A saintly automobile from the land of “Pippi” Longstocking and Lisbeth Salander: The Swedish Volvo P1800 grand tourer / sports car, part 1

A typical Volvo P1800 grand tourer / sports car. Anon., “La plus belle auto.” La Patrie du Dimanche, 25 March 1962, 11.

Hej och hur mår ni? I am delighted to hear (read?) that you are doing well, my reading friend.

Yours truly wishes to dedicate this edition of our humble but galactically well-known blog / bulletin / thingee to an automobile. It is therefore with unrestrained pleasure that I offer you, in translation, the caption which accompanied the photograph of said automobile:

This new Volvo, shown in Stockholm with two sports ensembles, caught the public’s attention at a recent car show in Stockholm. This car was identical to the one Princess Brigitta of Sweden received as a wedding gift last spring.

To answer the question which scorches your feverish lips, the princess bride in question was / is actually Birgitta Ingeborg Alice of house Bernadotte. This older sister of the king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, born Carl Gustaf Folke Hubertus, had married the German prince Johann Georg Carl Leopold Eitel-Friedrich Meinrad Maria Hubertus Michael “Hansi” of house Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen in May 1961. The couple actually got married twice, civilly then religiously.

And no, Bernadotte was not / is not a Swedish surname. It was / is a French surname. Let me explain what happened. In 1810, Sweden had for its king Karl III of house Holstein-Gottorp, an aging and childless monarch. Faced with that situation, the Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, looked for individuals which could succeed him. Its members ultimately chose a French Marshal of the Empire and Prince of Ponte-Corvo, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who would reign from 1818 to 1844 under the name of Karl XIV Johan.

For Bernadotte, that promotion was a godsend. Unimpressed with his performance at the Battle of Wagram, Austria, in July 1809, the victor, Emperor Napoléon Ier, born Napoleone di Buonaparte, effectively withdrew his trust in him – this even though his spouse was the sister of the spouse of the emperor’s older brother, the king of Spain, José I of house Bonaparte, in other words Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte, born Giuseppe di Buonaparte.

Claiming to defend the interests of Sweden, whose regency he then assumed, or feeling that his native country might not end up with the right end of the stick, Bernadotte joined the coalition which took up arms against France and its allies. That War of the Sixth Coalition ended in April 1814 with the defeat of France and the abdication of Napoléon Ier. And yes, in the eyes of some / many French people of the time and today, Bernadotte was nothing less than a traitor to the fatherland.

Dare I remind you that Napoléon Ier, a megalomaniac tyrant whose incessant wars caused 3 to 6 million civilian and military deaths, and this at a time when Europe had around 175 million inhabitants, was mentioned in December 2017, March 2019 and September 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee? But back to our Volvo.

While it was true that Aktiebolaget Volvo had produced a sports car, seemingly its first sports car, the Volvo Sport, or P1900, in 1956-57, the fact was that this well-known and respected Swedish firm produced less than 75 examples of that convertible. Why such a microscopic number, you ask?

You see, the Sport had its origins in a trip to the United States, around 1953, by the founding president of the firm. Assar Thorvald Nathanael Gabrielsson then saw a Chevrolet Corvette, a sports car whose body was made of fibreglass. The idea came to him to produce in Sweden a sports car whose body would also be made of fibreglass. That vehicle would be the first of its kind to be produced in Europe.

Four prototypes of the new vehicle were on the road as early as 1954, but various technical problems, including lack of chassis rigidity, delayed the Sport’s entry into production until early 1956.

Would you believe that the American fibreglass expert firm that Volvo contacted, namely Glasspar Company, produced a certain number of fibreglass bodies which, once mounted on a chassis, became Glasspar G2s, the first automobile with a fibreglass body in the world according to some. Glasspar ultimately only made a very small number of G2s. Most of the automobiles completed from 1951 onwards actually consisted of bodies purchased by automobile enthusiasts who mounted their little treasure on a homemade or purchased chassis. And yes, you are right, the G2 inspired to some extent the engineers who designed the immortal Corvette, but I digress.

Gabrielsson having retired, his successor decided, for fun, to borrow a Sport for a few days at most. When Gunnar Ludvig Engellau brought the vehicle back to the factory, he immediately ordered production to stop. The Sport was a dangerous vehicle, he said. Its chassis still lacked rigidity, a problem possibly noted by Glasspar as well. Volvo’s reputation could suffer if someone got killed or injured.

The vehicle which concerns us in this edition of our you know what, the Volvo P1800, was therefore the first grand tourer / sports car produced in large numbers by Volvo. A team of engineers began the project in 1957, to overcome the failure that was the Sport. Mind you, Volvo seemingly also wanted to change its image. Its management and staff did not like to be told that they produced “boring” automobiles, even though these vehicles were known to be strong, reliable and durable.

The P1800 looked a little bit Italian, you say (type)? An excellent observation, my reading friend. Indeed, Engellau ended up deciding to produce a vehicle whose body would be designed by an Italian designer. The origin of that idea, which left Volvo’s design team in the lurch, was / is somewhat obscure. Some believed / believe that it was suggested to the firm by the consulting engineer hired to supervise the development of the new vehicle. Adolf Helmer Petterson also suggested that a particular studio, Carrozzeria Ghia Società per azioni, would submit concepts. Others believed / believe that the idea came from Engellau himself.

