2 September 2014

The $92,000 Volvo: Has the Volvo 1800 just emerged from its cult-niche status?

Ninety-two thousand dollars for a Volvo? That must have been some Volvo that sold at the Bonhams Auction at the Greenwich Concours d’ Elegance this past June. It was a 1973 1800ES sport wagon, and it was a new record for a Volvo, according to Bonhams.

It was also practically a new car — “beautifully preserved” Bonhams said — and with just 13,000 original miles. Until this sale, the most frequent mention of mileage in conjunction with a Volvo 1800 was a red 1966 model that’s traveled 3 million miles in the hands of its original owner, Irv Gordon. Volvo has gotten a lot of positive publicity helping to promote that car.

But $92,000? Hagerty’s valuation for a 1973 1800 ES shows an average of $12,000 and a high of about $27,000. So the Greenwich sale certainly seems like an anomaly. Is the sporty little Volvo about to emerge from its own niche following?

High-mile 1800’s are certainly more common than the Greenwich auction car. Volvo, in fact, had marketed the P1800 model on the strength of its durability, especially compared to high-end European sports cars. One of the ads for the car showed it doing something no Ferrari or Maserati driver would do: driving through a mud puddle. The headline, “Driving isn’t bad for it,” was a nod to owners who were afraid to drive their “fragile” European GT cars out in nature.

Volvo also played up the 1800’s “European styling,” featuring Ferraris, Maseratis and Aston-Martins in some ads. One headline read, “It’s sort of a souped-down Ferrari.” The self-deprecating copy suggested that sports cars didn't need to have a 160-mph top speed to be fun — that 110 mph was adequate. Volvo extolled a different performance measurement: “At 90 mph, it uses no more gasoline than a Volkswagen uses at 70 — all you need is a highway to enjoy this kind of performance.” Of course, driving a VW Beetle at 70 mph was probably never a good idea anyway.

Volvo introduced the P1800 in 1962, a sports coupe built on the mechanicals of the sturdy 122 sedan. The design was quite un-Volvo, and the work had long been credited to the Italian design house Frua, which had done some Maseratis. But that was not the case. Pelle Petterson, a young Swedish designer who later designed yachts, had drawn the car. (He did work for Frua for a time, however.)

Without its badges, the Volvo P1800 could have fooled casual observers into thinking it had Italian parentage, and that perhaps there was something more potent than a 100-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder sedan engine under the long hood. Many got their first look at the sporty Volvo as Simon Templar’s ride in the TV show, “The Saint.” The show’s producers had reportedly approached Jaguar about getting free use of an E-Type for the show but were turned down.

“The Saint” wasn’t the only British connection. For its first two years of production, the Volvo P1800 was contract-assembled for Volvo by Jensen, using body panels from another company. Jensen was also contract-building bodies for the Austin-Healey 3000.

The early P1800s were certainly not fast, doing 0-to-60 in about 12 seconds.  Performance improvements came, including a big change in 1969 with electronic fuel injection and four-wheel disc brakes. The 60-mph dash was under 10 seconds, quicker than most affordable British roadsters. Fuel injection was a big deal – something that few sports cars had, not even Ferrari.

Performance parts were available, too, and Volvo advertised the 1800’s two SCCA F-Production championships. (The “P” was eventually dropped.) So, the “souped-down Ferrari” had a racing heritage, too.

The $92,000 Volvo at Greenwich was from the end of the 1800 line. For 1972, Volvo redesigned the coupe into a sport wagon, the 1800ES, with a roomy cargo hatch. Its 2.0-liter fuel-injected engine offered 125 horsepower, prompting Volvo’s advertising double entendre, “The sports car that really hauls.”

Production of the 1800ES was low, however, with just under 8,100 built in two years. One of them just fetched nearly 100 grand. Make a note of that.

