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The Saintly Volvo
March 15, 2006, by Bill Cawthon
In my February 15 column, I mentioned the new Volvo P1800ES coming from Herpa sometime this year. This time I want to keep the promise I made then, which was to do a column on the Volvo sports car.
By the mid-1950s, Volvo was a successful manufacturer of well-built, if not very exciting, automobiles. In 1954, the company displayed the prototype of a new two-seater sports car. Late in the following year, the Volvo P1900 went into production. Built on a tubular steel frame, the P1900 had a B14A four-cylinder engine with dual carburetors and mechanicals borrowed from the PV444. Like the recently introduced Corvette, the P1900 had a fiberglass body. Volvo had Glaspar, a California-based boat company, create the molds which were shipped to Sweden where Volvo produced the bodies.
Unlike the PV444, the P1900 was not a success and the total production run was just 68 cars built in 1956 and early 1957. The public wasn't really interested in the car and it suffered from very un-Volvo-like build quality problems. Gunnar Engelau, president of Volvo at the time, took a P1900 to drive on his vacation and was so displeased with the car he canceled production upon his return.
But Volvo still wanted a sports car. Work began almost immediately on a successor to the P1900. Spearheading the work was Helmer Petterson, the man responsible for the PV444. In 1957, Petterson was working as a consultant to Volvo and his son, Pelle, was working for the Pietro Frua design firm, which had been recently acquired by Ghia. Pelle Petterson did the design and Frua constructed three hand-built prototypes: The P958-X1, P958-X2 and P958-X3.
In December Helmer Petterson drove the 958-X1 to Osnabrück, Germany to meet with Volvo chief engineer Thor Berthelius and the engineers of Wilhelm Karmann GmbH. Volvo's own production capacity was already stretched to the limit and Petterson's plan was to farm out the tooling and assembly of the new car to Karmann.
Petterson and Berthelius met with the Karmann engineers who were already at work on the project using the designs created by Frua. Everyone soon was in agreement and it was projected the first cars would be ready for sale in December 1958.
In February 1958 Petterson's plans were blasted by a bombshell from Volkswagen. Fearing the new Volvo could hurt sales of their own cars, VW told Karmann they would cancel all their contracts if the P1800 was built in Osnabrück. Petterson contacted other German companies but Volvo's management did not believe these other firms could meet Volvo manufacturing quality control standards.
This setback almost killed the project. At one point, Petterson considered buying components from Volvo and marketing the car himself. He had actually gotten as far as obtained backing from a couple of financial firms when the P1800 project was saved by a stroke of luck.
Up to this time, Volvo had not acknowledged development of a new sports car. Then a company press release and a photo of the car appeared. Whether the release was an oversight or a case "accidentally on purpose" Volvo was put in a position of having to admit its involvement with the project.
With the cat out of the bag, Volvo began an earnest search for a company that could build the new car. They found what they wanted in the West Midlands region of Great Britain.
Jensen Motors of West Bromwich got its start in 1936 when Richard and Alan Jensen bought out the W.J. Smith & Sons coachworks following the founder's death. The Jensen brothers, who had been working for Smith, renamed the company and began building cars and commercial bodies.
Following World War II, Jensen began building upscale cars, including the Jensen Interceptor which made its debut in 1950.
Jensen had the capacity Volvo needed and the companies executed an initial contract for 10,000 cars. The unibody shell would be produced by Pressed Steel, a Scottish company, and shipped by rail to the Jensen works.
In January 1960 Volvo unveiled the new P1800 at the Brussels International Motor Show. The new P1800 had a 100-horsepower B18B engine with dual carburetors that Volvo described as completely new. In reality, the B18B engine was developed from the B36 V8 truck engine and while it might not have been new, it was very robust and had five main crankshaft bearings.
The P1800 is still considered one of the most beautiful Volvos ever made and the public and press attending the Brussels show loved it. Nine months later, the first 1961 Volvo P1800 rolled out of the Jensen factory.
The P1800's big break came at the end of 1961. Leslie Charteris had sold the television rights to "The Saint" to British producer Robert Baker who teamed up with Lew Grade of ITC to produce a TV series. In the many books and stories Charteris had written since the Saint debuted in 1928, Simon Templar had usually driven a Hirondel. Unfortunately, Hirondel is a fictitious brand so Baker and Grade needed to find a real car for actor Roger Moore to drive.
By the way, Baker and Grade struck out on their first choices for the lead and his car. Patrick McGoohan turned down the role because he was already working on another series that later evolved into "Secret Agent" so Roger Moore, already known to TV audiences for a variety of roles that included Beau Maverick on the popular American western, became The Saint.
The first choice for Simon Templar's car was the Jaguar E-Type, first shown at the Geneva Auto Show in March 1961. However, Jaguar didn't think their new car needed the exposure and declined to supply one for the series. Baker and Grade then bought a white P1800 from a London Volvo dealer, paying full list price for the car.