It so happened that Carrozzeria Ghia had just acquired Carrozzeria Pietro Frua, the studio of Pietro Frua, a renowned Italian automobile designer. As well as providing an infusion of new talent, that acquisition gave Carrozzeria Ghia a convenient way to undertake additional business without offending its existing customers, some of whom would not appreciate at all the presence of Ghia’s emblem on automobiles from rival firms. And yes, Frua was mentioned in an April 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

In any event, once these aforementioned suggestions were accepted, Petterson senior maneuvered to place his son, Pelle Helmer Petterson, a still novice designer who was studying at the renowned Pratt Institute in New York City, New York, at Carrozzeria Ghia or Carrozzeria Pietro Frua. He did so in great secrecy.

The agreement signed by Volvo and Carrozzeria Ghia apparently provided for the realisation of 4 concepts, 2 by Carrozzeria Ghia and 2 by Carrozzeria Pietro Frua. To minimise the risk of hostile reactions from Carrozzeria Ghia’s customers, the concept chosen by Volvo would be identified as a Carrozzeria Pietro Frua concept, regardless of which team had actually designed it.

Petterson senior may, I repeat may, have asked Carrozzeria Ghia to include a concept imagined by his son. Impressed by said concept, the general manager of the studio, Luigi “Gigi” Segre, agreed to that request.

The graphic talents of Petterson junior were such that Segre asked him to prepare sketches to accompany the 5 concepts to be submitted to Volvo, in order to give them a coherent appearance.

Petterson senior and Segre handed over the concepts to Engellau soon after. That of Petterson junior being judged superior, it was the one which was chosen. His name not being mentioned anywhere, the management of Volvo was unaware that the Italian concept it had chosen was in fact Swedish. When he realised what had happened, Engellau was rather unhappy. Some say he was just plain pissed. In any event, Engellau decreed that Petterson junior’s role in the design of the P1800 would not be disclosed.

In fact, that role began to be mentioned no later than 1970. This being said (typed?), Volvo may not have officially publicised the role played by Petterson junior until around… 2009.

In any event, it was in Italy that a trio of prototypes of the P1800, then known as the Florida project, were handcrafted in 1957-58. Petterson senior may have hit the road with the first of them in December 1957 and headed to the factory of a West German automobile maker. Indeed, it was on Wilhelm Karmann Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung that Volvo intended to rely on to produce the P1800. The project seemed well underway. Indeed, the first production P1800 would hit the pavement in December 1958.

Do you have a question, my reading friend? Let me guess. Why did Volvo ask a foreign firm to manufacture its new automobile? A good question. You see, its workshops, relatively small ones by the way, were so busy that there was no room for a new model, no matter how important.

In February 1958, however, Wilhelm Karmann’s main client, Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft, threw a huge spanner in the works. At that time, Wilhelm Karmann was manufacturing the Volkswagen Type 14, or Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, a quasi-sports car whose bodywork bore the hallmark of, you guessed it, Carrozzeria Ghia, but not of Frua as such.

As you may imagine, Volkswagenwerk was fiercely opposed to Wilhelm Karmann wanting to produce the P1800, a vehicle which could / would overshadow sales of the Karmann-Ghia. Let us be blunt, the West German automobile giant threatened to cancel all of its contracts with Wilhelm Karmann if the P1800 production project went ahead. The management of the latter could only apologise to Volvo by politely showing the door to its representatives. The Swedish firm considered throwing in the towel, and this even before publicising the existence of the P1800.

Volvo turned to other West German automobile manufacturers, however, namely NSU Werke Aktiengesellschaft, Karrosseriewerke Kraus Kommanditgesellschaft and Hannoversche Maschinenbau Aktiengesellschaft. Somewhat doubtful about their quality control, it finally decided not to sign a contract with one of these firms. Volvo once again thought of throwing in the towel.

That possibility motivated Petterson senior to try to obtain financial support from Swedish financial companies with the aim of buying the components of the P1800 from Volvo and marketing it himself. By a curious but pleasant coincidence, which might not have been accidental, Volvo issued at that time a press release which included a photograph of the P1800. The existence of that vehicle now being known beyond the firm and its customers, the management of Volvo had to decide on its future without further delay. It decided to continue the project.

This was how a P1800 was presented to the public for the first time, during the 1960 edition of the Salon de l’automobile de Bruxelles, in January, in… Brussels, Belgium. It did not go unnoticed.

Better yet, Volvo signed a contract with a British automobile manufacturer. Backed by its sub-contractor, Pressed Steel Company Limited, Jensen Motors Limited set out to produce the P1800. Three prototypes and 4 pre-series vehicles hit the road around 1959-60. The first production vehicle left the Jensen Motors factory around May 1961.

Solid, reliable and durable, though perhaps a bit lacking in agility, the P1800 was a functional grand tourer / sports car – a rarity in the motoring world of the time.

Jensen Motors experiencing some difficulties in terms of quality control, Volvo decided to produce its own P1800 – a decision made possible by the upcoming inauguration of a new factory and the early end of production of a relatively old automobile. The first Swedish P1800 seemed to hit the pavement around July 1963.

That contact with the road seems to me to be an ideal moment to interrupt the course of this story before tackling another chapter in the saga of the P1800.

See ya later.

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Rénald Fortier