1950s / Swedish / Volvo

60 years ago: Volvo launches the P1900 Sport

volvo-p1900-sport-4Volvo is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the P1900 Sport, a fiberglass-bodied roadster best remembered as the automaker’s first-ever sports car.

The P1900 Sport traces its roots to the early 1950s when Volvo co-founder Assar Gabrielsson traveled to the United States in order to gather knowledge on the most lucrative way to expand his company. Unsurprisingly, Gabrielsson found that American buyers were generally interested in big domestic sedans and small agile European sports cars. Volvo couldn’t introduce a sedan the size of a Hudson Hornet, but it could easily develop a small convertible by raiding its parts bin.

On one of his trip across the Atlantic, Gabrielsson met with the founders of a California-based company called Glasspar that specialized in making hulls for boats and bodies for kit cars out of fiberglass. Perhaps inspired by Glasspar’s own G2 convertible, Gabrielsson asked the company to design a fiberglass body for Volvo’s upcoming sports car, commissioned it to build a functional prototype and asked it to teach Volvo employees how to work with fiberglass, a revolutionary material at the time. Back in Sweden, a team of engineers were tasked with designing a chassis suitable for use in an open-top sports car.

Glasspar delivered the first running prototype in 1954. The convertible was far from ready for production and a set of notes taken during a brief evaluation drive revealed the body cracked, the doors fitted poorly, the chassis was not strong enough and the three-speed manual transmission was ill-adapted to spirited driving. Glasspar and Volvo both went back to the drawing board.

Two improved prototypes were quickly built and Volvo presented the P1900 at an event held at the Torslanda Aiport in 1954. Speaking to a group of dealers and journalists, the company announced plans to build an initial run of 300 cars in 1955, and it confirmed that all of them would be sold outside of Sweden. Following the event, the company embarked on a tour of the largest Volvo dealers in Sweden to show off the P1900 and gather feedback on what last-minute changes needed to be made.

Production kicked off in 1956 and the first cars were sent to faraway countries like the United States, Morocco, Brazil and South Africa. A handful of examples stayed in Sweden because Volvo reversed its decision not to sell the car in its home country.

The production version of the P1900 was equipped with a modified version of the 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that was found in the PV444’s engine bay. Fed with twin carburetors, the 1.4-liter made 70 horsepower and 76 lb-ft. of torque, enough to send the 2,130-pound (966-kilo) convertible to a top speed of 96 mph (155 km/h). Maximum velocity was reached in third gear because Volvo opted not to fit the car with a four-speed for cost reasons.

Then-new CEO Gunnar Engellau drove a P1900 for a weekend and was so disappointed with it that he ordered production to stop. The executive lamented that the P1900 was poorly built and he revealed that Volvo was losing money on every example it sold. Convinced Volvo had the means to build a better sports car, Engellau approved the project that would lead to the P1800 in 1961.

67 examples of the P1900 had been built by the time Engellau pulled the plug on the project. However, research shows two cars were accidentally given chassis number 20 so a total of 68 P1900s were assembled. Factory records indicate approximately 50 examples still exist today.

Photos courtesy of Volvo’s archives department.

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