Volvo has been known for a lot of things since its founding in 1927 -- durability, dependability, and quality among them -- but sports cars do not spring to mind. All the same, this article covers Volvo’s entries into the sports car arena -- unlikely though they may be.
Arriving in 1961, the Volvo P1800 came as quite a surprise. That Volvo would even attempt a sports car seemed unnatural to many. For its part, the P1800 wasn’t much of a sports car: performance was much more daring than anything Volvo had done before, but it was nothing spectacular, and the already-dated styling didn’t much help. By the end of its run (going through two other designators, 1800S and 1800E, along the way), the P1800 was a solid, dependable cruiser -- about par for the course for Volvo.
Sports Cars Image Gallery
A decade later, Volvo updated the P1800’s body, such that the Volvo 1800ES was a sporty station wagon. Yes, you read that right. Built on the same general principles of the P1800, the 1800ES was converted into a relatively stylish wagon before ancient styling and increasingly-restrictive emissions laws forced it into retirement.
In the following pages, you can find out more about Volvo’s brief foray into the world of sports vehicles, with car profiles and pictures.
To learn more about Volvo and other sports cars, see:
Some car companies seem so sober that it’s difficult to imagine them producing a sports car, or even a sporty coupe. Volvo, which began building cars in 1927, was just such a company, so sensibly Swedish that its P1800 was a complete surprise.
Volvo had built a handful of fiberglass-bodied sporty convertibles in the Fifties, though this wasn’t a serious production effort. But the Volvo P1800 was. In fact, Volvo spent a lot of time on the new coupe before putting it on the market. One reason: there was no room for another model on assembly lines that were already overflowing. For this reason, tooling for the Volvo P1800’s unit body/chassis structure was contracted to Pressed Steel in the UK, which also built the shells initially and sent them on to Jensen in West Bromwich for final assembly.
There was nothing startling about the Volvo P1800 apart from its looks, which were only startling for a Volvo. Running gear was borrowed from the firm’s existing 120-Series “Amazon” sedans, which meant a sturdy but orthodox 1.8-liter overhead-valve four (initially rated at 100 horsepower) and a 4-speed all-synchromesh gearbox with overdrive turning rear wheels attached to a coil-sprung rigid axle with Panhard-rod location. Front suspension was equally ordinary: independent with unequal-length A-arms and coil springs.
Styling, curiously enough, was a mixture of Frua and Ghia ideas, and rather dated by the car’s late-1961 debut. The lines were curvy, the nose jutted out to an eggcrate grille, and there were modest tailfins above bullet-shaped pod taillights. The roof was quite low, but so was the seating, which gave a real “bathtub” feel. Though mainly marketed as a two-seater, the Volvo P1800 did have a small back seat that was more like a shelf -- good for parcels, bad for people.
It all added up to a more stylish Volvo with a sporty air but no sports-car credentials. Ride and road manners were able enough, but performance was pedestrian. Still, the Volvo P1800 had much to offer: comfortable seats, an effective hearing/ ventilation system, an orderly dash with full instrumentation, rugged construction, even a useful trunk.
In short, it was an honest car that was still dashing enough for the country club -- exactly what Volvo wanted. Helping its image in the UK and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. was The Saint TV series, where Simon Templar (a.k.a. Roger Moore) drove a Volvo P1800 in almost every episode.
With annual volume of only about 5000 units, the P1800 wasn’t going to make Volvo rich, but it proved a steady seller while benefiting from a number of changes. In late 1964, after the first 6000 or so had been built, production was transferred from England to Sweden and the name changed to the Volvo 1800S. There were also some minor cosmetic alterations, mainly a less gaudy grille insert and bodyside chrome repositioned to de-emphasize the curious upswept character line in the doors.
Displacement went to 2.0 liters for 1968, in line with other Volvos, though the model designation stayed the same. The following year brought Bosch fuel injection for what was now called 1800E (the letter denoting Einspritzung, German for fuel injection). Also on hand were a black grille, rearranged dash, a new steering wheel, flow-through ventilation system (identified by small exhaust grids on the rear flanks), the beefed-up gearbox from Volvo’s six-cylinder 164 sedan, four-wheel disc brakes, and new five-spoke cast-alloy wheels (which looked like wheel covers).
By this time, top speed was up from 109 to 115 mph, the 0-60 sprint down to 10 seconds or so from the original 14. Still, the Volvo 1800 mainly appealed as a snug, fairly agile little “sedan” able to cruise all day at a comfortable 90 mph -- the sort of solid, sturdy, reliable, and functional car for which Volvo had become famous.
If the original Volvo 1800 had seemed dated in 1961, it really looked old-hat 10 years later. But Volvo still had one more trick up its sleeve that would keep the 1800 going a few more years. To find out what it was, just read on.
To learn more about Volvo and other sports cars, see:
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.