The Swedish automaker Volvo is best known for its solid (and often square) sedans and wagons, but starting in 1961, it also offered a sleek two-door sports coupe called the P1800, best known for its role in the 1960s TV version of The Saint. This week, we look at the origins and evolution of the Volvo P1800, its 1800S and 1800E successors, and its ultimate metamorphosis into a sporty two-door shooting brake, the 1972–1973 Volvo 1800ES.
THE BIRTH OF VOLVO AND THE P1900 SPORT
The trade name Volvo (the present indicative form of the Latin volvere, to roll) was first registered in May 1915 as a brand name of the Swedish ball bearing manufacturer Svenska Kullagerfabriken (SKF), but it was not until around 1924 that SKF sales manager Assar Gabrielsson started thinking seriously about developing a native Swedish car. Automobiles were becoming increasingly popular in Sweden at the time, but many imported models were ill-suited to local conditions, which included extremely harsh winters and very poor roads.
SKF management was receptive to the idea of entering the automotive business and in August 1926, Gabrielsson established a new car-making subsidiary company, AB Volvo, with Erik Gustaf Larson, a former SKF engineer who had been at Galco since 1920, as technical director and executive vice president. A factory was established in Lundby, a northwestern suburb of Gothenburg (Götenborg), and series production of the first Volvo first passenger car, designed by Larson, began on April 14, 1927.
Initial sales were below expectations, but grew at an encouraging rate, prompting Volvo to add a six-cylinder model in 1929. By 1941, Volvo was independent of SKF and its business had grown to include commercial trucks, marine engines, and buses as well as a controlling interest in the aviation engine manufacturer Svenska Flygmotor. Although Volvo had not yet established a presence in the U.S., the company did well in Sweden and many export markets; its 100,000th vehicle rolled off the line in August 1949.
While Volvo cars were soundly engineered and robustly built, sex appeal was not really part of the program. The postwar PV444 sedan could challenge many contemporary four-cylinder sports cars for performance and handling, but its bulbous semi-fastback shape was not likely to cause many sleepless nights in the carrozzerias of Turin. By the early fifties, Volvo dealers were asking for something sportier-looking to entice customers into showrooms, where buyers could be won over by the fine road manners and excellent build quality of the sedans.
In 1953, Assar Gabrielsson made an extended visit to the United States, where he became intrigued with the possibilities — and low tooling costs — of fiberglass bodies. After touring the production line for Chevrolet’s new Corvette, Gabrielsson paid a visit to Bill Tritt’s Glasspar, in Montecito, California, maker of the Glasspar G2 and Woodill Wildfire kit cars as well as the early prototypes of the Kaiser Darrin. Gabrielsson negotiated an agreement with Glasspar to develop a plastic-bodied sports car for Volvo based on the running gear of the PV444.
By the spring of 1954, Volvo had four prototypes of the new car, styled by Bill Tritt and riding a new lightweight tubular frame developed by Volvo engineers Raymond Eknor and Eric Quistgaard. Dubbed P1900 Sport, it was bigger than English sports cars like the Triumph TR2 or MG TF, sharing the suspension, three-speed gearbox, and 1,414 cc (86 cu. in.) engine of the PV444 sedan. The P1900 was shown to the press and dealers that summer, but various technical delays meant that production cars were not available until January 1956.
While the production-spec cars were sturdier than the early prototypes, even Volvo engineers worried that the P1900’s structural integrity was sub-par, particularly compared to other Volvos. The final straw came when new managing director Gunnar Engellau took delivery of chassis number 49 in April 1957. A few days’ driving was enough to convince Engellau that the P1900 was unacceptably flimsy and had the potential to do Volvo’s reputation more harm than good. He ordered production ended in May, after only 67 cars had been built. About two-thirds were sold in Sweden, but perhaps 20 ended up in the U.S., where Volvo had recently established a sales organization.
GHIA, FRUA, AND PELLE PETTERSON
Among those dissatisfied with the P1900 was Helmer Petterson, a Volvo engineering consultant who had helped develop the PV444 back in 1944. Extensive road testing of an early production P1900 had left Petterson even more conscious than Gunnar Engellau of that car’s basic flaws, but he still believed there was a niche for an image-boosting Volvo sports car. In late 1956, Petterson met with Engellau and proposed that they try again, this time with an all-new model based on Volvo’s recently introduced Amazon sedan.
