The P1900: Volvo's Quirky, Unfortunate First Sports Car
Volvo was in a pretty good place in the 1950s. Then, as now, it enjoyed a well-earned reputation for building rugged, durable, practical automobiles that often looked pretty good as well, usually taking styling cues from American cars. What Volvo absolutely did not have a reputation for back then was anything to do with sporty. It was a bit of a surprise, therefore, when Volvo announced in 1954 that it would build a two-seater sports car. Since the 1930s, Volvo boss Assar Gabrielsson had been visiting the United States every once in a while to keep up with contacts, suppliers and market trends. During one such visit in 1953, he couldn't ignore the popularity of European sports cars as well as the new fiberglass-bodied Corvette from GM. He then courted Glasspar in California, the company that had pioneered fiberglass bodywork for both boats and cars, to do up some drawings. PHOTOS: See More of the Pretty Volvo P1900
At a considerable expense, a new chassis was designed specifically for Gabrielsson's sports car, but the existing powertrain from the PV444 was used underneath. The dependable but somewhat pedestrian B14 engine was breathed on a bit and fitted with twin SU carburetors to give a respectable 70 horsepower, but the old three-speed gearbox was not conducive to performance driving.
In March of 1956, engineer Helmer Petterson took a long trip to Southern Europe and North Africa in an early production P1900. Other than the surprisingly easy collision repairs to the fiberglass bodywork after swerving to avoid a child in Italy, Petterson concluded that the frame was flimsy (legend has it that doors would fly open under hard cornering in a P1900) and that it was not up to Volvo's characteristically Scandinavian quality standards. The car was also a disappointment on the styling front. It was too tall, had a bloated appearance overall, and the huge, gaping grille was anything but elegant.
PHOTOS: See More of the All-new Volvo XC90
The big dream for any sports car maker in the 1950s was to sell boatloads of cars in the US, but sales had hardly begun before Volvo decided to cut its losses and sell the P1900 primarily in Sweden. Even there, it didn't sell well. The final nail in the coffin was when Volvo's new boss as of 1956, Gunnar Engellau, took one home for the weekend. After concluding that the P1900 was of shoddy build quality, too expensive to produce and way out of place in Volvo's lineup, he axed it after only 67 examples (plus a handful of prototypes) had been built.
Volvo didn't give up on the idea of a sports car, though, as just a few years later they debuted the P1800 Coupe. That's lucky for us, because the P1800, 1800S and 1800ES are some of the prettiest, most usable and most affordable classic sports cars from the 1960s. The P1900, on the other hand, gives us yet another example of how carmakers so rarely get something right on the first try.
PHOTOS: See More of the Iconic Volvo P1800
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