The first episode aired in 1962 and the series quickly became a hit. It was exported to the U.S. where it became one of the most successful syndicated shows ever. Every week, audiences were treated to another promotion of the Volvo P1800 wearing fictitious "ST1" license plates.
Considering the program was in first run though the height of the American fascination with the Beatles, James Bond and almost anything British, Volvo's fortuitous product placement netted them visibility far beyond their wildest imaginings and was the cause of much heartache in the British auto industry. Happy to have their car in a hit TV show, Volvo continued to supply cars until the series ended in 1969.
The P1800 was also a success but there was trouble with Jensen; quality control wasn't up to Volvo's standards. In 1963, Volvo terminated the contract after only 6,000 cars had been built and moved production back home to Göteborg. That same year, engine output was boosted by 8 horsepower and the model designation was changed to P1800S.
In late 1963, the Saint's original Volvo was replaced with a new 1964 P1800S, but there was a slight problem: Unlike Jensen, Volvo didn't offer bright white as a paint color on regular production cars. The closest shade in the Volvo palette was pearl white, a color closer to cream than white. Since the TV show was filmed in black and white, it was hard for the audience to detect any difference, but many customers were frustrated when told they couldn't have a pure white Volvo. The use of pearl white cars continued even after production of the show changed to color. Incidentally, the new Volvo was not only used in filming "The Saint," it became Roger Moore's personal car. In 1967, Volvo actually supplied two new cars: one for the show and one for Moore. Roger Moore is still driving Volvos and currently owns a XC90. It was said that Leslie Charteris also bought a Volvo.
Another engine upgrade came in 1966, when the B18B was given another seven horsepower. It's this engine that was in a bright red Volvo P1800S purchased in July 1966 by Irv Gordon, a science teacher from Long Island. Thirty-two years later, that car was in the Guinness Book of World Records as the vehicle with the "the highest certified mileage driven by the original owner in non-commercial service." As of December 2005 Mr. Gordon, who is now retired, had rolled up 2.4 million miles on his 1966 P1800 and breaks his own world record every time he drives. He plans to hit 2.5 million miles by the end of 2006 and has set a goal of 3 million miles by 2010.
In late 1968 a new two-liter engine, the B20 with 120 horsepower, replaced the B18B. Fuel injection was added in 1970 and the designation was changed again, this time to P1800E.
By 1972, the P1800's fourteen-year-old styling and mechanicals were becoming dated. In an effort to fire up customer interest, Volvo introduced a new car, the P1800ES which added a long roofline and all-glass hatchback to the P1800E. Dubbed "Schneewittchen Sarg" or "Snow White's Coffin" because of its large greenhouse, this is the car Herpa will offer in 1:87 scale later this year and it is one of my personal favorite cars of all time.
Unfortunately, Snow White's Coffin didn't come with a prince and a magic kiss to bring new life to P1800 sales. Volumes weren't enough to justify the extensive redesign the P1800 would have required to meet the new U.S. safety requirements that were being imposed and Volvo decided to drop the line. Production of the P1800E ended in August 1972 and the last P1800ES rolled off the line on June 27, 1973.
While it wasn't quite in the same league as the P1800's starring role in a hit TV series, the P1800ES had its own small moment in the sun when Playboy magazine presented one in their trademark Playmate pink to Marilyn Cole, their "Playmate of the Year" for 1973.
Volvo did try one more time to keep a sports car in their lineup. While the P1800ES was still in production, Volvo was negotiating with designer Sergio Coggiola of Turin, Italy, for a completely new car, the P1800ESC. While a very striking concept version was built and displayed, the project never even came close to production and so the sports car era ended at Volvo.
In all, 47,492 P1800s were built during its twelve-year run. There were 6,000 Jensen-built P1800s followed by Swedish production of 23,993 P1800Ss, 9,421 P1800Es and 8,078 P1800ESs.
There were a number of 1:87 scale P1800s released in the 1960s including independent creations by Spanish modelmakers Anguplas and EKO. The EKO version is still available but the field is still wide open to a high-quality replica of the P1800. The new Herpa P1800ES is the first ready-to-run plastic model of the 1972 hatchback though it was previously offered in resin kit form by both Focus and US Models.
If you would like to see one of the P1800s used in "The Saint," the Cars of the Stars museum in Keswick, England has one on display. Their car is the fully restored 1964 P1800S, complete with the original 77 GYL registration. It now sports a giant Saint logo on the hood.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant working with the information technology and hobby industries. He is an associate editor for Model Railroad News and writes a monthly column on the U.S. light vehicle industry. He is a member of the 1/87 Vehicle Club and the Texas Auto Writers Association.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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