1970 VOLVO P1800E

LIKE SO MANY CLAS­SIC CAR RESTORA­TIONS, THIS PROJECT BE­GAN AS AN AF­FAIR OF THE HEART

New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents - Words: Terry Cob­ham Pho­tos: Adam Croy

THE SAINTLY SCAN­DI­NA­VIAN

Swe­den in the clos­ing years of the 1950s was prob­a­bly quite a bor­ing place — so cold for most of the year that much of the pop­u­la­tion sat in­side cre­at­ing what would later be­come mid-cen­tury de­sign clas­sics: knives and forks, glass lamps, din­ing suites, and the like. Mean­while, in Gothen­burg, how­ever, one per­son was think­ing, ‘if only we had a sports car to go with all those knives and forks’.

At this stage, the As and Bs of Abba were still only teenagers who hadn’t yet given a thought to Water­loo. Ikea was a few years away from open­ing its first store out­side of Swe­den, and the Scan­di­na­vian idea of de­sign hadn’t yet made the world­wide im­pres­sion that it would when all those sim­ple, clean, fine lines and curves were in­tro­duced to a world­wide mar­ket.

All the world knew of Swe­den was along the lines of Greta Garbo and In­grid Bergman. At that time, Britt Ek­land was still only a teenager — be­com­ing a Bond girl and ro­mance with Rod Ste­wart were well into her fu­ture.

All this is to say that we are talk­ing about quite an el­derly car here. The se­cret to clas­sic de­sign is of­ten that it de­fies its age.

Build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion

Volvo has been pro­duc­ing cars since 1927, but the com­pany had grown out of the ball­bear­ing man­u­fac­turer SKF, founded in 1911. For decades, the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket hadn’t paid any at­ten­tion to Volvo cars, but, af­ter World War II, this had started to change.

When the model our 1970 fea­ture car rep­re­sents, the P1800E, was launched, Volvo was still pro­duc­ing its PV 544 sedan, a very solid, staid-look­ing ve­hi­cle that of­ten fea­tured in films of the era re­quir­ing a North­ern Euro­pean set­ting. It looked a bit like a smaller ver­sion of a 1940s Amer­i­can car that had had a com­pletely unique front end grafted onto it. Usu­ally, it was de­picted speed­ing through snowy low-light land­scapes and gave the im­pres­sion that it was fully ca­pa­ble of do­ing just that.

Volvo was build­ing its rep­u­ta­tion on well-made, solid, good-han­dling and de­pend­able cars, and the world had also no­ticed its trucks. In­deed, to­day, Volvo trucks — formed as a sep­a­rate com­pany from Volvo cars in 1928 — sits at num­ber two in the world­wide truck sales charts. That’s prob­a­bly a po­si­tion the Volvo Cars com­pany doesn’t even as­pire to un­der cur­rent own­er­ship (it was sold to Ford in 1999, and Chi­nese brand Geely in 2010), but it didn’t stop its ex­ec­u­tives re­al­iz­ing that they needed a car that would raise the brand’s mar­ket pro­file.

The P1800 wasn’t Volvo’s first sports car; that place goes to an un­suc­cess­ful two-seater con­vert­ible built in the mid ’50s — not sur­pris­ingly, there wasn’t much de­mand for such a car in the Swe­den of that era. Pro­duc­tion of the fi­bre­glass-bod­ied Volvo Sport P lasted less than a year (1956–’57), and only 67, or pos­si­bly 68, were pro­duced.

Not to be put off, Volvo re­al­ized that it needed a Euro­pean-style grand tourer to im­press in its Euro­pean and US mar­kets. So it ap­proached an Ital­ian de­sign com­pany to cre­ate a ve­hi­cle for that sec­tor.

