At last - recognition for Pelle Petterson. Designer of the Volvo P1800, immortalised by Simon Templar, played by Roger Moore in “The Saint”, Petterson was expunged from Volvo history by president Gunnar Engellau in the 1950s. Now Petterson is exposed as author of the sleek coupe at the Footman James Classic Motor Show at the NEC on November 11-13.
Volvo tried to make a sports car in the 1950s, an open 2-seater built from 1955 to 1957 but only 67 were made. "Not a bad car, but a bad Volvo" according to Engellau. However, he acknowledged the importance of a prestige model to boost sales of saloons and set about a replacement. He didn’t believe Swedish designers could match the flair and style of Italian Carrozzeria. It was trendy to hire Michelotti or Pininfarina or Vignale and Engellau was determined to be up to the minute.
Volvo consultant Helmer Petterson had meanwhile installed his son Pelle at Pietro Frua’s celebrated coachbuilding firm in Italy. Pelle had gained a degree in industrial design from the Pratt Institute in New York, so when four specially commissioned Frua proposals went to Volvo’s board in 1957, Petterson secretly added a fifth, by young Pelle.
Everybody agreed it a winner.
Engellau specially liked it. He had wanted an Italian design, but when he discovered it was really the creation of a 25 year old from Göteborg he was furious. He felt cheated and determined that Pelle would never be recognised as the designer. His name was erased and only readmitted by Volvo in 2009. Engallau died in 1988. Pelle Petterson should have received credit at the time for the distinctive rather high-waisted 2-door coupe sports coupe with the engine, transmission and suspension of the 122 saloon. It could have been the making of a career in car design but instead Petterson made his mark as a boat designer and won Olympic medals in yacht racing.
Three prototypes were built by Frua in Turin in 1957-1958, on the underpinnings of the Amazon saloon, and were used as templates for producing press tools, in a range of tests, at shows, for press work and advertising photo-shoots. All three survive.
Volvo did not have the capacity to make the P1800, even on a small scale. Helmer Petterson tried to get Karmann in Germany to make it but VW forbade it. Two British companies built the car: Pressed Steel made the bodies and Jensen Motors of West Bromwich painted and assembled them. Production got under way in 1960 but there were difficulties with personnel, working methods, quality, suppliers and logistics
In spring 1963 – after 6000 Jensen-built cars – Volvo transferred production to its Lundby factory but it was not until 1969 that body pressings were transferred from Pressed Steel in Scotland to Volvo’s press shop in Olofström. The move coincided with a change of name. First it was badged P1800E, later in 1963 it was known simply as the 1800S, for Sweden. The engine was fuel injected to give it a little more life and it was subsequently restyled to a configuration successfully copied by Lancia and Reliant, a sporting estate car known as the P1800ES. This did over 110mph (177kph) (a little noisily - body drumming was a problem) until withdrawn in 1974.
The production company making “The Saint” searched for an attractive sports car that would suit a gentleman of independent means and after being turned down by Jaguar approached Volvo for a P1800. Volvo obliged. And unlike now, when companies pay richly for product placements, the cars were all paid for by the TV side.
Footman Footnote: This will be the last of the Volvo P1800 50th anniversary activities and marks the end of the 2011 Volvo Cars Heritage event season. The collection of P1800s was at the TechnoClassica show in Essen in April, and in Birmingham a top attraction will be a P1800 from 1961 with an original 2.5 litre DOHC 4-cylinder Aston Martin prototype engine, fitted to the car experimentally by Aston Martin. Although the project never materialised the car survived and is owned and run by Beat Roos of Roos Engineering in Switzerland.