Sainted Swede: The Volvo P1800 and 1800ES

THE VOLVO 1800ES SPORTWAGON

The Volvo shooting brake, dubbed 1800ES, made its public debut three years after the Scimitar GTE, bowing at the 1971 London Motor Show. From the B-pillars forward, the ES was nearly identical to the 1800E coupe. Wheelbase, track width, and overall height were the same and the estate was only 1.4 inches (34 mm) longer overall thanks entirely to a repositioned rear bumper. Nonetheless, the estate conversion gave the 1800ES a surprisingly fresh look. It took close examination — or a test drive — to realize how much hadn’t changed. Naturally, the ES was more practical as well, although it was still basically a 2+2. The unchanged wheelbase meant that rear legroom still depended on the largesse of front seat occupants.

1973 Volvo 1800ES rear hatch 2010 Murilee Martin per
The most dramatic feature of the Volvo 1800ES was its enormous hinged glass rear window, which earned it nicknames like “Snow White’s coffin.” The glass hatch made for good rear visibility, although a rear wiper might have been helpful. Another drawback was that it left the luggage rather clearly exposed, something Volvo addressed by adding a pair of lockable bins under the load floor on either side of the spare wheel well. Rated cargo capacity was 35 cu. ft. (990 L), although that required folding the rear seats and taking a rather devil-may-care attitude toward outward visibility. (Photo © 2010 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

Since the 1800ES was only 65 lb (30 kg) heavier than the 1800E, the estate had similar straight-line performance. That was good news for European cars, now rated at 124 hp DIN (91 kW), but lower compression ratios had reduced all North American 1800E and 1800ES models to 112 SAE net horsepower (84 kW) and 115 lb-ft (155 N-m) of torque. While that was still better than the earlier carbureted models, the lower output dulled acceleration noticeably, particularly with the increasingly popular Borg-Warner automatic.

While critics responded well to the 1800ES’s new styling and greater practicality, many had many unkind words for its road manners. Thanks to the estate’s higher center of gravity, body lean was even more pronounced than in the coupe, to the point that the ES would actually hoist its inside front wheel in a tight turn. Some reviews also noted a disconcerting lack of directional stability along with too much axle movement, a complaint seldom levied against the coupe. We were unable to find detailed specifications for the 1800ES’s spring and damping rates, but it appears that they differed little from those of the 1800E save for addition of bigger 185/70HR-15 tires. The consistently harsh reviews suggest that the ES would have benefited from a more thorough rethinking of its suspension settings than it received.

1973 Volvo 1800ES side 2010 Murilee Martin per
Driven by the need to share as much tooling as possible with the 1800E, the Volvo 1800ES retained the coupe’s taillights, the cabin exhaust vents in the rear fenders, the curved door molding (not obvious at this angle), and even its chrome rear fender trim. The 1973 models now had side impact beams in the doors and impact-absorbing bumpers, extending overall length to 176.6 inches (4,486 mm), but this car’s clumsy-looking overriders were not standard equipment. (Photo © 2010 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

Inevitably, the ES was more expensive than the coupe. In its home market, the 1800ES was 33,200 SEK, nearly $7,000 at the contemporary exchange rate and some 1,300 SEK (about $275) more than the 1800E coupe. In the U.S., the ES started at $5,150 POE, while U.K. cars ran to £2,651 with purchase tax, an uncomfortable £250-odd more than a Scimitar GTE. That was a lot of money in 1972, particularly considering that the estate had inherited most of the coupe’s familiar shortcomings. Nonetheless, the estate’s fresh styling quickly made it more popular than the coupe; the 1800ES outsold the 1800E by more than 60% for 1972.

Although the coupe was dropped for 1973, 1800ES sales set a new record, with production totaling more than 5,000 units. Unfortunately, it would be the design’s final fling. Volvo had been able to meet U.S. federal safety standard for 1973, but meeting the more stringent and complex standards slated for the 1974 model year would have required extensive structural revisions that the 1800ES’s volume didn’t justify. Production ended for good on June 27, 1973. We found several different figures for total production, but the most commonly quoted is 47,485 (including about 8,078 estates), roughly half of which went to the U.S.

1973 Volvo 1800ES front 3q 2010 Murilee Martin per
For the 1972 and 1973 model years, North American 1800E and 1800ES models received a detuned B20F engine with its compression lowered from 10.5 to 8.7:1 to permit the use of 91 RON low-lead fuel. The drop in power was not quite as drastic as it looked — the previous year’s net rating had been 117 hp SAE (87 kW) — but the reduction in torque took its toll on performance, particularly in the heavier 1800ES with automatic. Note the revised grille of this 1973 model, one of the few styling changes for the 1800ES’s final year. (Photo © 2010 Murilee Martin; 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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