Friday, August 17, 2012

Volvo P1900

Cars That Were Never Made #11

Gunnar Engellau, Volvo's president, took a P1900 on 
holiday. He was so disgusted afterward that 
production ended immediately

Seriously, Gunnar? It couldn't have been that bad....

"I thought it was going to fall apart!" This famous quote comes from Volvo president Gunnar Engellau in 1956. To be fair, just a glance at the specs will tell you why this car was headed for failure.

1957 P1900

The 1956-57 P1900 had been dreamed up by Volvo's preceding president - Assar Gabrielsson. 

1953 Corvette

He'd skipped across the 'pond' to see what General Motors was up to...and had fallen head over heels with the new Corvette. 

P1900 doesn't look too bad from this angle if you squint

Gabrielsson wanted his company to have a sports car just like it, something to liven up Volvo in the eyes of the consumer.

A fiberglass sports car. From a company known for high quality.

A convertible sports car. For a country that sees winters cold enough to kill.

OV4 'Jakob'

And, unbelievably, this is where Volvo had started back in 1926. Their very first car - the OV4 Jakob - was much loved by Swedes that appreciated the craftsmanship and the reliability. But they didn't fall in love with the first model to roll off the assembly line, a four-seater convertible. 

The Swedes fell for the second Jakob...the one with a damn top.

It's just common sense, really. Sure, build a convertible if your customer base is in California. But when your clients live in a country that regularly sees 30 below? Not so much.

I heard - but can't confirm - that a design philosophy with Volvo engineers of the early 20s was they wanted to build a car that would get you home matter what. Winters were harsh, and a broken down car could lead to your death.

So, accordingly, the P1900 used a lot of off-the-self items, like the proven engine from the PV444. 

This is one of their dependable 'B' engines, of which I've had several. The B16 motor is indeed a rock, and engine that you can literally put millions of miles on - but it certainly doesn't belong in a sports car. 

Volvo engineers persisted, however, raising the compression ratio and changed out the valve gear on the little 1.4 inline four. The B16 makes about 70 horsepower with twin SU carbs and is coupled to a three-speed tranny. I know from experience that particular motor is wound out completely at around 70 mph.

The body is fiberglass, like a Corvette, and mounted on a tubular steel frame that was not up to Volvo's high standards, mainly because it had way too much flex - and the body did nothing to stiffen the car up. 

I should mention another company that I have a lot of experience with, the Kaiser Corporation - designed and supplied the first P1900 bodies, unfortunately. 

Kaiser is not known for their build a matter of fact, everything they touch looks like it was put together by kindergartners. I'm not kidding.

The design, in my opinion, is ham-handed, slab-sided, uninspiring and unappealing. I have a friend that spent 10 years restoring a P1900, only to have people walk right past it at various auto shows. My same friend also has a made-in-the-millions ugly old Citroen, and that gets much more attention.

To enhance the somewhat dismal looks and performance of the P1900, Volvo covered the interior trimmings in leather and provided a full dash of instrumentation. 

It doesn't matter, really, because nobody bought the car. In a year and half, only 68 were made - and finally Engellau pulled the plug.

Volvo was much more successful a few years later with their hardtop coupe - the utterly gorgeous P1800. 

1967 P1800

They tried again in 1998 with the C70, a moderately pleasing coupe with a convertible option.

You know what, though? I give them points for trying...and not giving up. From the P1900, they learned that a fiberglass car is for shit, and more importantly, they never tried that convertible crap on the awesome P1800.

1999 C70

And when they did introduce the C70 convertible, Volvo was firmly entrenched in the world market - specifically America - where the car had a chance of selling.

So, as a learning point, the P1900 served its purpose.

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