1969 Volvo P1800
1969 Volvo P1800
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The Volvo Car Corp. of Gothenburg, Sweden is known more for sturdy, reliable cars than for sports cars. Thus it was a surprise when Volvo introduced a new sports coupe in 1959. They had tried it in the mid-50s with an open sports model, the P1900, but its fibreglass body didn’t meet Volvo standards and only 67 were built.

The new prototype sporty car shown in 1959 was styled by a young designer named Pelle Peterson, and refined by the Italian styling studios of Ghia and Frua.

Lacking plant capacity, Volvo asked Ghia’s production partner, Karmann, of Osnabruck, West Germany to build it. But Karmann was producing Volkswagen’s sporty Karmann-Ghia, and Volkswagen objected to them also doing the Volvo. The search then moved to Great Britain and a contract with the Pressed Steel Co. Bodies would be produced in their Linwood plant near Glasgow, then shipped to Jensen Motors in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England, for final assembly.

Volvo showed the first non-prototype, named the P1800, at the Brussels Salon in January, 1960. It had an attractive unit construction body with small fins on the rear fenders. Production was to start that Fall, but didn’t get under way until January, 1961.

The P1800 used many components from the 120-series Volvo sedan, known here as the 122-S, such as the running gear, 1780 cc overhead valve four-cylinder engine, and most suspension parts. Suspension was by A-arms with coil springs at the front and a solid axle with coils at the rear. Front disc brakes were fitted. The four-speed all-synchromesh transmission could be had with Laycock de Normanville overdrive.

In Road & Track magazine’s (2/61) early test of a prototype P1800 in Sweden, they were most impressed with this “medium-priced, fast Grand Touring class sports car.” Its 100 horsepower engine would accelerate the 1134 kg (2,500 lb.) 2+2 coupe from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in a respectable 12.4 seconds, and reach 169 km/h (105 mph) in overdrive.

Volvo introduced the P1800 to an enthusiastic public in 1961. Some quality problems soon arose, however, shared by both Pressed Steel and Jensen. It would be a constant source of dispute between the English companies and Volvo, who finally resorted to basing its own inspector in the Jensen plant.

The original contract had called for 10,000 P1800s to be built in Britain, but only 6,000 were made there before Volvo bought out of the Jensen deal in 1963. Assembly moved to Gothenburg where space was now available, but body stamping continued at Linwood until 1968.

The first Swedish-built models, now named the 1800S (S for Sweden), rolled out in April, 1963. Sales increased to the 4,000-plus level per year, and it was becoming a real image builder for Volvo in North America.

Production of the 1800S continued with detail improvements until the two-litre (1986 cc), 118 horsepower engine was fitted for 1969. In 1970 it got Bosch fuel injection and became the 1800E (E for Einspritzung, German for fuel injection). With 130 horsepower, performance was even better, Road & Track (2/70) reporting a zero to 96 (60) time of 10.1 seconds and a top speed of 185 (115).

By this time the coupe’s design was getting dated, but Volvo couldn’t justify the development cost of an all-new replacement. The answer proved to be delightfully simple.

By stretching the 1800S’s roof, a “sporting estate car,” or mini-station wagon, called the 1800ES, was created. The 1800ES carried over almost all of the coupe’s body parts.

In 1972 the coupe was phased out and the 1800ES brought into production. The 1800ES’s interior was fully carpeted, and by folding down the small rear seats a 1524 mm (five-foot) platform provided a large cargo area. The all-glass rear hatch with the hinges and handle attached directly to it provided wonderful visibility.

Alas, the days of the 1800ES sports wagon were numbered. U.S. emission and safety related modifications made it uneconomic to continue. Thus, production of the 1800ES was discontinued in June, 1973.

Almost 40,000 coupes and over 8,000 wagons had been built. They had given a new sporty image to Volvo and are now starting to take on the status of a collectible.

In 1966 Irv Gordon of East Patchogue, New York bought a new Volvo 1800S. He liked to drive, kept the car, and now has driven it over 2.9 million km (1.8 million miles), enough to place him in the Guinness book of records. Gordon had his engine completely rebuilt at 1.08 million km (675,000 miles). “It was” he said, “getting a bit noisy.”

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