Although Volvo had established its own styling studio in 1950, headed by Jan Wilsgaard, Engellau opted against designing the new sports car internally. We don’t know his rationale; he may have thought an outside design would have greater prestige or he may just have been reluctant to tie up the in-house team with what was at that point a fairly speculative project. In any case, he told Petterson to seek proposals from some of the major Italian design houses.
At the time, Petterson’s son Pelle, then 24 years old, was studying design at New York’s prestigious Pratt Institute. Although Pelle’s first love was sailing, his father was keen for Pelle to apply his talents to automobiles and secured him a position at Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin. Naturally, when Petterson went looking for an Italian studio to design the new Volvo sports car, Ghia was his first stop.
Ghia managing director Luigi Segre had recently arranged to buy out another Italian studio, Carrozzeria Pietro Frua, founded in Turin in 1944. Aside from providing an infusion of new talent, the Frua acquisition gave Ghia a convenient way to take on additional business without alienating its existing clients, some of whom were very unhappy to see the Ghia emblem on competitors’ cars. When Volvo hired Ghia to develop a sports car prototype in April 1957, Luigi Segre called for four proposals: two from Ghia’s designers, two from the Frua team. For political reasons, the final product was to be identified as a Frua design regardless of which team actually designed it.
Although Pelle Petterson was in what we assume was a rather junior position (some sources describe it as an internship) his father persuaded Segre to allow Pelle to submit his own proposal for the new sports car. Segre was apparently impressed with the results and added Pelle’s design to the portfolio Segre was preparing for Gunnar Engellau. Segre went so far as to ask Pelle to create new renderings of the other four proposals in order to give all five proposals a consistent look.
Segre and Helmer Petterson presented the five proposals to Engellau in early August. To Petterson’s undoubted satisfaction, Engellau immediately gravitated to Pelle’s design, discarding the others with only a cursory glance. We don’t know if Engellau was even aware that the younger Petterson was at Ghia, much less that he was involved in the Volvo project. In any event, Engellau was not at all amused when Segre told him that the drawing he’d just chosen was Pelle’s. Nonetheless, Engellau admitted — albeit probably somewhat grudgingly — that it was still the better design and gave his approval for the creation of a full-size prototype. He made it clear, however, that the design would be credited only to Frua. Indeed, it was not until many years later that Volvo publicly admitted Pelle had had anything to do with it.
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.
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.
EINSPRITZUNG: THE Volvo 1800E
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE 1800S SUCCESSORS THAT WEREN’T
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.
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.
THE BEACH CAR AND THE ROCKET
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 standards for 1973, but meeting the more stringent and complex standards that took effect 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.
Volvo didn’t offer another coupe until 1978. Even then, it was the luxury-oriented, Bertone-styled 262C, not a sports car. While the front-wheel-drive 480 Series hatchback, introduced in 1986, had faint echoes of the 1800ES in its glass hatch, it was not until 1997 that Volvo offered another sporty coupe, the FWD C70. Appropriately enough, it was featured in the 1997 Paramount film version of The Saint, although the film was neither a critical nor a commercial success. A C70 convertible followed a year later, something Volvo had never offered in the 1800 line (although some coupes were converted privately).
In 2006, the current C70, a retractable hardtop styled by Pininfarina, was joined by the C30, a three-door hatchback whose glassy tailgate once again evokes the old 1800ES. By modern standards, neither is a sports car, although the turbocharged T5 models, with 227 hp SAE (169 kW), would naturally leave the old 1800E in the dust.
The P1800’s designer, Pelle Petterson, did not remain long in the auto industry, opting to pursue other industrial design work and his lifelong love of sailing. He has won at least five world championships as well as two Olympic medals in Star-class sailing, in 1964 and 1972; he is also a two-time America’s Cup challenger. In the eighties, he designed the very successful Maxi yacht series and now has his own leisurewear line, Pelle P.
Surviving 1800s remain popular as collector cars thanks to their unique styling, real-world comfort, and exceptional mechanical longevity. Even the Swedish-built cars are susceptible to rust and major body work can become very expensive, but the engines and running gear are extremely durable if properly maintained. The most dramatic example is undoubtedly the 1966 1800S owned by retired New York school teacher Irv Gordon, which has so far accumulated more than 2.6 million miles (4.2 million kilometers).
