The term “sport wagon” seems like an oxymoron—one being low and sporty, the other functional and boxy. It’s a curious combination, seldom created successfully. Most sport wagons are best forgotten, including Ferrari one-offs, the Jaguar XJS Eventer, and unfortunate individual visions, like the Jaguar XK150 woody.
Perhaps the only classic sport wagon comes from a surprising source—the Swedish firm of Volvo. The company’s curvaceous P1800 sports coupe endured for 12 years with few changes, concluding with the striking 1800 ES wagon, built from 1971–73.
Doomed by 1974’s federal “battering ram” bumper regulations, the short-run ES resembled the rarely-seen 1968–75 British Reliant Scimitar. The ES’s signature cue was its elegant glass tailgate, leading to its nickname in Europe: “Snow White’s Coffin.” With 8078 sold, the ES is among to be the most successful sport wagons ever built.
Volvo’s first attempt at a sports car was the disastrous P1900 roadster in 1955. An early fiberglass blob with a pig snout, it was alarmingly flexible, and one tester listed 29 “must fix” problems. Volvo’s then-new CEO, Gunnar Engellau, took the P1900 on a 447-mile trip and canceled the car upon his return, after only 68 had been sold.
The P1800 bowed in 1961 and derived from Virgil Exner Jr.’s Chrysler concepts built by Ghia in the 1950s. The greenhouse resembled the Ghia Thomas Special and Volkswagen’s Karmann-Ghia coupe, but the P1800 was already dated, with fins, a curved side spear, and “cow horn” front bumpers. Kitschy interior styling featured plenty of chrome and stylized gauges.
The first 6000 cars were made by Jensen, but rust issues forced Volvo to shift production to Sweden, as with the 1800S, in 1964. The model received a shot in the arm when Roger Moore drove one in the British TV series The Saint, which ran for seven years. The network wanted to borrow a Jaguar E-type, but Sir William Lyons refused.
The 1800 proved mechanically bulletproof, with a 1.8-liter B18, four-cylinder OHV engine, front disc and rear drum brakes, independent front suspension, and vault-like unit construction. Performance was comparable to the Porsche 356B, accelerating from 0–60 mph in 13 seconds. It was tough and under-stressed, and an overdrive unit made it a relaxed, high-speed grand tourer. In 2013, retired teacher Irv Gordon, from Long Island, New York, passed three million miles in his 1966 1800S on his way to Alaska.
By the late 1960s, the 1800S looked like a relic, but 1969 improvements kept the 1800 current. A 2.0-liter B20 engine with Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection cut the 0–60 mph time to 10 seconds. A wood-grain dash gained modern gauges, better seats were fitted, and air conditioning and alloy wheels were optional. The ES wagon joined the lineup in late 1971, offering 50/50 balance, a usable back seat, and increased luggage capacity. Total production of all 1800s reached 47,485, including 8078 ES wagons. Rust issues were much improved in later cars.
The 1800ES is a striking design. Apart from an inexplicable $92,400 paid for a red 1973 ES at Bonhams Greenwich auction in June 2014, even top-shelf examples are affordable for mortals at an average of $42,500. Average value for #3-condition (Good) car is $15,900 according to the current Hagerty Price Guide. Color appears to have a significant effect on value, with yellow, red, orange, and dark green favored, while white, light green, baby blue, and alarming turquoise are less so. Metallic gold, silver blue, and bronze were available, but quickly faded to resemble suede shoes. The factory repainted many cars, and an original metallic car would be a find.
Four-speed cars are preferred, although the overdrive unit is fragile. Automatic transmissions are not popular, but such cars were often bought by older drivers and may have much lower mileage (and a manual conversion is possible, anyway). Unit construction means that rust issues can be profound and bodies should be checked carefully. Examine sills, fenders around headlights and grille, windshield and rear window surrounds, and taillights. Also check chassis outriggers and jacking points. The complicated fuel injection is generally reliable.
Mechanical spares are available, and nearly everything can be found NOS or reproduction. However, some ES-only body parts can be difficult to source. Perhaps the best aspect of an 1800ES (apart from its handsome appearance) is the Volvo loyalty factor. The cars have a cult following, and the reason that prices have not surged more is that may be that few owners choose to sell them. One imagines pipe-smoking professors professing: “Why would I sell it? It’s MY car!”