Curbside Classic: 1964 Volvo P1800S – Transcending Time, Distance And Fashion

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(first posted 5/31/2014)    Only Volvo could have built the P1800, introducing a new car in 1961 whose design had been fresh way back in 1957, at a time when styling was changing almost by the year, and then building it for what seemed like forever. Fins were so out by 1961; and the design of the rest of the car was looking a bit dated too. But then Volvo had a habit of this. The PV444 looked out of date when it was released, and then built for twenty years. The same goes for the evergreen 140/240 series, and the 700/900.

The P1800 was something of an enigma to me the day it was released, and this particular P1800 is still something of an enigma to me today. Trying to pin down the year it was built turned into quite the undertaking, and I’m still not 100% certain. Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered; the P1800 transcended mere things like time and distance.

Volvo P1800 prototype

It did look rather fresh back in 1957, when this prototype X1 was built. Volvo’s first shot at a sports car, the P1900, turned out badly, with only 68 of them built. But Volvo was not to be denied a sports car, so in 1957 a new car, to be sturdily built out of proper steel was designed. Helmer Petterson, who headed up the development of the PV444, lead the project. And his son, Pelle Petterson, who worked at the Italian Carrozzeria Pietro Frua at the time, gets credit for the design. For some reason, Volvo denied that until 2009, but it’s been official since then.

The X1 certainly reflected the design idioms of 1957, with a decidedly Italian flair. Well, who in Europe in 1957 had any design flair other than the Italians?


The fins on its rear quarters were clearly influenced by the wild and winged Alfa Romeo BAT5 from 1953, which also inspired Virgil Exner’s 1957 fin-mobiles. One can find other influences; the egg-crate grille and front end styling is of course classic Pininfarina-Ferrari.

Volvo P1800 1erephotop958x1image credit:

This picture of Pelle showing off his new baby to his future wife is pretty good proof that he was its daddy. The X1 was driven by Helmer to Osnabruck, Germany, in the hopes that Karmann would tool and build the P1800. Karmann was quite interested, but their biggest customer, VW, was decidedly not interested in seeing a potential competitor to their recently released Karmann Ghia, and put the kibosh on that.

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The Karmann Ghia, which went into production in 1955, is the closest analog to the P1800, in more ways than one. Neither of them were true-blooded sports cars, although the P1800 had much greater performance with its newly developed B18B engine that developed a healthy 100 hp. The P1800 had a top speed of some 110-120 mph, depending on the final drive ratio. The KG had all of 36 (gross), 30 DN hp. But they were both attempts by makers of solid sedans to break into the stylish, sporty coupe market.

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Of course, the Karmann Ghia also became an evergreen, and even outlasted the P1800 by one year, finishing up its remarkable 20 year run in 1974 (KG CC here). But the Ghia had one advantage: it was designed before the fin era, and as such, its design aged better. Or it least in some folks’ eyes.

volvo p1800-1961

Other German firms were contacted, but various impediments kept arising. The P1800 project was essentially abandoned. Petterson made efforts to find investors and build the car himself. In the end, Volvo’s pride forced it to show the car at the Brussels Motor Show in 1960 and get serious about finding someone to build it. That turned out to be Jensen Motors, which had spare capacity and contracted to build 10,000 of them.

The 1961 P1800 appeared with only some very minor changes from the prototype, the most obvious being the full wheel covers, and a number of other details to rationalize its production.

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The P1800 got an unexpected boost when Jaguar turned down the offer to have its new XK-E used as Roger Moore’s car in the new 1962 tv series “The Saint”. The show become a big hit, was syndicated in the US, and lasted until 1969. Now that’s the kind of product placement makers nowadays would pay big money for.

Here’s a nice little collection of Simon Templar’s P1800S in action.

Ferrari 250 GT nb

If Volvo had waited a few years and designed their new sports coupe in 1961, it might have ended up looking a bit more like an affordable version of this. One can dream…

Volvo P1800E 1970 jpc05

But instead, it soldiered along with its fins, getting little minor changes that were cues to it being a new car at the time. This 1970 P1800E that Jim Cavanaugh shot and wrote up here in his excellent CC sports contemporary Volvo wheels of the time. Of course there were mechanical changes to go along with exterior and interior ones. In 1966, the B18 engine got a boost to 115 hp. In 1969, it was bestowed the new 2 liter B20, with 118 hp. 1970 brought Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection and 130 hp to go along with the new P1800E designation.

Volvo P1800 ES

The last year for the coupe was 1972, by which time it also got a blacked out grille, along with its new stablemate, the shooting-brake 1800 ES.

Volvo P1800 ES r

The ES had a short life, from 1972 – 1974. After several proposals for a more radical re-style were rejected, an in-house design by Jan Wilsgaard was chosen to give the P1800 a brief life extension.  Its story is here.

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This fine baby blue P1800 is one of three in Eugene, but the only one that lives on the street. I shot it a couple of years ago, and at the time, I was a bit stumped about its exact vintage.  It has the distinctive “bull horn” bumpers of pre-1965 cars, but the grill is from a later vintage, 1967 and up.

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This is what really threw me, as these badges on the C Pillar were only originally on the Jensen-built 1961-1963 models (production was moved to Sweden starting with the 1964s).  I found an excellent site with all the year-to-year changes for the P1800, and it only confused me further, at least for a while.

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For instance, the all-white turning light lenses are from 1961-1963. Other details, like the chromed fresh air intake behind the hood, is clearly from 1964 and up.

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And that design of slotted wheel didn’t appear until 1965. But by then the “bull horn” bumpers in front were gone.

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It took some digging, but I’m now quite certain that this is a 1964, but between chassis numbers 8001 and 10000, because it has the new air intake that came after that #8001, but it still has the older vent window latches from before #10000. But why it has the later grille, wheels and the earlier “Volvo” badge on the C Pillar can only be attributed to an owner’s mix-and-match redecorating impulse. It kept me scratching my head for quite a while. And maybe I’m still wrong. Before we leave this picture, I will say that the earlier P1800 interior is tasty, in a 1957 sort of way.

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The P1800 is a rolling living-history museum, and there’s so many angles from which to savor its period styling.

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This one being the most obvious one.

Only 47,492 of these anachronistic cars were ever built in its lifespan. It had a limited following, as it really wasn’t quite agile enough to be attractive to the true sports car set. And it certainly didn’t appeal to those looking for a stylish coupe in the current fashion. And it was always on the pricy side. So who exactly would have bought one of these in its day? A high school science teacher?

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That’s what Irv Gordon was when he bought his new P 1800S in 1966. He’s long since set a world record for miles on a car, and rolled up the three millionth mile last summer. Now that’s a very narrow niche of the market, folks who were looking for eternal life in a sporty coupe. As well as eternal fins. But Irv’s P1800 delivered both of them, and it still manages to look great, fins and all.

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As does this one, regardless of what year it’s from. When you’re immortal, you stop worrying about little cosmetic details like that.