Volvo sports car? An oxymoron, if ever there was one. For over a decade, however, this little grand tourer managed to combine the traditional Volvo attributes of safety and durability with a modicum of flash and performance.
Yes, you read the byline correctly: JPC is writing about a Volvo. Actually, this was one of my earliest CC finds, although of a car that’s not exactly in my wheelhouse, as folks are so fond of saying today. “Hmmm”, thought I, “this is going to take some research.” As much as I have always liked these, I knew virtually nothing about them. Shortly thereafter, though, came Aaron Severson’s thorough (as usual) presentation of this model at AUWM (here); having been saved from the historical heavy lifting, I could now allow this one to percolate inside my brain a little while longer.
Today, the word “unique” is overused quite a bit; however, the Volvo P1800 was unique in the purest sense in that there was really nothing else like it. Of everything even close to its price range, it was sportier and more stylish than anything from Germany, and more durable than anything from England or Italy. Certainly, it was more of a true sports tourer than anything from the U.S. In fact, it may be the only Volvo of its era (the one that Volvo fans consider the “classic Volvo era”) that provided all the classic Volvo attributes as well as some real Italian style.
The executive summary is that the car was designed by Volvo, styled by Ghia (by Pella Petterson, the son of a Volvo consulting engineer, oddly enough) and initially built in England by Jensen. Because Volvo decided that the car needed more power than was available in their production sedans, it got a newly designed engine. Designated the B18, it was an exceedingly sturdy four-cylinder mill good for 100 gross horsepower. A few years in, Volvo took over its assembly as well; from then on, the car would remain pure Volvo, and the Volvo-assembled cars renamed P1800S.
The P1800 was never a big seller: Sales totaled about 39,000 units world-wide during the entire model run, which works out to fewer than 3,300 units per year. Even so, the car did get an amount of publicity disproportionate to its meager production numbers after being chosen as the vehicle Roger Moore drove in the television version of The Saint. A hugely popular show, The Saint made its UK debut in October of 1962, and was subsequently aired in many other countries, including the U.S.
One reason for the car’s tepid sales performance was its price. At its 1961 introduction, the car cost $3,795 at the U.S. port of entry. While less expensive than a $10,000 Aston Martin or Ferrari, it was priced less than $200 shy of a ’61 Thunderbird hardtop, and was significantly more expensive than quite a few sporting cars, including the Austin Healy 3000. By 1970, the POE price was up to $4,995–no longer quite so close to Thunderbird territory, but still more than $1,000 more than a Ford LTD or Mustang Mach 1. Of course, it’s not as though LTD and Mach 1 buyers cross-shopped the P1800, but the point is that a guy could buy a lot of car elsewhere for the price of Volvo’s sportster.
This particular car is a 1970-72 P1800E, the last refresh of the original P1800 before the wagon variant (P1800ES; CC here) came along for 1972-73. The P1800E sported a larger engine with more power (130 gross horsepower) designed to meet tightening U.S. emission standards, as well as new disc brakes and a bit of updated trim. Unfortunately, the car had been around for quite a long time by then, and sales numbers began dwindling from totals that were never particularly robust to begin with. All in all, though, it wasn’t a bad run for a car that started life as a 1961 model. Could this have been the last car produced that still sported fins?
There is something about the styling of this car that has always drawn me in. Perhaps it just presses the right buttons for my love of mid-century styling. And while we must admit that this kind of style was pretty outdated in 1970, the lines on this car are really like few others. The P1800 seems to successfully combine sportiness, luxury, practicality and simplicity in a single package. Perhaps its skillful blending of personalities is what kept this car in showrooms for such an extended run.
I have always been fascinated by how during this era, cars from different countries seemed to radiate their unique national character. American cars were big, with lots of brawn and swagger. German cars drove with a sense of precision, and were styled very conservatively. French cars were known for comfort and a bit of flamboyance, while England was known for producing typically beautiful sports cars that weren’t always so robust. And Italian cars? They were like English cars, only much more so.
Then there were the Swedes, which were every bit as conservative as cars from Germany, but in a more practical way. That practicality was particularly evident in their mechanical parts; they may not have matched the Germans’ for outright engineering, but they also didn’t match them when it came to service and maintenance costs. With this mixture of attributes, it’s easy to see how P1800 owners could become so attached to their cars.
No story on a P1800 is complete without a mention of Irv Gordon, the retired New York science teacher, who bought a P1800S new in 1966; at last report, his car has traveled nearly three million miles. I remember that when he hit his first million, in 1987, Volvo gave him a new Bertone 780 coupe. Even so, he kept on driving the P1800, even after Volvo gave him a new C70 when he hit the two-million mile mark several years later. He continues to enjoy his little red P1800, which continues to rack up the miles as its owner’s faithful travel companion.
But for all of the devotion owners showed their P1800s, the car certainly was never a big hit. Perhaps its unique mix of traits was also its undoing. By being so overbuilt (and expensive), it should have found a natural buyer base among die-hard Volvo fans. But was it too silly and frivolous for them? Conversely, the P1800 may not have offered quite enough dash and daring (particularly later in its life cycle) for typical buyers of stylish sports cars. The lack of a convertible may also have hurt Volvo, since the competition’s sexier cars routinely offered a top-down model. Finally, the car’s high cost relative to its size and performance must have made something like the Mustang seem like quite the automotive value.
But we know that the few who did buy these tended to love and nurture them more than most, and it seems a fairly high number of them have been well-preserved and loved. Even better, they have finally reached a price range that makes them a lot more attainable than most of their original competition–all the better to buy one and enjoy the heck out of it. It might take awhile to catch up with Irv, but as we all know, records are made to be broken. If I were to set out to break a record, I could imagine far less enjoyable ways of doing so than spending lots of seat time in a P1800.