If you ever wondered why the quintessential Brit hero, The Saint, drove a Volvo, there is a reason. The Volvo he drove, the P1800, was, at least at first, a British car. It was assembled by the renowned English sports car maker Jensen, after Karmann Ghia lost out on the bidding to build the car. And in one of the most productive marketing moves in the auto industry, Volvo decided to capitalize on the British connection by supplying vehicles for the British TV show, "The Saint," which starred Roger Moore as the slightly shady, womanizing free-lance good guy.
Over the course of its run in the mid-1960s, Volvo furnished the "The Saint" television producers a total of five P1800s. The first one was delivered in 1962, and with the dapper Moore, who would later play James Bond in feature films, at the wheel, the car became the envy of many a teenaged boy. Even when Volvo moved production of the model to Sweden for the 1964 model year, the P1800 remained the Saint's car - white, of course - and it has remained so, in re-runs until this day. Moore became so enamored of the P1800 that he drove one in his personal life as well as on the set.
Founded by Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larsson, Volvo seemed an unlikely candidate to produce a sports coupe like the P1800 and an even less likely candidate to become the car of teenaged boys' dreams. In fact its beginnings were fundamentally prosaic, with an emphasis on the toughness required to survive the fierce Scandinavian climate the key feature of the company's cars.
Though it seems strange to say, in the 1920s Ford and Chevrolet were dominant auto brands in Sweden. Robust, well-engineered American cars were better suited to the rigors of everyday Swedish life than were the smaller cars of the Continent. Chevrolet even had a factory in Stockholm to assemble its vehicles, but Gabrielsson and Larsson, a salesman and engineer, respectively, decided that the Swedish auto market was growing large enough to support a home-grown vehicle brand.
The idea took some time to gestate. It was in the summer of 1924 Gabrielsson and Larsson began seriously to discuss their plans for producing cars. That August they came to a verbal agreement about what form the enterprise and the cars should take, and Larsson immediately launched into design work, even though he kept his "day job."
It took almost two years before the design was completed, but Gabrielsson was having trouble raising money for the project, so the two partners decided they would build a prototype vehicle to show prospective financiers. Many would have stopped at one prototype, but they decided to build 10, nine open "touring" cars and one "closed car," a sedan.
Nine months later, the partners' first test vehicles were completed, allowing Gabrielsson to gain the financial support of SKF, the company that had employed him. SKF guaranteed an initial series of 1,000 vehicles, provided the factory and gave the new enterprise its name, AB Volvo, which had been used in a previous business operation. Volvo is Latin and means "I roll."
The first car to emerge from the newly christened Volvo factory was officially named ÖV4 but also nicknamed ''Jakob." It was based on an American design and had a strong chassis and solid axles with long leaf springs at the front and rear. Its four-cylinder engine developed 28 horsepower at 2000 rpm, and it had a claimed top speed of 55 miles per hour, but Volvo, thinking of safety from the git-go, recommended a cruising speed of 37 mph.
The original plan had called for the production of 500 touring cars and 500 sedans, but - go figure - Swedish buyers were more taken with a closed car than a car that exposed them to the elements. Sales the first year (1927) totaled only 297 cars, so some quick revisions were made to the business plan. Volvo began building trucks and other commercial vehicles, primarily taxicabs, and that business sustained the company through the early years and on into the Depression era.
While the Jakob used a four-cylinder engine, Volvo executives were enthusiastic about six-cylinder power, so the next vehicle they introduced was the six-cylinder PV651, which was more than an alpha-numeric bit of gibberish. In this case PV stood for PersonVagn (pre-dating Volkswagen by several years), 651 for six-cylinder, five seats and first series. The beefier motor gained a good reception, particularly in the taxi market, helping Volvo weather the Depression.
Volvo had always been influenced by American design, and that aspect of its character came to the forefront in 1935 with the introduction of the PV36, "the streamlined car," which was an obvious reaction to the Chrysler Airflow. The car had a split windshield, fairings over the rear wheels, an integrated trunk and a roomy passenger compartment. In fact, the car was a six-seater, accommodating three on its front bench and three in the rear. How American can you get! The PV36 bore the unusual nickname the Carioca, after a popular South American dance that was in fashion in the mid-Thirties. Like the Chrysler Airflow, it was leading edge and like the Chrysler Airflow it didn't sell very well.
With World War II causing havoc in Sweden, though the country was officially neutral, in the autumn of 1944 the company sent its cars through some significant downsizing. The PV444 was Volvo's first true small car, looking like a three-quarter-scale American sedan. The PV444 and its successor, the PV544, went on to dominate Volvo production through to the mid-Sixties and gave Volvo a strong toehold in the American market.
Though the Euro small car formula clicked for Volvo, it didn't turn its back on America, and even as cars like the Chevrolet Corvette, Kaiser Darrin and Nash-Healey were being produced, Volvo decided it wanted to offer a sports car as well. The two-seater was called the Volvo Sport, and prototypes were built of fiberglass and featured puncture-proof tires. Since there wasn't much of a sports car market in Sweden the car was designed primarily for export, but it turned out there wasn't much of an export market for the car either. Only 67 cars were produced, and production ceased within one year.
With the rapid demise of the Volvo Sport it is surprising that the company had the desire to launch into another sports car program, but that's exactly what it did in 1957. This time the company hired the Italian design firm Frua, which was a Karmann affiliate, to draw the car's lines. There is some controversy over exactly who penned the Frua drawings that became the P1800, but the design is generally attributed to Pelle Petterson, a Swedish designer who had gone to work for the Italian company. Some say that Volvo never acknowledged Petterson as the designer because it wanted to invest the car with Italian prestige.
In any case the P1800 sports car was shown to the public for the first time at the 1960 Brussels Motor Show. Powered by a new engine (B18), the handsome coupe was really a GT car rather than a sports car, but in any case, it was a hit. Fitted with dual carburetors and backed with the sturdy M40 gearbox, the engine produced 100 horsepower, enough for reasonable driving performance circa 1960.
In 1962 the P1800 was a perfectly appropriate car to be driven by Simon Templar, The Saint, and though Jensen had quality problems in building the car (there's a shock) and production was moved to Gothenburg in 1963, The Saint kept driving it. In '63, the car also got a boost of eight horsepower, enough to win it the designation P1800S. In '66 the engine was additionally revised to offer 115 horsepower. Three years later the then-venerable B18 engine was replaced by the 120-horsepower B20, and in 1970 a fuel-injected version was called the 1800E.
Arguably the coolest version of the car was the station wagon-inspired Kamm-back coupe, complete with an all-glass tailgate. It was unveiled in 1971 as the 1800ES. Both 1800E and 1800ES were built in 1972, complete with a 124-horsepower version of the B20 engine. This last was said to reach the heady top speed of 115 mph.
Okay, so the P1800 wasn't fast. And it wasn't the greatest handling car of its day. And it didn't have an especially strong racing pedigree. There was one thing it was: it was cool. Just ask Simon Templar.