Volvo P1800: The poor man’s Ferrari

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One of the greatest things about older vehicles is their style. You could take the least interesting classic car, and chances are it still looks slick. However, some autos go even further. Their looks become iconic with universal recognition. And yet… certain gems still slip through the cracks.

Today, we have an interesting vehicle to talk about – Volvo P1800. On the one hand, its Swedish origins don’t usually hint at supreme design. Not that Volvo makes ugly cars, but their reputation has more to do with safety. On the other hand, its styling can be traced back to Italy. What does this tell us then? Its aesthetics should be masterfully crafted!

That’s not all, though. The specific Volvo P1800 we transported through our classic car shipping services is a project car. Its poor condition inspired me to look more into what this model was all about. It turns out, P1800 has a rather cool history!

How Volvo P1800 came to be

As I said, Volvo has always been synonymous with safety. Sadly, selling such a boring idea takes quite the effort. Because of that, other brands at the time were outcompeting the Swedish manufacturer.

Back in the ’50s and ’60s, sports cars gained quite the traction. By that time, Ferraris had already become popular. The British marques of Jaguar and Aston Martin also had their fans. At the same time, here in the US, we had Chevrolet coming out with the iconic first-generation Corvette, too.

Throughout all that, Volvo remained fairly silent. The company had a successful PV444 model, followed by Volvo Amazon. Though both vehicles sold well in the States and Europe, they weren’t sports cars.

The first attempt to fill that hole came with the P1900, also known as Volvo Sport. Unfortunately, it failed in a rather miserable manner, with only 68 units ever produced. Fun fact: that model was actually inspired by the Corvette!

In light of all that, Volvo needed to provide something worthwhile for the luxury segment. The carmaker’s efforts resulted in the P1800. Interestingly enough, it did not end up marketed as a sports car. What was it then?

P1800’s ingenious advertising campaign

By the time the P1800 hit the market in 1961, other manufacturers already had pretty powerful sports cars. For example, the Corvette had a 250+ hp engine, depending on the specific version. Even Aston Martin DB4, which was more of a grand tourer, had 240 hp under the hood. How much horsepower did Volvo P1800 have then? Only about 100!

With that said, the model was still pretty fast, only not on par with dedicated sports cars. So, instead of pushing it as one, Volvo decided to call it a grand tourer. The way the company did it was pretty funny, though.

There were slogans such as “This car won’t do 150, it just looks like it will” or “What’s it like to own a $10,000 car? Find out for $3,995!” On top of that, Volvo was very respectful of the competition. In its marketing materials, the company pointed out that expensive Ferraris were worth every penny. It was just that the P1800 was worth more than what it sold for!

These marketing efforts eventually paid off. Volvo found a niche that was looking just for that – a cheaper sporty-looking car.  Also, with the interesting tongue-in-cheek approach, their model did end up labeled as a poor man’s Ferrari. The question is – was it really?

How does Volvo P1800 compare to a Ferrari?

Unlike Volvo, Ferrari had more than a few models to brag about. Some of them were race cars; others were sports cars for the road. And yes, they also had grand tourers. It could be argued that the P1800 compares pretty well to Ferrari 250 GT. Still, it differed in significant ways too. Let’s see!

  • Style – The Italian influences are clear when you compare both models. Though Volvo comes from Sweden, the slick rounded silhouette does remind you of a Ferrari. Volvo considered that to be an honor and pointed it out in marketing materials.
  • Performance – Sadly, Volvo didn’t even get close to what Ferrari could offer. With double the horsepower of its V12 engine, the 250 GT was a real sports car, although branded as a tourer.
  • Comfort – Volvo knew it couldn’t compete in terms of speed, so it decided to go full in on comfort. In the automaker’s own words, you could get the same luxury feel without paying so much if you chose to go with a P1800. Some people have noted that the Volvo was the more comfortable tourer of the two!
  • Success – Yes, Ferrari does not make mass-market cars, but this metric is still interesting. Here Volvo blows Ferrari away with more than 47 thousand models built. We can definitely say that the company managed to get itself a decent piece of the sports car pie.

