Reminiscing: The Three-Million Mile Difference

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[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Jack Griffith of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This story was already scheduled to run today when we learned of the untimely passing of Irv Gordon on November 15, 2018. Please read Mark McCourt’s touching remembrance that will appear in Monday’s Hemmings Daily.]

I felt a twinge of guilt remembering “Irv’s rules” as I flung the P1800 S Volvo seats into the North Carolina solid waste dump. Irv Gordon is the owner of the red 1966 three-million-mile P1800 S and in an article about him in the November 2011 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, he provided a list of rules for maintaining his car in pristine and original condition. These included regular oil changes, not eating in the car (also implied no pets) and the one that haunted me—no modifications from the original.

My first encounter with a P1800 S was back in 1971 when I spent nine months in Ithaca, New York, before returning to California to continue my studies as a molecular biologist. The 1965 red P1800 S had caught my eye but what I missed was rust that was rapidly infecting the car with the “Saline Syndrome,” “an auto-immune disease in which the car loses large portions of the bodywork.” Nonetheless, the Volvo lasted the drive from Ithaca to Palo Alto, and several more years until its replacement became inevitable. I was already in love with “cars of good breeding” having had a Jaguar XK140 roadster while in school in Pasadena.

In 1978, I moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and brought an XK120 roadster along that became one of a number of XK Jaguars I enjoyed and restored. The little red Volvo, however, was never forgotten along with the memory of that drive from Ithaca to California, and several long West Coast trips. My collection of Jaguars settled into three keepers: an XK140 roadster, XK150 coupe, and a Mark IX saloon. With an eye to preservation and restoration, they have been kept as original as possible, but this meant that they had moved out of the daily-driver category into weekend pleasure cars.

Thoughts began to return to the P1800 S; its lovely Italian lines, and robust reliability. Stories of Irv and his three-million-mile example reinforced the fact that these cars could be used on a daily basis. There were three versions of the P1800 produced from 1961 to 1973. The early models from 1961 to 1968 have an engine-turned instrument panel with classic gauges. This was replaced with a “modernized dash,” which now seems more dated than the early series. The later cars, however, have full disc brakes, and the stronger B20 engine. Some were produced with air conditioning although these are bulky looking offerings.

The 1800 ES “mini station wagon” was offered from 1972 to 1973 as a small “shooting brake.” Not interested in the ES wagons, I then scoured the ads in Hemmings Motor News for rust-free coupes. There are only a few cars in each issue and many have spent time in the “states of salted roads.”

Fortune smiled in an advertisement from an old-car dealer in Atlanta offering a rust-free 1967 P1800 S with new paint and interior. The dealer seemed honest in presenting the car so it was paid for and shipped to Chapel Hill sight unseen. As is always the case there were surprises both good and bad. The upside was the nice paint, new rubber body seals, and a new windshield. On the downside were brakes clearly in need of work and a heater that was stuck in the “on” position, which is not ideal for either North Carolina or Georgia. The car indeed was rust-free and the guess, based on a factory-installed electric headbolt heater, was that the car had been purchased new in Sweden and brought to Georgia where it had been kept for four decades.

Following the needed brake work, I was able to drive my Volvo on a daily basis but a list of things to do kept growing. The seats were the most pressing issue. Irv’s first rule was to not modify the car, and I had obeyed this rule with the Jaguars, but felt that the P1800 was to be a fun car and would be allowed to undergo tasteful upgrades if they added to the looks, performance, or comfort.

1967 Volvo P1800 S

The P1800 was one of the earliest cars to provide safety features including a collapsible steering wheel, and three-point seat belts. I added the seats to this list, noting that the original seats are so uncomfortable, that no one has ever fallen asleep driving a P1800. A search of alternatives that would retain the classic looks, but provide head constraints, led to the Corbeau A1 leather seats that fit perfectly and provided custom seat rails and three-point seat belts so that the entire installation took about two hours. These seats are extremely comfortable and can even be ordered with heaters, but they would be tight for someone with a wide girth.

A P1800 legend is that when new they were offered with wire wheels, but no examples could be found. Dayton Wire Wheels offer bolt-on chrome wire wheels with just enough offset to allow Michelin radials to be installed. The improvement in the ride was spectacular and the wire wheels changed the looks of the car from very nice to a flashing eye-catching, Italian-styled coupe. Sorry Irv, but it just had to be done.

