There is a handful of cars that are famous for their appearances on the TV screen. The Volvo P1800 with the registration plate ST1 is certainly one of them. In the cult series “The Saint” from the sixties, the legendary ex-James Bond, Roger Moore, took on the role of the main character Simon Templar, and his means of transport was none other than a white Volvo P1800.
It may be hard to believe that the Swedish brand, known for its angular designed and conservatively safe cars, created a curvaceous coupe that is considered among the most beautiful of all time.
The Early days of the Volvo P1800
The beginnings of the Volvo P1800 seem almost as exciting as the adventures of Simon Templar in ‘The Saint‘.
The Swedes launched a two-door coupe project with a 2 + 2 seating design in 1957 as part of their European and American sales strategy. It was entrusted to Helmer and Pelle Petterson.
According to the original plans, the car was set to be manufactured in cooperation with Karmann, which fell into the water due to Volkswagen’s business ties with the German production and bodywork company.
Instead, the British company Jensen took on the responsibility of manufacturing the car. A company known as Pressed Steel made the bodies, with final assembly taking place at Jensen.
With constant problems with personnel, working methods, quality, suppliers and logistics, Volvo moved production and assembly to various plants in Sweden during 1963.
Under the Hood of the P1800
From a technical point of view, the shortened platform and mechanics of the Volvo P1800 were based on the reliable Volvo Amazon.
The P1800 features a rear-wheel drive, front-mounted engine and rear rigid axle. There are also four disc brakes (later models) and a manual four-speed M40 or the M41 transmission. The first 4-cylinder engine called the B18 also came from the Volvo Amazon, but thanks to two built-in carburetors, it provided a bit more power, 100 hp to be exact. Later, with technical renovations, they also introduced new engines, which squeezed out up to 130 hp.
100bhp @ 5500rpm
Suspension – Front
Wishbones and coil spring
Suspension – Rear
Radius rods and coil spring
Front disc, rear drum
0-60mph 12.5 seconds
Volvo P1800 Specifications
Volvo P1800 Innovations and Versions
The safety aspect of the fast Volvo P1800 was visionary. It was the world’s first sports coupé to have seat belts for all four passengers as standard. Volvo Germany demonstrated the effectiveness of this restraint system in a show in the port of Hamburg in 1961.
Regular small model updates were enough to keep the Volvo P1800, which was drawn in its basic form in 1957, optically fresh for decades.
This included a smooth bumper design in 1964 that replaced the initial “cow horn” arches, as well as regularly updated radiator grilles.
The first refresh of the P1800 was the 1800S. The letter S stood for “Sverige” or Sweden in English. This letter was added to announce the move from the British production plants back to production plants in Gothenburg, Sweden. The 1800S also received an additional 8 hp. Later in 1966 the engine was renewed and sported 115 hp which raised the top speed to 175 km/h. The before mentioned B18 four-cylinder engine was replaced in 1969 by the bigger B20 engine that provided 118 hp.
The next big change for the Volvo P1800 happened in 1970. With the introduction of electronic fuel injection technology, the P1800 coupe was now deemed the 1800E. The letter E stood for “Einspritzung”, the German word for electronic fuel injection.
The 1800E was equipped with the Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection system and provided even more power without hurting the fuel economy. At 130 hp the 1800E went from 0-100 km/h in 9,5 seconds and reached a top speed of 190 km/h. The 1970E was also the first model that featured 4 sets of disc brakes.
Car body shops like Volvoville in the USA built a small series of convertibles and Italian star designers like Fissore or Coggiola presented fastback studies.
Shooting Brakes – Volvo 1800ES
Volvo presented a sensational further development of the sports coupé in 1971: the Volvo 1800ES as the forerunner of all modern shooting brakes.
Thanks to the large glass tailgate, this sporty design was essentially a two-door station wagon. The final design was chosen based on two prototypes done by Sergio Coggiola and Pietro Frua. The prototype from Frua is still located in the official Volvo Museum. The 1800ES was also much more practical than the coupe version as the rear seats folded down completely, which created a flat loading surface.
The engine of the 1800ES was a downgraded to a 125 hp engine with improved on-road performance and reliability. It was available with a 4 gear M41 over-drive manual transmission or a 3-speed Borg-Warner automatic transmission.
In 1972 the last coupe, a Volvo 1800E, rolled off the assembly line and a year later the Volvo 1800 ES said goodbye.
A total of 47,855 units of the sporty Swedes were built, 39,778 of which were coupés.
Since then, the Volvo P1800 has demonstrated its immortality in the classic scene and through its style-defining influence on newer generation Volvos, such as the Volvo Concept Coupé from 2013.
Designed with Swedish Steel mixed with Italian Chic
A Volvo that looks as chic as an Italian Gran Turismo, drives as spectacularly as a British sports car, and is still as robust as a Swedish tank: the P1800 was a great all-rounder.
The P1800 was designed by a Pelle Petterson, who is now a very successful sailor and a boat designer.
In 1957, Petterson, only 25 years old at the time, presented a design for the Italian design studio Frua that is so timeless that it still looks smart even after 60 years.
Pelle Peterson’s design was selected out of four main potential options. Being the son of the Volvo design consultant Helmer Petterson, Pelle’s design was criticized for having an unfair advantage compared to the other design proposals. Many years later, Pelle’s design was finally acknowledged and Petterson received the credit he deserved for designing one of best-looking coupes ever.
