Volvo P1800: A Classic Italian-Styled Swedish GT Fit for a Saint

The image of a boxy Volvo station wagon might still strike chords, but that hasn’t been the brand’s design reality for some time. However, while Volvo earned its reputation on such solid, safe, practical cars, the Swedish brand’s history is more varied than that. The 122S Amazon of the 1960s, for example, left quite an impression on the rallying world. And then there’s the vehicle that’s arguably an unofficial Bond car: the Volvo P1800.

Long before Polestar or Cyan Racing, the Volvo P1800 tried to give the brand some style and speed

Irv Gordon and his record-holding red 1966 Volvo P1800 next to the ocean
Irv Gordon and his record-holding 1966 Volvo P1800 | Getty Images

Every so often, companies find that their brand images need some, let’s say, shaking up. It happened with BMW Motorrad in the 1960s, which is how the R90S, the first sport-touring bike, came to be. And in the late 1950s, Volvo co-founder and VP Assar Gabrielsson thought that the Swedish brand needed to do something similar, Silodrome explains. More specifically, after visiting the US and seeing how popular European sports cars were—and noting the C1 Corvette’s launch—Gabrielsson thought that Volvo needed to make one, too.

Unfortunately, Volvo’s first sports car attempt, the 1954 P1900, didn’t go smoothly. Although the fiberglass-bodied, two-seat convertible was certainly sleek, it had numerous quality-control problems. And it was “alarmingly flexible,” Hagerty notes. So, after building 68 examples, Volvo pulled the P1900’s plug.

However, Volvo wasn’t ready to give up on sports cars altogether. It went back to the drawing board and redesigned the P1900, drawing inspiration from Italian designers like Frua. Instead of fiberglass, Volvo went with a steel unibody design. Plus, rather than making a roadster, the company decided to make a coupe. Also, to make it affordable, Volvo decided to build this new car on a shortened version of the 122/Amazon platform.

And so, six years after the P1900 failed to wow, the 1961 Volvo P1800 debuted to solid applause.

It wasn’t sharp enough for James Bond, but it was for Roger Moore

Spec1961-1973 Volvo P1800, 1800, and 1800ES
Models1961-1962: P1800
1963-1968: 1800S
1969-1972: 1800E
1972-1973: 1800ES
Engine1961-1968: 1.8-liter ‘B18’ dual-SU four-cylinder
1969-1970: 2.0-liter ‘B20’ dual-SU/dual-Zenith four-cylinder
1971-1972: 2.0-liter ‘B20’ fuel-injected four-cylinder
PowerB18: 100 hp (pre-1967), 108 hp (1967-1968)
B20: 118 hp (carbureted), 130 hp (fuel-injected)
TorqueB18: 110 lb-ft
B20: 123 lb-ft (carbureted), 130 lb-ft (fuel-injected)
TransmissionFour-speed manual
Three-speed automatic (optional, 1969-1973)
0-60 mph time13 seconds (P1800, Hagerty)
9.5 seconds (1800E, Silodrome)

Building a sports car on a practical sedan platform might seem odd from a performance standpoint. However, it’s worth noting that while the Volvo P1800 has some similar design elements to contemporary Ferraris, it wasn’t a Maranello rival. Instead, it was designed to be a luxury GT—sporty, but still comfortable and practical.

Still, remember that the Volvo Amazon was a solid rally car back in the day. As such, although the Volvo P1800 wasn’t a hard-core track monster, it could handle itself on a corner-heavy road. While it’s significantly bigger than a Porsche 356, it has the same 0-60 mph time, Hagerty notes. And it had some advanced features for its time, such as independent front suspension and front discs. Plus, when Volvo released the 1800E, it also swapped the coupe’s rear drums for discs. And because the P1800 can easily crest 100 mph, it can keep up with modern traffic.

Roger Moore opening the Volvo P1800's door for 'The Saint' co-star Isabelle McMillan
Roger Moore opening the Volvo P1800’s door for ‘The Saint’ co-star Isabelle McMillan | Len Trievnor/Express/Getty Images

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Also, it still follows Volvo’s safety traditions. So, in addition to its unibody chassis, it has things like crumple zones, reinforced doors, and a collapsible steering column. And it has three-point seat belts, too, another Volvo innovation.

Plus, remember that earlier bit about the Volvo P1800 being ‘an unofficial Bond car’? Well, although the James Bond character never drove it, a Bond actor did. Before Roger Moore played the fictional spy, he was the eponymous outlaw on The Saint TV series. And his character drove a white Volvo P1800. As a matter of fact, Moore loved the car so much, he bought a similar-spec P1800 for personal use.

The Volvo 1800ES blended the P1800’s looks with station wagon practicality

The rear 3/4 view of a red 1972 Volvo 1800ES on an airport runway
1972 Volvo 1800ES rear 3/4 view | Volvo

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Although the P1800/1800 started out as a coupe, it didn’t finish that way—technically. For the model’s last two years of production, Volvo only sold it as the 1800ES wagon. It has the same powertrain as the coupe, but it’s wrapped in a shooting brake-style body with a frameless rear window.

While it earned the nickname ‘Snow White’s Coffin’ for its design, the Volvo 1800ES is genuinely practical. The P1800 technically has a back seat, as it’s a 2+2, but the 1800ES’ rear seats are big enough for adult passengers. Plus, they fold down for extra cargo space. And thanks to improved aerodynamics, the wagon has a slightly higher top speed.

Also, the Volvo 1800ES benefitted from all the updates the 1800 coupe received over the years. So, not only does it have fuel injection, but it has better seats, upgraded interior trim and gauges, and optional A/C, Hagerty reports. And yes, you could fit it with roof rails.

Whether Volvo 1800ES or P1800, these are practical and durable classics that more people are starting to appreciate

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For a long time, the Volvo P1800 coupes and 1800ES wagons were arguably undervalued. However, prices have recently begun to climb, especially for later models. Before 1963, British company Jensen built the coupes under contract, but quality problems meant Volvo had to step in early. As a result, the later 1800S models are more desirable.

But while P1800/1800 prices are higher, these coupes are still fairly affordable. A good-to-excellent condition P1800 costs $20K-$40K, Hagerty reports. An 1800S in similar shape is $27K-$52K. However, the fuel-injected models are noticeably cheaper. The 1800E typically goes for $19K-$30K, Hagerty notes. And a good-to-excellent Volvo 1800ES is only slightly more expensive at $18K-$34K.

Besides being reasonably priced, the Volvo P1800 lineup is also known for its durability. Case in point, a P1800 holds the Guinness World Record for the most miles driven during non-commercial use. By the time he passed away in 2018, Irv Gordon had driven his 1966 1800S over 3.25 million miles. And keep in mind, the B20 later made its way into the famously durable Volvo 240. Apart from age-related issues, the biggest problem is replacing the original fiber-based timing gears with metal versions.

So, if you take care of it, a Volvo P1800 should serve you as well as it did The Saint.

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