Volvo P1800: The Swede Speed Icon

The exquisite blend of form and function, so synonymous with Scandinavian design, sets the Volvo P1800 apart as a remarkable sports car. Effortlessly cool, the car became a revelation and, thanks to its appearance in The Saint, it ascended to iconic status. This is the story of the Volvo eighteen-hundred.

Automotive History
8 April 2024

With its stunning looks and robust performance, the Volvo P1800 not only broke the mould for Swedish automotive elegance but also etched its place in history as a true classic, embodying the spirit of the 60s with a flair that turned heads across the industry. It’s fair to say that sexy sixties sports cars were the almost exclusive domain of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Aston Martin and Jaguar, but with the P1800, Volvo gatecrashed the party.

Maranello at the front, Detroit at the back, the P1800, a beacon of Swedish automotive engineering, today commands a devoted cult following, a testament to its enduring allure and iconic status as one of the most famous cars from TV.

This adoration stems not merely from its many acclaimed accomplishments, but also from its fascinating journey from conception to realisation, a narrative steeped in ambition, setback, and eventual triumph. In all its glory, here is the remarkable tale of a Swedish superstar, the Volvo P1800.

The Birth of the Volvo P1800

Lamborghini Miura (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The very mention of Volvo conjures up images of reliable, well-engineered, safe cars that can comfortably pack in a family of five plus assorted accoutrements for a holiday to the seaside. It doesn’t always conjure up images of gorgeous grand tourers that sit comfortably alongside the Lamborghini Miura, the Ferrari 275 GTB and even, dare we say it, the Jaguar E-Type, as design classics. But that all changed in the mid-1950s, with the creation of the P1800.

However, this journey of automotive ambition wasn’t free of hazards and wrong turns, indeed Volvo’s first attempt at a sports car was an unmitigated disaster.

The journey began when, on a trip to the USA, Volvo co-founder Assar Gabrielsson got the idea for a sports car after seeing a Chevrolet Corvette. The result was the 1.4-litre inline-four Volvo Sport, also called the P1900.

Plagued by quality issues and lacklustre performance, it was met with a tepid reception, and only 68 were ever produced. Gabrielsson’s successor, Gunnar Engellau, took the car for a weekend drive and famously said ‘I thought it would fall apart.’ This disastrous entry into the sports car market prompted a reevaluation of Volvo’s approach to sports car design, and, undeterred, Volvo embarked on a mission to create a successor that would rectify the shortcomings of the P1900.

The result was the P1800, a car that not only addressed the failings of its predecessor but also set new standards in automotive design and performance. Introduced in 1961, the Volvo eighteen-hundred was a sensation, boasting sleek lines, a robust engine, and a level of craftsmanship that silenced critics and won over sceptics.

Sensationally Swedish: The P1800

Volvo P1800 (Credit: Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images)

To make a splash in the lucrative American and European markets, Volvo wanted a sports car that could compete against the best in the business.There are a few versions of the story of how the design of the Volvo P1800 came to be, and the most romantic is that four proposals were ordered by project lead Helmer Petterson from some of the great Italian design houses, including Carrozzeria Ghia, to be presented to the Volvo board.

Petterson also added a fifth design, by his son Pelle, a student of legendary Italian car designer Pietro Frua, the man responsible for the Maserati Mistral.

With Petterson Jr’s design the unanimous favourite, the car needed to be built, and the P1800 Volvo’s production history is as intriguing as the car itself. Interestingly, and for reasons unknown, Volvo insisted the P1800 was purely an Italian design, only officially recognising Pelle Petterson as the designer in 2009.

Initially, Volvo faced challenges in finding a production facility capable of meeting its stringent quality standards for the P1800. The search for a manufacturing partner led them to England, where they struck agreements with two British companies.

The bodywork of the Volvo eighteen-hundred was entrusted to the Oxford-based Pressed Steel Company. They were responsible for crafting the elegant and distinctive bodies that gave the P1800 its iconic appearance. This partnership ensured that the car would have a build quality and aesthetic appeal that matched Volvo’s ambitious vision.

For the assembly, Volvo turned to Jensen Motors, a company known for its expertise in building limited production sports cars. The early models of the P1800, bearing the distinctive “Made in England” badge, were assembled by Jensen from 1961 to 1963.

