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Volvo P1800

Sports Car the Swedish Way

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 make.

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.

Continuous Improvement

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.


Collector Bargain

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 machinery.

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