Home » Here’s The Italian-Designed Car That Volvo Should Have Replaced The Iconic P1800 With

Here’s The Italian-Designed Car That Volvo Should Have Replaced The Iconic P1800 With

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“The client will never pick this,” says my boss as he looks over some well-thought-out concept our design department has just developed. “It just makes too much sense.” It sounds strange, but he’s right. Oftentimes corporate minds make decisions of the what-were-they-thinking variety, and car companies are famous for this. For example, Pontiac paraded some nice looking all-activity concept vehicles in front of us, and then chose to produce the rather ham-fisted design of the Aztek. The European and Australian arms of Ford and General Motors produced some outstanding machines that challenged the best the world had to offer, yet they decided not to sell them here. Worse than that, in cases like the Merkur XR4Ti and Cadillac Catera, they did offer them to Americans but with issues like underwhelming drivetrains that hindered their chance for success. I think Volvo’s designers missed some opportunities in the seventies that were right in front of them; let’s talk about them.

I”m talking about the brand’s chance to improve its cool factor. I’m about to look at an alternate reality, as I typically do, but somehow the actual history of Volvo seems even stranger than the fiction I’ll present. Allow me to explain.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

A Very Pretty Sports Car…By Volvo?

In 1973, Volvo’s P1800 series of sports cars was over a decade old, with a chassis based on the even older 122 “Amazon” series. As a sports car with sweeping lines that was conventionally beautiful, the P1800 was a rather enigmatic car for Volvo. It’s also a rare car in that it has tail fins that actually work visually without looking gaudy or stuck on. Another strange fact: Jason Torchinsky actually owned one, and it’s hard to imagine him ever purchasing a car that is “conventionally beautiful” in this reality. It might have been a lovely looking and relatively sporting car, but a P1800S beat out taxi-cab-like Benz diesels to hold the record for the highest mileage ever put on a car with 3.2 million on the clock (and New York-based owner Irv Gordon didn’t even have a garage). It was still a Volvo, after all.

1800
Volvo

With looming safety and emissions restrictions in the United States, Volvo chose to drop this by-now-aging car instead of developing a new 1974 model. The last of the P1800 series was a “shooting brake” model Volvo developed from the coupe with an all-glass backlight.

Volvo P1800es 9
Volvo

Dubbed the 1800ES, this rare last-of-the-line car (only 8,077 produced) served as a styling inspiration for a number of Volvo cars, including later front wheel drive sport coupes (but not really sports cars) such as the 480 and C30.

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Other Coupes
Volvo

After the last 1800ES left the factory, Volvo’s apparent need for a “halo” car led them to coachbuilder and styling house Bertone to make their next special coupe. Did Lamborghini Countach stylist and Bertone employee Marcello Gandini create a slick, low, and angular two door performance machine for Volvo’s next flagship GT? That would make sense, right? I certainly think so, but that isn’t what happened.

You might remember a little while back that we talked about the Volvo Bertone Coupe that did actually reach production. The 262C was styled not in Turin but in-house at Volvo, and the inspiration for the design of this coupe appears to have been vinyl-roof-covered American personal luxury cars. Bertone simply produced the car in Italy, literally chopping down the roof of a standard two door like some Kustom Kar house would. Whether you like it or not, the 262C didn’t sell particularly well and was absolutely not a sports-car replacement for the 1800ES.

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Volvo

Volvo did get a Bertone show car in 1980 called the Tundra. This fastback (with somewhat odd rear quarter windows) seemed to point a new direction for styling of the Swedish firm. Needless to say, this rather radical-for-the-time concept was too much for the rather conservative maker of boxy cars. Volvo passed on producing the design, though Bertone did present a very similar design to a company with the balls to produce it: serial bizarre-car-maker Citroen. The BX model followed a very similar aesthetic.

Bx
Bertone, Citroen

What if Volvo had received the kind of Bertone-designed sports car we all thought we would be getting?

Brown Pyramid Or Poop Emoji?

If you like angular styling like I do, Bertone had more cool concepts in the late seventies than you could shake a pencil at. At almost exactly the same time that the 262C was launched in 1978, Bertone showed the Lancia Sibilo at that year’s Turin Auto Show.

