Here's how Volvo got into sports cars: the company president saw a Corvette. Well, that's not entirely true…
Assar Gabrielsson, Volvo founder and president, was visiting the U.S. to source components for his company. With more of everything in the U.S., it was probably quite obvious that small sports cars—especially British convertibles and the then-new Chevrolet Corvette—had taken the country by storm.
Whereas Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and others needed their influential U.S. importer Max Hoffman to suggest ways for capturing American buyers—with much success—Volvo was young enough as a company and flexible enough to look at the trend and say, "Why the hell not?"
With only the practical PV444 and its wagon sister car, the Duett, in 1956, the small Swedish manufacturer was a few months from launching its all-new Amazon / 120 Series family car when the "Volvo Sport" was first shown. It came from left field.
Mindful of his company's financial health, instead of partnering with an expensive Italian carrozzeria, Gabrielsson partnered with Glasspar, the upstart American fibreglass sports car manufacturer. By that point, they'd been making cars for a few years, and Gabrielsson thought his company's first sports car would be a collaboration with Volvo mechanicals covered in attractive fibreglass bodywork.
Four prototypes were displayed in 1954 in Sweden, with the company saying the car would be only intended for export.
Shown outside of Sweden in 1955 as a concept and in 1956 as a production-ready design, the Volvo Sport—also known as the P1900—was a Volvo-designed tube frame chassis featuring the engine and axles from the PV444. The PV's B4B 1.4-litre with just 44 horsepower would be quite embarrassing, so engineers beefed up the oil system, added twin SU carburetors, hot cam, and upped the compression ratio. 70 gross horsepower from the engine would be tamed by a three-speed manual transmission…also from the PV444.
It wasn't a terrible idea in taking off-the-shelf components and covering them in an attractive skin, but Gabrielsson's best intentions didn't do much of anything for his beloved brand. Just 45 were built in 1956 and 23 in 1957. Volvo's desire for the car to be an export-only model was curtailed by a lack of demand, and they began offering them to customers in Sweden—where most survive today.
Very unlike the Volvo we know and love today, the P1900 was criticized heavily for its lack of quality. An early car was taken on a tour of Europe and Africa, with the driver commenting on the car's weak frame, failing body mountings, and bad door supports.
There's tons of trivia on the largely parts bin car, but two of my favourite facts are that it ran Jaguar brakes and was the first fibreglass car to be sold in Europe.
Volvo's future would soon be in the hands of a new president in 1956, Gunnar Engellau, who focused the company on building the world's best family cars…only after a weekend drive in the P1900. By Monday the car was cancelled, Engellau saying, "I thought it would fall apart!"