The Volvo P1800 Story

Eighty four year old Pelle Petterson is an exceptional sailor; a yachting superstar in Sweden in his younger years winning bronze and silver medals at the Olympic games, several World Cup medals and he even skippered the Swedish Americas Cup challenge teams in 1977 and 1980. Enough achievements here to fill most lifetimes. But Pelle wasn’t done, he went on to design several classes of racing vessels specialising in the Maxi Class and even a Stena Ferry! Still not content he created a range of sailing and skiing clothing – Pelle P – and even made a very special and very expensive golf club, the P Putter.

Oh, I almost forgot, at twenty-five years of age, while he was studying design under Pietro Frua he dashed off his one and only car design – the sublime Volvo P1800!

In the late fifties Volvo, renowned for safe strong reliable cars were looking for a crowd-pleaser to get people into the showrooms. They had tried their hand with a two-seater sports car but rejected it after a tiny production run of only 67 cars.

They wanted something, well how should I put this, ‘un-Swedish’ in design, something more glamorous, basically something Italian. Imagine what a combination that would be, Italian design flair allied to rock solid Swedish engineering, a dream come true.

So Volvo’s head honcho Gunnar Engellau enlisted the help of Helmer Petterson (Pelle’s dad) who ordered design proposals from the styling houses of Italy.

Helmer had found his son a job at Pietro Frua and sneaked his design proposal in with the other presentations. Hey presto it was chosen by the board in 1957, without their knowledge of the connection, so it was truly on merit.

Apparently the shit hit the fan when Engellau found out the truth behind the story. He felt he had been duped and vowed that Petterson jnr would never receive recognition for his work. Given his resume since producing that iconic automotive design, we don’t think it held him back too much.

The P1800 is now over fifty years old and like Jaguar’s E-Type, it has to be Volvo’s most emotive car. It is not difficult to see why, it is an absolute stylistic gem.

Volvo weren’t geared up for production of the car so two British companies were enlisted to help with the bodywork. Pressed Steel in Scotland handled the bodywork and Jensen Motors looked after the assembly and paint.

After 6,000 units were produced Jensen lost the contract and production was moved to Sweden. The car then became known as the P1800 ‘S’, signifying that it was built in Sweden. Pressed Steel however continued producing the bodies all the way up to 1969.

Externally the car changed little over the twelve years it was in production save for a few trim items such as bumpers, the moving of the fuel filler (from the top of the wing where it fills up with water to the side of the car), different grill treatments and wheels. The only major change to the bodywork was the development of a separate shooting brake version, the ‘ES’ with an estate car rear end, a bit like the Reliant Scimitar.

The car received more by way of mechanical upgrades including all round disk brakes, fuel injection and more powerful engines.

So is it a reliable car? Maybe that question should be levelled at Irv Gordon who bought a red P1800S new in 1966 and drove it into the record books as the highest mileage non-commercial original owner car. As of 2015 the car had clocked over 3.1 million miles and it is still going strong on the original engine. What more recommendation do you want? Oh, Simon Templar cruised around in one with Minilite wheels in the Saint – there, is that enough?

We have enjoyed P1800s in our fleet for years and for our money the ‘S’ is the best model. The early cow horn bumpers featured on the Jensen cars are a little over fussy and the later fuel injected ‘E’ models lost the beautiful interior design and became a little more functional and ‘seventies’.

The ‘S’ sits right in the middle, with the cleanest design, good power from the carb fed engine and one of the sweetest gear shifts ever produced (something the later cars also lost).

Our 1967 P1800S in dark green with tan interior is an absolute gem. Drive it back-to-back with the club’s E-Type and it feels a generation ahead in terms of drive-ability if not performance (the E-Type would eat it for breakfast). When it comes to day-to-day driving on mixed roads, including a healthy dose of town driving, the Volvo is the car that wins hands down. It is always the first set of keys grabbed by the gals and guys at team CCC when heading out to an event.

The seating position is low slung, you look out over an expanse of bonnet through a narrow windscreen, just like the E-type but far more comfortable. I drove one with my wife down to Spain and not once did I get out after a day driving with the aches and pains I would expect from the Jag. It is really a two-seater sports car but there is a good size rear parcel shelf that masquerades as a rear seat. This space combined with the admittedly small boot gives a pretty healthy carrying capacity for a car of its type.

Out on the road the four pot is willing with a nice rasp from the exhaust. The car likes to be pushed but is not too overwhelming to drive. Pliant suspension and responsive steering make it a dream to hustle through twisting country lanes where it is most at home. The gearbox is the star of the show with a beautiful short throw grabbing each new ratio with a confident ‘snick’. The ratios are relatively short but top is fitted with overdrive making motorway cruising a relaxing experience.

Prices range from a couple of grand for a basket case up to over thirty for the best examples. Rare early non ‘S’ Jensen built cars are sought after and command a premium. Be warned though they are expensive to restore so try to find the best possible example that you can afford.


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