Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Rearview mirror: The Volvo P1800

The car was a favourite of televsion's The Saint, but the price was a sin.

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.

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Styled with bleached bobs and pale skin, the models wore clean and sporty separates reminiscent of the chic workwear of The Hunger Games. Courtesy Getty Images

Fashion Forward: Thoughtful tailoring at Asudari

The womenswear label Asudari showcased a collection that featured sharp masculine tailoring, but with feminine silhouettes.

Styled with bleached bobs and pale skin, the models wore clean and sporty separates reminiscent of the chic workwear of The Hunger Games.

Designer Lamia Asudari says she was influenced by Delftware ceramics from the 16th century, as well as the imagery of weaponry and artillery. Indeed, pistols, grenades and guns were emblazoned over jackets and dresses.

 Several of Jo Baaklini's pieces featured fruit prints. Courtesy Getty Images

Fashion Forward: At Starch, watermelon shirts, anyone?

“We need to cultivate our own fashion heroes — our own regional brands,” stressed Fashion Forward’s honcho Bong Guerrero in a press con two weeks ago.

Aptly, the slot for this season’s opening runway show was given to two newbies: Jo Baaklini and Timi Hayek, whose talents were scouted by Starch, a group dedicated to launching emerging Lebanese designers.

Between the two, Mr Baaklini had a stronger showing.

 Jean Louis Sabaji’s collection was very good when the tricks were toned down — like the simple white jumpsuit with a sculptural neckpiece. Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images

Fashion Forward: Jean Louis Sabaji’s debatable debut

Jean Louis Sabaji’s collection was very good when the tricks were toned down — like the simple white jumpsuit with a sculptural neckpiece, the floral crop top, and the radiant yellow pleated skirt.

But most of the time he went too far. There were bell-bottoms, separates that looked like costumes from The Jetsons, and a yellow dress reminiscent of Bjork’s infamous Oscars swan dress — several disparate elements in one multicoloured, multilayered show.

 Launched in 2009 by childhood friends Arwa Abdelhadi and Basma Abu Ghazaleh, Kage bills itself as a label whose “ultimate goal is to design a collection appealing to all.” Courtesy Getty Images

Fashion Forward: Kage pleases all palates

Did the designers of Kage aim to showcase every type of basic clothing on their latest show?

Because there were skirts, shorts, trousers, off-shoulder tops, short dresses, cocktail dresses, long flowy dresses, spaghetti straps, jackets, hoods — and even pyjamas, which with the incoming summer heat, looked especially appealing.

Launched in 2009 by childhood friends Arwa Abdelhadi and Basma Abu Ghazaleh, Kage bills itself as a label whose “ultimate goal is to design a collection appealing to all”, they said in their statement.

 The standout was a grey hooded cape that created a tension between edge and elegance. Courtesy Getty Images

Fashion Forward: Polish, craft (and fur!) at The Emperor 1688

The best show of Day 1 at Fashion Forward was delivered by the three Golkar brothers behind The Emperor 1688.

The coats and capes were the clear winners: they came in all sorts of interesting colours and sizes — and featured exceptionally tailored proportions. There was a lot of volume, but also stiffness.

And whimsy: two favourites were a green double-breasted suit and a blue overcoat with a red clover pattern and gold buttons.

 Midway through Ezra's show, snow started falling from the ceiling. Ian Gavan / Getty Images for Fashion Forward

Fashion Forward: Ezra stuns in snow-covered show

Turns out the Filipino designer Ezra, known for his dreamy couture, still had a few surprises up his sleeve.

Midway through his show, snow started falling from the ceiling.

It created a starkly beautiful atmosphere for his intricately constructed gowns that seemed to be designed for an Ice Queen transported back to the 1950s.

He showed a collection that had a lot of technical firepower behind it: glittering iridescent fabrics paired with head and neckpieces that were moulded and stiffened to stand out in odd angles.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National