Sporting attractive coupé bodywork with trademark sturdy mechanicals underneath, the Volvo 1800E changed the motoring public’s view of the Swedish marque
Volvo had always been known for a focus on safety rather than speed, so it came as a bit of a surprise when it unveiled the Volvo P1800 in 1960 at the Brussels Motor Show, a sleek and sporty car that would go on to become a star of the silver screen driven by Roger Moore in The Saint. The PV544 that preceded it did have sporting pretensions and was used extensively in rallying, but it didn’t have the same sex appeal as the lower and more attractive P1800. It did have a strong engine though, and it was this 1778cc B18 design that powered the P1800, followed by the 1986cc B20. It’s beginnings were not as smooth as its waist lines, as Volkswagen forbade coachbuilder Karmann from producing the P1800, for fear of Volvo’s car offering too much competition to its own products. A rocky period followed, but the Swedish firm eventually struck a deal with Jensen, who agreed to use its under-utilised production facilities at Linwood and West Bromwich to build 10,000 P1800s. In the end only 6000 cars were made by Jensen, with 4500 destined for the export market.
Power (bhp@rpm) 130bhp@6000rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 130lb ft@3500rpm
Top speed 115mph
Gearbox 4-spd manual + Overdrive
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
A quick way to gauge the state of an 1800 is to check the sills. The correct Volvo curved sill assembly has two noticeable vertical grooves below the door. If they aren’t there, either the wrong sill has been fitted or, more ominously, the sill may be full of filler.
The front panels are prone to rusting along their trailing edge. The areas around the headlights also go, as do the front wings where they meet the sills and wheelarch lips. Inner wings can rot badly, so have a good look inside the wheelarch. Whatever rust is visible on the exterior, there’s likely to be much worse beneath the surface, so be vigilant.
Both B18 and B20 engines were built to last, with some cars known to have racked up an astronomical 2 million miles. But there are still things to look out for. Open the bonnet and check the top of the block for any oil leaks. If the engine has been cleaned recently, check once again at the end of your test drive. Various gaskets and seals can go and can be a bit of a pain to replace. Check that the oil and coolant levels are as they should be, and that both are clean and fresh. A compression test will be the best guide to the engine’s health, but you should at least check the oil filler for mayonnaise if this is not possible. Start the engine from cold and allow it to get up to operating temperature. Get a friend to accelerate hard and check for smoke from the tail pipe. Blue smoke suggests internal wear and will necessitate a full rebuild – not a cheap undertaking. You should expect to see 40psi of oil pressure when the engine is running.
Finally, listen for any knocks or rattles from the engine. Any odd noises coming from the bottom end should be a serious cause for concern. Don’t be put off by a rough sounding idle though, these engines never ran like sewing machines.
All gearboxes fitted to the P1800 are bombproof, providing they’ve been kept well topped up with oil. However, this may not always be the case. Listen for any whining or graunching noises, both indicate a well-worn diff that is due a rebuild. Gears should slot in without much effort and shouldn’t pop out – walk away if they do. All UK models were fitted with overdrive as standard, so make sure this is working as advertised on your test drive. If it doesn’t work it is most likely a failed relay, but could be a trapped wire, which will be a nightmare to track down.
Wheels in post 1970 cars use an alloy hub and steel rim, which can separate with time. Make sure these have been replaced with later units, which are a direct swap. There were two types of rear axle available, EMV or Spicer – the Spicer unit is by far the better option.
It’s important you make sure the interior is in good condition as you can spend a small fortune bringing a P1800 interior back up to spec. Check the seats haven’t collapsed and are free from rips and tears. Don’t overlook anything – door cards and dash trim are expensive, and even a set of carpets will set you back somewhere in the region of £350. Electrics are fairly straightforward. Look for an aftermarket electric fan and check that it is in working order. If not, make doubly sure you check for headgasket damage.
The P1800 combines two of the most desirable traits in a classic car; good looks and reliability. A reputation for weapons-grade engines and gearboxes presents a classic that is there to be driven, and driven far. Sumptuous handling, comfortable interior and low running costs make for a world-beating grand tourer. The P1800 isn’t just a capable classic: it’s also a sound investment. Prices have been steadily rising, and fortunately, there are still decent cars within the reach of the average enthusiast. If you want one - buy now and improve over time, before you cant afford to.
Combining exotic looks and rarity, the 1800E doesn’t seem like an obvious daily-drive choice – but don’t let that put you off. If you can find one with a good body and invest in some decent rust-protection, then that scenario is perfectly feasible. Yes, the earlier Jensen-built P1800 is famed as Roger Moore’s transport in The Saint, but later models had a useful power hike thanks to modern fuel-injection.
Introduced in 1970, the 1800E used the beefed-up B20E engine. With that Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection system and revised camshaft working in glorious Scandinavian harmony, Volvo wrung 130bhp from its two-litre engine, without sacrificing fuel economy. Top speed was just shy of 120mph and acceleration from 0-60 took 9.5 seconds – impressive figures for the day. In addition, the 1800E introduced four-wheel disc brakes – previously the 1800 series had front discs and rear drums.
Don’t be tempted by bodged cars, as they really are more trouble than they’re worth. But get it right and you won’t regret plumping for a classic Swede. Hooray for the Einspritzung!