Our Ex-Curbside Classic: 1973 Volvo 1800 ES – Gone, But Not Forgotten

My parents like Volvos. They had several of them through the years, and I always associate my childhood with Volvo wagons. Their very first one was bought in 1976. Mom was driving a four-speed 1974 Mercury Capri at the time, my Dad’s former company car. Dad had been friends with Mike Lundahl since high school, and his dad owned the Volvo dealership in Moline at the time. A used 1973 1800ES came in, and Mom was smitten. The Capri was fairly new, but it was a stick, and the ES had an automatic. They went down to look at it: bright red with black interior and red carpets, chrome roof rack. Mike closed the deal, and the Capri was traded in on the shooting brake Volvo.

1973 was the last year of the Volvo 1800 series. Introduced in 1961 as a coupe, the first ones were built by Jensen in England. Volvo wasn’t too crazy about the assembly quality, so the P1800 became the 1800S (for Sweden) in the spring of ’63 and the car was produced in the then-new Torslanda plant. The car was never meant to be a hot-blooded sports car, more of a refined GT. Something competent, but not fire-breathing, with space for two, decent luggage compartment, and solidly built. As the ads at the time said, it was sort of a souped-down Ferrari. (full P1800/ES history here)

Fuel injection was added in 1970, along with new wheels, a new black plastic grille, and extractor vents on the rear quarters for a new ventilation system. The problem was that the basic body was still unchanged, and with its curves and small fins on the back, was looking seriously dated. Several proposals for a totally new replacement were considered but rejected, and in the end Volvo decided to just update the existing car, resulting in the ’72 1800ES.

Basically, the car was unchanged below the windows, but a two door wagon roofline was added with an all-glass hatchback and long, fixed quarter windows. The whole look was better than the relatively minor sheetmetal changes would have suggested, and there was quite a bit of interest in it. Both the coupe and wagon were available in 1972, but the wagon was the sole offering for 1973, the final year. What finally did in the 1800ES was the 1974 Federal 5-mph bumper regulation. It was fine to re-engineer the volume sellers like the 140 series and 164E, but for a low production vehicle like the ES it just didn’t make financial sense, so the ES was finally discontinued in July 1973, with 8077 wagons made in two years.

My Mom’s ES served us well, but was not a daily driver for very long. My Dad was a claims investigator at the time, and got company cars every couple years. In 1976 he got a ’77 245DL wagon, navy blue with a blue vinyl interior and integrated foglights in the grille. The ES (and all 1800s) were not available with power steering, and the steering was pretty heavy for such a small, sporty car. Dad had asked Mike if a power steering unit from a 240 could be retrofitted to the ES, but it was not possible, as there was no room for it.

Since the DL had power steering, when Dad got a ’77 Monte Carlo as a company car, he bought the DL for Mom. So the DL became Mom’s daily driver, and the ES was basically kept to drive on nice days. I came along in 1980, and remember both the DL and ES well. I could tell that the ES was special. It and my Dad’s ’51 Porsche stayed in the garage, while the DL and Dad’s ’81 242DL sat outside.

Much to my chagrin, the ES was nearly always locked when Dad was puttering around the garage. I really liked sitting in that car. The dash looked very cool to me, with the woodgrain and all the round gauges and knobs. It didn’t have a glove compartment, but had a small lockable compartment between the seats. I was young enough that I rode in the back seat of it several times and wasn’t cramped. It was always a treat when we went for a ride in it.

I loved that car, but between 1983 and 1985, my brother and sister had come along, and a nearly nine year old wagon wasn’t getting very practical, let alone an almost thirteen year-old special occasion two door wagon with basically no back seat. A new cream yellow 1986 240DL wagon was ordered from Mike and the ES traded in. The ’77 DL was sold to a friend of my Dad’s, who in typical fashion, drove it into the ground within a few years. I have missed the ES ever since and have seen only a couple others in the last 25 years. They were special cars. Today my Mom has an XC90 and my daily driver is a V50 2.4i. The V50’s roofline reminds me a lot of the ES. Some things never change.