Blast from the past (III) - 1961 Volvo P 1800
Stop flogging a horse that won't die.
Some cars deserve to be relentlessly lampooned. Occasionally people pop up and argue that Clive Sinclair ought to be congratulated, at least for thinking outside the box. But one look at the Sinclair C5 and you will realize that outside the box’s borders lay the territory of ridiculous. We can’t congratulate anyone for crossing that. In fact, there ought to be better border security.
And while the Fiat Multipla is possibly the most ridiculed car ever, there are still some who insist it is a good car underneath. Which is as irrelevant as giving someone plastic yellow shoes, and telling them they’re really quite comfortable.
These cars, and many others, like the Nissan Juke and I’m going to say the Holden Captiva, will never reach the point at which we can say, okay, they’ve had enough. Everything that has ever been said against them is a drop in the waterbomb they deserve.
Volvo, however, is not in that list. People always pick an issue with Volvos, and yet when the dust settles, I find myself wondering why on earth. Volvo is like the boy with glasses in the playground who everyone makes fun of because he reads books and isn’t cool. Yet he’s clever and pleasant and you can absolutely always depend on him.
My first experience of Volvo was sitting in a 240, the one particularly derided as being a shoebox – and yes, I’ll confess I may have name-called too. Yet I’m convinced nothing has ever been built better. The owner tried to run it into the ground, so she could get a new car, but as it became likely that she would run into the ground first, she gave up and sold it.
Yes, Volvos have often lacked outright beauty. And I believe that’s a very important aspect of a car. But I do think that we should really honour a company for making something that was so safe and solid that theoretically, you would never need to buy another car again. That’s a corporate attitude you just don’t see anymore.
However, I’d also like to point out that Volvos have not always lacked outright beauty. In 1961 they made a coupe that was so lovely to look at, that even if we forgot about the Amazon or the C70, which we have, no one could possibly ever accuse the Swedish of being ugly again.
See what I did there? Brought in the Swedish so that if you argue, I can call you racist.
WHAT IS IT?
A Volvo, obviously, and having determined that is no cause for mockery, I might also say that it’s the best Volvo ever.
In the 1950s, every European car marque wanted to create an epic sports car that would sell in great numbers in the US, which was the post-war cash cow. At the prompting of importer Max Hoffman, Mercedes made the 300 SL Gullwing, BMW made the ill-fated 507, and Porsche made the 356, but Volvo was also eager for a slice of the carrot cake and so they did the P 1900.
I don’t think the Americans had ever heard of a place called Sweedin. They probably thought it was a suburb in Yugoslavia. Because only 68 were sold.
But the Swedes were not to be bowed, and in 1957 they made plans to try again. But when making this sports car became more and more troublesome, Volvo decided maybe it wasn’t worth it. Perhaps they should, you know, just stick to what they did best.
One of Volvo’s development engineers, Helmer Pettersson, was not going to let this happen. He actually made plans to buy the parts off Volvo and sell it himself.
Before this could happen, though, an event transpired that forced Volvo’s hands. A photo of the proposed Volvo sports car was leaked. In the sensation that followed, Volvo admitted of course they were going to make it. Yes, they were making it right now.
So in 1960 the P 1800 was officially unveiled.
Yep, it's that kind of a day.
IS IT POWERFUL?
This isn’t usually the first question that springs to mind when contemplating a Volvo, because there’s a presumption that the answer will always be no. But the P 1800 is a sports car.
It was fitted with an inline four engine, called the B18 (B for Bensin, which is something Swedish, probably for eternal, and 1.8L), that was based on the V8s used by Volvo in their trucks. Yes, I know, they could have put a V8 in a sports car and the sun would have continued to shine at midnight, but it doesn’t matter. It worked very well.
The P 1800 could do 193km/h. I might just mention that a modern Cruze SRiV, which is as sporty as the Cruze range gets, can do a mere 7km/h more. For 1961, the P 1800 was really quite fast.
There's no point comparing it to the straight-six E-Type or the V8 BMW 507, but it's worth noting that none of the comparable British sports cars of the late '60s, like the MGB or Triumph Spitfire, could do 193km/h. And the VW Karmann Ghia, which VW obviously considered a rival, was left far, far behind.
IS IT NICE-LOOKING?
Absolutely. I would say it’s the best-looking Volvo ever, as many do, but I’ll admit I like the Amazon a little bit more.
For years, it was well known that the Italian styling house Pietro Frua drew the beautiful coupe. But in 2009, Volvo admitted that it actually wasn’t.
