2 September 2014

The $92,000 Volvo: Has the Volvo 1800 just emerged from its cult-niche status?

Ninety-two thousand dollars for a Volvo? That must have been some Volvo that sold at the Bonhams Auction at the Greenwich Concours d’ Elegance this past June. It was a 1973 1800ES sport wagon, and it was a new record for a Volvo, according to Bonhams.

It was also practically a new car — “beautifully preserved” Bonhams said — and with just 13,000 original miles. Until this sale, the most frequent mention of mileage in conjunction with a Volvo 1800 was a red 1966 model that’s traveled 3 million miles in the hands of its original owner, Irv Gordon. Volvo has gotten a lot of positive publicity helping to promote that car.

But $92,000? Hagerty’s valuation for a 1973 1800 ES shows an average of $12,000 and a high of about $27,000. So the Greenwich sale certainly seems like an anomaly. Is the sporty little Volvo about to emerge from its own niche following?

High-mile 1800’s are certainly more common than the Greenwich auction car. Volvo, in fact, had marketed the P1800 model on the strength of its durability, especially compared to high-end European sports cars. One of the ads for the car showed it doing something no Ferrari or Maserati driver would do: driving through a mud puddle. The headline, “Driving isn’t bad for it,” was a nod to owners who were afraid to drive their “fragile” European GT cars out in nature.

Volvo also played up the 1800’s “European styling,” featuring Ferraris, Maseratis and Aston-Martins in some ads. One headline read, “It’s sort of a souped-down Ferrari.” The self-deprecating copy suggested that sports cars didn't need to have a 160-mph top speed to be fun — that 110 mph was adequate. Volvo extolled a different performance measurement: “At 90 mph, it uses no more gasoline than a Volkswagen uses at 70 — all you need is a highway to enjoy this kind of performance.” Of course, driving a VW Beetle at 70 mph was probably never a good idea anyway.

Volvo introduced the P1800 in 1962, a sports coupe built on the mechanicals of the sturdy 122 sedan. The design was quite un-Volvo, and the work had long been credited to the Italian design house Frua, which had done some Maseratis. But that was not the case. Pelle Petterson, a young Swedish designer who later designed yachts, had drawn the car. (He did work for Frua for a time, however.)

Without its badges, the Volvo P1800 could have fooled casual observers into thinking it had Italian parentage, and that perhaps there was something more potent than a 100-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder sedan engine under the long hood. Many got their first look at the sporty Volvo as Simon Templar’s ride in the TV show, “The Saint.” The show’s producers had reportedly approached Jaguar about getting free use of an E-Type for the show but were turned down.

“The Saint” wasn’t the only British connection. For its first two years of production, the Volvo P1800 was contract-assembled for Volvo by Jensen, using body panels from another company. Jensen was also contract-building bodies for the Austin-Healey 3000.

The early P1800s were certainly not fast, doing 0-to-60 in about 12 seconds.  Performance improvements came, including a big change in 1969 with electronic fuel injection and four-wheel disc brakes. The 60-mph dash was under 10 seconds, quicker than most affordable British roadsters. Fuel injection was a big deal – something that few sports cars had, not even Ferrari.

Performance parts were available, too, and Volvo advertised the 1800’s two SCCA F-Production championships. (The “P” was eventually dropped.) So, the “souped-down Ferrari” had a racing heritage, too.

The $92,000 Volvo at Greenwich was from the end of the 1800 line. For 1972, Volvo redesigned the coupe into a sport wagon, the 1800ES, with a roomy cargo hatch. Its 2.0-liter fuel-injected engine offered 125 horsepower, prompting Volvo’s advertising double entendre, “The sports car that really hauls.”

Production of the 1800ES was low, however, with just under 8,100 built in two years. One of them just fetched nearly 100 grand. Make a note of that.

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