Five Classic Trials
Don’t let those flyweight looks fool you. All that glass and those trim proportions lend the 1800ES the air of a four-wheeled
Grand Designs entrant, with the emphasis on eye-grabbing architecture over all else.
But forget the exterior aesthetics for a moment. Slide inside and close the slender door and it’s a rather different story. It’s all very solid and sensible – more Westminster Abbey than The Shard – and the better for it. The huge three-spoke steering wheel doesn’t feel particularly offset and offers a clear view of the dials ahead. There’s a reassuring chunkiness to the rim too; your hands may have to work hard in tighter turns, but it’s somehow reassuring to know that you’re grasping something as deeply rooted into the car’s mechanicals as an old oak tree.
There’s more reassuring heft to the cricket ball-sized gearknob – which seems to fill the palm of your hand when you go for a shift – on top of the lever sprouting of the transmission tunnel at a 45-degree angle and a lovely clunkiness to the bank of hefty rocker switches immediately above it. The Smiths rev counter and speedometer are clear and easy to read and the wood trim in which they’re cloaked feels like it’s been chosen more for worktop solidity than aesthetic appeal. Even the front passenger grab handle feels like it could withstand a nuclear blast.
It’s a feeling that continues when you fire up Volvo’s B20 unit, slot the gear lever into first and point the long bonnet at the road. There’s plenty of mid-range oomph and a sizeable (if not exactly blistering) helping of torque when the revs climb past 3000rpm. It feels like an engine that’s been designed more for rugged performance than smoothness, but with Bosch fuel injection rather than old school carburettors doing its bidding, there’s no doubting its effectiveness.
Tackle a corner and anyone expecting it to tickle their ticklish bits is going to be disappointed. Point this car’s 15-inch Goodyears at a twisty stretch of road and it responds with some body roll and a hint of oversteer if you provoke it – and plenty of predictable understeer if you don’t – but not much else. The steering is light but not particularly communicative – it feels more like a lightened and lowered family saloon than an out-and-out sports car.
Not that you’ll care, partly because the Volvo’s supple ride and easygoing nature mean that it’s a superb baby GT and partly because it looks utterly beguiling. The P1800’s Frua-penned lines have always been charming but you have to say that the 1800ES’ loadlugging body is even better still. The three-door estate’s inherent concept – merging eye-catching coupé aesthetics with boxy practicality – really shouldn’t work but it comes together beautifully. Forget that it can just about haul four adults and their luggage, and just marvel at that enormous swathe of tailgate glass inlaid with a chromed boot handle.
It’s a shame that the 1800ES was only sold for two years – it may lack outright handling pizzazz, but makes up for it in its style and solidity.
There’s so much more to it than its undeniably pretty face.