes of the new models, known internally as model D, were limited to “1800S” badges, new wheel covers, amber turn signal lenses, new seats, revised upholstery, and proper (if still tiny) folding rear seats. Under the hood, the 1800S was up to 108 gross horsepower (81 kW), maintaining its advantage over the 122S sedan, which was now available with a 90 hp (67 kW) single-carburetor version of the same engine. These improvements were welcome, but they weren’t free. Swedish cars were up to 21,000 SEK (about $4,050), U.S. models to $3,995 POE. (In the U.K., base prices were up commensurately, but a reduction in purchase tax rates actually lowered the out-the-door cost by a nominal £11.)

1966 Volvo 1800S taillight 2011 Tyler Brand per
The taillight, rear fin, and emblem of a 1966 Volvo 1800S. Some period tests describe these cars as “P-1800 S,” but the question of whether the P prefix was still correct for Swedish-built cars still arouses the same sort of controversy as calling a Jaguar E-type an “XKE.” Volvo apparently used the P internally on at least some occasions, but we don’t believe the cars were registered that way, nor have we seen any marketing materials using the “P-1800 S” or “P-1800 E” designations. (Photo © 2011 Tyler Brand; used with permission)

Over the next five years, the Volvo 1800S underwent the sort of gradual evolution familiar to Porsche and Volkswagen owners. For the 1965 model year, the distinctive ‘cow horn’ front bumpers were replaced by a simpler horizontal unit, perhaps as a cost-saving measure, allowing front and rear bumpers to share the same tooling. The 1966 models, introduced in August 1965, brought a new grille, a brake proportioning valve (to delay rear lockup in hard stops), and more power: now 115 gross horsepower (86 kW) and 112 lb-ft (151 N-m). (Net output was up to 103 hp DIN (76 kW).) The extra power trimmed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times to less than 12 seconds and increased top speed to around 110 mph (160 km/h), more competitive with cars like the MGB. The 1967 models, meanwhile, updated the car’s nose with a more complex aluminum grille and replaced the curved ‘hockey stick’ body side trim with straight chrome strips.

1966 Volvo 1800S front 2011 Tyler Brand per
1967 Volvo 1800S front3q 2007 Murilee Martin per
Top: A 1966 Volvo 1800S showing off the restyled grille, straight bumper (here missing its rubber inserts), and plain hubcaps. This was the final year for the curved chrome trim on the door, although all 1800s retained the curved door molding until the end. (Photo © 2011 Tyler Brand; used with permission) Bottom: A 1967 1800S, with a subsequent grille design and the new straight-through rub strip, which no longer follows the curved door molding. The rubber bumper inserts on this car would normally be found on the ’66 model, as well. (Photo © 2007 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

If that wasn’t enough, in 1966, Volvo dealers introduced a performance kit for the B18 engine based on the competition package developed for the Amazon. The kit included a new cylinder head with bigger valves and 11.0:1 compression, a lightened flywheel, a new cam, re-jetted carburetors, and a new tubular steel exhaust manifold. The changes were good for a claimed 135 hp SAE (101 kW), which provided much better performance with little sacrifice in drivability. However, with a price tag of $299 plus installation, the kit was an expensive addition to an already expensive car. We don’t know if many were sold.

For the 1969 models, known internally as model S, Volvo bored out the B18 engine from 84.14 mm to 88.90 mm (3.31 to 3.50 inches), increasing displacement to 1,986 cc (121 cu. in.). The new B20B, as the engine was called, was otherwise little different than the B18B, although the compression ratio was lowered half a point, to 9.5:1, and the oil cooler was deleted; Volvo had concluded that improvements in motor oil had made it unnecessary. Power was up only slightly, to 118 gross horsepower SAE (88 kW), or 105 net horsepower DIN (77 kW), but torque improved by about 10%, from 112 lb-ft (151 N-m) to 123 lb-ft (166 N-m). Other useful additions were an alternator, replacing the previous generator, and Volvo’s unusual 3×2 dual-circuit brake system, which ensured that both front brakes and at least one rear brake would work if one circuit were lost.

1966 Volvo 1800S interior 2011 Tyler Brand per
The Volvo P1800 and 1800S were well-appointed for their era, with very comfortable seats and leather/vinyl upholstery, but the high cowl and beltline made the cabin a trifle claustrophobic. Ventilation was never great and with no glove box, interior storage was skimpy. One interesting feature was three-point seat belts, something Volvo had pioneered in 1959. Three-point harnesses were nominally standard from the beginning of production, but obscure regulatory issues initially forced their deletion in some U.S. markets. (Photo © 2011 Tyler Brand; used with permission)

The 1800S was never a runaway sales success, but it found a unique niche, abetted by its television exploits (see sidebar above). The coupe sold well through the middle of the decade, typically accounting for around 4,500 units a year. By 1968, however, sales were slipping, falling to a disappointing 1,693 units for 1969. Performance had never been outstanding to begin with and the 1800S was increasingly pressed by cheaper rivals like the MGB GT. To survive, the 1800 would need more extensive changes.

1966 Volvo 1800S dashboard 2011 Tyler Brand per
The dash of the Volvo P1800 and 1800S was attractive, but many period reviewers criticized it as a triumph of style over function. The gauges between the tachometer and speedometer are for water and oil temperature; the three pods to the right of the wheel are the fuel gauge, oil pressure gauges, and clock. On early cars, the overdrive was controlled by a toggle switch on the dash, which on LHD cars was immediately to the left of the ashtray. On the 1800S, Volvo moved it to the right-hand steering column stalk, which had previously controlled the second horn for highway passing. (Photo © 2011 Tyler Brand; used with permission)

15 Comments

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  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.

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