When it comes to cult cars of the ’60s, it is very easy to mention pretty much any Ferrari, the Aston Martin DB5, the Jaguar E-Type or even the humble yet well-loved Mini. With so many great cars coming out in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, it is very easy to look over a certain car for another that is very similar, look at the Mustang vs Camaro battle or the Ferrari 250GT vs the Lamborghini 350/400GT rivalry for example. One of those cars I feel has been semi-forgotten about is the beautiful yet simple Volvo P1800.
Before we start on the subject at hand, however, I’ll start off with a bit of history first. So, it’s the late ’40s & early ’50s and Volvo have just released their PV444 onto the market to cement Volvo’s future just after the devastation of WW2. The PV was the first Volvo in 20 years to come equipped with a 4-cylinder engine to reduce emissions and to increase fuel economy.
Through this time, Volvo soon got a reputation for building well-built, strong & dependable cars and so with this in mind, Volvo decided that the best thing to do was to take it rallying to show off how dependable it actually was. to no-ones surprise, the PV stormed to numerous victories on its home turf of Sweden as well as numerous other rally stages around the world at the time. With numerous victories in the bag and the 4-cylinder engines showing their worth in both performance and reliability, Volvo decided to build an open-top sports car with similar build credentials of the C1 Corvette.
What I mean by that is simple. Just like the Corvette, Volvo’s new sports car was to have a body made of fiberglass to make it as light as possible and with one of the well-known ‘B’ series engines powering it, it was meant to be quick. I mean it was meant to be a sports car after all. Called the ‘Volvo Sports’ or the ‘P1900’, it was released in 1956 and was made to take on the American market due to their fondness of sports cars. Unfortunately, due to the lack of power the 4-cylinder gave out & the lack of knowledge the Americans had about Volvo at the time, it was pretty much a flop. So much so in fact, by the next year, only 68 had been made and that was it, Volvo pulled the plug. With that amount of criticism given, Volvo went back to the drawing board and vowed to never make the same mistake twice. This was where the P1800 was born.
Bursting onto the scene in 1961, the P1800 soon got the attention of many sports car lovers from all over the world. for a start, it looked way better than the P1900 it had succeeded and secondly, the engine was majorly reworked to produce a pretty decent 100bhp from its 1.8 ‘B18’ engine. While this didn’t make it as quick as an Aston Martin DB4 or a Ferrari 250GT, it had a 400cc & 30bhp size & power increase over the P1900 and the PV that came before it making it pretty brisk in comparison. Add in the beautiful looks done by Pelle Petterson under the tutelage of Pietro Frua of Ghia, it looked as elegant as a Ferrari or a Lamborghini but with a price tag, badge and build quality of a typical Volvo of the time, think of it as their ‘Exotic’ if you like.
With that in mind, the P1800 started to sell surprisingly well and was starting to be loved the world over as a very good entry-level GT car. The engine & drivetrain was bulletproof with hardly any issues to really fix, the interior was simply stunning for a Volvo of the time and it was wrapped in one of the prettiest bodies the ’60s had ever seen, what was there not to like?
Originally, the P1800 came with what was known as a ‘Jensen’ Body. See, unlike many cars of the time that was pretty much put together and crafted by hand, Volvo decided to get the UK-based sports car company, Jensen, to build the body while Volvo did the rest. This made production costs and overall build time quicker thus meaning more cars could be made and eventually sold to the public. Out of all the P1800’s going, these ‘Jensen’ bodied cars are the rarest and the most sought after variants of the P1800.
By 1963, due to a problem with quality control, Volvo ended the contract with Jensen after nearly 6000 cars were built and moved the production to their Lundby plant in Gothenburg, Sweden in favor of the new 1800S. Now while many think the ‘S’ stood for Sport, it actually stood for ‘Sverige’ or Sweden once translated into English. This meant the new cars were better built with stronger bodies. with the ‘S’ the P1800 really came into its own as a dependable yet sporty GT coupé, on top of the stronger body, the engines got an 8bhp upgrade over the original 100bhp cars. by 1966 the power was upgraded yet again to 115bhp giving it a top speed of 109mph.
