Few people besides the Volvo faithful remember that in 1954, the then-staid Swedish automaker produced a lightweight convertible sports car made of fiberglass. Or that this year marks the 60th anniversary of its production prototypes.
Only 67 (or maybe 68) Volvo Sport roadsters were produced, and they mark a brief detour by Volvo into a trendy venture that was doomed to failure as cultures collided between Sweden and Southern California.
With the Volvo Sport, the automaker was hoping to cash in on U.S. driver’s new-found fascination with small European sports cars. At the time, Volvo was building solid and reliable passenger cars with an emphasis on safety rather than style or performance.
Volvo founder and director, Assar Gabrielsson, was inspired by the Chevrolet Corvette plus his contact with the Glasspar company of Montecito, California, which since 1951 had built hulls for boats and bodies for sports cars using the newly developed material fiberglass.
In 1953, Glasspar designed an attractive body for Volvo and trained the automaker’s people in how to manufacture with fiberglass. Volvo engineers in Gothenburg, Sweden, created the tubular-steel chassis.
The result was a small, shapely roadster with a gaping grille and powered by a tuned version of the Volvo PV444’s 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine with twin carburetors and rated at 70 horsepower, with three-speed transmission. Three prototypes were built in 1954, and Volvo took them on tour to show its dealers.
The first Volvo Sport models, known internally as the P1900, were delivered to customers in the U.S and other key markets in 1956. But production and sales were slow, and only 44 of the cars were sold to customers.
The following year, Volvo’s newly appointed director Gunnar Engellau took a Volvo Sport home for the weekend to try it out. He was not impressed with the roadster’s quality as a Volvo product, or the fact that they were losing money on every sale. He decreed that production would stop immediately.
The final number of Volvo Sports that were built varies between 67 and 68 because of a production glitch that may have tagged two cars with the same chassis number. But those few that were built apparently are loved by their owners since about 50 of them are known to still exist.
While the Volvo Sport was ultimately a failure, it paved the way for Volvo’s popular and long-lived sports coupe, the P1800, which came four years later under the leadership of Engellau.