Volvo has had its ups and downs over the past few decades, including its acquisition by Ford in 1999 and its subsequent sale to China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group in 2010. As of this writing, however, Volvo reports that it is once again operating in the black, so it’s possible that we’ll see another Volvo sports car in the coming years. Creating one as enduring as the original Volvo 1800 — in every sense of that word — will be a taller order.
The author would like to extend special thanks to Martin Alford, Tyler Brand, Murilee Martin, and Matthew Shultz for the use of their photos; Invgar Hallström for help with Swedish list prices; Graham Slope of the Gilbern Owners Club for providing information on the Invader Estate; and Volvo Cars Heritage manager Claes Rydholm for his assistance with archival images and information.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our information on the history and development of the P1800 and its successors came from “1965 Volvo P1800 – vintage SCCA F production Race Car 200 hp For Sale,” 26 July 2011, www.carandclassic. co.uk, accessed 18 August 2011; Frederick Beste, “Italienska karosseriformgivare – ‘Macchina Italiana'” (2006, Svenska Volvo P1800 Klubben, www.volvop1800club. se/ artiklar/ italienska_karossformgivare/ italienska_karosseriformgivare.htm, accessed 17 August 2011 and “Jans Wilsgaard” (2005, Svenska Volvo P1800 Klubben, www.volvop1800club. se/jan/ hedersmedlem_2005_ en.htm, accessed 17 August 2011); David Bowers, “How He Did It,” Classics December 2001, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, R.M. Clarke, ed. (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2006), pp. 146-151; Martin Buckley, The Encyclopedia of Classic Cars: A Celebration of the Motor Car from 1945 to 1975 (New York: Hermes House, 1997); “Buying Guide: Volvo 1800,” Classic Cars August 2004, reprinted in ibid, pp. 152-155; Alastair Clements, “Country casuals,” Classic & Sports Car June 2000 (Vol. 19, No. 3), pp. 140-145; Danny O’Driscoll, “Saintly Sinner (Buyers Guide: Volvo 1800),” Practical Classics January 1998, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, pp. 70-75; Joël Durand, “La P1800 en course” (2004-2005, Volvo P1800 France, p1800.jd. free.fr/ En%20course.htm, accessed 18 August 2011); “Ford OSI 20m TS Website” (no date, osi20mts. com, www.osi20mts. com, accessed 17 August 2011); Kevin Greenaway, “To ‘P’ or not to ‘P'” (no date, Volvo Adventures, www.volvoadventures. com/ 1800P.html, accessed 17 August 2011); Jan O. Högnark, “Volvo and their Sports-Cars” (no date, V1800 Reg, www.v1800reg. org/ pages/ V%201800%20HIST.pdf, accessed 17 August 2011); “Kirk’s Volvo P1800 Page” (no date, www.cabinnaise. com/ vpage/1800s.htm, accessed 4 August 2011), which is based in turn on Bill Webb, Swedish Iron, a.k.a. Volvo 1800: 1967-1973 1800 History and Restoration Guide (Bakersfield, CA: self-published, 1988), to which we did not have access for this article; Jeff Koch, “Marketplace Buyer’s Guide: 1972–1973 Volvo 1800ES: Is It a Sports Car? A GT? A Wagon?” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #67 (March 2011), pp. 80–85; David LaChance, “Volvo B18: Gothenburg’s overbuilt pushrod four sets the standards of durability,” Hemmings Motor News July 2007; Björn-Erik Lindh, “The story about P1800 a.k.a. ‘The Saint’s car” (no date, Svenska Volvo P1800 Klubben, www.volvop1800club. se, accessed 16 August 2011); Till Look, “Thor’s Hammer: Volvo P172” (19 August 2009, Carsablanca.de, www.carsablanca. de/ Magazin/ perlen-des-wissens/ thors-hammer-volvo-p172, accessed 28 August 2011); Karl Ludvigsen, “History of Automotive Design: Volvo Builds a Sports Car – Part I,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #21 (May 2007), pp. 62-66; and “History of Automotive Design: A Swede for the Saint, Part II,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #22 (June 2007), pp. 62-66; Malcolm McKay, “Saint’s alive!” Classic Car October 1996, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, pp. 76-80; Registro Pietro Frua (2008, www.pietro-frua. de/, accessed 4 August 2011); Claes Rydholm, “A true cosmopolitan turns 50: Volvo P1800 1961 – 2011” [press release], Volvo Cars, 23 May 2011, www.media.volvocars. com, accessed 14 August 2011; “Saab Designer Profile – Sergio Coggiola” (6 August 2008, Saabhistory.com, www.saabhistory. com/ 2008/ 08/06/ saab-designer-profile-sergio-coggiola/, accessed 17 August 2011); the 2007 SCCA Club Racing Media Guide, Sports Car Club of America, www.scca. org, accessed 18 August 2011; Dave Selby, “Two wings & a prayer,” Your Classic September 1993, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, pp. 66-69; William D. Siuru, Jr., “Last of the Sleek Swedes: 1972 Volvo 1800E,” Special Interest Autos #94 (August 1986), pp. 48-55; “Technical Description: Swedish Bred: British Built,” The Autocar 14 July 1961, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, pp. 10-13; Volvo Cars, “Irv Gordon aims for 3 million miles in his Volvo P1800” [press release], 20 July 2010; and “Volvo 1800 Picture Gallery,” volvo1800pictures. com, accessed 17 August 2011. Additional information came from emails to the author from Volvo’s Claes Rydholm, 22-23 and 31 August 2011, and from the Swedish Volvo P1800 Club (Svenska Volvo P1800 Klubben) website, www.volvop1800club.se, last accessed 30 August 2011.
