Modern cars are safer, better built, more reliable, and faster than they ever have been before, and unless something major happens, next year’s crop is likely to be even better. So at a time when we have Toyota Camrys putting up horsepower numbers that Ferraris posted 30 years ago, sport sedans that transform from luxury cars to world-class corner carvers with the flick of a switch (while returning gas mileage in the 30s, no less), and an electric sedan with as much horsepower as a Lamborghini, why do we still pine for cars from half a century ago?
Because paradoxically, midcentury cars didn’t have any of the things we take for granted today. They feel “analog” because they are; they’re purely mechanical creations, and at their best, they offer a driving experience that no production car can compete with today. And for proof of how much people are missing “the good old days” lately, take a look at collector car auction prices over the past five years.
So your Honda Fit could blow away most of the entries at your local classic car show in virtually every possible way, but there’s one trait it’ll never have: style. In the 1960s, before five mile per hour bumpers ruined a generation of sports cars and the safety laws of ’68 forced manufacturers to design cars that could actually protect people in the event of a crash, form existed almost independently from function. It didn’t matter if your car had a wheezy inline-four and crumpled like a tin can if you hit a curb, as long as it stopped traffic, you were all set.
So when many gearheads think of the idealized ’60s, they’ll always think of it as the true era of performance. A time when American muscle cars, sports cars like the Jaguar E-Type, Ferrari Lusso, Porsche 356 and 911, and Stingray Corvette, or affordable little British roadsters like Triumphs, MGs, and Austin Healeys ruled the highways, drag strips, and tracks all at the same time. And to a small degree, they’d be right. Even if most cars weren’t styled by Pininfarina, or had a big block V8 under the hood, performance was on the mind of virtually every automaker in the world before safety came down from on high, and everyone from Buick to Volkswagen spent the decade offering cars in the name of performance.
But in the twilight when safety began to overtake performance, one sports car stands out as the perfect blend of the two. It’s the Volvo P1800, and its impact was so great that its legacy is still having an effect on the company today.
Before Volvo was boxy and boring, it was round and boring. In the early 1960s, its PV544 model was called “a scaled-down 1948 Ford with a smallish 4-cyl engine” by Road and Track, and was known as a safe, reliable, and quirky import. The PV544 was a successful export for Volvo, but its roots could be traced back to 1944, and at a time when American and European buyers wanted performance, it couldn’t compete. The Swedish company attempted a sports model in 1957 with the P1900 roadster, but despite having a few good angles, it was odd-looking and expensive, and Volvo pulled the plug. But the company had just released a more modern car, the Amazon, and felt that its underpinnings could be repurposed for something more exciting.
Shortly after the cancellation of the P1900, Volvo decided to commit to a sports car. By the end of the year, it had an Italian-designed grand tourer from Pietro Frua — without mentioning to anyone that the car was penned by Pelle Petterson, the son of a renowned Volvo designer, during his tenure at the Italian firm. By 1958, it had built three prototypes, and the company began the search for a coachbuilder that could produce them.
Its first choice was the German firm Karmann, but it had just committed to building the Karmann-Ghia for Volkswagen, and once VW caught wind of the negotiations, it threatened to cut the coachbuiler off. Volvo spent the next few years searching for a company that was large enough (and competent enough) to build its car in volume, but had no luck. In 1960, it decided to go for broke and publicly unveil the car at the Brussels Motor Show. It worked; by the end of the year it had partnered with British firm Jensen (of Jensen Healey and Interceptor fame), and put the car into production, debuting as the P1800 for 1961.
In Europe and America, the demand for the P1800 was strong. It may have had a 1.8-liter inline-four largely carried over from the Amazon (itself derived from a V8 truck motor), but its wide powerband, 100 horsepower, and responsive gearbox made it much more of a contender than its price suggested. In a page taken out of Volkswagen’s playbook, Volvo sold its sports car with a number of tongue-in-cheek ads designed to highlight its accessibility. “A true GT car costs from $4,000 to $22,000. This is the $22,000 one,” “Think of it as a souped down Ferrari,” and “This car won’t do 150. It just looks like it will” were all tag lines that convinced thousands of buyers on both sides of the Atlantic that they could have a European sports car. They all worked like a charm.
By 1963, Volvo had sold over 6,000 P1800s, but it was fed up with Jensen’s poor build quality. It moved production in-house, and rechristened the car the 1800S — S for Sweden, not sport, or super, or anything like that. Power was increased to 108 horses, and eventually 118, as the ’60s progressed. Once the build quality issues had been sorted, the car began to truly take off.
But it wasn’t all because of the 1800S’s good looks, solid engineering, and surprisingly comprehensive (for the era) safety features. In 1962, The Saint debuted in England on ITV. Following the exploits of Simon Templar, a James Bond-meets-Robin Hood character (ironically enough, Roger Moore, who played Templar, would go on to play Bond for more than a decade) who outwits the bad guys and makes his escape in a white 1800S. The show became so popular that in 1966, it became one the first British TV series to be picked up and broadcast by an American network, airing on NBC through 1969, and introducing Volvo to millions around the world.
In 1969, the 1800S became the 1800E, with fuel injection boosting horsepower to 130, and four-wheel disc brakes making stopping easier. But by then the car was getting old, and while it was ahead of the safety curve in 1961, by the early ’70s, it was beginning to show its age. In 1972, Volvo introduced the wild 1800ES, a shooting-brake version of the car with a distinctive all-glass tailgate. It was a fitting hurrah for the car; it may have been ancient history compared to newcomers like the Datsun 240Z, but Volvo had proven that its sports car still had some life left in it. Production ended for the 1800 on June 27, 1973, after 47,292 cars had been built.
Volvo never made a direct successor to the P1800, but it cast a huge shadow on the company, even during the boxy years when it was known as “The Safety Brand.” In the early 1980s, Volvo began work on the 480, a sporty, modern hatchback with an all-glass rear tailgate that borrowed heavily from the 1800ES. In 1987, a ’66 1800S made its way back into Volvo ads as an American owner had driven his over 1 million miles with nothing but routine maintenance (the car is at over 3 million and counting today). In 2006, the compact C30 was launched, and again, its rear design borrowed heavily from the 1800ES.
The 21st century hasn’t exactly been stable for Volvo, but everything seemed to lock into place in 2014 with the debut of the Concept Coupe, a spiritual successor to the P1800 if there ever was one. Its grille borrowed heavily from the 1965-era design, and its roofline and rear profile were unmistakably cribbed from the classic car, all while looking like it was from the near future. Today, virtually all of Volvo’s design language is derived from the Concept Coupe and the 1800ES reboot, Concept Estate, and it’s helping transform Volvo into the perfect hybrid of sexy and safe that made the 1800 so appealing over 50 years ago. Volvo’s most beautiful car certainly has a place in our dream garage — right next to a 2016 Volvo S90 T8.