Used car buying guide: Volvo P1800

27 January 2021 - autocar

Used car buying guide: Volvo P1800

Volvo doesn’t often make a coupé, but its P1800 just so happens to be among the prettiest – and most reliable – of its kind

You will get to surprise your neighbours twice when you rock up in a P1800: once when you tell them it's a Volvo and again when you reveal that the first examples were built in West Bromwich.

This is no doubt a conversation that you will become used to having fairly quickly, considering that the P1800 coupé is among the most objectively eye-catching cars ever released, but this stylish Swede has a few more trivia tricks up its sleeve.

You might know, for example, that the Guinness World Record for the highest mileage travelled by a single car is held by the late Irv Gordon's 1966 P1800S, which quickly hit 250,000 miles without requiring any unscheduled maintenance, before going on to accumulate 3,000,000 miles in 2013 at the age of 47 years old – with its original engine block and gearbox still in situ. Proof, perhaps, that this is one of few bona fide classics that wouldn't suffer being pressed into daily service.

Midlands manufacturer Jensen built the car under licence from 1961 until 1963, but quality problems led to P1800 production being shifted to Gothenburg, with the car adopting the S suffix that it would wear until the end of the decade.

Those early cars are tricky to find (the sole example in the classifieds at the time of writing was listed in the Netherlands for £90,000) and are primarily distinguished from later cars by a unique ‘cowhorn’ front bumper and a slight power deficit.

With a production run of nearly seven years, it’s the P1800S (the S for Sweden) that dominates the classifieds today. This facelifted car used the same carburetted 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine as the Jensen-built model, but with power upped from 101bhp to 109bhp in 1963 and again to 115bhp in 1966.

Fuel injection didn’t arrive until 1969, when the P1800E (the E for einspritz) was ushered in with a new 2.0-litre engine producing an extra 15bhp and a raft of other upgrades, including disc brakes, rather than drums, at each corner.

It’s this later P1800 that is likely to tempt the more casual enthusiast, thanks to its electronic injection being easier to live with than a pair of SU carburettors and its relative concessions to safety giving it the edge in terms of daily usability. Not only that, but also you will pay around £10,000 less for a clean example.

What’s more, there’s added variety, courtesy of the shooting brake-shape P1800ES, plenty of examples of which are still knocking about.

The P1800’s modest output – in all guises – meant it was never viewed as a bona fide sports car, so most examples have been driven carefully and maintained to stock specification. If buying a project car, however, spend some time making sure that all parts are present and correct, because rebuild costs can quickly spiral, and you can get stopped short of the finish line by an elusive switch, seal or screw.

An expert's view

Robert Whitton, Phoenix Classic Restorations: "It's so easy to find parts for the P1800. There are some rare items that are no longer available, but you can easily find general maintenance parts – seals, bushes and repair sections. If you want the look and the rarity, go for the Jensen. Many think it has lots of problems and that's why Sweden took over production, but let's face it: you're not buying new now, and any issues will no doubt have been sorted."

Buyer beware...

  • Bodywork: The rarity of UK-built P1800s makes replacement panels harder to find, but you're unlikely to find a rust bucket. The same can't be said of cheaper and less commonly restored post-1963 examples, which can often suffer from crumbly sills, door bottoms, wings, headlight mounts and arches. Check behind the fuel tank as well. Values weren't always so high, so take a magnet, torch and screwdriver to sniff out any dodgy old repairs. If the chrome bumpers are dinged or pitted, consider replacing with more durable stainless steel items (around £700).
  • Interior: Hot climates are good news for metal but less so for rubber and leather, so if importing a solid car, be prepared to replace window seals, seat covers and dashboard padding. Sweden's seats are generally considered comfier than the thinly padded Jensen items.
  • Suspension and brakes: Bushes and ball joints will need replacing if they haven't been done recently, and you will get better longevity and performance from slightly pricier polybushes; the original rubber items last a few years at best. The brake booster can leak, leading to loss of braking, but can sometimes be repaired rather than replaced. The rear drums require a bespoke tool from Volvo for disassembly.
  • Engine: Irv Gordon's P1800 is testament to the potential longevity of this Volvo four-pot, but the best results are attained by adhering to strict maintenance schedules and taking it easy. Failure to start or lumpy running on pre-E models could be attributed to muck in the fuel hoses or carburettors, but the earlier engine will have a slightly erratic idle even if healthy. Carry out a compression test for an indication of wear and check for dark smoke from the exhaust on step-off: a sign of valve seal or piston ring trouble.

Also worth knowing

Rolling MOT exemption rules mean any car more than 40 years old can be driven on public roads without a valid certificate. P1800 owners are a careful bunch, though, so you will find few that haven't been tested in the past two months. It's always worth leafing through any history that comes with the car, though, as improperly rectified problems can still rear their ugly heads.

How much to spend

£5000-£14,999: Projects, mostly late models. Cheapest is a 1973 ES in need of a new interior.

£15,000-£24,999: Usable E examples that may require restoration in the next few years.

£25,000-£34,999: The cleanest post-1970 cars and some well-loved S models.

£35,000 and above: Fully restored and low-mileage 1960s cars, including the occasional Jensen.

One we found

Volvo P1800, 1963, £35,950: This is one of the first P1800s built in Sweden in 1963 and wears the same 'cowhorn' front bumper as the earlier Jensen model. The seller has spent more than £20,000 on it over the past six years, installing the later 2.0-litre engine and electronic ignition for improved performance and reliability.