Posted in Matchbox

The Matchbox 1969 Volvo P1800S is one of their best

You will have to forgive the Matchbox bender I’ve been on – I make no apologies for my love of the licensed Mattel castings of the last decade, and I urge everyone to buy them before the crazy internet prices go into the clouds (they went through the roof years ago).

This Volvo came in the five pack set, alongside the red Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, yellow Porsche 914, the Caterham R500 Superlight, and that strange peach-coloured Jaguar e-type. The star of the pack? Well, it’s a close call. They’re all fabulous castings. But the Volvo takes the spotlight for me – IKEA-d you not!

“I thought it would fall apart!”

Our story begins not with the P1800, but with Assar Gabrielsson, the Swedish industrialist (and Volvo co-founder) whose eye was caught by the Chevrolet Corvette. He asked Bill Tritt, a boat-builder from California, to design him something similar, made out of fibreglass and reinforced polyester. 

The Volvo P1900 was built in Sweden, and borrowed the engine (and most other bits) from the Volvo PV444. Thanks to its sub-par reliability and low demand for Swedish plastic cars, they shifted only 68 models. I think that great hideous grille might have had something to do with it too, but we mustn’t be too harsh…

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Volvo P1900 Sports. By nakhon100. Flickr. Original

Swedened up version of the P1900 came in the form of the P1800 in the late 50s. If you think that body shape looks familiar, it’s because Helmer and Pelle Petterson of Pietro Frua (a subsidiary of Karmann Ghia) spearheaded the new design, drove it to Karmann headquarters, and the Karmann engineers were all ready to begin construction.

Evil, Hitler-created monstrosity Volkswagen stamped their foot down when they realised the Volvo was going to compete with (and probably outsell) their own Karmann Ghia Types 14 and 34 (among others), and so halted construction.

Volvo stuck two fingers up to the humorless Germans and had the car built by the Jensen.

The first models carried only the 1800 label… then when Volvo realised the British can’t be arsed putting cars together properly, they moved production back to Sweden, called it the 1800S (for Sverige/Sweden), and the beautiful little Nordic roadster as we know it was finally born. The engine was improved, but let’s be honest, this is a car that looks fast… that’s all.

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Carspotting Oceanside: Volvo P1800 Coupe. By Joe Wolf. Flickr. Original

When it was launched alongside the sex-on-wheels Jaguar e-type, you’d think Volvo had lost the game for the pretty roadster market. But when approached for a car, Jaguar’s snotty rejection of The Saint came back to haunt them – when Roger Moore (do you hear my heart beginning to throb?) drove his white P1800, then owned and adored one himself, sales for the Swedish supermodel soared. Jaguar had to wait until the reboot, Return of the Saint, in the 1970s, to offer their then maligned and less-glamorous XJ-S model to the show. 

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From “Lecatalog”. Roger Moore posing with his Volvo. I’d be that happy, too… if I was the Volvo!

We can add reliability to the movie fame, the sex appeal, and the “I’ve got Simon Templar’s butt sitting on me” appeal. Irv Gordon of New York is on record for having the car with the highest mileage in the world – a Volvo P1800 with over three million miles on the clock. Why aren’t we all driving these?

P1800 production lasted until 1973, by which time injection engines and station wagon bodies had been added to the line in E and ES form, respectively.

Matchbox 1969 Volvo P1800S Review

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There has been a robbery! Ancient Viking artifacts have been stolen from one of Sweden’s top museums. Chasing through the historical city of Stockholm, the sleek design of your Volvo P1800S keeps you unnoticed as you close in on the culprit. All in a day’s work for Sweden’s top private eye!

So reads the description on the back of the Heritage Classics series, which saw the debut of the Matchbox Volvo P1800S in red. (Mattel sure know how to write a story when they want to, right?) 

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I think we all know why the Matchbox team chose the ‘69! Since its debut, the sleek and sexy Volvo has come out in medium blue and racing liveries for the heritage line, British Racing Green for the Lesney Edition, and finally, white, for its latest edition in the 2011 Classic Rides 5-pack.

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The grille detail is great and the tampo application almost spot-on.

This Volvo may look a little out of place given its backstory, but a car like the P1800S – with its smooth curves, adorable tail fins, and relaxed driving style – deserves a home here on the chilled-out roads of Nouvelle France.

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The Volvo’s tail fins are so typically European! Yet, somewhat outdated for the 1960s – most European cars by this stage had adopted curved or flat rear decks.
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Die-cast lovers often hype the cars they feel the most connection to. I’ve always had it for Volvos.

The 2011 version of the P1800S came at a sombre time for Matchbox. Just as the brand began its decline exploration into undesirable  controversial genericsoriginals“, the Volvo P1800S appeared for the last time. Was this a car people would recognise immediately? No, and that’s what makes it so cool. 

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If you have a microscope handy, you’ll discover that little symbol to the right of the Volvo lettering is the 1800S logo.

I know a collector or two who complain about there not being enough modern cars in the Matchbox line, how the designers focus on classics – take a look at the ’71 Skyline, the ’59 Chevy wagon, and the Hudson Hornet police car. Can children today identify with these cars? Well, maybe not on the streets. But if we’re looking at these cars as toys – which, primarily, they are – what should they do? Educate? And what better way to educate children about automotive history, than with toy cars? Especially with vehicles like the P1800S, which we might never see on the road.

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My goal is to put the P1800S next to a Type 14 Karmann Ghia – both beautiful cars of similar design.
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Dish wheels, metal body, chrome plastic base. It’s a very smart model, and is a beautiful casting of a classy car. I saw the Corgi model which replicated the The Saint vehicle, but it didn’t appeal to me like the Matchbox does. These models just sit right.

When I was a short person, I didn’t have the internet – I didn’t have a smart phone or a computer to access it, either! I did manage to sneak a few car magazines under my bed, but primarily I learned about cars through the models my parents got me. Which is why it’s important we have licensed castings to offer – or at least realistic models.

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Matchbox was on a roll in the late noughties. What happened?

Before now I didn’t know much about the Volvo P1800S, and I probably wouldn’t have been inspired to learn that much about it if not for this gorgeous Matchbox. Obscure cars like this, when presented so beautifully in small scale, cause us to fall in love just as the real thing might.

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The Saint might have been a remarkably different show. The Volvo P1800 and the Jaguar e-type were both unveiled in 1961 at the Geneva Auto Show, and both Matchboxes here look like they could be replicas from the show. I’m glad the Volvo got chosen. Don’t want the Jag hogging all the fame, do we?

And perhaps that is the greatest tragedy about the decline in the die-cast market quality. Once, we collected cars we dreamed about owning – Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, and such. We wanted to replicate our parents cars, like the Vauxhall Crestas and Ford Zodiac, so that we could have a miniature version of the family mule by our side. It inspired us to become drivers, to aspire to one of the most important rights of passage young people have, and the ultimate representation of our personality and freedom.

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When Matchbox adds light and logo tampos to their cars, it really brings them out.

Matchbox is returning to life and legacy in microcosm now, but it’s been a rough journey these last few years.

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Author:

Graphic designer, writer for Classic American auto magazine, journalist.

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