Volvo is a car maker synonymous with safety and set-square styling. The mere mention of this behemoth of a Swedish brand conjures an image of an achingly angular, indestructible estate. Its loyal fans happily forgo style for space and smugly shun speed for safety. So it may come as a surprise to younger readers to learn that Volvo produced one of the most stylish, iconic cars of the 1960s. The P1800 was a car that rivalled Jaguar, Lotus and Ferrari and was the star of the popular TV show The Saint, achieving fame as the trusted sidekick of its debonair hero, Simon Templar, aka the effortlessly suave Roger Moore. It raises a smile to know that the boffins responsible for the dictionary inclusions of rear seat belts, crumple zones and air bags also have "fun" in their vast, vocational vocabulary.
In its first two decades of production, Volvo established a reputation for reliable and robust cars. But by the 1950s the company sought the glamour and glory that only a sports car can offer. Its first attempt, the ill-fated P1900, despite being modelled on a Corvette, was such a flop only 68 were ever made. For its successor, the P1800, Volvo turned to Italy, the undisputed home of sports car design. They hoped to create the perfect hybrid: a Scandinavian heart in a svelte Italian suit. Ironically, after travelling thousands of miles in the search of the perfect design, they chose a model created by a Swede, Pelle Pettersson, then working for Italian design house Pietro Frua. The result was daring and distinctive, with sweeping lines, an imposing profile and fashionable fins and flares.
Unlike its rivals, the P1800 didn't opt for a snarling V8 or a super-smooth straight six. Instead a very efficient four-cylinder powerplant with a modest 1800cc produced an impressive 100 bhp. This promised a top speed of a shade under 190kph, sub-10-second acceleration to 100kph and class-leading fuel efficiency.
Although undoubtedly a better-looking and engineered car than its predecessor, the P1800 was pitched into a market featuring some of the most iconic models of the 20th century. Pricing strategy was always going to be a key factor in determining its success. However, import costs led to an inflated list price in the key markets of England and the US. It seems absurd now, but the P1800 was actually more expensive for British buyers than the Jaguar E-Type, one of the most sought-after cars in history.
Volvo needed an innovative promotional campaign to penetrate the market; in 1962, they found just that. Jaguar had declined an invitation to supply a car for the new television drama The Saint and its dashing young star, Roger Moore. Volvo gladly stepped into the breach and the P1800 was thrust into the public consciousness as the stylish, sporty steed of the show's hero, Simon Templar. And the bond between man and car was real enough, as Roger Moore become a vocal Volvo owner and advocate in real life. But while it undoubtedly leant the P1800 a cult status, the high list price did restrict saturation of the market. In a 13-year production, fewer than 50,000 models were built.
For the start of its second decade of production, the model was given an update. A fuel-injected engine was added, producing 130hp, and a quirky "fast-hatch" estate model was launched. The estate aligned speed and style with a practicality and load-carrying capacity previously beyond the reach of sports car enthusiasts. Along with the Reliant Scimitar, the model created a new niche in the market. Its glass tailgate has remained a Volvo style cue with the 1990s 480 and the current C3 models sharing the same feature.
But for all its style, sophistication and TV-star glamour, the P1800 remains, at heart, a Volvo, with all the hallmarks that have made the marque famous. An American-owned P1800 holds the world record as the car with the highest mileage: a 1966 model owned by Irv Gordon passed the 2.8-million-mile mark last year and is still going strong. Decades after The Saint left the screen, the P1800 was introduced to a new generation of viewers as Gordon was a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The car was once again the star, but with a very different driver with a very different mission.