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1978 Bertone Lancia Sibilo 01
Bertone

This dramatic wedge (in a glorious brown) was what you would expect from Bertone and Gandini: an insanely futuristic concept. The upper half of the car was done in a formed polycarbonate plastic so there were no window seams; the areas where you don’t want to see through the clear plastic are painted body color from the inside to hide any structure. To allow the driver to get some air or pay tolls, there are small round window openings–they slide back inside the car to open. A vertical bar windshield wiper moves laterally across the screen to give full coverage of the glass. In back there’s a “heckblende” panel between the taillights with SIBILO spelled out in Jason’s favorite font: seven-segment digital.

Sibilo Images
Wikipedia/edvvc Wikipedia/thesupermat

It’s odd that the Sibilio is based on the unearthly-sounding rally machine Lancia Stratos, since it looks more like a shooting brake than a mid-engined supercar. That has to be one of my favorite sounding motors but I sure as shit don’t want that engine right in the car with me.

Screenshot (1228)

I kept looking at the rear quarter view of the Sibilo and personally wanted to make some changes, and once I started scribbling something odd occurred to me: the Sibilio was starting to look like a latter day 1800ES. Here’s how the Sibilio could be “Volvoized” into a two-plus-two front engined GT car called the 2800EX..

Bertone-d Down 

To make a late-seventies sports vehicle, Volvo couldn’t realistically use 200 series bits; the only other parts bin choice might have to be heavily modified components from the new-for-1976 300 series, which in many ways wasn’t totally a Volvo.

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Volvo

The Dutch firm DAF was best known for rubber belt transmission cars that raced backwards, so it seemed sort of odd when Volvo bought an interest in the company, ultimately taking full control in 1975. The 300 series was essentially a collaboration with DAF that the Swedish firm used to make a Volvo entry into the small-car market, and many fans of the brand don’t accept it as a “real” Volvo. Still, we have to run with what we’ve got, and this is it.

At least the 300 does have a rear-mounted manual transmission for outstanding weight distribution, a layout the concurrent Porsche 924 and Alfa GTV used as well. I’d love to use the straight six out of the old Volvo 164 but we’ll likely need to use the dreaded PRV V6 or a B21 four-cylinder Volvo engine, specifically later models with the turbo. Still, with that V6 you’d have the same engine as the rear-motor Renault Alpine (and later Delorean) but theoretically with more predictable handling. I’d like to at least put an extra set of camshafts on that dopey old motor. The rear mounted transmission could be a 5 speed or a 4-speed-with-overdrive as on the 200 series. A 3-speed automatic would be available as an option–not that crazy Variomatic belt transmission from DAF, thank you.

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Chrysler (backdrop)

Modifications I made to the Sibilo body are rather simple but make it a more usable, producible design. The seamless windows obviously have to go, but we can keep the glass seams as tight as seventies technology could do. I’ve opened up the rear wheel by removing the “skirt”; I then lengthened that peak on the rear wheel arch to sort of emulate the remains of the “fin” on the flanks of the 1800ES. The taillights and odd logo panel of the Sibilo always seemed a bit out of place, so I moved more Volvo-looking lights down and integrated them into the body with a “heckblende” between them. Rubber bumper protrusions take care of US 5MPH regulations.

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The Bishop

In front, the sloping nose is still there but the continuous pyramid-like straight line from front bumper to roof on the Sibilo is broken, with a slightly more upright front windshield. A small hood bulge will likely be needed to clear the motor. A mock Volvo grille sits in the center of the bumper with the signals and fog lamps flanking it. Headlamps are still pop ups since I would never willingly NOT put pop ups on anything that would have existed before 1985. Sadly, the sliding bar wiper won’t hold up to Swedish snow, so more conventional blade mechanisms are used.

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Chrysler (backdrop) and The Bishop

And You Thought That The Outside Was Weird

When people ask the question of which cars had the most bizarre interior design of all time, the common answers like Citroen or Subaru XT don’t even come close to scratching the surface of dashboards of Bertone concepts of the seventies. The Sibilo was no exception; a giant cylinder was plopped in front of the driver, the rim of which apparently steered the car. For whatever reason, Bertone chose to throw the radio speaker and warning lights on the flat surface in the center of the wheel, simulating Milton Bradley’s Simon. Note also the mechanism that opens the little round window on the door (below).

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Screenshot (1217)
Bertone

I think such a control center is a bit too much for any Volvo, so I just used the basic angular aesthetic of the Sibilo and put it in the blender with the lovely dashboard of the original P1800. That car had chrome bezels surrounding the secondary instruments in the center of the dash; Jason claimed that those green centers of the gauges glowed like an illuminated swimming pool at night.

