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Collectible Volvo P1800 '61 TO '73

by Bob Hagin

May 29, 2001

The reason I always carry a small camera is that I never know when I might spot an old friend in a parking lot. A few weeks ago, I came across an early '60s Volvo P1800 sports coupe and the car touched off a minor flood of memories.

When Volvo came to this country with is sturdy and practical cars in 1956, it quickly established a reputation of being a no-nonsense company that was a more into safety than esthetics. Its initial offering was the PV 444 two-door fastback sedan that was a dead-ringer for the Ford Tudor sedan of 1946. It used unibody construction (a relatively rare feature at the time) and a smallish four-cylinder engine that proved to be surprisingly powerful for its size. The only other family cars of similar size sold here were also foreign and the Volvo was quite capable of running rings around any of them.

Then Volvo finally went upscale with the totally restyled 122S "Amazon" sedan in 1960 (a car reported to be inspired by the 1955 Chrysler 300). It wasn't too surprising, but when the conservative Swedish company sprung its P1800 on the American public a year later, it was quite a shock. It was as low as any of the then-current crop of sports cars and a great deal more "sexy." It had a Porsche-like coupe body with a protruding Ferrari-like snout. It was high-waisted and its tall rear fenders carried the body line back to a pair of embryonic tail fins. It was definitely not typically Volvo.

I was working as a mechanic for a Sunbeam/Volvo dealer at the time and was taken by the car's svelte lines that would compliment its mechanical toughness and reliability. I was pretty well resigned to the quality of the British cars I had to work on and was looking forward to dealing with happy Volvo sports car customers in addition to the already pleased Volvo sedan buyers. What I didn't know at the time was that although the running gear for the car was produced in Sweden, the bodies were built and assembled in England, and its body integrity was no better than the Sunbeam.

The P1800 was the brainchild of Gunnar Engellau, the then-new head man at Volvo. He wanted a glamorous two-seater coupe that would draw world-wide attention to his somewhat parochial Scandinavian company and towards this end, he enlisted the services of the merged Italian design houses of Ghia and Frau to come up with two proposals each.

This they did but at the last minute, a fifth design was slipped into the mix, one done by Pele Petterson, a former student of Ghia chief Luigi Serge, and whose father, Helmer, had been in on the design of the 122S a few years before. Apparently it created something of an international brouhaha, it was finally resolved that the Petterson design was chosen but that the detail work would be done by Ghia and Frau.

Unfortunately there wasn't enough production capacity at the Volvo factory in Gothenburg to build the car, so the company went over the North Sea and had the bodies built at the Pressed Steel plant in Scotland and assembled by Jensen Motors, Limited, in England. A simple, straightforward business arrangement in the corporate mind of Volvo, but what the pragmatic Swedes hadn't counted on was the adversarial posture between British management and labor. Those first P1800s were of such abysmal quality that by 1963, after 6000 sub-standard cars went out on the market, Volvo shoe-horned the assembly aspect of the car into its Swedish factory where Volvo quality was assured and the Volvo reputation for quality rescued. The cars built in Sweden received a small "S" medallion on their trunk lift-overs and contrary to the popular legend that it stands for "Sport," the truth is that it stands for "Sweden" to differentiate the Swedish-built cars from ths earlier ones assembled by Jensen. Jensen continued to make the bodies themselves until 1970.

During its 12-year lifespan, the Volvo P1800 evolved only slightly. The original 1.8-liter four cylinder engine was enlarged by another 200 cubic-centimeters. The Spartan and usually lipstick-red interior was softened with more posh bucket seats and more sedate colors. I was working for a Datsun/Volvo dealer in a different town when the last significant (albeit small) changes were made and its designation changed to P1800E. The E signified that the British SU carburetors had been supplanted by Bosch fuel injection and disc brakes with aluminum wheels had been fitted all around. In our store, the dated P1800E had the difficult task of competing on the showroom floor for buyers alongside the then-new Datsun 240Z, which had more power, a more contemporary body style and sold for nearly $1000 less. It was an unfair fight.

The curtain was called on the P1800 in 1973 by which time a hatchback model, the P1800ES, had been added. Ironically, the current Volvo "safety-concept car" being displayed around the world bears an eerie resemblance to the vintage hatchback P1800ES when viewed from the rear.

I like to think that the spirit of Pele Petterson was hovering around the Volvo design studio when its safety-concept car was the getting it final touches.