When you consider the Volvo brand you think of a sensible, safe, well-built vehicle that quietly clocks up the road miles and hardly ever goes wrong.
And if you’re old enough, you’ll recall the TV adverts from the eighties, in which they had crash test dummies demonstrating how well the Scandinavian cars cope in a collision.
But there was a time, back in the fifties, when the Volvo badge conjured up an entirely different image, something much more exciting. Let’s take a closer look at Volvo’s awesome P1900.
The Emergence Of The P1900
In the mid-fifties Volvo was attempting to break into the US sports car market with an open-topped two-seater, the P1900; it was a convertible with a fibreglass body shell. But poor looks and shoddy build quality resulted in just sixty-seven units being sold. So Volvo went back to the drawing board.
Determined to avoid the mistakes of the P1900, the chief design engineer at the time persuaded his bosses to seek some external help, and they put the design effort for the new car out to tender.
They turned to an Italian designer and coach-builder named Pietro Frua responded, a man with an impressive résumé and notable previous successes under his belt, including Vespa scooters, Fiat cars, Maserati and Renault cars.
Volvo assigned a young talented 25-year old Swedish intern named Pelle Petterson to work with the Frua studio in Italy on the new car, which was to be called the P1800. What they produced was nothing short of a miracle. The first P1800 prototype was unveiled at the Brussels Car Show in 1960, and full-scale production commenced the following May.
The rear-wheel drive coupe was absolutely stunning with its striking body lines, raised rear fins, long nose, and large smiling chrome grille.
The cabin was magnificent, too, with its wide array of chrome dials, dash-mounted rear view mirror, skinny indicator stalks, hide interior and arty two spoke steering wheel.
The sporty Volvo was an extremely desirable alternative to the sleek Jaguar E-Type and its fellow poster cars from Porsche and Ferrari, that came with much more hefty price tags.
In September 1960, the first production model left the Jensen factory in West Bromwich, England, and for some bizarre reason Volvo marketed it as a touring car, not a sports car.
The original car had about 100 hp, 1780cc, four cyclinder engine which enabled the car to reach sixty mph in under 10 seconds and climb to around 115 mph at the top end.
At the P1800’s official launch in 1961, in Geneva, the handsome Swede was forced to share a pedestal with one of the greatest British cars ever made, the magnificent Jaguar E-type, which was also released that year.
Celebrity Status Of The Volvo P1900
So what is it about this classic, Swedish 2+2 that makes it such a cool ride?
It could well be the car’s stylish rear fins, which look like something straight out of the movie Grease. Or maybe its the car’s interior, with its gorgeous array of switches, stitched leather seats and numerous chrome dials. Or is it simply the car’s exquisite Italian body styling?
Well, these are all pretty cool, but there is one thing that really makes this sixty-year old Swede uber cool, and that is the fact that it was once a global TV star.
And here’s the amazing story behind its rise to fame.
In 1961, some TV producers approached Jaguar and asked them if they could have an E-type for a new TV detective drama series they were making. Jaguar turned them down, telling them that they didn’t need, or want, the additional publicity for their new sports car.
So, the TV company hastily approached Volvo, asking them for a P1800 to start filming with, and a London-based Volvo agent responded and gladly supplied one.
The TV series being filmed was called ‘The Saint’, a fantasy drama programme about a secret service agent named Simon Templar. And a handsome young up and coming British actor was being lined up for the lead role (of Simon Templar), and his name was Roger Moore.
From the very first episode in 1962, the curvy little Volvo, sporting the famous ‘ST1’ number plate, was heavily featured in the show with Roger at the wheel. And it soon became his co-star, not his prop.
The show became an instant hit all around the world, and they made 118 episodes until filming stopped in February 1969. At the end of each episode there was a famous signature moment. After Simon (the Saint) had triumphantly fought off some bad guys, an animated halo would appear above his head and he would look directly into the camera.
Throughout that seven year period of filming, Volvo supplied five P1800s to the show. One of the challenges they had was trying to keep the show’s cars fresh and up-to-date. So when the P1800s was introduced they went to great lengths to ensure that the audience witnessed a seamless transition. They actually blew up Simon Templar’s beloved P1800 car in one of the episodes. Then they neatly filmed him taking delivery of a replacement car (P1800s) in the following episode.
The cult TV show was originally filmed in black-and-white, but in 1965 they switched it to colour. This gave viewers the opportunity to see, for the first time, the car’s real colours. Cream (as opposed to white) paintwork and luxurious red (as opposed to black) leather interior.
And it wasn’t just the fans that loved the sleek little coupe,;Roger Moore did too, as he privately owned one of the cars himself. Roger went on to global ‘A’ list movie stardom, famous for his role as the the British Secret Service agent James Bond, 007.
So, it was purely due to luck, that a strange, unforeseen turn of events (Jaguar declining a TV show) that got Volvo more publicity for the P1800 series car than it could ever have dreamed of. Even today you will see this awesome car starring in Volvo’s TV adverts and marketing campaigns. And just looking at it, you can see why.
The P1800 is a car that will always be associated with one guy, the suave and sophisticated Roger Moore, and the character that he portrayed, Simon Templar (the Saint). Dressed in an immaculate suit and tie, with his neatly combed swathe of brylcreemed hair, the smooth British actor just oozed coolness, as he stepped out of his iconic cream Volvo brandishing a pistol.
Final Thoughts on the Volvo P1800
Unlike the Volvos of today, throughout its production life, the P1800 suffered from a multitude of quality control issues and assembly problems. The company upgraded the original 1800cc dual carburettor engine with a 2-liter four cylinder unit in 1966, and also shifted its production to a plant in Sweden. But, unfortunately, its days were numbered.
In 1972 they released the rather disappointing P1800 ES ‘shooting-brake’ model, a much less attractive model, which just didn’t have the same appeal as the coupe. With its extended hatchback styling earning it the unfortunate nickname of ‘Snow White’s Coffin’.
The P1800 was taken out of production in 1973, when new emissions rules and regulations in the US came into force. Volvo took the regrettable decision that it just wasn’t economical enough for them to continue with the car, so production of this super stylish little sports car came to an end.
Which was a great shame, because at the time, consumer demand for relatively inexpensive sports cars was at a high. Buyers that couldn’t afford the likes of Ferrari and Porsche were looking elsewhere, and carmakers such as MG, were able to flourish.
Rebirth : Cyan Racing’s Volvo P1800
However, on its recent sixtieth anniversary in 2020, a racing thoroughbred version of the P1800 was born. Thanks to Volvo’s motor racing partner, Cyan Racing, an all new super-fast retromod version of the classic car is once more available.
This one (pictured above) has many original exterior features, looks great, and is perfect for the race track. But it does come with an eye-watering price tag of $520,000, plus you need to find a donor car for the company to use as a platform to build it on, according to Auto Express and AutoDrive.
The Volvo P1800 is a classic piece of ’60s nostalgia. Its not just a simple TV prop that somehow got lucky. Its a thing of beauty. It’s a car that must be adored. You could liken it to that favourite holiday photo which you have as wallpaper on your computer. It just warrants you taking some time out, forgetting about your troubles, and simply admiring it.
Okay, the original coupes weren’t the best to drive, or the quickest of cars, but let’s face it, if it’s a warm Sunday afternoon and your in the mood for a short cruise in the country, who wouldn’t want to look as cool as Simon Templar! Does anyone know if brylcreem is still available over the counter?
It’s not too difficult to pick up a cheap car from the 1990s on the used market today. However, knowing whether it will run is another issue.
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