For the next 50 years, Volvo in­sisted the re­sult of this project, the P1800, was an Ital­ian de­sign. How­ever, the truth was that the son of the Volvo en­gi­neer­ing con­sul­tant for the project de­signed the car, and it was as Swedish as vodka and pick­led her­rings. Well, al­most, be­cause, af­ter var­i­ous coach­builders in Italy and Ger­many had been un­suc­cess­fully ap­proached to build the car, con­struc­tion was ini­tially con­tracted out to Jensen in Eng­land. Ger­man coach­builder Kar­man turned down the con­tract when its main client, VW, saw it as a con­flict of in­ter­est.

A beau­ti­ful lit­tle car

Jensen was more or less be­tween projects when, in 1960, it signed a con­tract to pro­duce the first 10,000 ex­am­ples of the new Volvo P1800. To quote Wikipedia: “The en­gine and gear­box were from Swe­den, the back axle from the USA and the elec­tri­cal sys­tem from Ger­many, oth­er­wise the cars were all Bri­tish.” Prob­a­bly that is some­thing Volvo would still con­test to­day, even though it is now a Chi­nese rather than Swedish-con­trolled com­pany.

The first of these cars was in­tro­duced to the mo­tor­ing pub­lic at the Brus­sels Mo­tor Show in 1960, and, the same year, Jensen be­gan pro­duc­tion. The first model year was 1961. Im­me­di­ately, it was rec­og­nized as a very beau­ti­ful lit­tle car — a true two-seater, though it did have a back seat, but it was not big enough for pas­sen­gers, be­ing more a place for a stylish overnight bag — so long as it only con­tained a tooth­brush and wal­let.

The first car was re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to the last pro­duced only 11 years later, with a four-cylin­der 1800cc mo­tor equipped with twin SU car­bu­ret­tors. Volvo used a mo­tor that it more or less had on the shelf — as it was also be­ing used in one of its trac­tors — which fed its 100bhp (75kw) through a four-speed man­ual gear­box to the rear wheels. This was still only the be­gin­ning of the ’60s, re­mem­ber. An elec­tronic over­drive was stan­dard, and this gave bet­ter fuel econ­omy. Sur­pris­ingly, the non-over­drive-equipped model had a higher top speed, and would run out to al­most 193kph, while the over­drive model could reach 177kph.

Disc brakes at the front and drums at the rear were the orig­i­nal equip­ment. Across the pro­duc­tion years, those were even­tu­ally up­graded to four-wheel discs (as on our fea­ture car), and en­gine ca­pac­ity was in­creased to 2.0 litres. Power, al­though it never went sky high, was grad­u­ally in­creased as well, fi­nally reach­ing 130bhp (97kw), while the elec­tronic fuel in­jec­tion gave a slight power in­crease, with­out af­fect­ing fuel econ­omy.

An im­me­di­ate search on­line turned up a very tired and worn-out 1970 P1800E. The ‘E’ stands for ‘fuel in­jec­tion’ — this was the year Volvo changed to an in­jec­tion sys­tem

TV star

Be­fore long, the world’s tele­vi­sion view­ing pub­lic was watch­ing Si­mon Tem­plar drive his white Volvo P1800 around Lon­don in the very pop­u­lar TV se­ries The Saint. This was an early ex­am­ple of prod­uct place­ment, and no doubt the Jaguar ex­ec­u­tives who had ear­lier said no to the se­ries pro­duc­ers’ re­quest for an E-type Jaguar must have sorely re­gret­ted their de­ci­sion.

UK pro­duc­tion didn’t last long, and the Jensen con­tract was can­celled early af­ter 6000 cars had been pro­duced. Build qual­ity was the prob­lem, so, maybe by 1963, that UK in­dus­trial dis­ease was al­ready be­gin­ning to take hold. Pro­duc­tion moved back to Swe­den, and the ‘S’ des­ig­na­tion was added to the model name — per­haps the only time ‘S’ has stood for ‘Swe­den’ and not ‘Sport’ on a ve­hi­cle badge.

