This year marks the 50th birthday of the Volvo P1800, one of the Swedish brand’s most beautiful and iconic designs ever crafted. The P1800 came 56th in our April, 2009 list of the 100 coolest cars of history. As such, Volvo is celebrating the 1961 launch of its “most internationally renowned model ever.”
The P1800 followed on the heels of the Volvo Sport, a roadster built from 1955 to 1957. Just 67 copies were built, and the car was commercially unsuccessful. However, it inspired Volvo to build a new car that would be prestigious and exciting — and most important, a car that would get buyers into Volvo showrooms.
Design proposals were first commissioned from Italian stylists in 1957, with the winning design penned by the young Pelle Petterson. Three prototypes were built in Italy the following year, all of which survive today. The steel-bodied car was built on a shortened version of the Volvo 121 chassis, with much of its running gear appropriated from the Volvo Amazon. The launch engine was an all-new 1.8-liter inline-four engine producing 100 hp. A 2.0-liter engine with 118 hp bowed in 1968, followed by a fuel-injected version with 120 hp in 1969.
Volvo didn’t have enough production capacity within its own plants to build the car itself, so the P1800 initially wasbuilt by Jensen Motors and Pressed Steel, both British companies. After several construction issues, assembly was moved to a Volvo facility in Sweden in 1963, although body construction wouldn’t move to a Swedish facility for another six years.
Although the P1800 was sold for 12 years (from 1961 to 1972), the car saw a bevy of changes over its production run. The model quickly adopted Volvo’s newest technologies as they debuted, including four-wheel disc brakes and electronic fuel injection.A wagon model was introduced for 1971, dubbed the P1800 ES.
The car rose to fame when it was driven by Roger Moore in British television series The Saint. More recently, the P1800 caught headlines when New York owner Irv Gordon hit 2.8 million miles in a Volvo P1800 S he bought new in 1966.
Volvo says 39,414 copies of the P1800 were sold over its production run, and it was conceived as a “niche” model rather than a mass-market vehicle. The company calls the P1800 “timeless, classic and sporty in a well-balanced way,” and we’d be inclined to agree.