Despite the P1800 looking sporty it was in no way a purebred athlete. It would need a more powerful engine. That’s why the renowned American designer Robert Cumberford got the idea to power the car with a 196-horsepower eight-cylinder engine borrowed from Ford.
The idea was difficult to come into fruition as the car was too loud and heat from the engine dissipated heavily into the passenger cabin forcing plans to be abandoned.
Then came Aston Martin. When they needed a car to test their new four-cylinder, 151 horsepower engine, they thought of the Volvo P1800. Only one prototype was ever built and the project was scrapped. Similar events happened to the convertible version of the P1800 from 1968. Only 50 of versions were built before the project ended.
Red Racing P1800 – Racing History
Even though the P1800 was never designed to be a track car, it still has a rich racing history that is not usually talked about. The P1800 was present in the official racing scene from 1962 to 1972. It started in a total of 164 officially sanctioned races and achieved a finishing ratio of 84%. Of the races, it went on to win 15 times with 17 runner-up places.
Many of these races were endurance races which were perfect for the reliable Volvo. The P1800 appeared on many renowned race tracks including the infamous Nürburgring and Daytona.
Perhaps the most notable driver of the Volvo P1800 race car is Art Riley. Arthur Francis Riley was an endurance-race driver, and owner of Art Riley Motors in Port Washington, N.Y.
As a garage owner and master mechanic Riley was granted one of America’s early Volvo franchises in 1957.
“As soon as I drove one,” he said, “I knew it was faster than a Porsche or MG. They had made a sports car out of a sedan.” Riley was amongst the most successful race car drivers of the 1960s. He drove in the SCCA Regional, Divisional and National events, and he also attended FIA international races.
Riley and his red Volvo P1800 coupe came incredibly close to winning the SCCA’s 1963 F-Production National Championship. Before that, Riley and his P1800 won the New York Regional championship in that same year. All together, Riley and the P1800 appeared in 64 official races.
1965 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance
One of the most memorable races for the red Volvo P1800 coupe was at the 1965 Sebring 12-hour Grand Prix of Endurance. Driving the number 51 on its flank (But VIN #14 on the firewall), this was to be its final Grand Prix of Endurance.
At the start of the race, Ed Leslie in the Cobra Daytona Coupe stalled in traffic. Being boxed in and with nowhere to go, Art Riley in the #51 Volvo P1800 struck the Daytona in the rear quarter leaving the cars front end damaged. With some nifty panel bashing, the red Volvo continued the race.
This was not to be the only drama #51 would have. Shortly after 3pm the Volvo’s engine blew on the big bend approaching the Hairpin turn, leaving oil on an already soaked race track. Nick Cove, who was driving at the time, pulled over onto the grass and got under the car to inspect the damage.
While inspecting the underside of the car, George Reed in the #20 Shelby Cobra roadster came in contact with the oil slick and plowed directly into the P1800, narrowly missing Nick Cone and his outstretched legs. By some miracle nobody received major injuries, but not could be said of the Volvo P1800 as can be seen by the photo below.
The P1800 remains a popular sight in historic endurance races and other forms of vintage racing events. One P1800, in particular, called the “Mobil 1” has a rich history in the more recent vintage car racing history. Mobil 1 was built in the midst of the 1990s.
It was fitted with the updated B20 engine and several other modifications that increased its power. This red P1800 won 5 consecutive Volvo Historic national championships and remains active to this day.
The King of Reliability – Guinness Book of Records
How reliable are the P1800? Well, you can find the Volvo P1800 in the Guinness Book of Records for the ‘highest certified mileage driven by the original owner in non-commercial service.’ 77-year-old teacher Irv Gordon bought the Volvo P1800 in 1966 and has crossed the United States with it long and hard. He drove an incredible 3.2 million miles in 47 years, which is still a Guinness World Record today.
The car still has its original engine which didn’t require any special maintenance apart from the usual. “I challenge everyone to go around the world and see as much as possible. Find a reason to travel as you only have one life. No matter how many roads I drove, there was always one I hadn’t been on before. That’s why it’s all the more exciting” said Irv Gordon, who drove the 100-horsepower P1800 the same distance as 12 trips to the moon.
This Guinness record only adds to the Swedish brand’s status of being a manufacturer of high-quality reliable vehicles. The P1800 not only sported the looks but was built well and endured everything that owners demanded of it.
Prices on the Rise
The prices of the Volvo P1800 have been steadily rising since 2010. Even though a massive jump in value is not expected, the P1800 remains a sensible investment for vintage car lovers.
The prices of beautifully maintained P1800 today range between 10 – 40,000 Euros. The highest price paid for a P1800 so far was achieved by a 1973 Volvo P1800ES Sport Wagon with only 13 thousand miles (21,000 kilometers). It was sold at a US auction by Bonhams Auctioneers to a buyer who paid $92,400 USD in 2014.
A few years ago, Volvo toyed with the idea of creating a modern version of the P1800, dubbed the Volvo concept coupe. “This is not a futuristic dream car, but proof of what we are capable of today,” said designer Thomas Ingenlath at the time. The concept, which was powered by a 400-horsepower engine, has not (yet) seen the light of production -watch this space.