Dashboard
Park Place Limited (car for sale)

Here’s what the Mix-O-Matic produced. I’ve created a much more conventional trapezoidal shaped dashboard with angular interpretations of those cool old-school instruments placed inside. There are also parts-bin sourced climate and secondary controls that will look very familiar to anyone who rode in a 245DL back in the day. Because I am not sure if the side windows could roll all the way down, we’ll use AMC Pacer-style “fins” on the door for you to rest your arm on.

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The Bishop

Exactly why would the 2800EX have even existed? It’s not like the world needed another Volvo sports car, especially a rather controversial looking one like this, but wouldn’t it have made more sense than the 262C that they had the Italian firm actually build? That’s a car that confuses people to this very day. If I’m buying a Bertone creation from the seventies, I expect it to be a low, lean, batshit crazy spectacle that looks like it’s escaped from the set of Space 1999.

What good would it be if it isn’t?

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BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
4 months ago

I don’t like the slabby doors. Would it have killed you to put a little bow in them? Everything else is to die for. Love it!

Jan Schiefer
Jan Schiefer
4 months ago

Wonderful article, thank you! A friend of mine had an 1800ES. I drove it once, and a sports car it is not (unsurprisingly, it drives like a 144). But boy does it turn heads! My personal fantasy is to put the inline-5 from the 850 in one of these, and get that glorious sound, to round out the experience. Oh yes, and more power too.

There is just something special about shooting brakes. Owning an ’89 Honda Accord Aerodeck EX while living in the UK was as close as I got – didn’t have the money for a Reliant Scimitar GTE. But I hope that the some day, the endearingly crazy designers at Hyundai will pick up this idea and make something very special. This might be almost as good as your draft design.

Keep up the good work!

Auto Peon
Auto Peon
4 months ago

I love the Tundra. Love the BX. And would even love a renault fuego.

pliney the welder
pliney the welder
4 months ago

Came here for ” P1800 ” and got a wonderful Torch backstory as a bonus. Thanks , Bishop. You knocked this one out of the park . ” It is is high , it is far , it is gone ! “

beachbumberry
beachbumberry
4 months ago

The P1800 is and always has been my dream car. I once sat in the car from The Saint at a car show in Birmingham (the owner divorced his wife because she demanded he sell it)

I very nearly bought a tidy p1800e from a collector near Ipswich. It had been parked for years but was complete and not locked up. But my orders to stay in the UK got cancelled and I ended up having to pass. Sad day for me.

I recently looked at a pair of early Swedish built p1800’s (had Jensen stamped panels) but couldn’t store them.

Flinched
Flinched
4 months ago

Volvo should have done a lot of things but they couldn’t because they were broke. They were going the way of Saab only slower. Ford, broke in other ways, kept the brand alive long enough to crib design, engineering and production technology to improve its own brand. Biff and Buffy are now supporting a Chinese nationalist company. Tears shed but so goes the car business.

TDI in PNW
TDI in PNW
4 months ago

I always loved the Subaru SVX. It came out when I was 18 and still looks like a spaceship now.

This reminds me a lot of the SVX so I think it’s fantastic!

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
4 months ago

I would own the hell outta that. The Sibilio is my all-time favorite concept car. Nice job on the photoshops! I thought they were pics of a real prototype at first!

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
4 months ago

This is very cool, and much better than the Bertone examples.

The wagon-ish models with the glass hatches (especially the 480) are such pretty cars. A neighbor has a c30 and I’m always tempted to steal it.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago

“…not that crazy Variomatic belt transmission from DAF, thank you.”

Have you driven one? I own two and it sure sounds to me like you’ve driven one.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
4 months ago

If you are into flush mounted glass in the 80s, that peg in a track technique used on the Audi 5000 was pretty cool.
Why doesn’t anyone still use that anymore?

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
4 months ago

Always loved the look of the 1800 & 1800ES. Had a friend in the 80s who had an 1800ES, it always brought the looks when driving around, just a fun cool vehicle.

This is an amazing design concept, The angles just come together so well. I would be saving money to buy one if it ever came about.

FleetwoodBro
FleetwoodBro
4 months ago

This is your most appealing design yet. I’m seeing some Lancia Beta HPE here, but yours is even better looking. The interior is fantastic as well. Simply great. I’d buy one today!