Road test data came from “AMS Road Test: Volvo 1800S,” Australian Motor Sport October 1964, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, pp. 62-64; “A Pleasing Anglo-Swedish Sports Coupé – The Volvo P1800,” Motor Sport September 1962, reprinted in ibid, pp. 46-47, 88-89; “Autocar Road Test No. 1884: Volvo P.1800,” The Autocar 20 July 1962, reprinted in ibid, pp. 38-42; “Autocar Road Test 2088: Volvo 1800S,” The Autocar 15 July 1966, reprinted in ibid, pp. 106-111; John Christy, “Road Test 26-61: Volvo P-1800,” Sports Car Graphic November 1961, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, pp. 20-23; Eric Dahlquist, “The Eleven Year Plan,” Motor Trend Vol. 22, No. 5 (May 1970), pp. 44-46, 113; “Giant Test: BMW 2000 Touring, Volvo 1800ES, Scimitar GTE,” CAR December 1972, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, pp. 200-205; Bill Hartford, “One-of-a-kind car: Volvo’s Sportswagon,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 138, No. 4 (October 1972), pp. 40-44; Rob Luck, “Volvo P1800E: Dial 999 999,” Wheels, March 1971, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, pp. 167-171; Bob McVay, “Volvo 122-S and P-1800S,” Motor Trend Vol. 14, No. 10 (October 1963), reprinted in ibid, pp. 48-55; “Road Research Report: Volvo P 1800,” Car and Driver Vol. 7, No. 3 (September 1961), pp. 32-37, 58; “Road Test 28/63: Volvo P-1800 S: Now it’s all Swedish…” Sports Car Graphic December 1963, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, pp. 56-59; “Road Test No. 29/62: Volvo P1800 with overdrive: A 2/4 seater of Swedish design, built in Britain,” The Motor 1 August 1962, reprinted in ibid, pp. 34-37; “Road Test No. 34/70: Volvo 1800E: Motorway Express,” The Motor 9 August 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 137-142; “Road Test: Volvo 1800,” Road & Track August 1966, reprinted in ibid, pp. 112-115; “Road Test: Volvo 1800ES,” The Motor 4 March 1972, reprinted in ibid, pp. 184-189; “RT/Test Report: The Ultimate Sportwagon,” Road Test May 1972, reprinted in ibid, pp. 190-195; “Sports Car Road Test: Volvo 1800S,” Cars & Car Conversions November 1966, reprinted in ibid, pp. 116-117; Leicester Symons, “Volvo 1800E Coupe,” Car South Africa September 1970, reprinted in ibid, p. 143; Paul Van Valkenburgh, “The Eleven Year Car,” Sports Car Graphic February 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 128-131; “Volvo 1800E,” Road & Track Vol. 21, No. 6 (February 1970), pp. 80-82; “Volvo 1800ES,” Autocar 8 December 1971, reprinted in Volvo 1800 Ultimate Portfolio, pp. 174-175; “Volvo 1800ES Sportwagon,” Car and Driver Vol. 18, No. 7 (January 1972), reprinted in ibid, pp. 176-180; “Volvo 1800/ES: A bold expression of the sportwagon theme,” Track & Traffic June 1972, reprinted in ibid, pp. 196-199; “Volvo 1800ES: A successful conversion from dated GT to genuine sportwagon,” Road & Track Vol. 23, No. 7 (March 1972), reprinted in ibid, pp. 181-183; “Volvo P1800S,” Road Test February 1969, reprinted in ibid, pp. 124-127; “Volvo’s sports car for 1973 is a grand touring station wagon!” Road Test February 1973, reprinted in ibid, pp. 206-207; Paul Weissler, “Service Test: Volvo 1800E Sports Coupe,” Popular Imported Cars September 1971, reprinted in ibid, pp. 172-173, 180; Joseph H. Wherry, “Volvo 1800E Road Test,” World Car Guide October 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 161-163; and Stephen Wilder, “Volvo with V-V-Voom!” Hot Rod December 1964, reprinted in ibid, pp. 90-93 and 101.
