Sainted Swede: The Volvo P1800 and 1800ES


For the 1970 model year, the 1800S became the Volvo 1800E, known internally as the model T. (With the larger engine, “2000E” might have been more appropriate, but we assume Volvo was concerned about name recognition.) The E stood for Einspritzung, signifying the replacement of the B20B’s dual S.U.s with Bosch electronic fuel injection, which boosted output to 130 gross horsepower (97 kW). Although the 1800E was heavier than before — curb weight now approached 2,600 lb (1,175 kg) — the extra power trimmed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times to less than 10 seconds while top speed rose to more than 115 mph (185 km/h). More importantly, the B20E could now meet the latest U.S. federal emissions standards.

1971 Volvo 1800E B20E engine 2004 Matthew Shultz (used with permission)
Aside from its Bosch D-Jetronic injection, the B20E engine had a hotter ‘K’ camshaft, larger valves, an aluminum intake manifold, and a sealed cooling system with an overflow tank. One of its minor oddities of the injected 1800E was the location of the air cleaner, buried behind the grille; the grille had to be unscrewed and removed to change the filter. In 1970 and 1971, this engine was rated at 130 gross horsepower (97 kW) and 130 lb-ft (176 N-m) of torque. Net ratings were a still healthy 120 hp DIN (88 kW) and 123 lb-ft (166 N-m). Fuel economy was similar to the B18B, although some reviewers thought the D-Jetronic system made drivability somewhat quirky, particularly on a cold start. (Photo © 2004 Matthew Shultz; used with permission)

To match its newfound power, the 1800E now had four-wheel disc brakes, borrowed from the six-cylinder 164 sedan, along with a new ZF four-speed gearbox. The J-type Laycock de Normanville overdrive was now standard in all markets, matched with a slightly taller 4.30 axle ratio. Tires were the same 165-15 size as before, but the familiar Pirelli Cinturatos were traded for H-rated Michelins on slightly wider alloy wheels.

Other than the wild-looking wheels, the 1800E’s main visual distinctions were a new grille (which could be removed to reach the air cleaner element) and black vents in the rear fenders, part of a new fresh-air ventilation system. Other interior changes included a new instrument panel, a new steering wheel, and new seats — among the best in the business for long-haul comfort, but still lacking in lateral support.

1971 Volvo 1800E front 3q 2004 Matthew Shultz (used with permission)
The 1970 Volvo 1800E had a new matte-black grille rather than the previous chrome unit, although we’ve seen some owners substitute the grille from a 1969 car. This 1971 car lacks the B20 engine badge originally mounted on the grille. Although this car has the four-speed gearbox with overdrive, a new option for 1971 was automatic transmission, the ubiquitous Borg-Warner 35. Base price was now 31,400 SEK (about $6,150) in Sweden, while U.S. cars started at $4,560 POE on the East Coast, $4,655 POE in the west. (Photo © 2004 Matthew Shultz; used with permission)

Extensive as they were, these changes could not mask some of the 1800E’s more basic shortcomings, which included heavy controls, awkward entry and exit, and mediocre visibility, exacerbated by rather low seats. Contemporary critics also grumbled that the new ventilation system was still inadequate and that the B20E engine was noisier and somewhat coarser than its predecessor. Although the 1800E was now manufactured and assembled entirely in Sweden, period reviews still note some occasional lapses in assembly quality, the most common complaint being air leaks around the vent wings and frameless door glass.

1971 Volvo 1800E dashboard 2004 Matthew Shultz (used with permission)
The Volvo 1800E’s dashboard added new gauges and fake woodgrain trim — a contemporary but somewhat jarring seventies touch in a basically fifties design. Despite the extensive instrumentation, battery condition was still signaled by a warning light, eventually prompting the previous owner of this car to replace the oil temperature gauge with a Smiths voltmeter. (Photo © 2004 Matthew Shultz; used with permission)

Most of those concerns were more annoying than serious, but they were reminders that despite its price (now 30,900 SEK (nearly $6,000) at home, $4,595 POE in the U.S.), the 1800E was a mild makeover of a rather dated design. It still had its virtues, particularly in its admirable blend of performance and fuel economy, but the price premium over a Datsun 240Z or, in Europe, a V6 Ford Capri, was becoming harder to justify.

