LOOKING BACK: The forgotten Volvo P1900 sportscar with a fibreglass body

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Volvo isn’t well known for sportscars although it has had such models in its history, the best known being the P1800 that gained worldwide fame in the TV series ‘The Saint’ in the 1960s. However, that was not Volvo’s first sportscar and before the P1800, there was a model called the P1900 Sport which was sold in 1956 and 1957.

The P1900 Sport project was initiated when Assar Gabrielsson, one of the two founders of the car company, visited the USA in the early 1950s to study the market. He saw that American motorists liked big sedans, which Volvo would produce and be successful at later on. At the same time, he noticed that there was a strong following for small sportscars from Europe. The Chevrolet Corvette also impressed him and he decided that Volvo should produce a small sports model.

1956 Volvo P1900 Sport

Although Sweden was not a place where convertibles were appreciated a lot due to its climate, Gabrielsson believed that there was a market for a small topless sportscar in other places, the USA being one of them. So he asked his engineers to come up with a platform which was adapted from the PV444 but instead of a steel body, it had a tubular frame on which a fiberglass bodywork was attached.

Volvo didn’t have the expertise in fiberglass so they commissioned a company in California called Glasspar which was a specialist in making fiberglass boat hulls and also kitcar bodies. Glasspar was also asked to come up with a design for the sportscar and coached with Volvo’s production people on the use of the lightweight material.

1956 Volvo P1900 Sport

Meanwhile, the engineers moderated costs by using many components from the PV444, adapting its 4-cylinder engine for the purpose. The engine had a 1.4-litre displacement and two carburettors, with modifications made to increase performance to 70 bhp/103 Nm. It was mated to a 3-speed manual transmission and hydraulic drum brakes were used all round.

The 966-kg car was 4.22 metres long with a wheelbase of 2.4 metres. The first running prototype was tested in 1954 and reached 155km/h.

1956 Volvo P1900 Sport

Not surprisingly, there were issues with the fiberglass body which cracked and fitting the doors properly was also difficult. The chassis was found to be weak and the transmission didn’t seem suitable for a sportscar (a 4-speeder was deemed too expensive at the time).

The issues were addressed and by the following year, Volvo showed off the new P1900 Sport to the media and dealers. It had set a production run of 300 cars for 1955 but production only started in 1956. Cars were exported to the USA (where it was priced at $US2,600), Brazil, Morocco  and South Africa but in the end, most were actually sold in Sweden.

1956 Volvo P1900 Sport

By then, a new CEO, Gunnar Engellau, was in charge and after spending a weekend with the P1900, he felt it lacked the high quality expected for the brand. Furthermore, the company was actually losing money on each car and so he ordered production to stop – after 68 cars had been built.

Engellau wasn’t against sportscars and started a new project which led to the P1800 and its ES derivative, this time using a steel body to avoid the issued with fibreglass. But it would be another 40 years after the P1900 that Volvo would offer another convertible, a variant of the C70, in 1997.

Volvo P1800
Volvo P1800 (background) and P1800 ES
1997 Volvo C70 Convertible
1997 Volvo C70 Convertible

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