A Vintage Racing Weekend Is The Best Reason To Take A Volvo P1800 Out Of Storage
Photography by Erik Olson
I consider myself lucky to be included among those that can say they grew up in the backseat of a Volvo wagon. In the early 1980s, before minivans were a thing and when SUVs still went off-road, it was one of the most practical family hauler choices available. My parents both drove them, and thankfully dad even went for the Turbo, which was no slouch compared to its competition…but worlds away from the P1800 coupes we’d eventually both own.
We filled those practical Volvo wagons full of our stuff and our dogs and took off on long adventures, sometimes piling even more stuff on the roof and going a little further, and even sleeping in the back with the seats folded down a few times.
We used them, we loved them, and in return they rewarded us with years of service that instilled a confidence that remains in me to this day. That might have been enough—to have an appreciation for all things practical that I could carry into the days when I would start a family of my own, but then, one day I found a picture of a P1800.
It had never occurred to me that Volvo made anything other than purposeful cars, square tools designed to do their job with no real efforts toward style. The P1800 was a complete revelation of lines, curves, even fins. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I had to have one.
When the day finally arrived that I found a 1962 model for sale locally, I jumped on it and dragged it home. It was before the time of the internet, and being that it was the first one to come up in the classified ads after months of searching, I figured it was my only shot. I was 19.
I was a gullible buyer, believing that the engine was free because the fan blade could be turned by hand, believing that under all the spots of primer was straight, undamaged metal. I didn’t bring a magnet, a flashlight, or any real experience. I had cash, however, and it was burning a hole in my pocket so large and bright the seller could probably see it when we pulled up.
As you might guess, the engine was seized and full of water, and the accident damage on nearly every panel was covered in layer after layer of filler. It was a lost cause, and after salvaging what I could, I junked the rest and moved on. It was around the same time that my dad started to develop the same interest in having a P1800 of his own, only he lucked out and somebody simply gave him one.
Funny how a free car can create such an interest, but truth be told, I think he saw the one I dragged home and wanted to join in the fun whether it was free or not.
The car he dragged home was in much better shape despite some rust. It was all original, with its only fault being 30 years spent in a Minneapolis garage. We gave ourselves an education on the mechanicals, and spent a lot of time together getting it on the road. We laughed, argued, and celebrated every small victory. Nothing quite compares to the expression on my dad’s face when we finally fired it up, and it ran! He’ll happily tell anyone that’ll listen how a mouse nest shot out of the tailpipe and covered the back wall of the garage. He giggled like a little kid.
Sadly, he was rear-ended only a few months after all that fun, and all of our hard work was dragged away by the insurance company (though we may have saved a few of the better bits and pieces).
Luckily for us, triumph is sometimes born from tragedy, and the insurance payout was good enough for dad to buy a much nicer P1800. He managed to find the 1966 example that we enjoy today, and thanks to the experience I had buying my junker, we actually knew what we were doing this time and came away with a solid car we affectionately refer to as the “P”.
We spent a little time fixing small things, and have an ongoing list of things we’d still like to fix to this day. That list is thirteen years old now, and although we’ll likely never get to most of it, that hasn’t kept the car from being enjoyed. As part of our enjoyment, we’ve taken it on some long weekend trips to national meets put on by the Volvo Club of America. These meets tend to have a small enough turnout that you can actually talk to the other participants about their cars, and see who drove the furthest to get there. Those drives have also made for priceless father/son time spent hashing out the world’s problems and whether the sound from the transmission is coming from the bearings, the gears, or something else. (My vote is still for bearings.)
As it was, the P had been enjoying an extended slumber in my sister’s garage while dad finally scratched his German car itch with a Cayman. Shortly after that itch was satisfied, he learned that this year’s national Volvo meet would be at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin as part of the Vintage Festival held in conjunction with the Vintage Sports Car Drivers Association.
He sent me the info and I needed little convincing to realize it was time to uncover old faithful and freshen it up before heading out for one last hurrah. Discussions had been looming over whether or not the P should finally be sold, and the longer it sat, the weaker it’s case became. Still, one last trip to such an amazing venue couldn’t be denied, so we rolled up our sleeves and made a plan.
The day came when we finally uncovered the car in my sister’s small garage, bled the brakes, aired up the tires, somehow got it started, and limped it back to my garage for a proper tune-up. In true Olson fashion, we were tinkering with the chokes and did a quick oil change right before the moment we left, and had to do even more tinkering after we arrived in Elkhart Lake.
We were impressed, though, despite sitting for almost three years the determined car plowed through six straight hours on interstates and country roads without barely hiccup. The headlights lit up the road for our late evening arrival and just like that, we were standing in automotive paradise.
It really is safe to say that if you like cars—any kind of car—there will be something for you to enjoy at a vintage racing event. People throw that expression around about big car shows, but this just isn’t the average car show. The vintage race cars are obviously amazing, and seeing them thrown around on a track only makes them cooler, but the show behind the scenes is every bit as good. Mechanics and drivers are busy making repairs and adjustments, and wealthy drivers are casually idling through the scenes in whatever gorgeous sports car they pulled out of the collection, which in one lucky case was a Ferrari 166.
Every genre is covered, from pre-war to recently-retired F1, and it’s an education in names you never hear at traditional car shows. Names like Lola, March, and Chevron, to name a few. There are Porsches on the track racing against Camaros, just like the old Trans Am days, then BRE-styled Datsun 510s take the track to rub shoulders with BMW 2002s. There’s even die-hards that still drive their old MGs and Triumphs to the track and camp in tents between race days.
If that weren’t enough, we were treated to trackside parking with all of the other old Volvos. For car people, it truly ticks almost every box you could want, and we ate up every last bit. As a bonus, there was even an invitation-only car show at the host resort where we were treated to even more rare, vintage metal.
All good things come to an end, though, and with a business card left on the windshield with a tempting offer, the drive home was spent talking less about the transmission and more about the fate of our old friend. I’m sure it was wishful thinking, but suddenly I didn’t think the transmission sounded that bad.
It felt like the small clunks and rattles were gone, that the car overall just felt smooth and solid while it made the drive home without one single hiccup. We’re a sentimental family, it isn’t easy for us to let things go, but these days, this lovely old machine spends more time sitting than it does driving, and it may finally be time for its next caretaker.
Nothing has been decided yet, maybe it’s time, maybe it isn’t. In either case, one thing is for sure: if it stays, it’s time to get serious about that list.