77 year-old Pelle Petterson remains completely unimpressed by his own efforts as a car designer. He just shrugs his shoulders at Volvo, a company which for more than 50 years consciously ignored the fact that it was him and not the Italian Carozzeria Frua, who designed the car. In fact, he can’t really understand the growing interest in him and the P1800. He’s happy to receive a visit, however, and is especially pleased to see the two models we’ve brought with us.
”I really felt my way into the work. The curved line on the side of the car just cropped up on the page. I like to think it’s quite special!”
Pelle Petterson on designing the Volvo P1800.
My photographer and I both own a Volvo P1800 and meeting the man behind the car is a longstanding ambition. My photographer is Swede and owns a Swedish-built ”S” model – hence the type designation. I’m a Dane and own one of the earlier ”A” models built at the Jensen factory in England. We’ve invited ourselves to a sort of ”car signing” at Pelle’s house on the afternoon before the car’s 50th anniversary in 2010.
Suntanned, weather bitten and dressed in “Pelle P” (his own range of clothing), Pelle welcomes us to his waterfront house; the place where he has turned out his designs for many years. Apart from the Volvo P1800, the only other car he has worked on was the NSU Prinz, but Pelle has worked on lots of other industrial design projects. He is (still) an Olympic yachtsman and has spent most of his life either sailing competitively or designing – amongst other things the popular MAXI boat.
Volvo soapbox cars
Pelle offers us some Danish pastries and begins gradually to tell us how it all started:
”I grew up with a father (Helmer Petterson) who was a real car freak. He was a racing driver and I remember those days at the racetrack very clearly. There was really something to look up to! He was also a bit of an inventor and he developed wood gas generators for cars during the war. That was what brought him into contact with Volvo. He had good taste and a fine sense of form. He had no training but he was a talented practical man. When Volvo decided to build a new car in 1943 he was given responsibility for the project, and from time to time I was allowed to follow him to work and watch him working on the car, which had been dubbed the PV444. I used to race soapbox cars, and I got a lot of help from my father and won races in a soapbox car built specially for me by Volvo carpenters! Later I studied maths and physics before training as an engineer and travelling to the US to study design. Volvo had commissioned a sun shield design from my father’s company and it was the royalties from that design which paid for my studies at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn – one of the best design schools of the day. I was an accomplished drafter and carpenter and that was what I liked doing best. I finished my studies at just the right time, as my father got me a job with Frua Design in Torino.”
In order to enter the American market Volvo wanted to build a sportscar from what, in the 1950s, was a new material: fibreglass. The project, which was christened the P1900, was plagued by technical problems and in the end only 67 of Europe’s first fibreglass car were built. The dream of building a fashionable car for the American market remained alive, however, and the P1900 paved the way for a new sports car: the P1800. This time Volvo succeeded!
”Volvo weren’t planning to build a fast car. What they wanted to do was to build a smart GT model based on standard Volvo components. The plan was to outsource the car’s manufacture as Volvo’s Swedish plant didn’t have the necessary capacity. My father had taken the P1900 on a tour of several coachwork factories in Italy while test driving it, and had been impressed by their ability to bend, press and form sheet steel. Luigi Segre, amongst others, who was the man behind both Carrozzeria Ghia and Frua, was a designer who knew his stuff. Volkswagen had fully booked Ghia’s design capacity for work on their Kharmann-Ghia and that was why my father recommended that Volvo place the design for the new P1800 with Ghia’s subsiduary Frua.”
Volvo listened to Pelle’s father and the project was given to Frua. At the same time, Pelle’s father managed to secretly ensure that the newly-qualified Pelle, then just 24 years-old, would be employed by Frua so that he could propose a design for the new car.
