The epitome of elegant ’50s Scandinavian elegance, Volvo’s P1800 was styled in Italy and began life in Britain. Here’s what you want to know before taking the plunge.
When we mention Volvo in classic car magazines, it’s generally followed by a reference to the cars’ rugged no-nonsense nature, their pioneering safety features or the estates’ legendary load-carrying abilities rather than the delicate elegance and graceful style of the P1800.
it’s fair to say that after the PV544 and the Amazon, the P1800 was something of an abrupt departure for Volvo. Its history is also intriguingly intertwined with the British motor industry too.
Today the P1800 and its derivatives are a really unusual sight in the UK and make for a really practical ownership proposition too, especially the rare estate model. Here’s what you need to know.
Volvo itself was a much older car maker than Swedish competitor Saab, having been established in 1927 as a subsidiary of bearing maker SKF.
While Saab favoured slightly oddball engineering solutions involving aerospace-influenced styling and two-stroke powerplants, Volvo stuck to a rather more conventional approach. Its postwar cars were the PV-series, initially the PV444 which is regarded as the car which really got Volvo moving in the field of passenger cars. This became the more modern PV544 in 1958 which was produced until 1965. The 121 ‘Amazon’ was launched in 1956 and it was this which was replaced by the 140 which ultimately became the 240-series of recent memory.
The P1800 wasn’t Volvo’s first sports car: that honour fell to the short-lived P1900 of 1954, using PV444 mechanical components in a tubular chassis clothed in a fibreglass roadster body. Some 68 cars were produced before production ended in 1957 after numerous issues with the design. The idea didn’t go away though and the P1800 was designed from the start to be a more mainstream product. For one thing it was a coupe rather than a convertible which gave it more sales potential in chilly Sweden, while a shortened Amazon floorpan was used as a basis which kept a lid on development costs. Power was provided by the newly-designed B18 engine which later found its way into the Amazon range.
The car was marketed as being designed by Italian design house Frua, but in 2009 Volvo eventually admitted that the P1800 had been the work of Pelle Peterson, a Swedish employee at Frua.
Volvo’s own assembly plants were working to capacity at the time, which is why the plan was initially for Karmann to produce the car in Germany. At the time though the firm was turning out the Karmann-Ghia and Beetle convertible for Volkswagen which when it got wind of the idea forbade Karmann from producing a potential competitor. Faced with losing their most important customer, Karmann turned the work down and Volvo looked elsewhere. Their search took them to West Bromwich of all places, where Jensen was given the task of assembling the P1800 using bodyshells produced by Pressed Steel up in Linwood, Scotland.
Jensen produced P1800s until 1963 when production was transferred back to Sweden, the car being renamed P1800S at this point, the ‘S’ signifying Swedish assembly.
The popular myth is that this move arose as a result of Volvo’s disappointment with Jensen’s quality but Jensen marque expert Keith Anderson points out that in reality the problems were with the quality of the bodyshells provided by Pressed Steel and not in fact with Jensen’s work. One delightful story we heard involved a secretary at Jensen who was fluent in Swedish but kept the fact quiet while sitting in on meetings with Volvo management. When the Swedes lapsed into their own language thinking they wouldn’t be understood, she was later able to translate for the Jensen bosses.
Despite Volvo moving production to Sweden, Pressed Steel continued to provide Linwood-built bodyshells until 1968 at which point the car received a minor facelift to coincide with the introduction of the Swedish-built body.
In 1969 the 1.8-litre B18 engine was upgraded to the 2-litre B20 complete with Bosch D-Jetronic electronic fuel injection. With 130 bhp, this gave the P1800E a top speed of 120 mph, which is probably why rear disc brakes were added for the 1970 model year.
In 1972, an estate was added to the range, badged P1800ES and offering a practical sports car in the MGB GT mould, complete with a glass hatchback and folding rear seats. Despite the addition of a more practical rear, the estate was just as elegant as the coupe and in many ways is the ultimate evolution of the P1800 idea.
