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Volvo P1800 - The Saints Car
by Sarah Potts
(This article was published in Prestige and Classic NZ magazine)


Photo: 
Ray Clarkson with his white P1800, grey 1800 is owned by Lawrence Wilkinson


It's not every car that can boast it's own television show but it's arguable that the Volvo P1800 was as much a star of the 1960s series The Saint as the leading man Roger Moore.

This charming sports coupe roared into the affections of TV viewers around the world. And while New Zealanders could admire the show, they didn't get much of a chance to admire the car. Volvo didn't start selling cars in this country until the 1970s, around the time the Volvo P1800 went out of production.

As the cars were never sold in New Zealand it was up to private citizens to bring them in. In total Volvo only produced 39,406 P1800s with an additional 8,000 P1800 ES (an elongated P1800 designed as a sportswagon), so your chances of spotting one on local roads was always going to be slim.

A few years ago Ray Clarkson came across the Volvo P1800 while visiting a friend in England and was instantly smitten. From the front it looked similar to an Aston Martin, a car he had always hankered after. But further inspection showed, that while the P1800 was indeed similar to many cars of the 1950s and 1960s, in many respects it was in a class of it's own.

Here's how Clarkson describes the P1800s appeal: "Its an individual's car, I just think it's a piece of art. It's elegant. It's stunning. It can look mean and fast. It can look sporty. It can fit a number of occasions its lines are so unique".

Obviously an enthusiasts response but it demonstrates how much the car can get a hold of its owner. Just this year in March, American driver Irv Gordon clocked up two million miles in his P1800, which he bought in June 30, 1966.

According to Canadian Auto News it's a milestone never before accomplished in 100 years of automobile history and it has earned Gordon a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. 
In an article posted on the Internet, Gordon says that if you want to equal his feat you will have to spend more than 40,000 hours in the car driving an average 50-mph. So you had better love what you're driving.

The P1800 is unusual in that a sports coupe isn't the kind of car most people associate with Volvo. The Swedish car manufacturers have a reputation for safety and reliability and a penchant for large, boxy cars. 

But you have to remember that the P1800 is a sixties car, it was built when Western economies were booming and in general people were enjoying an extended single life before they settled down and got married. The first car they brought wasn't necessarily with a spouse and small children in mind. In other words car manufacturers were suddenly keen on designing cars with sex appeal.

Motoring historian Anders Ditlev Clausager explains in his book Essential Volvo 120 Series and P1800 (Bay View Books, 1996) that before the P1800 there was the P1900. Built in 1954 with a flat windscreen, fixed hood windows and a top speed of 96 mph (155kph) there were only 67 ever made. Production was halted after the car was deemed uneconomical to manufacture. 

As a consequence the P1900 has become extremely collectible, with most still in existence and highly prized by Volvo fans in Sweden and the USA.

Having failed with the P1900 Volvo executives were no doubt keen to get it right the next time and their second attempt at creating a sports car was to become a truly European affair. Volvo contracted Helmer Patterson to source designs from Italy and he duly submitted five - four from reputable Italian firms and a fifth from his own son Pelle. 

Volvo Chief Gunnar Engellau chose Pelle's design and, upon discovering it's source, contracted Italian firm Frua to build a prototype with the young Pelle acting as an assistant.

By 1960 the car was ready for production however Volvo had no space to manufacture it and they turned to Britain for the answer. They contracted the Pressed Steel Company to create the bodies in their Scottish factory and then send them to the North of England where a company called Jensen was to fit them together.

From May 1961 - March 1963, Jensen assembled the first 6,000 of the P1800s. Then Volvo decided to relocate production to Sweden, although Pressed Steel continued to supply the car bodies. 

It was probably this English connection that first captured the eye of the producers of The Saint television programme. Originally they had thought that the XKE was the right car for their special agent but after getting no response from Jaguar they approached Volvo. Within a week a P1800 had been delivered to the set.

Clarkson suggests that the P1800 with its ample legroom was more suited to the rather tall and dignified Roger Moore. Not for Simon Templar the cramped, albeit stylish, interior of the Lotus that Emma Peel drove in The Avengers.

