Ain’t No Saint: How a scrapyard-bound Volvo drove the fast lane to Hot Wheels fame
Many Hot Wheels fans say that playing with the 1/64-scale models as kids sparked a lifelong love of cars and, for some, an automotive career. In Somerset, England, Lee Johnstone took the opposite route. The winner of the 2021 Hot Wheels Legends Tour, Johnstone didn’t play with the tiny hotrods as a kid, because he was 18 and in technical college when the first batch from Mattel hit store shelves in 1968.
Johnstone’s winning car is an utterly unique 1969 Volvo 1800S coupe that he built into a berserko 10-second gasser named “Ain’t No Saint.” The high-riding hot rod will soon become the next addition to the Hot Wheels Legends Garage line for all fans to enjoy. (A gasser built around a 1968 Mercedes sedan was one of the top finalists in this year’s Legends Tour.)
Hot Wheels Legends judges, which include brand executives as well as top car designers and customizers, make their choices based on “authenticity, creativity, and garage spirit.” Johnstone’s wild Volvo buries the needle on all three counts. His gasser is the culmination of nearly three decades of building and racing experience, much of it while limited by a tight budget. The Volvo is also a kind of celebration of British pop culture.
Who’s the Saint you say this ain’t?
Hot Wheels appeal to ages four to 104, give or take. Depending on where you fall within that range, the significance of Johnstone’s car and its catchy name might not be immediately apparent. He acknowledges that many might take it to mean “don’t mess with me,” and that’s fine with him. Its real meaning, though, is rooted in television.
For many car buffs around the world, the sporty little Volvo P1800 coupe, built from 1962-1973 (as the 1800ES sport wagon for the final two years), instantly recalls memories of watching The Saint a global TV hit that originally ran from 1962–1969. Syndication and streaming in later years grew the show’s fan base.
Roger Moore played the lead role of dapper do-gooder Simon Templar, an urbane and mostly reformed conman, jewel thief, and safecracker character created by author Leslie Charteris. Known affectionately or derisively as The Saint by either side of the law, Templar always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to help right a wrong.
He drove a white Volvo 1800 throughout the series, and the car became as tightly linked with the character as the Aston Martin DB5 did with James Bond in the same period. (Moore would go on to play Bond in the ‘70s and ’80s.) The graphic on the side of Johnstone’s car is based on the one seen in the show’s distinctive opening and closing credit sequences.
In another British connection, the Volvo P1800 had been assembled under contract for its first two years by Jensen Motors, a company perhaps most famous for its Chrysler V-8-powered Interceptor luxury GT. After 1963, production moved to Volvo’s home base in Sweden, and the model name changed to 1800S. (Corgi Toys offered a 1/64 model of “The Saint” Volvo.)
It’s a gas, gas, gasser
But enough Volvo history. What drove a British auto mechanic from Somerset to turn this one into a gasser? Essentially, it was for the same reason that a person climbs a mountain: Because it was there. Back in 2013, Johnstone was looking to get back on the drag strip with his own car after being an engine builder for others for many years.
“I started looking for a typical American gasser-type vehicle,” he tells Hagerty. “But the rolling shells I found were priced too high for me. I’d about given up looking, then I was skimming eBay and came across the Volvo. The seller had bought it to restore but found that would be too expensive. He was about to send it to the scrapyard.”
Johnstone picked up the shell for 800 British pounds, or about $1300 at the time. While it easily steals the show wherever it goes, “Ain’t No Saint” was built to race by Johnstone and friend Steven Wright, who also provided the workshop space and the trailer. Conveniently, an old RV that Wright was planning to scrap supplied its big-block Chevy. More help came from Wright’s son-in-law, Steven Spiller.
The Chevy is fed by dual Holley Demon four-barrel carburetors and a 6-71 supercharger, among other speed parts. This unsaintly Volvo logged its quickest time so far, 10.01 seconds at 133 mph, in September 2021 at the NSRA Hot Rod Drags at Santa Pod Raceway in Podington, Bedfordshire, U.K.
“That’s pretty damn good considering it’s an all-metal car and weighs about 3000 pounds,” says Johnstone.