Helmer Petterson’s son, Pelle, had been studying at Frua at the time. He had done it, and his father had slipped it in with the other proposed designs.
It was picked, and only later did the truth come out.
All looking and going great for their age.
IS IT RELIABLE?
Reliability is, I’d argue, a relative absolute. A strong case could be made for a car that breaks down just once to be called unreliable. A reliable car is one that just keeps going. Where it becomes relative, however, is on the question of for how long it just keeps going.
Because the P 1800 doesn’t stop going. Which means every other reliable car looks unreliable by comparison, for even dying at all.
The whole thing had been very well built. Volvo first commissioned Karmann of Germany to build the P 1800 body, and they were going to, until Karmann’s biggest customer got jealous. Volkswagen told Karmann that unless they went back to Volvo and told them no, VW would cancel all its contracts with them – including the stunning Karmann Ghia.
This is a case of someone talking to the boy with glasses in the playground, and the cool bully threatening to knock off his nose if he ever did it again.
The bully won, so Volvo then signed up with Jensen. This partnership was working until Volvo became unimpressed with the sloppy way the British did everything. So they decided to just do it themselves, in Sweden.
As a result, the Volvo P 1800 is the most durable car ever built. There are still many happily running around with the same unrestored B18 engine, with an absolutely staggering million miles on the clock. One P 1800 won a Guinness World Record in 1998, and it was still going strong in 2013 with over 3 million miles under its timing belt. Many cars simply can’t make 300,000km – not miles – without dropping a gearbox.
A Volvo has many, many lives.
IS IT COMFORTABLE?
Being a sports car, the P 1800 is mainly functional inside. But the Swedish have always done a good interior– just look at IKEA – so the cabin is beautiful and has quite a modern instrument layout for the time.
Also, because it’s a Volvo, there are seatbelts. The P 1800 was one of the first cars to have them.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
We’ve been busy researching current prices, and getting distracted, and we can say that at the moment they're not outrageous. Probably because there’s a lot around.
The prices seem to range between $20,000-$65,000 AUD for the P 1800 coupe, and are a pretty consistent $30,000 to $40,000 for the very beautiful ES two-door estate, with its huge glass rear window. The Germans called it Snow White’s Coffin because of this, but it isn’t, because nobody ever dies in a Volvo.
Then again, nobody ever dies in any coffin. We hope.
Only celebrities like designers and actors are allowed to sit on nice cars, we've discovered.
DID ELVIS PRESLEY HAVE ONE?
There’s no record that he did. But he was an American, who had heard vaguely of Rome, so he bought a DeTomaso he later shot, he’d been posted in Germany, so he bought a BMW 507 he later ruined, but we can presume that having learned the geography of the 55 states of the world in class, he never knew about Sweden.
But while we’re on celebrities, the late Roger Moore had one. He drove a white 1962 P 1800 as Simon Templar in The Saint, after Jaguar weirdly refused to supply an E-Type for the series, and together they stole many hearts. Moore actually went and got one for himself.
He later said it was his favourite movie car.
SHOULD I HAVE ONE?
Classic car owners will tell you that the classic car experience is good on so many levels. Wherever you go, people wave and beep and thumps up, and crash into the car next to them, and when you pull outside anywhere, including Accident & Emergency, people want to talk to you. Because you’re driving a piece of history.
But the other side of the experience involves a lot of oil, money, tears, and quite often an angry wife. Classic cars are simply very high maintenance.
However, that’s where this stunning Volvo coupe is different. Many owners talk about how they’ve had one for years without trouble, and parts are cheap and Volvo is really helpful at sourcing them.
The P 1800 is also very beautiful and powerful. It’s apparently a pleasant drive, even by modern standards. So it has everything you really want from any car, and more than you would ever dream of begging from a classic car.
Which brings me to an interesting point. People laud Sunbeam because of one thing, really – the Alpine. It was beautiful, and a good sports car. But it was also terrifically unreliable. So why do people not laud Volvo for making this one thing? Even if you forget about everything else they ever did, which you just shouldn’t, according to the law meted out on Sunbeam, Volvo should receive double praise.
On that note, there is something Volvo ought to know. They once made a really, really good sports car. And if they did it once, why can't they do it again?
I was going to insert a throwaway emotionally evocative phrase here, but someone has misplaced the Australian Chamber Orchestra brochure, which is a source of inspiration to me at such times.
PHOTO CREDIT: NetCarShow.com, DailyRecord.co.uk (Roger Moore & Volvo P 1800)