The body style re­mained al­most un­changed, al­though an es­tate ver­sion was in­tro­duced in 1972. This was the year the coupé fin­ished pro­duc­tion, and, sadly, US ve­hi­cle-de­sign re­quire­ments re­sulted in the end of pro­duc­tion of the new es­tate ver­sion the fol­low­ing year.

Volvo had a lim­ited sport­ing his­tory, al­though it did win var­i­ous rally cham­pi­onships later that decade with an­other car. Of course, down in this end of the world, an­other decade af­ter that, it was win­ning plenty of races with its tur­boen­hanced tour­ing car rac­ers.

Volvo’s rep­u­ta­tion is cer­tainly built more on its de­pend­abil­ity and qual­ity than its sport­ing prow­ess. One P1800 owner in the US has owned and driven his P1800 al­most 5,000,000km — ap­par­ently a world record for an in­di­vid­ual owner. It is ironic that a Volvo sport­ing ef­fort should hold such an un­sport­ing world record.

Af­fair of the heart

Our fea­ture car was a project for Brett Tay­lor of Tay­lor­made­cars (search ‘tay­lor­made­cars’ on In­sta­gram). Like so many restora­tions, this be­gan as an af­fair of the heart. Brett spot­ted a P1800 when he was out for a walk and de­cided that one of these would make a good project.

An im­me­di­ate search on­line turned up a very tired and worn-out 1970 P1800E. The ‘E’ stands for ‘fuel in­jec­tion’ — this was the year Volvo changed to an in­jec­tion sys­tem.

A com­plete strip down and re­build fol­lowed over the next 2.5 years.

The car was stripped back to a to­tally dis­as­sem­bled shell, be­fore be­ing sent to Au­to­blast in Auck­land. The frame was all in good or­der, and that was re­tained, al­though vir­tu­ally all the ex­te­rior pan­els were re­placed. The roof and right front guard are the only orig­i­nal pan­els — all the oth­ers were sourced new from Swe­den. All brack­ets and bolts were re­plated, when pos­si­ble, or re­placed with new. Vir­tu­ally all the re­quired new pieces were avail­able ex Swe­den, ei­ther as new-old-stock parts or af­ter­mar­ket repli­cas.

The mo­tor was re­built by Gl­eye and Par­lane En­gine Re­con­di­tion­ers in Auck­land, and the un­der-bon­net area looks at least as pretty as it did the day the car was brand new. Other ar­eas look even bet­ter. The dash­board, for ex­am­ple, still boasts its orig­i­nal gauges, re­stored by Dash­board Restora­tions of Auck­land, and the orig­i­nal dark wood sur­rounds have been re­placed with white car­bon fi­bre. Purists don’t need to worry, as all the orig­i­nal trims and bits and pieces have been re­tained. The car has now been fit­ted with power steer­ing, a bolt-on af­fair that can eas­ily be re­moved should a new owner wish to have heavy steer­ing as well as an orig­i­nal-spec car.

Some other cos­metic changes have also been made — wire wheels, which were an op­tion, have been fit­ted, al­though these are not the orig­i­nal Volvo-spec wheels that had a rep­u­ta­tion for cat­a­strophic fail­ure. The front bumpers are from an ear­lier-spec car, be­cause Brett likes the look of them bet­ter — it’s those sim­ple flow­ing lines.

The car, which was orig­i­nally white, is now painted in one of the Volvo blues, and the in­side is trimmed in black. The end re­sult is a rather stun­ning and ex­cep­tion­ally pretty lit­tle car.

These P1800s have moved from the very low prices of a few years ago, and are now sell­ing for re­spectable sums. Even though fully re­stored ex­am­ples like Brett’s (al­ready sold) are now worth se­ri­ous money, they are still among the top picks of cars that are be­com­ing col­lec­tors’ clas­sics.

Brett was so en­thused by this car as a project that he is on the look­out for an­other. This time, he wants a P1800, or, as those in the know re­fer to them, a ‘Jensen’ — one of the early ones built in Eng­land.

No mat­ter where you look, the P1800E looks great from any an­gle

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