1971 Volvo 1800E side 2009 Matthew Shultz (used with permission)
Slightly revised bumpers made the 1970-1972 Volvo 1800E a bit shorter than the 1800S — now 171.3 inches (4,350 mm) overall — but other dimensions were unchanged. Despite their appearance, the new wheels, made by Cromodora Fergat, are not magnesium; the rims are steel, but the centers are painted aluminum alloy. Note the amber side marker lights, added to U.S. cars in 1968 to meet federal safety requirements, and the black vents in the rear fenders, which exhaust cabin air. (Photo © 2009 Matthew Shultz; used with permission)


Volvo was not oblivious to the 1800’s advancing age, but the big question was what to do about it.

In 1965, Volvo had started preliminary work on a new sports coupe, a pillarless notchback known internally as the P172. Designed by Jan Wilsgaard’s in-house styling team, the P172 was considerably larger than the 1800S, based on the platform of the then-upcoming 164 sedan and powered by the 164’s new B30 inline six (essentially a six-cylinder version of the B20, sharing many of its components). Surviving photos of the P172, which reached the full-size mockup stage in 1966, suggest a very Italianate look with a certain general resemblance to the Pininfarina-styled Lancia Flavia and Ferrari 330GT.

At one time, the P172 was slated to replace the 1800S, probably for the 1969 model year, a year after the debut of the 164 sedan. However, the project was finally undone by its projected price. The new coupe would have sold for about 50% more than the 1800S, making the P172 more expensive than an E-type Jaguar. That was not an area in which Volvo was really prepared to compete in either performance or pedigree and the U.S. sales organization was very dubious about the P172’s prospects. The project was canceled in early 1967.

Around the same time, Volvo’s Italian distributor, Bologna-based Motauto SpA, commissioned a one-off coupe based on the 1800S, but with a fastback roofline crafted by the Italian coachbuilder Fissore. (We were unable to obtain a photo for this article, but it looked not unlike the mid-seventies Toyota Celica liftback.) The Fissore coupe was exhibited at the Turin Auto Show in the fall of 1965, but Volvo was apparently not interested and nothing came of it. About five years later, Motauto commissioned another one-off, this one based on an 1800E with a new hatchback body by Zagato, bearing some resemblance to the contemporary Alfa Romeo Junior Z. Dubbed Volvo 2000 GTZ, it was exhibited at the 1970 Turin show along with a larger, 164-based six-cylinder car, the 3000 GTZ. According to Jan Högnark of V1800 Reg, Motauto and Zagato proposed the 3000 GTZ to Volvo as a production model, but Volvo rejected it in early 1971, we assume for the same reasons as the P172. Zagato nonetheless built about 50 copies for sale in Italy; we don’t know if any survive today.

1969 Volvo 1800ESC Coggiola rear 3q Volvo Cars 5988_1_5
An early model of the Coggiola-styled Volvo 1800ESC, a hatchback coupe seriously considered to replace the 1800E. Had the Coggiola design made it to production, we assume it would have used the injected B20E engine, although we don’t know if the styling prototypes were drivable or not. (Photo circa 1969, copyright and courtesy Volvo Cars, Public Relations)

In 1969 or 1970, Volvo commissioned Sergio Coggiola to develop another possible 1800 successor, the 1800ESC. The Coggiola was still a 2+2, but it now sported a sloping hatchback tail with futuristic black louvers at the base of the glass. It shared the 1800’s wheelbase, but was a bit longer overall, at 175.8 inches (4,465 mm), and even lower: a mere 49.8 inches (1,265 mm) overall. Volvo exhibited the ESC prototype, dubbed Volvo Viking Coggiola 2+2, at the 1971 Paris Salon, but ultimately decided not to produce it, again probably for cost reasons.

1972 Volvo 1800ESC Coggiola front 3q Volvo Cars 5989_1_5
A more finished version of the 1800ESC, now called Volvo Viking, appeared at several European auto shows in the early seventies, but was not selected for production. In profile, it looks surprisingly like the Giorgetto Giugiaro-styled Volkswagen Scirocco, which was introduced about three years later. (Photo circa 1972, copyright and courtesy Volvo Car Corporation, Public Affairs)


Following the cancellation of the P172 project in 1967, Volvo had started thinking about ways to update the 1800. Fuel injection would give performance a shot in the arm, but new grilles and wheels would only do so much for the styling, which was still clearly a product of the late 1950s. The problem was that neither the P1800 nor the 1800S had been especially profitable to begin with. The coupe’s monocoque construction would make any substantial restyling a very expensive proposition, more than its modest volume could comfortably amortize.

