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 P956’s body structure. Unlike the P1900 Sport, the P956 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.
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 needed 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).
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.
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.
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.