”My father managed to get me the job, but he did it very discreetly. No one at Volvo knew that I was employed by Frua. Volvo decided to initiate the project in the summer of 1957. Volvo wanted to see 5 proposals, so I travelled to Frua in Torino to draw one. The Italian’s weren’t very good at visualising or presenting the projects but I was, and they were so pleased with my drawings that they set me to work visualising the other 4 proposals. I got a bit of help with the practical side of the modelling from Frua’s foreman Nocolotti. Pietro Frua himself was a perfectly amiable chap, but he was a craftsman and a coachwork man and had no comments on my design whatsoever. I was inspired, amongst other things, by the Corvette and the Thunderbird. An Italian would never have put fins or chrome on a car! I really felt my way into the work. The curved line on the side of the car just cropped up on the page. I like to think it’s quite special! ”
The story has it that when Luigi Segre and Pelle’s father presented the 5 designs to Volvo Director Gunnar Engelau he immediately selected Pelle’s drawing, and said that this was the car he wanted. When he found out that the young Swede and his father had gone behind his back, he was furious and demanded that it remain a secret. Pelle’s design success was attributed to Carrozzeria Frua for many years and Pelle’s name was, effectively, swept under the carpet.
”The fact that it was me who designed the car first became public in the US, I think. Later my father and Engelau had something of a rapprochement, but it wasn’t until about 1970 that it became public knowledge. Actually, it’s only really during the last ten years that I’ve really been credited as the car’s designer. It did disappoint me, but I suppose that Volvo thought it would ruin the car’s Italian image if it became known that the designer was a young Swede. I’ve been officially recognised by Volvo now and they’ve even invited me to anniversaries and the like, so they’ve loosened up a bit down the years. But I don’t really know if it matters all that much. Obviously I’m flattered by the interest there’s been in it, but my life has been full of so many other things. I don’t live and breathe for the design, but I’m glad that other people appreciate it.”
The new Volvo project was codenamed Florida and everything seemed to be ready. Carrozzeria Frua built the first three prototypes, and Helmer Petterson reached an agreement with Ghia to manufacture the vehicle. Everything was ready to roll, but in February 1958 Volkswagen forced Ghia to drop the P1800. They were worried that it would compete with the Karmann-Ghia which they had also engaged Ghia to build. That was almost the end of the P1800!
”The project had more or less run out of steam, but my father was very eager to see it through. At one point he even considered manufacturing it under his own name, but that may also just have been something he said to put pressure on Volvo. Several different solutions were suggested. Heibronner Carosseriefabrik Drauz took a look at it, and in mid-August 1958 Hanomag offered to manufacture the Florida for 9 million Swedish Kroner but nothing came of it.”
It began to look as if the P1800 would never see the light of day. Volvo had made no official announcements about the P1800, but when a mysterious press release turned up with a picture of the car, Volvo were forced to acknowledge its existence. From that point on, project Florida started to gather steam. Volvo approached Jensen Motors, who accepted a contract to build 10,000 cars. Jensen reached an agreement with Pressed Steel of Scotland to supply the unibody shell and started to make the car. The P1800 premiered at the international motorshow in Bruxelles in January 1960, and in September 1960 the first production P1800 (the 1961 model) rolled off the Jensen assembly line to an eager public. Along the way some slight changes were introduced to the car however:
”They altered a number of details. I had envisaged the exhaust as being central but they moved it to make room for the number plate. I also wanted to give the car broader tires and rims but the car’s construction simply couldn’t handle them. I’ve subsequently seen some cars on which those sorts of alterations have been made and they look really good. I like the car’s original front. The grill is good but unfortunately it was removed as a cost saving when the car’s manufacture was moved to Gothenburg in Sweden. The clock and the switches also came in for criticism later on, as they could cause injuries to the driver in the event of an accident. The big steering wheel was a must as there was no power steering. I would also have liked to give the car a bit more poke, but unfortunately Volvo wouldn’t pay for a 6 cylinder version.”
In 1961 the P1800’s marketing received an extra boost from an unexpected source, with the young actor Roger Moore set to play Simon Templar in a new English TV-series based on Leslie Charteris’ series of action-packed novels called The Saint. The producers wanted Moore to drive something sexy, and when Jaguar turned the series down as unsuited to their new E-type, Volvo stepped into the breach. Moore ended up driving a P1800 in all 118 episodes and they were seen all around the world.