The Saint was the ultimate advert for the P1800. The programme was so popular in England that when the toy manufacturers Corgi issued a special P1800 as "The Saints Volvo", complete with the matchstick logo on the bonnet, it outsold the ordinary P1800 toy car by 1.2 million.

Yet despite the profile that The Saint gave the P1800 in England, the biggest market for Volvo was America.

When the P1800 arrived in the States it came with a price tag of just under $US4,000 - making it a cheaper option than top European sports cars such as the BMW 507. An advertising slogan at the time claimed - "What's it like to own a $10,000 car - find out for $3995".

Clarkson says that Volvo emphasized its traditional virtues of safely and reliability, trumpeting the P1800 as having the sports car performance without the sports car disappointments. 
Perhaps one of its most impressive attributes, according to Clarkson, is its strength. "This car (P1800) is exceptionally strong, you could stack four on top of each other and the roof wouldn't give in," he says.

Clarkson now owns two P1800s, along with a 1964 Triumph Bond Equipe and he drives a 1980s Volvo as his everyday car.

He says that P1800 is still a rare car in New Zealand and finding one is no mean feat. As P1800 registrar for the Volvo Enthusiasts Club he has only 16 on his books, and some of those he has lost track of. 

Exclusivity has its price however and Clarkson finds it challenging to restore a car of which there are only another two or in Auckland. He sources parts from around the world and belongs to Clubs in Australia and England as well as in New Zealand. 

Assuming you could locate a model, Clarkson reckons that you would pay at least $30,000 and that would be for a car that needed attention.

He has owned his 1967 P1800 for three years. It is "California White" and he says it is an example of the best year in the car's 11-year production.

He also has a 1962 P1800, which is an original Jensen make and therefore has more value because of its rarity. He intends to restore this model to Concourse standard, leaving the 1967 for touring and possibly racing in the Classic Car races.

It's probably fair to say that during its eleven years in production the P1800, aside from the introduction of electronic fuel injection, failed to undergo any radical improvements. Clausager writes that road tests in 1971 showed the car reaching 112 mph (180 kph) which he claims isn't a great improvement on its performance of 105 mph (169kph) a decade before.

Volvo abandoned the P1800 in the early 1970s but returned to the sports coupe in 1996 when it came out with the C70 in 1996. Its launch coincided with a movie of The Saint starring Val Kilmer.

The C70, which was designed by Peter Horbury, was ostensibly a tribute to the P1800 but it featured a number of the classic Volvo design features such as the sloping V hoodline and shouldered door panels.

Although the C70 has proven popular in the sports car market, it fails to appeal to Clarkson, who perhaps like any classic car enthusiasts prefers the original. "It (his P1800) is something that, every time I see it, I fall in love with it again," he says.

OPINION ABOUT LOOKS
The P1800 is, like many classic cars, an oddity - conceived by a Swede, created by Italians and originally made by the British. It was also a sixties car with design features (small windows, rounded flowing lines) that are more akin to the fifties. 

My own way of describing the P1800's appearance is that it is Italian flair contained by English understatement.

Then there are the customers. In New Zealand we might regard Volvo as quintessentially European but the Americans feel a certain kinship with the manufacturer. Anders Clausager claims that many find in the Swedish cars a style and attitude that hark back to the glory days of American car manufacturing.

He writes: "The Volvo is reminiscent of the sort of robust and sensible car the Americans like to think they used to make, the ultimate reincarnation of the Ford Model A, and thus becomes equally acceptable to the New England academic, the mid-western farmer or the style conscious Californian computer buff".

COMPARING P1800 with C70
Some basic comparisons between then and now.
(note: I've converted miles to kms by multiplying by 1.609) 
P1800
Top speed: 105 mph (169 kph)
0-60 mph (97 kph) in just over 13 seconds
Fuel consumption: 24 - 30 mpg
C70
Top speed: 235 kph (146 mph)
0 - 100 kph (146 mph) in 7.5 seconds
Fuel consumption: 9.8 litres/100 kms.

For more information about the P1800 in New Zealand, please contact Ray Clarkson:
Email or Ph 09 8462044 ext. 8177 or 021 1713155

 

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