19 Reader Comments

  • 1
    DaveF Chattanooga September 3, 2014 at 15:16
    Add to this the $81,000 for a 9k mile 1971 1800E at the Rick Cole auction in Monterey. The values of this cars may be moving up.
  • 2
    Brian Savannah, Ga September 3, 2014 at 15:20
    It was crazy to spend that kind of money on 1800 wagon. The new owner will never live to see that money again out of this car. I could understand someone very wealthy buying it for that much if the money went to a worthy charity, otherwise a foolish buy!
  • 3
    Dave Houston, TX September 3, 2014 at 15:45
    Lest we think "what idiot was willing to pay that much for a P1800" - the only reason the bidding got that high was because there were TWO idiots willing to go almost that high.
  • 4
    George Miami September 3, 2014 at 15:55
    Great cars, well built, and beautiful. Good to see some appreciation for these special cars!
  • 5
    Tom New York September 3, 2014 at 16:28
    Volvo also produced a limited number of 1972 1800E coupes with the upgraded interior from the 1800ES. I wonder if that coupe would be of special interest?
  • 6
    TK USA September 3, 2014 at 17:21
    If people are regularly willing to pay $40,000 for a near-useless-and-not-at-all-stylish BMW Isetta, then sure- why not $92,000 for a well preserved, stylish Volvo 1800? I believe it was Lucius Plutarchus who used to say "They are only original once" (but if memory serves, he may have been talking about a boat).
  • 7
    Mitch T. N. AZ September 3, 2014 at 17:49
    This auction sale was an anomaly and represents the higher prices at Bonhams. Well sold and poorly bought is the phrase to sum it up.
  • 8
    Carl H. Santa Rosa, CA September 3, 2014 at 19:09
    Yay!! Finally one of my 'Rodney Dangerfield' cars ("...don't get no respect") is getting its just recognition! I'd rather have my Volvo(/Datsun/Fiat) than any BMW/Mercedes/Ferrari/or Lambo (unless I got it FREE, of course!!;^) I'm not made of cubic money, and I don't have a cubic ego to go with that. I like cars with good styling, fun to drive, and easy to work on (but I still curse my GMC S15 every time I work on it).
  • 9
    jay salser Garland, TX September 3, 2014 at 22:21
    Harrumph! Indeed...when all that we drove were VW Beetles, we used to cruise comfortably at 75 mph--that was the engine's optimum cruising speed. A '67 Karmann Ghia which I owned cruised at over 80mph--often 90 mph. These were stock engines with stock carburetors. Gas mileage averaged 26 on the highways. An advantage which these VWs possessed over the Volvo was that they could be maintained right in one's driveway with few tools and little know-how and certainly with very little expense. That's why we always had 4 or 5 of them at the ready for every member of the family at any time to go anywhere! jay salser
  • 10
    Chuck Minn. September 3, 2014 at 23:10
    Too bad it is fuel injected. Too hard to fix, especially old ones with hard to find parts. The other cars of that time were easy to repair and fun to own.
  • 11
    John M gridley ca September 4, 2014 at 18:23
    Wow, I wish I could pay 92 K for a P1800. I saw one on the harbor docks in San Rafael, CA last year. The owner was working on it. It sure was not in this condition.
  • 12
    Rob Marrow Tennessee September 4, 2014 at 09:44
    I own a 73 1800ES I'm doing a minor restoration on. Love the car. Have always loved the design. Very classic. The car was featured extensively in the show 30Something several decades ago. While $92K is over the top, I do feel like good examples of these cars will continue to go up in value. I'm leaving mine stock except for an electronic ignition distributor conversion. Happy motoring.
  • 13
    Max Moore Chicago September 4, 2014 at 21:47
    Own a 73 P1800 ES in storage with only 400 Miles on a perfect restored example . Time to pull it out along side the Porsche 356! Cool can not be defined but always shows in the price!!!
  • 14
    Francisco Nogueira CT, USA September 4, 2014 at 10:46
    I just love these cars. The lines on any Volvo P1800 are beautiful. I got to get one.
  • 15
    Henry Marlow Missouri September 5, 2014 at 10:40
    Back in 72' I sold my Healy 3000 and bought one off the showroom floor for $5500. Same color, Cypress Green. Sold it 10 years later for $5000. Great car but I needed a pickup and couldn't afford both. 42 years later I drive a c30. What comes around goes around.
  • 16
    Gordon Hardy, VA September 11, 2014 at 21:26
    My father bought a 1964 P1800 new and surprised the family. Recently, I found a 1965, same colors, black with red, and had to buy it! With lower mileage and no rust, I put it on a very fast track restoration for the National Volvo Club of America meet in AR and am about finished. It's beautiful and memorable to me and my siblings. I'm SO glad that I bought it; though I may have paid too much, I'm glad that I did!!
  • 17
    Mark United States April 8, 2015 at 15:56
    I was just looking at ES prices and came across this article. Looks like it's time to sell mine. Seems to still be a lot of confusion as to these cars even after 40 years. I've owned VWs and they are fine for what they are, but all they are is transportation. Certainly no easier to work on. I pull my 1800ES out of the garage only about once a year for a trip. Last year, it was Seattle to San Francisco and back. Down on highway 101 and back on I-5. A 73 VW Beetle could do this. It would just take twice as long and be half as much fun.
  • 18
    Mark Oklahoma City December 7, 2015 at 09:44
    I have a 72 ES. You can see it if you Google "unrestored Volvo". Usually the first photo. The shot was taken 2 years ago at a car show. It won the sports car class over a Viper and a couple of early Vettes. Somebody local sent the pic to Bring a Trailer and my phone blew up. At the time I was thinking about $12.5K for the car, but decided to put it back in storage and see how the market goes.
  • 19
    Gary RI December 13, 2015 at 19:15
    I bought a 1973 1800ES new. Still have the car with under 30K miles. Through all of marriage, 4 sons and a divorce I have managed to hold on to it. It is in fine running order and I have gotten a few trophies at local shows over the years. Regarding the one that sold recently for 90K, does anyone know where that car originated from? I bought mine because my best friend had one and would not let me drive it. Bobby passed in '96 and had sold the 1800 around 1994 with about 25K miles. I would appreciate any information. Thanks, Gary

Join the Discussion