The Volvo P1800 Buying Guide – Italian styling effortlessly combined with Swedish elegance

The Volvo P1800 was a unique offering for the Swedish auto maker, its softly sculpted lines and sporting aspirations endeared it to generations of car fans.

By the 1960s Volvo had established itself as a producer of solid and sober family cars and one short-lived sports car, the P1900. This fibreglass-bodied convertible had a tiny engine and questionable build quality, just 68 were built before the plug was pulled, perhaps its most lasting contribution was to set the stage for its far more convincing successor, the P1800-the P in the name was for Personvagn or simply ‘passenger car’.

Volvo P1800 – Designed by Frua

The design was credited to Italian design house Frua, however, many years later it was revealed that a Swedish employee at the design house was responsible for the project. The running gear was based on Volvo’s tried and trusted Amazon saloon and this not only gave the lighter P1800 impressive performance from the 100bhp B18 motor but good reliability too. The first 6,000 cars were assembled by Jensen Motors with the unibody shells manufactured by Pressed Steel in Scotland. For 1963 the production of the P1800 was moved to Sweden where quality control was much improved, the naming was changed to 1800S (S for Sweden) and the B18 engine received an 8bhp power bump which went up again in 1966 to a total of 115bhp. For the final year of production the 2.0-litre B20 B motor introduced which produced a slightly higher 118bhp but offered more low-end torque. A spell as the ride of choice for Roger Moore in the hit ’60s series ‘The Saint’ gave the car international recognition and a strong following in the US.

The 1800E of 1970 came with a number of improvements, fuel injection boosted power to 130bhp and all-wheel disc brakes helped bring the car to a stop more effectively.  The 1800ES joined the 1800E in 1972 and instead of the two-door coupe bodystyle it was offered solely in a three-door hatchback layout. This variant become the sole offering in the final year of production and while it may not be quite so sporty in its design, this quirky model has a strong following and its unique opening glass rear hatch was implemented in a number of Volvo designs in the years to come.

Despite a rather steep price tag in its day, a total of just under 47,500 1800s were sold, the majority going to the US. Volvo may well have carried on production and there were rumours of an updated model coming to market but complying with the impending strict safety US regulations made production of the ageing 1800 financially unviable.

Volvo P1800 Engine and gearbox

Both the earlier 1.8-litre and later 2.0-litre motors are very robust, the original Volvo oil filter has a non-return valve which some aftermarket alternatives do not, fitting the wrong item can damage the engine. Fuel-injected cars offer better economy, cold starting and performance but if the system requires repair it can be very expensive, so some owners have converted their cars back to the old carburettor setup. Cam timing gears can wear out over time and hardier steel gears can be sourced which should last far longer.

The gearboxes are extremely tough and can soldier on for years, if the overdrive on models where it was fitted gives trouble this can usually be traced to faulty relays or wiring damage. Changing the gearbox and axle oil every few years-the recommended intervals vary between specialists-is generally all that is needed to keep them functioning without issues. Manual ‘boxes tend to leak a small amount of oil so a bit of wetness underneath the gearbox housing is considered normal.

Volvo P1800 Suspension and Brakes

The early cars had a disc/drum braking setup, from 1970-on there were discs all-round, the braking system was also converted to a dual circuit setup the year before.  Not much goes wrong here but check for seized calipers on disc brakes, the rear drums last longer but are expensive to replace if damaged.

The suspension system should be inspected for the usual worn shocks, springs and perished bushes. Tie rods and wishbone bushes tend to wear out and if the steering is overly heavy it might require an overhaul which is expensive.

Volvo P1800 Bodywork and interior

Rust is an issue that can easily ruin a good car, parts are scarce and they don’t come cheap when you do find what you are looking for. The front of the car is the most prone to corrosion so check the crossmembers, wheel arches and wings, but rust can manifest anywhere so it is best to get the car on a lift and look at the steering box (another weak spot) and the door bottoms as well.

The interior will have been through a lot so most cars will either have been retrimmed or require some attention to the seats and especially the door cards. Most trim items and switchgear can be sourced for a price aside from the earlier cars built by Jensen. Electrical system issues can usually be traced back to defective relays, bad earthing or corroded connectors.

Model History Of The Volvo P1800

1961:   Volvo P1800 goes into production. Two-door coupe bodystyle with 100bhp 1.8-litre inline-four and four-speed manual transmission

1963:   Production moves to Sweden with a name change to 1800S and minor changes to engine to boost power by 8bhp

1966:   Power upped once again to 115bhp

1967:   Interior updated and features more plastic trim

1969:   Fuel injection added and name changed to 1800E, a three-speed Borg Warner automatic becomes available

1972:   1800ES introduced with new three-door hatchback body style. Coupe body style discontinued soon afterwards

1973:   Volvo 1800ES ends production


Production numbers (estimated)

P1800:             6000

1800S:             24,000

1800E:             9,400

1800ES:           8,000

Which Volvo P1800 To Buy

The Volvo 1800 variants have developed a reputation for mechanically solidity and reliability that makes them superb practical classics, the relatively limited production numbers and those stunning looks have helped bolster values, too. High mileages aren’t a concern (as evidenced by Irv Gordon’s 3.2-million mile 1800ES) as long as the service intervals have been adhered to, but watch out for badly rusted or incomplete cars, repairing the bodywork and sourcing certain trim can be very pricey. That is why you should be cautious of overly cheap cars and rather look for a well-maintained example.

The toughest cars to find parts for are the early P1800s, the 1800S, E and ES variants were reputedly better built although the earliest P1800s with the cow horn bumpers can command some of the highest values. Another desirable model is the rare ES hatchback, its extra power and practicality make for a particularly alluring classic car package. While Volvo never offered an official convertible model a handful were converted in period and these are both rare and valuable. It is best not to get too fixated on a specific variant as despite the nearly 47,500 cars built, few remained in the UK and fewer still have survived the perils of corrosion, so, rather look for the best condition car you can afford and it should provide you many years of happy motoring.

Volvo P1800 Specifications

1.8-litre OHV inline-four

Power:             100-115bhp

Top speed:      109mph

0-60mph:        10sec est.

Economy:       30mpg


2.0-litre OHV inline-four

Power:             118-130bhp

Top speed:      118mph

0-60mph:        9.0sec est.

Economy:       30mpg

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Text John Tallodi  Photos Newspress, GT3 srl

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