Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3
More respectable than 'sporting', the high-waisted P1800 has today become a very collectable car. A top speed on 160 km/h can be achieved, thanks primarily to the overdrive
gearbox rather than the 4 cylinder motor. The status of the car was undoubtedely enhanced by its appearance in the weekly television series "The Saint", then driven by the shows star Roger Moore (who also owned one in real life).
The 1800S was an entirely Volvo affair (previous vehicles being built by Jensen), and featured a more powerful motor and in 1969
fuel injection. Spot these cars by the lack of the "cow horn" bumpers at the front. In 1971
Volvo went the performance/dress-up package route for the 1800 that was inevitably pushed into the high echelon price market by import taxation. Volvo injected the by now aging coupe with new power from a sophisticated induction system developed specially for its well-proven four-cylinder engine.
Despite a facial high-rise, the engine boost was the main news. Bosch-developed four-port fuel injection which lifted power on the well-developed B20 engine to 130 (SAE) bhp at 6000 rpm and put torque at an identical figure (130 lb/ft) at 3500 rpm. It added up to great performance with flexibility and smoothness. A 1971
Volvo P1800 was capable of standing quarters in the low 16-second bracket if you could get the rear tyres
not to break traction, and 120 mph in overdrive top was a shoe in provided you were on the right road.
The Volvo engineers didn't neglect other aspects of the vital torque and power curves and built-in a flat-graph characteristic that gave top gear lugging figures close to V8 times - 20-40 mph in 7.4 seconds, 50-70 mph in 6.4 seconds. Being a Volvo, safety was always at the forefront of design, and naturally four-wheel power-assisted discs were fitted - from 60 mph it took only 3.3 seconds, from 30 mph the car would be stationary in 1.4 seconds - not bad for 2700 lb-plus (unladen) car from the 70s. The steering was also brilliant - light, sensitive, precise with adequate feel, no feedback, and a perfectly balanced castor section that spun the wheel back to neutral without over-handling.
To get the most out of the 1800 you had to punt it hard. Performance was punched out in short, sharp stabs of power through a beautifully swift gearbox that was controlled in the cockpit by a big-diameter lever with a massive four-ball shifter on top. The overdrive fifth was on a special steering stalk. The ratios were not close and were definitely not circuit or ultra-performance-oriented – but they were meant to provide practical all-round use of an engine built for general purpose motoring. We have spoken to some current day owners who claim the clutch can be heavy, but you get used to it quick enough.
The overdrive slashed engine rpm by an average 1000 rpm, effectively killing the four's engine noise at medium range speeds and making it much more economical – some road testers claiming a massive 8 mpg or more with careful and experienced use of the little steering column stalk. But if you wanted to drive smoothly, you have to help the O/D in and out with the clutch. The engine's willing torque was so great that it pulled strongly all the way to 5600 rpm in O/D top - and gave the impression it would go further. With overdrive engaged, and on the right road, the 1800 was capable of 120 mph.
Up top, the car had a few problems. Its shape may have avoided crosswinds, but the wind noise above 90 mph was appalling. The problem was probably due to the fussy design around the windows. There were two uncharacteristic problems noted by car reviewers when punting the 1800 along at highway speeds. The first was that the wipers would “float” above 70 mph and were never really fully effective in any speed in heavy rain. The second was the standard headlights, which struggled to provide adequate illumination at anything above 80 mph. We have not had the opportunity to verify if these criticisms are justified.
The interior was incredibly compact, detailed and well-equipped. Visually it looked good, with a vast wrap-around console blending into high sills that gave a comfortable, ensconced feeling, with obvious safety benefits. Instrumentation was comprehensive, beautifully arranged, visually well-coded and perfectly blended to the interior treatment. The steering wheel was originally located, perfect for most heights/reaches and gives a good view of the instruments with a ready access to the controls. And all the switchgear and controls could be reached from the driver's seat even when fully buckled-in by the centre-located auto-clip-in lap-sash seat belts.
Visible through the tri-spoke wheel were the main instruments - clear and obtrusive. The tacho was good for 7000 (but we doubt anyone actually got much above 6000) and the speedo ran to a 120 mph, with the legendary Volvo one million mile odometer (plus trip meter). Between the two master dials were smaller gauges for oil and water temperature - the oil temperature gauge registered only in extremely hot conditions, or when pushed very hard or subjected to track-type conditions. Switchgear covered the usual functions, plus a few bonus offerings. There was a special panel switch to mute the instruments when you lit them with the headlights. A two-speed fan switch worked on the then European principle of fast speed on the first pull-stop. The washer/wiper switch had two speeds with a third to squirt water to the screen, and there was a hazard warning flasher.
The final touch was the knob for the rear window demister - two stages, with a warning light of varying density for each standard of demisting control. On fast speed, the rear wires cut the fog in 60 seconds with a 150 watt output. Drop the switch to phase two and 40 watts keep the glass constantly clear on a muted warning light glow. Or you could switch off and call in the demister as you needed it. All knobs were soft, pliable crash-proof plastic. Under the dash, controls in simple slides controlled temperature and distributed warm/cool air to face and feet. Supplementary side-panelling booster vents for the through-flow ventilation system combined with this set-up which was great in the cold, but totally inadequate in Australian conditions in a closed Coupe of this type. Apart from that, the cockpit comfort is superb.
The leather/ vinyl seats were great - providing three obvious and instantly adjustable positions, plus several others. Basically, rails let the seat slide horizontally, a rake gave you a variety of squab angles (without layback) and a strategically located knurl on the squab would adjust to the individual spine curvature of drivers. There were special sleeves for extra seat length, slots in the seat locating bolts for even further adjustment, extra slots in the seat for more vertical travel, plus extra height adjustment in the main rail bolts. And the integrated headrests were infinitely adjustable.
There were two storage compartments, plus the glove-box. Rear seat room was for children or short journeys only. A fold-down backrest with adequate padding did a good job and supplied additional luggage stowage space when laid flat - aided by special straps to stop it floating round the cockpit. Detail touches included a dippable interior mirror, interior light that had a remote master switch but also acted by tipping the glass itself, and easy-to-reach fuses under the dash. Volvo safety engineering included a well-padded impact-absorbing steering column built on the split-universal principle. The boot was above average for a compact sports coupe – enough room for a couple of suitcases, and there was a big (covered) spare on the floor which also contained a jack and tool kit.
Last of the series was the 1800ES (upgraded in response to the Reliant Scimitar GTE
) and featured an extended roof line and rear hatch back. Production stopped in the early 70's.