However, Volvo decided to relocate the assembly of the P1800 to Sweden due to concerns over quality control and the need for closer oversight of the production process. Starting in 1963, the assembly operations were moved to Gothenburg. This not only allowed Volvo to tighten quality control but also marked the P1800 as a legitimate Swedish icon.

Volvo P1800 Models Explained

1973 Volvo P1800ES. (Credit: Manfred Schmid / Contributor via Getty Images)

Volvo’s halo car went through four main iterations, the P1800, the 1800S, the 1800E and the 1800ES.

Volvo P1800

Contrary to popular belief, it was only the first version, built between 1961 and 1963, that was known as the P1800. The pretty 2+2 was powered by a 1.8-litre, twin-carburettor inline-four from the rather nondescript Volvo Amazon. It generated around 100 bhp and a not hugely impressive top speed of 105 mph (168 km/h). With a 0-60 mph time of a sluggish 13 seconds, it wasn’t a world beater in the speed stakes, but it was oh so pretty. A number of negative reviews suggested the seats were too low, the steering wheel was too high, the headroom was too short and the two rear seats were only suitable for small children, but it was an exceptionally well-built sports car that turned heads.

Volvo 1800S

From 1963, production moved to Volvo’s Lundby Plant in Gothenburg and the car was renamed the 1800S. The S was for Sverige, the Swedish word for Sweden. The original 1.8-litre was uprated to the tune of an additional 8 bhp, while in 1966 another 7hp was added, topping out at 115 bhp and a top speed of almost 110 mph (177 km/h). Three years later, the 1.8-litre was replaced with a two-litre inline-four that generated a slightly improved 118 bhp engine, although it kept the 1800S designation.

Volvo 1800E

Perhaps the most dramatic change in the lifecycle of the Volvo P1800 came in 1970 with the introduction of a Bosch D-Jetronic electronic fuel injection system. The name was changed to the 1800E, where E stood for Einspritzung, the German word for ‘fuel injection.’ Performance was also improved, with the E offering 130 bhp, a top speed of 118 mph (190 km/h) and a sub-10 second 0-60 time. It was also the first model in the 1800 range with all-round disc brakes.

Volvo 1800ES

In the P1800, Volvo had a wonderful sports car to rival much of the output from Italy, Germany and the UK at the time, but in 1972, the ES was launched. It was a pivotal creation in the evolution of the shooting brake concept, blending the practicality of an estate car with the sleek lines and performance of a sports car. With a nod to the Reliant Scimitar GTE which launched in 1968, the large glass boot of the ES has become a design classic. The engine was downgraded to 125 bhp which improved the car’s balance and handling, and in the two years of its production run, 8,077 were built. Because of the glass rear hatch, the ES was called fiskbilen (the fish van) in Swedish, and Schneewittchensarg, or Snow White’s coffin, in German!

The Car’s the Star

Roger Moore as Simon Templar at the wheel of a Volvo P1800 (Credit: Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images)

It’s a rare day when a Volvo is considered the epitome of cutting-edge sports car design, but Roger Moore’s slick sleuth Simon ‘The Saint’ Templar put the sedate Swedes on the automotive map.

Between 1962 and 1969, The Saint was one of British TV’s most popular shows and the producers needed a car as suave as the dashing hero. Their first choice was the E-Type, but Jaguar declined, suggesting they didn’t need the publicity.

It was believed to be Moore himself who suggested the (then) rather obscure Volvo P1800. Within a week, Volvo delivered one – registration plate 71 DXC – to the production company. In the next few years, Volvo supplied a number of 1800S variants, and one, NUV 648E, was registered to Roger Moore as his own personal car. The P1800’s prominence in The Saint catapulted it to fame, transforming it from a little-known gem to a widely desired vintage speedster.

A Timeless Classic: The Volvo P1800

1966 Volvo P1800 (Credit: DAVID BREWSTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

In the annals of automotive history, the Volvo P1800 emerged as a testament to Swedish engineering prowess and a beacon of timeless design and enduring appeal. From its conception in the wake of the disastrous P1900, through the international saga of its production, to its final iteration as the revolutionary P1800ES, this ground-breaking model changed the very perception of what it meant to own a Volvo. The P1800’s journey from a sketch to a global icon encapsulated its legendary status and cemented its place as a true sports car classic.


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