Volvo P1800 transported

November 23, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

There are cars that are famous for winning races, crossing continents and scaling high peaks. But how many have ever been considered genuine movie stars in their own right?

The Volvo P1800 can lay claim to that kind of fame. For most North Americans and many non-Nordic Europeans, the P1800's producer was synonymous with idiosyncratic car construction. Volvo's feet were firmly planted on the sidelines of mainstream automobile culture and seemed destined to remain there.

The P1800 helped change that. The handsome two-seat sport coupe with the plucky powerplant and rich, comfortable and spacious interior rose to the top of the desirability charts where it remained for years.

Of course, it helped that this voluptuously skinned Volvo was prominently featured as the ride of choice for Roger Moore, who, in the 1960s, portrayed suave and sophisticated Simon Templar on the TV show, The Saint.


Over the course of eight seasons (and 118 episodes) from 1962-'69, Moore busted the bad guys and won the hearts of many a fair damsel while piloting his trusty Swedish steed. The popular program not only helped Volvo sell plenty of premium-priced coupes, but also helped build showroom traffic. There, prospective buyers were exposed to the company's other products, including the humped-back PV544 coupe and the more practical 122-series (called the Amazon in Europe) two- and four-door sedans.

The P1800 was actually Volvo's second crack at creating a sporty model. The company's initial effort, dubbed the P1900, was brought out in 1956. However, production of the two-seat convertible was halted (after a mere 67 versions were made) due to quality concerns with the car's fiberglass body. For Volvo, it was back to the drawing board.

The next attempt would result in the company taking a more conventional approach, employing an all-steel body with mechanical pieces borrowed from existing inventories. Physically, however, the Ghia-designed P1800 looked more like an Italian-based 2+2 GT than something originating from northern Europe. Its egg-crate grille proudly protruded from an elongated front deck and the car's slab sides ended in the rear with more than a hint of tailfin. The P1800 also featured higher-than-normal side doors that, combined with a low greenhouse, wrapped its occupants in a cocoon-like cockpit.

Being a Volvo, the P1800 naturally came with a strong dose of practicality. To begin with, the car was blessed with a rock-solid structure, a Volvo tradition since the company's first motorcar - nicknamed the Jakob - rolled out of the company's Gothenburg plant in 1927. Then there was the P1800's drivetrain, featuring the stout 100-horsepower 1.8-litre OHV four-cylinder engine that also saw service in Volvo sedans. This nearly unbreakable motor was coupled to a smooth-shifting (and equally bulletproof) four-speed manual transmission that, at the time, was considered one of the best around - in any car and at any price.

The initial run of 6,000 right-hand-drive P1800s (Swedes also drove on the left until 1967) was assembled in England from late 1961-'63 by Jensen, a low-volume auto manufacturer that would later become famous for its Chrysler V-8-powered bubble-hatch Interceptor GT. By the end of that year, production was relocated to Sweden where both left- and right-hand-drive models were made.

The newly reconstituted P1800S also received an increase in horsepower to 108, an amount that would grow to 115 by 1967.

The only inherent deficiency in the P1800 was its lack of raw power. That problem was partially corrected in 1969 when the engine's displacement was increased to 2.0 liters, with a corresponding increase in horsepower to 120 (118 in North America). The original engine's carburetors were also discarded, replaced by Bosch fuel injection. The P1800E, as it was then called, was capable of zero-to-60 m.p.h. bursts in less than 10 seconds.

The last of the P1800 series wrapped up in 1972, replaced by the stunning P1800ES estate. This was essentially a P1800E coupe with its original roof replaced by a station-wagon design. At the rear, the car's unique liftgate was made entirely of glass. What the ES's hatch might have lacked in privacy (and security), it more than made up for in rearward visibility and good looks. The wagon also delivered a more respectable 135 horsepower, and there were now headroom gains for back-seat riders who were previously forced to endure the cramped confines of the original's 2+2 arrangement.

In its brief two-year life span (1973-'74), Volvo created 8,078 ES models, in addition to the more than 39,000 P1800 coupes built before then. However, as with many North American imports, increasingly strict emissions and safety regulations spelled doom for this sportiest of Swedes. Besides, Volvo's long-term strategy was to introduce more upscale and conservative products, and a sports car like the P1800 no longer fit with the corporate plan.

In its day, the P1800 not only provided Volvo with a welcomed sense of flair and high style, but also provided its lucky owners with a thoroughly agreeable grand-touring machine. It might not have been the quickest car on the block, but it was beautiful to look at, fun to drive, comfortable to ride in and thoroughly reliable.

As for Roger Moore, his show-biz career shifted into high gear after his Saint-ly days and he became even better known for his role as James Bond, 007. Volvo's fortunes likewise significantly improved thanks in part to its famous sports car that also succeeded in its bid for stardom.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and historical writer.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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