Information on the Volvo P1900 Sport came from Nick Czap, “Unrequited Longing for the 67th Volvo Sport,” New York Times 19 February 2010, www.nytimes. com, accessed 26 August 2011; Geoffrey Hacker, “Glasspar (Bill Tritt) Designed Fiberglass Volvo Sport – The Volvo P1900” (31 March 2010, Forgotten Fiberglass, www.forgottenfiberglass. com/?p=3134, accessed 26 August 2011); Todd Lassa, “1957 Volvo P1900/Sport: Ox-y-mo-ron (n., s.) e.g., ‘a Swedish sports car’ (yes, they really did build them),” Motor Trend March 2006, www.motortrend. com, accessed 4 August 2011; and Karl Ludvigsen, “History of Automotive Design: Volvo’s Plastic Fantastic,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #13 (September 2006), pp. 80-85.
General information on Volvo’s history came from Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); “Decades of driving progress,” Volvo Trucks Global history pages, www.volvotrucks. com, accessed 15 August 2011; “Ford sells Volvo to Geely: Devolving Volvo: For both buyer and seller, the deal is worth the risks,” The Economist 28 March 2010, www.economist. com, accessed 15 August 2011; Assar Gabrielsson, “The Thirty-Year History of Volvo,” originally published in Transbladet 1959, reprinted at the Volvo Owners Club website, www.volvoclub. org.uk, accessed 29 August 2011; Paul Grimshaw, “Chronology of Volvo Engine Development” (2003, The Volvo Performance Handbook/The Gothenburg Bible, archived at web.archive. org/web/20060116020013/ www3.bc.sympatico. ca/ Volvo_Books/ engine2.html, accessed 15 August 2011); Jan Norbye, “Sweden’s Conservative Giant,” Car and Driver Vol. 9, No. 11 (May 1964), pp. 83-88; David Pierson, “Automobiles: Ford sells Volvo to China’s Geely auto group for $1.8 billion,” Los Angeles Times 29 March 2010, latimes. com, accessed 15 August 2011; “Road Test: Volvo 122S,” Car and Driver Vol. 7, No. 10 (April 1962), pp. 54-55; Bertel Schmitt, “Scary Chinese Experiment Proves: Swedish Cars Can Make Money” (19 August 2011, TheTruthAboutCars.com, www.thetruthaboutcars. com, accessed 19 August 2011); Ulrika Stahre, “Så blev hon en bil: Ulrika Stahre hyllar en 50-åring” (9 May 2006, Aftonbladet, www.aftonbladet. se, accessed 18 August 2011); “Volvo B36 V8 info” (no date, Andersson Racing, www.anderssonracing. com/ b36.htm, accessed 16 August 2011); Volvo Cars, “Volvo’s biggest car news from 1968 turns 40 – the Volvo 164” [press release], 25 June 2008; “Volvo’s three-point safety belt turns 50” [press release], 12 August 2009; Volvo Group, “The Volvo history,” www.volvogroup. com, accessed 26 August 2011; Mark Wan, “Volvo C30” (5 October 2006, AutoZine.org, www.autozine.org/ Archive/ Volvo/ new/ C30.html, accessed 19 August 2011); and the Wikipedia® entries for the Volvo ÖV4 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volvo_%C3%96V_4, accessed 29 August 2011); Amazon (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volvo_Amazon, accessed 18 August 2011); C30 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volvo_C30, accessed 19 August 2011) and Volvo engines (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Volvo_engines, accessed 15 August 2011).
