A few years ago, an insurance company was
running a radio advertisement in the Southern California area, (and
maybe across the country), touting that they were looking for "good"
drivers. One of the qualifiers was "Do you think of a Volvo as a sports
car?" As exemplified by that question, this Swedish manufacturer built
its reputation on building staid, rock-solid family sedans and station
wagons that hold up to the harsh climate of a Nordic winter, not sports
cars. And despite some sporting models in recent years, it's the
original image that still dominates the public’s perception of this
The P1800 is one of those few
undiscovered gems that still exist in the collector car world. Perhaps
it's the name and the stodgy Volvo image. Developed in the late 1950s,
it quickly became known as the Ferrari from Gotenborg. It's arrival in
the market was in stark contrast to the then mainstay Volvo model, the
P-544 sedans that are often compared in appearance to the 1946-48 Ford
sedans. Even after the all-new Amazon (known as the 122 in the States)
sedan replaced those 7/8ths scale Fords, the P1800 stood in marked
contrast to Volvo's regular offerings.
It was designed in the late fifties and
first displayed at the 1960 Brussels International Auto Show in Belgium,
where the car was a hit with the crowd. Deliveries of the P1800 in the
U.S. started the next year as a ‘62 model, and continued in production
through the 1973 model year with a number of improvements and changes
along the way. Its model name came from the engine size, 1,778 cc,
(rounded up to 1800), preceded by the letter "P" for the Swedish term "personvagn"
or personal car. In reality, the P1800 was more of a mongrel
than Swedish. In a trade agreement with Pressed Steel Ltd., based in
Scotland, the first cars were actually put together in England by Jensen
Motors. While the engine and 4-speed manual transmission (with Laycock
de Normanville overdrive) were Volvo, most of the major subsystems were
provided by other companies (including Lucas electrics). By the end of
1963, at least the entire assembly process was brought to Gotenborg and
the model designation changed to 1800-S, the last letter representing
its country of origin, Sverige. Bodies for the cars continued to be
built in England by Jensen, but eventually all manufacturing and
assembly was transferred to Sweden.
Under the hood, the first 1800s featured
an in-line four with the previously mentioned 1,778 cc displacement.
Tuned to produce a surprising 100bhp, 0-60 mph times were between the
mid 12’s and low 14’s, with top speeds around the 106mph mark. The
standing quarter came in around the mid-18 second range at about 70mph.
The new 1964 "S" models received a re-tuned engine touting 108 horses,
similar acceleration figures and a slightly higher top speed.
Thoughtful design and execution make the
P1800 a practical sports car.
Cosmetic changes were minor during the switchover, limited to some
rearrangement of the bright trim, a slightly improved forward grille,
fold down rear seat, and hubcaps from the popular Amazon. Improvements
to creature comforts were also incorporated with the "S" model, such as
more noise insulation and leather surfaces on improved seats. The dash
remained largely the same, still incorporating somewhat troublesome
capillary oil and coolant temperature gauges. Optional was a Borg-Warner
supplied 3-speed automatic that proved to be surprisingly popular in
Sweden, a country known for its love of the stick. It was well
represented here, too.
Technical improvements and cosmetic refinements continued to be
introduced to the handsome Swede. An improved clutch was phased in for
1965, and the unusual upturned front bumpers went strictly horizontal.
1966 saw another increase of horsepower. Now boasting 115 bhp, with 112
ft-lbs of torque, the P1800 was inching up the performance ladder. 0-60
times were getting into the low 11-second range, and top speed edged
over the 110mph mark. Also implemented for the 1966 models was a sealed
suspension, which lessened the need for regular lubrication, a necessity
of cold winter driving. Demand for the P1800, both in Sweden and in the
United States, the company's biggest market, continued to grow.
1967 brought more minor changes to the 1800. A slightly larger opening
for the grille was employed as well as revised bright side trim. With
the 1968 models came the federally mandated side marker lights, while a
new design three-spoke steering wheel was employed for the driver.
1969 saw the new 1986cc engine incorporated, which the P1800 shared with
Volvo’s new passenger cars. Using a pair of Zenith-Stromberg carbs, it
engine sported a healthy 118 horses and 123 lbs-ft of torque. Despite
the larger engine, it kept its original numerical model name.
Continuous development of the 1800 resulted with improvements to the
suspension and brakes, as well as increased power output. For 1970, the
"E" designation was added to the line with the introduction of fuel
injection. Sporting a robust 130hp, the P1800 could now run with some
pretty good company, covering the 0-60 dash in 10 seconds and the
quarter mile in a bit over 17 seconds. Top speed now surpassed 115mph.
Improved brakes (4-wheel discs), a new dash, and a blacked out grille
also bowed with the E.
In late 1970, the coupe was joined by a two-door Sport Wagon, the
1800ES. Featuring a large glass liftgate, this utilitarian vehicle was
an immediate hit with small families and young adults who were leaving
the exuberance of youth and coming into adulthood.
As the 1971 model year got under way, and the popularity of the new
wagon grew, it was decided that the familiar and beloved coupe would be
phased out. The last part of June 1972 saw the last coupe produced.
By now, although the styling still drew, the design was getting dated,
and shortly thereafter it was decided to phase out the 1800 series
totally. In June 1973 the last Volvo sports car of the era rolled off
the assembly line at Gotenborg.
Approximately 47,000 of the 1800 series coupes and wagons were built.
Initial interest was helped in the early 1960s when a P1800 was provided
to the television show "The Saint" starring the dapper Roger Moore, as
super spy Simon Templar. It is also interesting to note that the P1800’s
biggest year of production was its last.
As a collector car, the Volvo 1800 series is one of the best bargains
around. It is relatively rare to see one at auction, but they can be
found on the open market. Many of those who own these cars have a
fondness and respect for them usually reserved for more expensive
There are a couple of factors that keep the Volvo 1800 series affordable. First, they are all closed cars. Open
cars bring out the touring spirit usually associated with "sports cars",
and the Volvo is missing that ingredient. Another reason for the lower
prices probably has to do with the Volvo image -- not exactly Ferrari
like, or MG or Triumph for that matter.
Prices today for near perfect examples of the early coupes are very
reasonable, rarely breaking the $10,000 mark. The wagons bring nearly as
much. In either case very nice examples can be readily purchased for no
more than five or six thousand dollars.
Mechanically, these vehicles are very sound, sharing most major
components with other Volvos of the era. The body is full of nooks and
crannies and rust is all but guaranteed on cars from the snowbelt. There
are no special editions or performance models, but there were, at least
according to period Volvo sales information, factory performance kits
available. Overall, most collectors prefer the post-1965 models with the
power bump and creature comfort improvements.
These cars have a fairly strong following, with several national clubs
and organizations in the USA, as well as in several European countries
including, of course, Sweden. Recently, we’ve seen a number of
collectors from Volvo's homeland searching our shores looking to
retrieve a part of their automotive heritage. Generally they prefer the
post-1964 Swedish built 1800-S coupes, but lately more Sport Wagons have
been finding their way back to the "land of the midnight sun".
Without a doubt, the styling of the Volvo 1800 series is timeless, and
for the money it is one of the most affordable, reliable, and best
performing vintage sports cars available to the collector.
This profile first appeared in the
July 2002 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide