In our humble opinion, the current Volvo 90-Series cars are some of the best-looking on the road. The S90, V90, and XC90 all take Swedish modernism to the next level. With their scalloped front grille and high, athletic rear haunches, they nod to the company’s past in a subtle way, but were largely designed with an eye to the future. This bold new language can trace its roots from a class of concepts launched back in 2013, starting with the Concept Coupe. While that car was undeniably influenced by Volvo’s past, it didn’t come from the soft shapes of the past 20 years. Or the beloved brick-shaped cars of the ’60s-’90s. It came almost entirely from Volvo’s iconic sports car, the 1961-’73 P1800.
There are die-hard fans for almost every classic model the company has ever made. But at the end of the day, if you ask most of them what their favorite is, they’ll likely go with the P1800. And why not? Without a doubt, it’s the sexiest Volvo of all time, and with nearly 50,000 built, it was plenty popular too. But while the P1800 seems like the anomaly in Volvo’s pragmatic past, it didn’t just come from out of the blue. There was another sports car that came first, one the company hoped would make the splash that its successor ended up making. That car was the P1900, and it was an important — but often overlooked — step for the company.
By the early 1950s, Volvo was eager to break into the American market, and company founder Assar Gabrielsson traveled there annually to meet with suppliers and business contacts. In 1953, he saw that the American automotive world was buzzing about sports cars. MGs, Triumphs, Jaguars, and other imports were gaining attention, and there was also a growing demand for fiberglass-bodied kit cars. Fiberglass seemed like the way of the future, with Kaiser using it to build the Darrin, and Chevrolet for the Corvette. Gabrielsson thought a sports car could be just the thing to get Volvo noticed in the States.
Volvo quickly entered a partnership with fiberglass pioneer Glasspar to design and build 20 bodies for Volvo, then advise as production shifted to Gothenburg, Sweden. Mechanically, the new car would be based on the company’s best-selling PV444, but with a unique tubular steel frame. In the sports car, the PV’s 1.4 liter inline four would be tuned for higher compression, and gain two SU carburetors and a unique valve design, giving it a boost from 51 to 70 horsepower. This may not sound like much today, but it was more than enough to keep up with most small sports cars of the era.
In January 1955, Volvo debuted the Volvo Sport P1900 in Brussels to positive reviews. Prototypes hit the European auto show circuit, with one staying behind to greet people at Gothenburg’s airport. The company had big plans for its little roadster. Realizing that the market for a light, open-topped sports car in Sweden was limited, it planned to sell most of the cars throughout Europe and America, with a goal of moving 300 cars per year. But after another year of development, the car just couldn’t deliver on what Gabrielsson envisioned.
Despite the added power from the 1.4 B14A engine, performance was severely hampered by Volvo’s agrarian three-speed manual gearbox. And the flexible fiberglass body did little to aid the already overwhelmed tubular chassis. At low speeds, the car made a fine cruiser. Driven like a sports car, the body creaked and flexed, and handling was unpredictable. What’s more, the lowest price Volvo could get the cost down to was $3,944 — over $800 more than a Corvette. For a company as small as Volvo, the P1900 became too much of a risk to keep building.
In 1956, Gabrielsson stepped down, with Gunnar Engellau taking the company’s reins. According to legend, shortly after his promotion, Engellau took a P1900 out for a vacation. When he returned, he promptly canceled the car, declaring “I thought it would fall apart!” after he drove it. That story may be apocryphal, but it was no secret that most of the company’s management was no fan of the car. Just 68 were built, and plans to export the P1900 were mostly scuttled, with the bulk of them quietly sold in Sweden. After the demise of the P1900, Engellau ordered a new sports car program based on the all-new Amazon model. Four years later, the P1800 debuted, finally giving Volvo its break in the sports car world, and creating a design language that continues to this day.
Over 60 years later, it’s hard not to admire the risks Volvo took with the P1900. With no prior experience, it sought to use a mix of cutting-edge technology (fiberglass construction) with existing engineering to redefine the company. Minus the fiberglass body, Volvo repeated the same formula — albeit with newer engineering — for the P1800, and found the success it was looking for. Simply put, the P1900 was the wrong car at the wrong time.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its charms. Usually found in charming pastel colors (most, thankfully, still survive), the high-riding P1900 has an almost nautical look to it up close. Its front end is an acquired taste, but the rest of the design is simple and charming, like you’d expect from a ’50s European roadster. Plus, it’s old enough that its handling and engineering issues no longer disqualify it. It may have fallen short by Volvo’s quality standards, but fit-and-finish is no better or worse than most small-run British roadsters of the era. And despite its failure, this car directly led to the P1800, which inspired Volvo’s current crop of designers to go bold with the lineup. For a car that would’ve been little more than a blip on the radar for most automakers, the P1900 marks the first time in Volvo history when the company tried to build something sporty. As you can see from the promo photo above, that’s something the company won’t forget anytime soon.