The 1950s saw most car manufacturers reaching to sports cars to burnish their image and give a spark to their product lines.
This was especially true of European makers eager to get a bigger part of the lucrative U.S. market, where buyers were embracing a more spirited and involving driving experience — even while continuing to buy family sedans.
As a result, even Volvo — possibly the most practical carmaker on the planet — launched a limited-production two-seater to join the Corvettes, Thunderbirds, Austin-Healeys and Porsches in American driveways. The P1900, introduced in 1956, had little sporting style and dash, inadequate power and un-Volvo like shoddy build quality. Only 68 were built before the plug was pulled.
The P1800 coupe, a successor unveiled in 1960, was low, sleek and very dramatic looking — a novelty for Volvos. Drawn by Swedish stylist Pelle Petterson while he worked at Frua in Italy, the new car had a very Italianate look and could have easily come from the pen of Giovanni Michelotti or Franco Scaglione.
As to who would buy an impractical version of a most practical car, which cost almost as much as a Jaguar E-type, I suppose it would seem perfect for a certain niche market, say, university math professors in midlife crisis whose unshakable basic logic and common sense wouldn’t allow them to splash out for a Corvette.
The 1800 in the name referred to the 1,780-cc capacity of the B18 engine, and P stood for “Personvagn,” which is Swedish for “coach.” The P was dropped with the introduction of the 1800S in 1963, and even though the engine size grew to 2 liters in 1969, the name remained 1800, and many still refer to all the cars with the letter prefix going all the way through the last of the line, the 1800ES.
It’s interesting that Volvo turned to Italian design houses Coggiola and Frua for proposals for this sport wagon version of the 1800E. Each delivered very forward-looking designs. In the end, they proved to be a bit too forward for Volvo, which had its in-house stylist Jan Wilsgaard draw the “Breadvan” greenhouse and updated details of the ES. With a few other detail trim changes, Wilsgaard did a very good job of making the essentially 1950s shell look contemporary enough for the 1970s. The only things that dated the car were the narrow wheels and tires. In Europe, they became known as “Schneewittchensarg,” or “Snow White’s Coffin,” due to their extensive use of glass — a term Publisher Martin loves to use when referring to his own 1800ES.
A short production run
It’s a measure of the uncertainly that surrounded the ever-shifting U.S. safety and emissions standards that Volvo created this model and then killed it so soon — to avoid the expense of compliance with the infamous 1974 regulations.
While there were almost 40,000 coupes built over 11 years, only 8,077 of the sport wagons left the factory. The model type makes so much sense that it’s surprising that there haven’t been more. To have a sporty two-seater with actual space to carry the luggage needed for a week away on the road or more than a single bag of groceries is very appealing. The Volvo fits this bill spectacularly, being a car that might actually be dependable enough to get you there and back — while delivering more than a bit of entertainment on the journey.
Of course, the entertainment factor has to be taken in perspective. The 1800ES is no Aston Martin DB5 Shooting Brake. Volvo enthusiasts concede that the B20 engine isn’t a smooth, creamy, high-revving thoroughbred, but it is a reliable lump with enough low- and mid-range grunt to get you along, although not something that will make you not want to turn on the radio. That’s okay, as the 1800ES is one of those collectible cars that is capable enough to be used as a daily driver in most places.
For owners who want to find performance to match the looks, many upgrades are available for the B20 engine, and they can as much as double the stock 125 horsepower.
As long as you make sure that your insurance company provides the proper kind of agreed-value coverage and that you don’t misuse the car, your 1800ES can do all the things a contemporary car can do — and with a great deal more style and fun.
Robust — and few parts problems
Parts availability is excellent, approaching British car levels, so you don’t feel nervous that if something wears out or breaks it will cost the Earth to replace. But costs do have to be considered, especially as they relate to body condition and the fuel injection of the ES. The complex body structure, including three-part sills, has many rust traps, and proper repairs are expensive to execute. An 1800ES restoration project is something taken on for passion — not profit.
Mechanically, while the cars are robust and reliable, problems with the Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection can be costly to resolve. With the first electronically controlled fuel-injection unit, close attention should be paid to the condition of the cable harness. Low-rev drivability issues can be an indication that there might be trouble in this area. Replacements for the brake booster can also be hard to find and expensive to buy.
Inside, the 1800ES has a well detailed-interior, with leather-faced seats. Replacement parts are available, including the original upholstery material. Again, it pays here to find a car with a well-preserved interior rather than spending lots of money to bring it back up to snuff. One thing that someone looking at these cars will quickly notice is that many U.S. delivery examples were fitted with air conditioning. You’ll quickly next notice that there are very few with working units. These a/c systems were, as was the case with most non-U.S. cars, not very efficient, but can be made to do an adequate job with a little effort.
The 1800ES makes a distinctive 1970s style statement, and as such, has begun to benefit from that decade’s appeal to young hipsters. In fact, the model’s popularity with many outside those who would be considered Volvo collectors has pushed prices steadily upward in the past couple of years — a trend that shows no sign of abating.
For a collector looking for an eye-catching, usable classic with great parts and club support, the 1800ES is a great alternative to an MGB GT, Jensen GT or Jaguar E-type 2+2. And interest is rising steadily, so get yours now. ?