The Swedish manufacturer managed to find a specific niche that nobody filled at the time. They offered an alternative to luxury vehicles for less than half the price. Fortunately, back then, half the price did not mean half the quality. Sure, they might have been slower, but it turned out most people didn’t care about that.

I should also mention that throughout its run, the engine did get some upgrades. The second most popular engine in that car came with 135 hp (a 35% improvement). Again, not quite a Ferrari, but not too shabby either!

How the model became iconic

The 1966 P1800 we shipped looked like a dug-up barn find. Most cars in such a state are usually some unremarkable old workhorses that had broken down with time. That’s not quite true about the P1800, though!

The model’s first claim to fame had to do with a regular appearance in the TV Series “The Saint.” The successful spy thriller served as quite the spotlight for that vehicle. At the time, the producers of the series wanted Jaguar to sponsor them, but the company refused. Volvo was quick to snatch the opportunity. Thus, instead of an expensive luxury model, the token car was a reasonably affordable tourer!

The P1800 also became famous for its reliability. While many complained about Ferrari’s issues, Volvo banked on quality control. One of the units has even been driven for more than 3 million miles without changing the engine.

An interesting thing about the car’s design came out many years later. For quite some time, Volvo had claimed that the styling was Italian. However, it was later revealed that it was actually done by Pelle Peterson, while his father was helming the P1800 development project. Granted, Peterson studied under Pietro Frua, so there was indeed at least a bit of Italian influence.

I find it remarkable that such a successful car has since been pretty much forgotten. Most people simply do not associate Volvo with cool old classics. The good side here is that you can get a great vintage car for a low price. The bad side? Some units rot away, covered in rust. Still, not all hope is lost!

How a car goes from ruin to glory

Volvo P1800

Given enough time, even the best classic can turn into trash. When people are not aware of what they have, they tend to neglect it. Thankfully, some folks like to take on the task of reviving these forgotten gems. Such was the case with the 1966 P1800 that inspired this article.

Through these so-called project cars, people show us why beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Usually, restoring such a vehicle ends up costing more than the car itself. It also takes a lot of time and effort. Not to mention that some of the challenges you can face throughout all that may be entirely unexpected.

Consider transporting such a vehicle. Take, for example shipping a car from Alabama to California. You cannot go about it in a regular way. Why? Well, the vehicle will be in a pretty fragile state, plus it will probably not be operational. All of that requires a specific approach.

Still, the difficulties don’t end there. Even when you transport it, you may hit a brick wall with spare parts. Sometimes finding such components can be impossible. Many enthusiasts resort to alternatives in such a case. You could even see some “Frankenstein” models made out of two similar cars. But with enough persistence, patience, and dedication, the ruined vehicle can be transformed. You can learn more about the process in our article on buying and shipping a project car!

What do you think of Volvo P1800?

I have always been a fan of Volvo. In my mind, more companies should take their example and focus on safety. Did you know that Volvo invented the 3-point seatbelt? The company even refused to charge a fee for its patent, because it wanted more people to be safe in whatever car they drive.

Though the company has had its ups and downs, I am still excited to see what it’ll bring in the future. However, I am even more excited to check out a bit of their past as well. Perhaps the P1800 is not the only gem I can find there.

What’s your opinion on this vintage model? Do you like it as a cheaper alternative to a Ferrari? Would you prefer it, because it is also that much more affordable? Maybe it fails to carry the sporty spirit of its Italian counterpart, but I still like it a lot. Also, I can never imagine a modern vehicle lasting for 3 million miles. I want that reliability back!

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About the Author:

Atanas Nikolov is a creative with an affinity for psychology and science. He believes the universe is a wonderful place to explore, and no universe is greater than the one inside ourselves. He enjoys a good debate, and can always bring an alternative viewpoint to the table. He also loves reading fiction and poetry. It is highly likely that he writes some as well, but these rumors have not been proven yet.
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