The P1800 is without question one of the most beautiful Volvos to have ever rolled off the factory floor.
Words like "sporty", "curvaceous"” or "iconic" aren’t usually used to describe anything made by Volvo. The Swedes build excellent cars, but they tend to stay away from the sexier niches. That’s fine, really, soccer moms are a very real market force and someone needs to build cars for them. But in the Sixties, Volvo built an incredibly cool little sports coupe, which was in turn given a huge image boost when it was chosen as the primary vehicle for the TV show "The Saint".
The Saint was a British TV show which first aired in 1962, although the character of Simon Templar had existed in a series of books dating back to the Twenties. The similarities between Templar and James Bond have been noted, and in an early episode of the show, another character mistakes Templar for Bond. The show debuted the same year as the first Bond film (Dr. No), and for a time, the character of Simon Templar was serious competition for Bond in cool points. In fact, Roger Moore, the actor who played Templar, was twice offered the role of Bond during the show’s run, and although he would have to turn down these offers, he would eventually take over the role once his TV obligations were over.
The first proper Volvo sports car was built in 1956 and was inspired by the Chevrolet Corvette. This was the P1900, a fiberglass-bodied sports car intended to be a halo model for the sober Swedes. But its performance was no match for the Corvette, and neither did it manage to attract as much attention as the many and hugely popular British sports cars hitting the market at the time. So the P1900 ended up being a dismal failure, with just 68 units sold. But Volvo didn’t want to give up, recognizing that a bit more power and a better-looking body would go a long way.
A prototype of the new car which would become the P1800 was first built in 1957, just after the demise of the P1900. Volvo had initially hoped to produce the car in Germany with the help of Karmann. But when Volkswagen, by far Karmann’s biggest contract, got wind of this, it threatened to take all of its Karmann business elsewhere, fearing the possible competition from Volvo. So the production debut of the P1800 was delayed while Volvo looked for a new partner to handle production, eventually signing a deal with Jensen in the UK. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the debut would end up being perfectly timed to coincide with the debut of The Saint.
The car was first shown at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show, alongside the also-new Jaguar E-Type. It was at this show where the producers of the upcoming Saint TV show approached Jaguar about using an E-Type for the show. Jaguar turned them down, having seen the huge amount of attention heaped on the E-Type, the thinking was that car just didn’t need the help. When Volvo was approached next, the company remembered the failure of the P1900 and agreed to provide two cars for use in the show. But in truth, the P1800 wasn’t all that special. It produced just 100 horsepower at first, later increased to 130.
It was attractive, but would struggle to be noticed next to an E-Type. This didn’t matter though: Simon Templar drove one, and the coolness it brought helped bring sales to total more than 47,000 units by the end of production in 1973.
Considering the appalling sales of the P1900 and the fact that sports cars aren’t really Volvo’s thing anyway, this is an almost shockingly high number. There is a lot to like about the P1800, but fortunately, luck was also on its side. Here's hoping that recent rumors of a potential revival (at least in spirit) under consideration at Volvo headquarters will lead to fruition.