Saint or sinner: the Volvo P1800

I was advised against buying a Volvo P1800 (popularised by Roger Moore in The Saint) having been told, “They rust - from the inside out”. That was 20 years ago, and the gentleman who’d offered the advice was one of the UK’s leading experts on vintage examples of the marque.

Sir Roger Moore as The Saint

Two decades later, on a cold autumn day, Mason Jnr. and I decided to visit a Volvo graveyard in East Anglia to see if there was any sign of life. It would be a useful opportunity for us to test drive our new Motoluxe unstructured Baby Alpaca sport coats and prototype custom denim jeans, whilst checking the tread of the Trickers boots that now form part of our classic English footwear collection.

Trickers "Stow" Country Boots and Japanese Selvedge Denim

The Volvo specialist that I’d listened to, all that time ago, recommended the “Amazon” as a solid, practical and reliable alternative to the P1800. I wasn’t familiar with the model at the time but, once pointed out to me, my immediate reaction was that I couldn’t picture Roger Moore (or myself) behind the wheel of such a sedate looking family saloon car.

Intriguing looks of the Volvo Amazon

The sage of Swedish steel was adamant that the bold and amply proportioned Amazon would become a safe and trusted companion, whereas the beauty of the sleek and curvaceous P1800 could prove to be only skin-deep - and he had witnessed many corrosive relationships. The earliest P1800s were built in England by Jensen in a marriage that was short-lived. Whilst the firstborn group were undeniably the most attractive of the breed, the careless parenting of the adopted guardian meant that few have survived into old age.

1961 "Jensen Built" P1800

It was disheartening to learn that the inner strength of such a stunning Scandinavian model may not match the outward allure and - much like the underpinning of the beautiful body - my infatuation began to deteriorate. However, now that the Amazon had caught my attention, I slowly became interested in the more mature of the two siblings and began to delve deeper into the family history.

Swedish style motoring

The Volvo Amazon came to life in 1956 as the brainchild of Brooklyn born designer Jan Wilsgaard, the son of a Norwegian sailor who moved his family to Sweden during World War II. Wilsgaard was only 26 years of age when his Amazon design went into production. The styling of the car was apparently inspired by an American “Kaiser” automobile that he had seen at Gothenburg harbour. Whatever influenced his vision, the reality was success, with production running until 1970, by which time over 600,000 models had been manufactured.

 

The inspiration for the Amazon

The Amazon did much to enhance Volvo’s reputation for safety, and in 1959 the 3-point seat belt (invented by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin the previous year) was fitted in the model as standard – the first car in the world to be equipped with the feature. It was to become a useful addition, as the cars increasing power and performance saw its introduction into motorsport, winning the European Rally Championship in 1963.

Amazon at the Monte-Carlo Rally

I continued my research, and discovered that the model was originally designated with the Swedish name “Amason” – which naturally piqued my interest. This was translated pre-production to the more internationally recognised  “Amazon”, named after the brutal and aggressive female warriors in Greek mythology. I was sold… and if I bought the estate/station-wagon/kombi version, it would accommodate my growing family and English Bull Terrier, Purdey.

The most accommodating Amazon

The 1965 Volvo Amazon 220 estate car proved to be a worthwhile investment. It was perfectly juxtaposed against the nose to tail Range Rovers on the school run, drove faultlessly through the Swiss Alps and along the Cote d'Azur into Italy on the family road-trip, and performed admirably as the construction site van on the restoration of our home – the final task of which was to transport a metric tonne of concrete to lay the garden path.

The genius design of the split-tailgate

As tough as our Swedish warrior was, the concrete delivery was a battle that almost left her defeated, and there was concern that her next journey could be to the Volvo graveyard. After years of loyal service, we couldn’t allow our gallant girl to die, and the decision was made to restore her health to the condition it was in when she was born.

The birthing room in Torslanda, Sweden (1964)

I entrusted the restorative work to the gentleman who had first introduced me to Volvo’s Amazonian tribe. It was going to be a long, painful ride, but I knew she would be in safe hands. His position on the shortcomings of the P1800 had not changed over the decades, but he understood how the romantically minded are easily blinded. I totally agreed with him - secretly still in awe of the lithesome sixties sister of the bold beauty about to undergo regenerative surgery.

Racy looking Swede

From birth, the P1800 had been criticised for a performance that didn’t live up to its racy looks. The parents at Volvo were aware of this flawed character, and in 1961 another British suitor stepped forward to exert influence over their troublesome adolescent’s behaviour. The brief flirtation with Aston Martin resulted in a single love-child that remains (in my opinion) the most desirable branch of the Volvo extended family tree. Aston put a bulge in the babe's bonnet and implanted a 2.5 litre four cylinder test engine. It remains one of a kind.

Aston Martin powered P1800

Meanwhile, our beloved Amazon is out of intensive care, and is now undergoing the final stages of cosmetic preparation before she is once more unveiled to the world. We are looking forward to her homecoming, but concerned that she may feel lonely sitting in the garage all alone. Perhaps she'd like a stablemate. I wonder, I wonder. What would Roger suggest...

 

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