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km : Hindsight

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29 October 2009

Are we car geeks always wrong, or do we love weird things simply because they’re weird? Car lovers buy wagons over crossovers; we beg for diesels when manufacturers insist no one wants them. And we seem to be the only ones who love shooting brakes, that odd genre created for the landed gentry of England, who often had their luxury coupes custom-built to accommodate taking their hunting dogs and guns into the field for a day of sport shooting. Most of them were Bentleys or Aston Martins, but Volvo built a production shooting brake in the early 1970s — the 1800ES — that was both stylish and functional, if not entirely popular with the car-buying public.



We went hunting for a 1972 1800ES, the year Volvo introduced it to the market. In the process of searching, we chatted briefly with Dan Johnston at Volvo of North America. “That’s a sweet little car,” he told us. “Too bad it was one we could never sell, no one could understand what we were trying to do.”



In an original press release from the ES’s launch, Volvo President Stig Jansson predicted that the car would “appeal to sportsmen and long-distance tourers who are looking for a sports car with ample luggage space. The new model combines the styling of a sports car with the practicality of a station wagon to satisfy the motoring needs of a number of consumers.” Of course, that never really happened.



One of the 1800ES’s defining features, a large, frameless rear glass hatch, was as polarizing then as it is today on the current Volvo C30. Like many cars of its sort, the 1800ES is a sports coupe — the P1800 — with a stretched roof. As a result, the 1800ES boasts an impressive 35 cubic feet of space behind the front seats while the hatchback C30 offers 20.2 cubic feet. Upon its debut, Car and Driver said that “people have tried to make sports cars out of station wagons, but it took Volvo to successfully reverse the concept.”



Our search for a proper 1800ES turned up this fine 1973 example owned by Mike Illyes of Algonquin, Illinios. This baby blue-over-black beauty has been a member of Mike’s family for many years, and features a set of recovered seats and an upgraded four-speed automatic, thanks to a custom-made mounting plate.



The 1800 fires up without a fight. For its time, the 125-hp 2.0-liter under the hood was actually quite technological. In a world of carburetors, the ES used cutting-edge electronic fuel injection. Additionally, it had four-wheel disc brakes when drums were still very common, and it even had creature comforts like lumbar support on the front seats. Well-equipped in standard form, the ES option list including only dual side view mirrors (as opposed to the standard driver’s side mirror), map pockets in the doors, and a locking console. The engine can hardly be described as powerful, but it makes great noise and revs as smooth as a modern Volvo.



One thing the 1800ES doesn’t share with modern Volvos is overboosted steering. In fact, it doesn’t have boosted steering at all, as power steering wasn’t even an option on this otherwise technological tourer. My muscles are tested a bit extra because this particular owner has widened the stock wheels to hold fatter rubber, making low-speed turning even more of a workout.



Once under way, the ES is a very balanced little car with its low weight (2614 pounds) and rear-drive configuration. The 1800ES feels distinctly Volvo, but at the same time entirely different than any kind of Volvo than I’ve ever driven, especially the way it really needs to be muscled. Nothing is overly light like today. The brakes require a whole leg-full (though they feel slightly undersized just as with the C30), making braking and turning at the same time a full-body exercise. The upgraded transmission shifts crisply but is a touch harsh.



For the effort required, the 1800ES is truly rewarding and, once it settles in, it’s quite comfortable. The front buckets, which Car and Driver called “the most hospitable in the business,” are still comfortable all these years later, with plenty of fluff but also decent support for the time. Head restraints were standard on this Volvo’s seats, as were three-point front belts and two-point rear belts. The 1800ES feels stout despite its small size, unlike some of its more tinny contemporaries like the Datsun 240Z or the MGB. It’s still a very modern feeling little machine, one we’d be happy to take a long trip with. And because of the rear hatch, we could take a lot of things with us.



That rear area is actually quite useable, too. The back seats fold perfectly flat and because the rear of the car is wider at the bottom than at the greenhouse level, the wheel wells barely cut into the cargo area. The load floor could be a bit lower, sure, but there’s already generous space back there. Not only would we road trip with an ES, we’d sleep in one, too. After investing in a set of curtains, of course. There’s a lot of glass back there.



Beyond our dorky love for the 1800ES and other two-door wagons like it, we certainly understand the inconvenient truths about why these things never caught on and probably never will. People who want sports cars buy sleek, slippery little fastbacks; people who want space generally appreciate doors as well, and the 1800ES falls short by a pair. The ES was an interesting proposition in its day, but it probably would have bombed even worse in modern times, where the market is flush with practical five-doors boasting copious reserves of both speed and style.


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