By the time the ’70s rolled by, the P1800 got upgraded yet again into what we now know as the P1800E. the ‘E’ stood for ‘Einspritz’, the German word for fuel injection. The engine was also upgraded with the ‘B20E’ engine which as the name suggests was a ‘B’ series engine with a 2.0 displacement and of course, the then-new fangled Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection system fitted. on top of that, the camshaft was also revised to give out a full output of 130bhp while still remaining the same fuel economy as the earlier cars. this power increase gave a top speed of 118mph and a 0-60 of 9.5s which was quite good for back in the day.
The 1800E was also the first P1800 model to get brake discs all round as well for improved braking over the earlier cars that had discs on the front and drums on the rear. With Volvo being all about safety, this was a massive step forward in the car industry for the time. In 1972, to meet emission standards, the engine was changed out for the lower compression ‘B20F’ unit for certain markets including the USA. Along with the new ‘F’ head, the ECU, manifold pressure sensor and head gasket were also changed out for the cars with the new ‘B20F’ engines. Power for these was down to 125bhp which might sound like a bit of a disaster but in reality, it made the car easier to live with and more of a cruiser than an out & out sports car.
In 1972, alongside the new ‘B20F’ engine available, there was also a new variant of the P1800 to accommodate the new engine and this one was by far the one everyone remembers and for very good reasons. Called the ‘1800ES’, the new car was a shooting brake style design instead of the 2-door 4-seater coupé the P1800 was known for. featuring a longer body & wheelbase & longer rear quarter windows as well as the all-new rear end to accommodate the full rear tailgate area that was made entirely of glass. When the 1800ES was getting designed and signed off, Sergio Coggiola & Pietro Frua built two prototypes but both were considered too futuristic for some and the design eventually went to Jan Wilsgaard’s design proposal instead. as mentioned, the new-fangled ‘B20F got fitted into the P1800ES giving the car a detuned output of 125bhp and this was done by giving the car a thicker head gasket & a lower compression ratio. This made the car easier to drive and not as on-edge as the older cars thus drastically improving the driving experience in the process.
The 1800ES was also very practical as well, with a foldable rear bench, a large cargo area and of course the full glass tailgate, this was a sports car that could actually haul IKEA furniture if needs be. Due to the large cargo area, this was also brilliant for long road trips as it could take a lot of bags without too many major issues. While on the subject of road trips, the gearboxes used in the ES were also perfect for long trips. while the 4 speed with overdrive stayed with the car, new to the ES was a 3-speed Borg-Warner automatic. The ES was in production for two years before getting killed off altogether in 1974 due to upcoming stringent emissions standards of the time.
In its 13 years of production, 39,407 coupés & 8,077 ES’s were produced making it very popular for the time. Even after nearly 46 years after the last P1800 rolled out of the production line, the cars have become quite a collector’s item with many an owner and fan lusting after them and keeping them for years. With thanks to the 60’s TV series called ‘The Saint’, a white P1800 and P1800S adorned UK & US televisions cementing these cars in the hearts of millions worldwide.
Famous owners and also fans of the car were both the late greats, Sir Roger Moore & Irv Gordon to name a few. Sir Roger loved driving the P1800 so much on set he actually bought one for himself and for a time, this was his only car. Sources close to Roger say that he used to take his kids to school in the back of said white P1800 similar to the one on the show which must’ve been pretty cool, to say the least.
Irv Gordon, on the other hand, became well known in both the Volvo circles as well as the car community for owning a red 1800S that over time started to gather up well over 3,000,000 miles as of and after 2013. Irv’s car was credited with being awarded a ‘Guinness World Record’ plaque for celebrating such a milestone. in a twist of fate, however, Irv, unfortunately, passed away in late 2018 while away on a trip to China. With an indicated 3.2M miles on the clock when he passed, no other car has even come close to that humble little Volvo.
With a lot of classic cars getting love for many different reasons, I think its time to show a bit more love & recognition to the Volvo P1800. It may have been a Volvo to some but to others, it was every bit an icon to those who have continued to own them over the years. It may not have had the pace of a Ferrari or an Aston but what it lacked in some departments it made up for in others. If it’s good enough for Sir Roger Moore then it’s good enough for the rest of us.
Hope You Enjoy!
By Alex Jebson.