1973 Volvo 1800ES decklid badge 2010 Murilee Martin (used with permission)
The shooting brake version of the 1800E was christened Volvo 1800ES. The meaning of the S suffix is obscure. It may have meant “sports wagon,” which is how the press sometimes described the car, but Volvo’s brochures and press releases generally just called it a sports car. (Photo © 2010 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

By 1968, Volvo’s in-house design team had found an unusual solution: transforming the coupe into a shooting brake. Once again, golf was a factor; Tor Berthelius, Volvo’s chief engineer, had suggested that giving the 1800 the ability to carry a set of clubs would enhance its appeal. Beyond that, making the 1800 into a two-door estate would give the familiar design an entirely new profile with a minimum of new tooling.

By the autumn, Jan Wilsgaard’s styling team had developed two proposals: a straightforward estate conversion of the 1800S, nicknamed the “Beach Car,” and a more radical Kamm-tailed version, known as the Jaktvagnen (shooting brake). In December, Volvo commissioned Frua — once again an independent coachbuilder, no longer tied to Ghia — to convert a production 1800S into a prototype of the Jaktvagnen concept, subsequently nicknamed Raketen (The Rocket). A second car was delivered to Sergio Coggiola, a former Ghia designer who had established his own Turin studio in 1966, to be transformed into a mockup of the Beach Car concept. Perhaps predictably, Volvo management preferred the more conservative Beach Car proposal with the less rakish of its mooted rear window treatments.

1969 Volvo 1800ES Rocket prototype rear Volvo Cars 5965_1_5
A photograph of Volvo’s “Raketen,” the more radical of the two shooting brake prototypes that preceded the 1800ES. Despite its space-age rear styling, the “Rocket” is essentially a standard 1800 from the doors forward — not surprising considering that it was converted from a production car. Built (but not designed) by Frua, this prototype still survives in the Volvo Museum in Gothenburg. (Photo circa 1969, copyright and courtesy Volvo Car Corporation, Public Affairs)

A likely influence on the development of Volvo’s shooting brake was a British design, the new Reliant Scimitar GTE. Based on Reliant’s existing Scimitar GT coupe, the GTE was conceptually very similar to the Volvo design and emerged for comparable reasons (see the sidebar on the following page). Exactly how much it influenced Volvo’s plans for an 1800 wagon is unclear; Volvo would certainly have been aware of the GTE, which bowed at the London Motor Show in October 1968, but it appears that the Beach Car and Jaktvagnen concepts were created before the Reliant made its public debut. If nothing else, the GTE’s generally positive reception may have helped to convince Volvo management of the concept’s viability. The 1800 shooting brake was approved for production around the spring of 1969.

1972 Volvo 1800ES X-ray view Volvo Cars 5968_1_5
A cutaway view of the Volvo 1800ES. Note the rear disc brakes, introduced on the 1800E for 1970 and standard on both the coupe and wagon. Borrowed from the larger 164 sedan, the 1800’s rear discs were larger than the fronts (11.6 inches/295 mm in diameter) and incorporated small drum brakes in the dust shields to serve as the parking brake, like early disc-braked Corvettes. Combined with a front/rear proportioning valve and Volvo’s unusual 3×2 dual-circuit setup, it was among the most sophisticated braking systems of its era. (Image circa 1971, copyright and courtesy Volvo Car Corporation, Public Affairs)


Add a Comment
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

    2. I realize this is an old thread, perhaps someone can help. Trying to remove the combined water/old temp gauge on my 1968 1800S. How does one disconnect the metal tubes in the back that connect the the engine sending units?thank you

      1. I’m sorry, I’m not able (or qualified!) to provide repair or maintenance advice!

  8. 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.

  9. As a matter of linguistic interest, the definite article is suffixed onto the noun in Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. Strictly speaking, raket = “rocket,” and raketen = “the rocket.” This also occurs in Romanian and Bulgarian. The fancy linguistic term for a suffixed definite article is an enclitic.

    1. I did not know that! I’ve attempted to reflect that in the text just now.

  10. Yes, I know that this is an old thread.

    Incredibly well done and remarkably sourced. Nice job!

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