Additional biographical data on Pelle Petterson came from Pascal de Belder, “Pelle Petterson” (no date, P1800 Passion, p1800passion. blogspot.com, accessed 17 August 2011); Pelle Petterson’s official website, www.pellepetterson. com, accessed 17 August 2011; and “Pelle Petterson” (no date, Sailboat Data, sailboatdata. com, accessed 17 August 2011).
Information on the television exploits of Simon Templar came from Dan Bodenheimer’s Saint Club website, www.saint. org, last accessed 23 August 2011); M.S. Curtis, “The Saint and his Volvo 1800” (1996, Volvo Owners Club, www.volvoclub. org.uk/saint.shtml, accessed 23 August 2011); the Internet Movie Database page for The Saint (TV Series 1962-1969), www.imdb. com, accessed 18 August 2011; and Sir Roger Moore and Gareth Owen, My Word Is My Bond: A Memoir (New York: Harper Collins, 2008). Confirmation that the producers originally wanted a Jaguar Mk. X, not an E-type, came from an email to the author from a Saint fan (who asked not to be named) who has discussed the matter with Sir Roger, series producer Bob Baker, and production manager Johnny Goodman, who was the one who actually placed the call to Jaguar. Artist’s conceptions of the Hirondel, incidentally, can be found in “A Tribute to one of the greatest cars in all fiction: Simon Templar’s Hirondel,” Automobile Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 1 (First Quarter 1972), pp. 4-17.
Data on the Jaguar Mark X came from Martin Buckley, Jaguar: Fifty Years of Speed and Style (Haynes Classic Makes) (Sparkford, Somerset: Haynes Publishing, 1998); Chris Canning, “The Mark X: One Big and Rare Saloon!” (26 July 2002, Jaguar Clubs of North America, www.jcna. com, accessed 18 August 2011); Richard Heseltine, “Arch Rivals,” Classic & Sports Car Vol. 19, No. 3 (June 2000), pp. 164-169; “Road Research Report: Jaguar Mark X,” Car and Driver Vol. 7, No. 11 (May 1962), pp. 64-68; and “Technical Report: Jaguar Mark X,” Car and Driver Vol. 7, No. 10 (April 1962), pp. 39-41.
Additional data on the Reliant Scimitar GT and GTE came from David Poole’s Sporting Reliants site (www.sporting-reliants. com, accessed 23 August 2011), “Autotest: Reliant Scimitar GTE automatic (2,994 c.c.),” Autocar 2 April 1970, pp. 16-20; “Autotest: Reliant Scimitar GTE automatic: The first high performance estate,” Autocar 17 January 1981, pp. 20-25; “Giant Test: Reliant Scimitar GTE v. Triumph Stag,” CAR October 1970, pp. 42-47; “Giant Test: Scimitar GTE, Triumph Stag, Opel Commodore GS,” CAR September 1973, pp. 48-52, 57-59, 99; and “Giant Test: Triumph Stag, Reliant Scimitar GTE, Datsun 260Z,” CAR November 1974, pp. 61-68. Data on the Gilbern Invader and Invader Estate came from the Wikipedia entry for Gilbern, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbern, accessed 19 August 2011; “Gilbern Invader” (no date, Retro Car Icons, www.retrocaricons. com, accessed 19 August 2011); the Gilbern Owners Club Ltd. website (gilbern.co.uk/, accessed 23 August 2011); and emails to the author from Graham Slope, Gilbern Owners Club Ltd. Estate Historian, 27-28 August 2011.
Other details came from “Cars 1963 American Classic Award: New Car Classic,” Cars, April 1963, reprinted in Falcon Performance Portfolio 1960-1970, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998), pp. 62-68; “EFTA through the years,” European Free Trade Association official site (www.efta. int, accessed 25 August 2011); the CIA World Fact Book (www.cia. gov/ library/ publications/ the-world-factbook/, last accessed 22 August 2011); the Productioncars.com Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945-2005 (N.p.: 2006); the golf page of Visit Sweden, the official Swedish tourism site (www.visitsweden. com, accessed 25 August 2011), and the Wikipedia entries for Princess Anne (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne,_Princess_Royal, accessed 18 August 2011), Princess Birgitta (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_ Birgitta_of_Sweden, accessed 28 August 2011), and Star sailboats (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_%28 sailboat%29, accessed 18 August 2011).
Some exchange rate data for the dollar, the British pound, and the Swedish kronor came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of U.S., British, and Swedish currency at the time, not contemporary U.S. or UK suggested retail prices, which are listed separately. Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided solely for illustration and general reference. This is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!
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