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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
The 1800S was never a runaway sales success, but it found a unique niche, abetted by its television exploits (see the 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.