Myk El
Myk El
4 months ago

My dad so very much wants a Volvo 1800ES. He and my mom are moving next year and downsizing their house but not the garage and dad wants an interesting car to take to Cars & Coffee and similar events.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
4 months ago

Out of the park with this one, Bishop. The only suggestion I could even offer is maaaaaybeeeee a little more weirdness to the steering wheel. Like, give it a flat top and bottom to ape the shapes of the gauges behind it?

The Bishop
The Bishop
4 months ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Yeah, too many parts bin items here in an attempt to make it more “feasible”. I’m going further out there on the next one, I promise!

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago

Damn, Bishop! I like the ES so much I was shopping for one earlier this year-even had Torch draw me one for my birthday. And I came of age in the early 80s, so the blocky wide-body look hooks me, too. You’ve even put sort of turbine wheels on it—reminds me of the OZ Rallye wheels!

Nicely done: I immediately saw the fins in those rear fenders. And the little swoop between them & the hatch is a great call-out to the C30 which I also really like. I had an XT, so enjoy weird interiors, too. You couldn’t have appealed to me more if you had asked my parameters: chef’s kiss! This is beautiful.

You ever sell your work? I’d pay you, Autopian, or donate to a Home For Wayward Cats to have these.

sorry to gush, but, damn if you didn’t nail this one!

The Bishop
The Bishop
4 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Thank you! Many people find the Sibilo to be ugly or weird but I’m quite happy that there are Bertone fans out there!

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
4 months ago

The hips remind me a bit of the Mk1 S80, in this alternate universe, that detail would have been established as part of their identity nearly 2 decades earlier- looks like a believeable origin for it, too

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
4 months ago

That’s a cool effort – but you’ve basically reinvented the Volvo 480 – which was the direct replacement for the P1800, and the precursor to the very oddly-proportioned 440/460 series.

The Bishop
The Bishop
4 months ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

The 480 is definitely the successor, but I wanted something that came sooner than the late 80s and -more importantly- had rear wheel drive. Glad you like it!

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
4 months ago
Reply to  The Bishop

Oh shit – I get it now.
How could I have confused the 70’s w/ the 80’s?
I was there for both of them!
Still miffed Volvo never brought the 480 to the US.

The Bishop
The Bishop
4 months ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

That was apparently the plan to bring it here up until the 11th hour. How else can you explain the US legal rear side marker lights on the 480?

Andy Why
Andy Why
4 months ago

Love it.

Unfortunately the bumpers aren’t plausible for a Volvo of that era. As someone who grew up in Volvo Town and owns a late model X1/9, I’m confident that the bumpers needs to be much bigger. Since they would have been designed for the car from the beginning they could look much better than the late model X1/9 monstrosities, but there is no way 2800EX bumpers wouldn’t be big and plastic.

Tom W
Tom W
4 months ago

Damn it… I want this… How can we fund making one of The Bishop’s design into reality? Is it even possible?

My first car was a 1971 1800e in British Racing Green. Neglected for years when I got it, I learned a ton about pulling engines (you had to pull engine and transmission together in mine), clutch plates, the importance of addressing oil leaks, how to fix a spun crank bearing, fabricating parts in our garage, and the joy of slinging a small, well built car through corners.

I’d love a modern take on these. And this design is hot. I love the mix of angular and curves around the front wheels.

Last edited 4 months ago by Tom W
The Bishop
The Bishop
4 months ago
Reply to  Tom W

A friend at work had an 1800E and as I recall rust was a big issue and really tough to fix correctly. Beautiful car!

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
4 months ago

I feel like you really nailed it on this one! I can easily see the alternate timeline in which this came from. I like the front end and like that it is kind of a shooting brake/hatchback.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
4 months ago

Nicely done. As a long admirer of the P1800 ES, I’d say you’ve captured its essence in a distinctly 70s aesthetic that doesn’t insult the original. It would probably have frightened most Volvo customers, though.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
4 months ago

Way cool. As Officer K piloted a Peugeot squad car in Blade Runner 2049, this absolutely looks like a product placement retcon for Rick Deckard’s personal car in the original, if Ridley Scott ever decides to issue yet another version.

And in my mind, the original P1800 will always be the Saint’s car. The perfect choice for a cool non-conformist good guy on the edge of legality.

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