It was short-lived though, P1800 production ending in 1973. Ironically given Volvo’s reputation for pioneering safety, this was due to the expense of meeting US-market safety legislation.
The P1800 was never a huge seller in the UK, mainly because it was an expensive car: the Volvo was £1845 in 1967 when an MGB GT retailed at £1065. Despite that, there are enough left for the car to have a thriving following, while over in the USA the P1800 was a big seller for Volvo.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
if you’re new to P1800 ownership then a Jensen-built car probably isn’t the best place to start: parts availability isn’t quite as good as for the later Swedish-built cars.
Rust can be the enemy of these cars, whether UK or Swedish-built and the way they were constructed involved a degree of hand-finishing with lead loading which can hide all sorts of issues. According to the P1800 Register at the Volvo Owners’ Club, the sills are crucial and they’re a three-part design with an inner, centre and outer section. Following the sills, the crossmember under the radiator is a favourite rust spot too and can be grotty even on otherwise pristine-looking cars.
At the front, check the seam under the sidelights where the front panel joins the front wing. Peer up under the wing to check the chassis member running from the headlamp to the bulkhead, since the foam Volvo squirted into this area can be a moisture trap. The result is rust on the top of the front wing, and removal of the panel means the screen has to come out too.
Doors can rot out since the original window seal doesn’t keep rain out entirely and if the drain holes at the bottom are blocked then they will fill up.
At the rear end check the lower part of the rear bodywork, especially the rear valance where it curves under the car to meet the boot floor.
The bodywork on these cars hides all sorts of nooks and crannies where rust can hide and since the values remained relatively low until a few years ago, many cars will have received poor quality DIY repair work in previous years.
As for parts supply, bonnets and boots are no longer available, although most of the rest can still be obtained, including all four wings.
Both the B18 (1.8) and the B20 (2-litre) engines are hardy units and known for covering at least 200,000 miles before needing a rebuild, although the camshaft on the injected engine can wear and become noisy. Valve seals can also wear, resulting in blue smoke on the overrun. The original cam timing gears are a fibre design and replacing them with steel gears is a smart move: they’re noisier but will last forever.
The gearbox is known for being reliable, although care should be taken not to use the wrong oil: the overdrive boxes use SAE 30 engine oil and not regular gear oil. The rear axle is similarly robust and will generally fail only through a lack of oil. They can get noisy at high mileage but will carry on going regardless.
It’s a straightforward set-up and shouldn’t give any surprises apart from the usual issues like sticky calipers. Rear discs weren’t fitted until 1970, so on earlier cars you have issues like leaky wheel cylinders to consider.
Again, the parts supply situation is good, although some of the chrome trim for the Jensen cars is no longer available. That’s not the end of the world though, since the chrome parts are typically Volvo in their quality and are robust enough to be restored and rechromed.
Interior trim is mostly still available from Volvo specialists, although for the early Jensen-built cars things are a little more tricky. New parts are no longer available so for these cars you’ll be looking at good used stuff or maybe retrimming what you have.
You’ll find projects advertised for as little as £3000 but they’ll likely be basket cases. For a useable, MoT’d car you’re looking at a minimum of £9500 although some surprisingly presentable cars do turn up at this level. At around the £13,000 level there’s plenty of choice, with nice presentable cars fetching up to £15-£18,000 including both original and properly restored cars, with the nicest examples climbing over £20,000. The very best concours examples will see sellers asking for upwards of £27,000. The earliest Jensen-built cars with the ‘cow horn’ bumpers are much sought after by enthusiasts, but for many enthusiasts the favourite is the last of the P1800s with the 2-litre engine, which retained the original stylish dashboard but came with dual circuit brakes. A well-sorted B20 engine with the manual box is the nicest of the range to drive, while a well-tuned B18 is more revvy than the torquier B20.