The Volvo is not Johnstone’s first drag race car. He’d gotten his first look at the sport in 1967. After a few years of watching the races, he and a buddy decided to build their own car. They began by dropping an old Jaguar six-cylinder engine in a Ford Popular chassis. “You could buy old Jag engines for 30 pounds in those days,” Johnstone recalls.
Initially, they draped it with the fiberglass body of a Rochdale Olympic, one of Britain’s many “boutique” cars of the ‘60s, with about 250 made. The body, though, which was designed as a monocoque with steel subframes and other reinforcements, proved too heavy. The fledgling racers found a shop that was making lightweight fiberglass Fiat Topolino bodies for drag racers and bought one for 60 pounds.
“We began racing in 1972, but the car was a bit of a dog. We had a lot to learn,” Johnstone says.
The car continually evolved, getting a tube frame and a supercharger in 1974. The final version in the ’80s replaced the Jag mill with a Chevy and ran mid 8s at over 150 mph. When the car finally became “out of tag” (obsoleted out of the rules) Johnstone and his racing partner divided it up, each taking some of its pieces.
Johnstone later started working as a builder and tuner for racer Bob Glassup, who was running a wild Topolino fuel altered in nostalgia drags. That car ran low 6s at just under 200 mph.
The Volvo build began with cutting. “We stripped it out and cut out some of the front end to fit the Chevy,” explains Johnstone. “We built it up and got a 6-71 blower, and had to make an adaptor plate and manifold.”
Other elements came into play by experimentation. “We didn’t really design the car, we just kept working on it, trying different things until we got it the way we wanted. Once we got it past being a rolling shell, it was just a matter of getting everything to fit and work. We wanted to keep it old-school gasser, where you kind of thread a chassis into the shell.”
The front beam axle and suspension came from a scrapyard Leyland Sherpa van, and a Ford 9-inch rear replaced the Volvo’s axle but kept the stock spring perches. The stance seems exaggerated, even for a gasser, but that’s not as the builders originally envisioned.
“It’s a bit higher than we anticipated,” says Johnstone. “We thought the heavy engine would sink the Sherpa’s springs a few inches, but they moved less than an inch. We ended up liking the result.”
The Volvo retains its original window hardware and some original glass, but a few purists have given Johnstone grief over cutting the car. “I just tell them, if we hadn’t done it, the body was going to the scrapyard.”
A friend with a paint shop gave the Volvo its green shade. “We tried to match it so we wouldn’t have to repaint the inside of the boot and the door jambs,” says Johnstone, also offering that “Ain’t No Saint” was not the first name they considered.
“We built the car in Wellington, so we were going to call it the ‘Wellington Bomber,’” he says, as an homage to the British WWII bomber. “We were going to make a fuel tank that looked like a bomb with fins, but then thought the idea was silly.”
11 seconds on the first go
Fresh off the build, “Ain’t No Saint” ran 11s in the quarter-mile. Further tweaking got it into the high 10s at 125 mph and then even faster.
“We kept at it,” says Johnstone. “We switched the carbs, got a better 6-71 blower and knocked off more time and added more speed. We wanted to make it easy to maintain so that it just needed a cool-off period between rounds.”
Johnstone eventually bought out Wright’s share in the car but continued to use his workshop and bought his own old RV to tow the Volvo. He made “Ain’t No Saint” a family project with his three daughters, who each take turns racing it.
In 2021, Johnstone and family ran the Volvo it at three major English events: Dragstalgia, the NSRA Nostalgia Nationals and the NSRA Hot Rod Drags. All took place at Santa Pod.
Fast lane to fame
With five seasons of racing behind it, “Ain’t No Saint” had built up a local following and more fans on social media. “Lots of people had been urging us to enter the Hot Wheels Legends, but we just never looked into it,” says Johnstone.
Then, he says, just before the end of the 2021 season, a pop-up ad on his phone announced a pending deadline for the European leg of the Tour. He and his crew made a quick video and were able to use photos that a Hot Wheels photographer took at the Nostalgia Nats.
“We sent in our package, not expecting much. And then came word that we’d won.”
Since then, Johnstone says the car has become an even wider celebrity, and even a kind of bad-boy British hero—not unlike The Saint himself.