At this point, I came to the conclusion that the car’s “umph” and sound did not match the rest of its sporty looks. The engine seemed tired and the oil pressure was marginal. In contrast to TR3/4/6s, MGs, or Jaguars, there are fewer shops specializing in rebuilding old Volvo engines and none were located close to Chapel Hill. The best-known rebuilder, who also races P1800s and provides engine, exhaust, and other upgrades is John Parker of Vintage Performance Development in Syracuse, New York. They have a great demand on their time during the racing season and John cautioned that the racing came first.

So, I removed the B18 engine and provided John with a large-valve B20 core from a later P1800 S. Parker’s street/performance engine, including polished intakes, provides on the order of 160 horsepower with the four-into-one header and 2.5-inch exhaust. The original SU carbs were replaced with Mikuni HSRs, a common upgrade. The five months with the engine out provided time to get the chrome re-plated and insulate the interior. Joe Lavetsky at Swedish Treasures was able to provide most of the needed body and mechanical parts through the rebuilding phase.

When the new engine arrived, a friend with MG rebuilding expertise mated the old transmission and new clutch to the new engine and installed it into the repainted engine bay. The new exhaust system was added and considerable tuning of the engine with the electronic distributor and Mikunis produced the desired power but revealed a new problem. The gearbox would not stay in fourth gear. This was not resolved by any simple fixes and discussion with experts kept pointing to the possibility that the higher power may have revealed latent weaknesses in the fourth synchromesh gear. Tight on time and long on frustration I turned to my Jaguar experts at Flying Circus English Cars in Durham, North Carolina, for help.

Flying Circus removed the transmission and shipped it to John Esposito at Quantum Mechanics in Oxford, Connecticut, a leading rebuilder of these older transmissions and the Laycock electric overdrives. John found nothing seriously wrong but did a full refreshing in particular with the overdrive that he felt was overdue. Installed back in the car, a quick test drive revealed that the problem remained. Images of owning the most expensive P1800 parts car led to reading — yet again — the section of the Volvo manual on transmission problems. One line mentioned the pilot bushing, but we put in a new bushing when we originally installed the transmission. So again the transmission was removed along with the bellhousing this time. Inspection revealed that the pilot bushing was in pieces. Unaware that a simple $3 clip ring was needed to hold the pilot bushing in place, this had been omitted. Nothing of consequence was damaged other than my pride and pocket book. Now, the rebuilt transmission feels very tight and I have a very secure feeling about the entire drivetrain.

One upgrade that I strongly recommend to all P1800 owners was the result of a comment from my wife, who noted that the taillamps were so dim by today’s standards as to be a safety issue. I had already upgraded the Jaguar taillamps to the exceptional LED lights sold by Steve Kolseth of Classic LED Lights for Jaguar and other British cars. These fit into the original lamp housings and are a quick replacement providing modern intensity tail and turn signal lamps. Steve had not yet engineered them for the P1800 but was persuaded to do so and now they can be ordered from him.

Shortly after the Volvo was buttoned up, a K&N air filter came off and lodged between the frame and the hot lug on the alternator. This resulting short caused the rubber on the filter to catch fire. While the fire was minor and quickly extinguished, the paint on the hood bubbled. While waiting for my favorite paint shop to effect repairs, I put a large white roundel on along with the number 77 (tail number of my Piper Cub) over the bubbled paint. The roundel gives the old Volvo its final touch and garners even more looks.

How is my P1800 S as a daily driver? Having these older cars is about the driving experience and I rate this as very high. It is very comfortable, keeps up with traffic as well as our newer cars, and I find it hard to stop for groceries without having someone come over to take a look or share a story of having had a friend with one of these years ago.

Thinking back to Irv Gordon’s rules, I agree that one should not eat while driving, although I do allow our Golden Retriever to ride along on grocery trips, but only if the Golden wears sled dog booties to keep his claws from scratching the seats.

Oh yes, and there’s one additional change. Few people know what the car is until they go to the rear and see the large V-O-L-V-O letters. So, to keep up the mystery, I inverted the V’s”. When asked, I just say that I spend a lot of time under the car and it is easier to read “Volvo” upside down.”

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