”It was interesting seeing the car with Roger Moore. The Swedish P 1800 club say that I designed the car but that Roger Moore sold it, and we’ve both been made honorary members. I’ve met him a couple of times – he’s a nice man. I think it meant a lot for the success of the car.
Return to Sweden
In 1963 Volvo decided to move production of the P1800 back home to Gothenburg. The Volvo PV544 had ceased production meaning that there was spare capacity at the plant. Furthermore, Volvo weren’t satisfied with the quality of the product that Jensen was turning out. The contract was re-negotiated and Jensen only ended up building 6000 models. In connection with the move to Gothenburg a number of design details were changed and some small technical alterations were carried out. The motor was upgraded to a 2 litre version and the bumpers were now joined. The powerful radiator grill was replaced with a cheaper wire mesh version and the curved Pelle Petterson signature chrome strip was straightened out. The modified P1800’s type designation was ”S” for Sweden, and it was manufactured unchanged up until 1972 when production ceased. In 1970 Volvo released a so-called sports estate version of the P1800. It had a fuel-injected engine and an elegant glass tailgate and was manufactured for three years – something Pelle wasn’t involved with:
”I wasn’t consulted about any of these design changes. There was no contact with me at all. I’d been out of the picture for some time, and I’m not a fan of the sports estate they made towards the end (the Volvo 1800 ES). They ruined the car really!”
Pelle can’t really think of a contemporary car that he’s very keen on: ”I guess there are some English cars, Aston Martins, for example, that are attractive. I also like the Jaguars they made a couple of years back. Back then you couldn’t imagine Mercedes in that sort of company. Only big fat wholesalers drove around in them, but now they’re actually building some really good stuff. The French aren’t completely stupid either. Personally I drive a Volvo C70 cabriolet and I’m very pleased with it. I’ve never owned a P1800. By the time it came out I’d become a father and there’s no room for a pram in the boot of a P1800.
As we cruise the two P1800s down to the harbour for some pictures, Pelle and the two Volvos quickly arouse interest. People want to know whether it’s Pelle and the cars he designed. Pelle takes plenty of time to answer all the questions and seems genuinely pleased to talk to people. He rounds off by saying:
”I’m a bit taken back really, that now, in my old age, it’s actually become a bit of a classic! I don’t know what to say, but it’s something I wouldn’t have dreamed of more than 50 years ago when I was working on the car. It’s a fairytale!”
Pelle Petterson is 77 years old and still works as a boat designer and is an active yachtsman: ”In 1968-9 I started up independently with the Maxi boats and they were a great success all the way up through the ’70s. Right now there’s not much going on in the boat line, so I’m working on a range of clothes with my daughter under the Pelle P label.”
Numbers built: 39,407 coupé and 8,077 sports estate
Production period: 1961 – 1973
Engine: Cast iron. Front longitudinal. From 1961-1968: 1782 cc B18. From 1969-1973: 1986 cc B20. From 1961-1968 with two 1 ¾ inch SU HS6-carburators. From 1970 with electric fuel injection.
Compression ratio of 9,5:1 rising to 10,5:1 on the last model.
Transmission: The engine was linked by a Borg&Beck clutch to the Volvo four-speed manual M40 gearbox. An electrically operated overdrive, Laycock-de-Normanville, with gear ratio of 0,76:1 was available as an option.
Max power: From 96 bhp at 5800 rpm, increasing to 130 bhp on the last model.
Torque: 140.0 Nm (103 ft·lb) (14.3 kgm) at 3800 rpm.
Production and assembly: West Bromwich, Jensen Motors 1961-1962, Torslanda and Gothenburg , Sweden: 1963-73
Wheelbase: 96.5 in (2451 mm)
Weight: 2,632 lb (1,194 kg)
Top speed: 107 mph (172 km/h) increasing to 118 mph (190 km/h) on the last model.
0-60 mph: 13.2 sec. (1961) decreasing to 9.2 sec. (1972)
Price new: UK £1,836 (12 shilling 9 pence). US $3,995. Denmark: 49,700 Danish kroner.
Price now: £20,000