The Volvo 1800 was safe, solid, and sporty, but also overweight, rather cramped, visually dated, and not all that fast. Of course, it was never intended as an all-out sports car, but it was the Swedish automaker’s image-leader and, as such, quite in need of updating by 1970. Thus, the Volvo 1800ES was born.
Volvo toyed repeatedly with plans for restyling the 1800 during the Sixties, but could never justify a completely new body. Finally, in 1967, it came up with a clever solution that would not only give the car a new lease on life but answer complaints about lack of people and package space: a restyled roof that would turn the coupe into a sporty station wagon.
Called the Volvo 1800ES, this new version didn’t appear for another four years, leading some to speculate that Volvo merely copied the 1968 Reliant Scimitar GTE, an identical wagon-out-of-coupe conversion. However, there’s no way Volvo could have known in advance about that British car.
Put it down as just another of those “simultaneous creations” that occasionally pop up in automotive history as the result of coincidental timing. Then again, perhaps both had been inspired by Chevrolet’s mid-Fifties Nomad, a sporty wagon if ever there was one.
Still, a good idea most always remains a good idea, and it worked just as well for Volvo as it did for Reliant and Chevrolet. The transformation was certainly easy enough. Starting with the existing fuel-injected 2.0-liter 1800E, Volvo simply lopped off the coupe roof and substituted a “squareback” style with long rear quarter windows, rakishly slanted C-pillars, and a frameless, liftup glass hatch. Lower-body sheetmetal aft of the doors was ostensibly unchanged, but differed slightly in detail.
Aside from improving looks, the new roofline brought welcome gains in rear headroom and cargo space. The back seat was still no fit place for adults and the load deck stood rather high off the ground, but the rear backrest could be flopped down to extend the flat-floor bay to a full five feet in length, and children at least could now ride in back without feeling tortured.
As a stylish smaller hauler for the buyer who’d outgrown sports cars, the Volvo 1800ES was hard to beat. A 200-pound gain in curb weight was an acceptable tradeoff for the greater utility, even if it did negate the long roof’s superior aerodynamics.
The rest of the package was mostly left alone, though Volvo widened wheels and tires to cope with the ES’s expected heavier cargo loads, and Borg-Warner automatic transmission was a new option (actually introduced toward the end of coupe production). European models naturally remained at 1800E power levels, but tightening emissions standards strangled the American ES, which suffered a 1.8-point compression drop (to 8.7:1) to accommodate low-lead fuel. So saddled, the ES took a bit more than a second longer to reach 60 mph from rest compared to the previous U.S.-spec coupe, though reported top speed was still in excess of 115 mph.
A practical sporty car may seem a contradiction in terms, but buyers still liked the sportwagon idea and the ES actually sold at a faster pace than previous 1800s. Still, time waits for no car, this one’s basic design was ancient, and Volvo would have had to spend lots of money to bring it in line with even tougher American rules for 1974 and beyond (especially that year’s 5-mph bumper standard). That made no economic sense, so the Volvo 1800 series was put to rest in June 1973.
But the 1800ES made a lot of friends for Volvo, and the company wouldn’t forget it. The Dutch-built 420ES, introduced in 1986, is very much the same sort of car, as many observers have been quick to note. As we said, a good idea most always remains a good idea.