Why The Volvo 1800ES Might Be The Perfect Classic For A Weekend Away
The Swedes have long been innovators in the fields of industrial design, and their ability to swirl up pragmatism and beauty into something as simple as a shelving unit arguably reaches its zenith in the shape of a Volvo with a long roof—a form that stands in jarring contrast to traditionally pretty cars, but one that also stands among the most beloved and recognizable ever put on the road. Volvo cars aren’t exclusively made of rectangles despite the brick nicknames, and while the iconic 240 is likely the best representation of the marque’s history and cultural impact overall, I’m probably not alone in thinking that the 1800ES is a better example of their design talents.
An undoubtedly unique undertaking for Volvo, the P1800 coupes had more in common with Italian sports cars than Swedish bricks when it came to road presence, and the extended shooting brake body of the ES model was an odd and oddly beautiful duck swimming in its own pond. Looking back on the glass-backed 1800ES—an insular car in hindsight—the two-door brake was clearly a gambit of sorts for Volvo’s otherwise staid and predictable string of production, and it offered a means to give their favorite functional shape a sporting soul. Back then it helped Volvo to up its somewhat dowdy image in America (where the 1800 models saw most success), and today it is regarded as an integral part of their legacy, not just a flash in the pan. The coupes that starred in the television series The Saint are the most sought after by collectors now, but if we had the pick of the litter for a weekend away, the ES undoubtedly gets the vote.
The exotic snout that’s been compared to the likes of the Ferrari 250 obviously didn’t continue such mimicry behind the grille—you won’t find 12 angry headers snaking around in this bay—but that’s part of why it’s such a perfect Saturday-to-Sunday machine for a bit of stylish travel; you don’t need the mechanical skills or the checkbook for someone else’s to keep an 1800-series Volvo chugging along. We’d say the fact that there’s a guy out there with more than three million miles on his speaks to this effectively.
But of course the criteria for a car worth getting away in is more than just a matter of reliability. The style quotient needs to be covered, as does the issue of balancing pace with practicality. If polarizing, the aesthetics of the ES still speak for themselves in terms of pure impact, and any car that can blend in with DBs and E-Types will invariably stand out against traffic. Put simply, the 1800ES fits in while standing out; it can be parked on a piney lakeside campground or in front of the kinds of homes that people call retreats instead and it won’t look out of place. The shooting brake’s design in its prototype stages saw Sergio Coggiola and the more renowned Pietro Frua putting pen to paper and turning clay into metal with their takes on Volvo’s new sports wagon, with the final production shape coming from their in-house team led by longtime design chief Jan Wilsgaard, the man responsible for cars like the Amazon and 145. Ditching the somewhat dated fin tails of the coupe, the prominent glass rear of the ES is both a strong bit of styling and a practical piece of engineering that opens up to the spacious interior aided by fold-down rear seats. Picnic baskets, dogs, and kayaks are welcome here.
If your ideal weekend involves more than a leisurely trip to the beach, that is, if you seek road signs with exclamation points and other cautions/invitations, then the performance of the 1800ES might leave something to be desired if you’re used to a modern definition of horsepower. That said, if you find one of the later ones that benefited from Volvo’s regular updates to the powertrain you won’t have trouble cruising highways at 100mph with all four seats filled. 125hp is enough to have some fun with, and although it won’t hustle along backroads with Lotus-like agility the recipe for an engaging drive is all there, albeit not in the extremes. It had discs and independent suspension up front, solid axle and drums in the rear, so it wasn’t a total dog, but not a ballet dancer either. And it was never meant to be an outright sports car, rather a slightly more luxurious piece of their lineup that could fill the role of a GT. The result is a little bit of driving-a-slow-car-fast fun plus a bit of actual fast-car equipment that lets the ES strike a healthy balance between two worlds, much like its bodywork.
So it hauls the goods, a little bit of ass, and looks the part of weekend indulgence. A ’60s Ferrari with a ’50s Sophia Loren for company is perhaps a bit more exciting to think about, but when it comes to interesting cars suited for any kind of weekend you throw at them, the Volvo is hard to top.