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Team of restoration masters turn derelict Volvo P1800 into vintage eye candy

Team of restoration masters turn derelict Volvo P1800 into vintage eye candy

All restored and looking absolutely great, just waiting for its trip to its new home in Florida.
All restored and looking absolutely great, just waiting for its trip to its new home in Florida.

Just about three years ago, a car pal told me he thought he saw an old 1950s or ’60s derelict car sitting in the weeds on an empty lot just off Teckler Boulevard and Official Road in Crystal Lake, and maybe I should check it out. Little did I know the hunt for the elusive tin would turn into one of the most intriguing and interesting car quests I had ever done.

I waited for a Saturday morning to drive over to where the car had been seen. I parked my truck and proceeded to look in the field for vintage tin (old cars) and found absolutely nothing. There was a worn-out 1970-something Nissan mini pickup truck languishing in the field just beyond the one I was looking through, but that was it.

As I sat in my truck contemplating my next move, I realized I was only about a block and half away from Tom and Sherry Low’s Independent Auto Craft, the go-to shop for foreign car enthusiasts in McHenry County. I drove to the shop at 6207 Factory Road. I hadn’t been to the shop for a visit in a long time.

What I like about the shop, from a car enthusiast’s viewpoint, is it handles both late model and older foreign vehicles. Got a 1960s air-cooled Porsche, or mid ’60s Jaguar that just won’t seem to stay in tune, or maybe you own a 1980s 12-cylinder Mercedes Benz that’s always acting up? The guru techs at IAC can take care of all of that and get you back on the road and enjoying your pride and joy in no time.

As I pulled into the shop’s parking lot, I spied a lightly rusty hulk of some car that, to me, looked like a 1960s-era sports ride. I headed into the shop to look for Tom Low, who spotted me first and asked where the heck have I been. I told him I had some old geezer issues and had to spend some time in the hospital, but was OK now and back on the hunt for vintage iron car stories. Then I asked about the shabby-looking ride sitting on the shop floor. From the rear, it reminded me of an old Volvo P1800.

Bingo, said Tom.

“It’s a 1962 two-plus-two coupe,” Tom said.

My next question: Where did you find it, or is it a customer’s car?

Tom had traded a Volvo enthusiast a 1986 Saab 900 Turbo two-door hatchback for the car.

Talk about a win-win situation, I said, because I thought the 900 Turbo was a definite future collectible car. P1800s are holy grail cars in the collector car community, so everyone made out. I asked about the mild rust patina and dings, as well as the old wiring hanging down everywhere that looked like a bowl of spaghetti gone wild. Tom said the car’s former owner said it hadn’t been used in a few years and it had sat unattended.

We chatted about the car’s great lines, which were smooth and curvaceous.

The car was a huge success when it was a brought to market in 1960. Over the years, it has become a desirable vehicle with vintage sports car lovers worldwide. It is, after all, the car that movie star and James Bond actor, Roger Moore, drove in the mid-1960s hit TV show, “The Saint.” That cool factor alone made the car a legend.

I asked Tom if he had heard the car in the TV show had been found in some barn years ago. He said he had and the car had been completely restored as far as he knew. I was scribbling notes as fast as I could from all the information Tom was giving me and hoped that I could read my own writing when I got home.

After rewriting my notes so they made sense, I went back over to the IAC shop to talk to Tom about the car. The biggest thing that hit me looking at the car was it had, to my eye, anyway, a definite Italian flair to it and I wondered if Tom knew who had designed the car.

“You know, it does have a sort of classy Italian look to it,” Tom said, but added that all he had ever heard about its design was that somehow the German coach builder, Karmann, had something to do with the car.

That’s all I needed to know to get my automotive investigating juices flowing. So off I went to look at my own extensive automobile library. I’m old school. I enjoy digging for information about cars by looking in old car books. Not everything is on the internet – especially when it comes to vintage information about the car industry.

So I dug up what information I had on automotive coach builders. It turned out Karmann was being considered by Volvo to build the 1800, but Volkswagen had a deal with them to build the new, at the time, VW Karmann-Ghia sports coupe car. VW wasn’t thrilled Volvo’s new car would compete with theirs. So they, more less, told Karmann to forget about building the Swedes’ car and devote its efforts to building the Germany-based automaker’s Karmann Ghia. So much for Karmann and designing the P1800. Not only did they not design the P1800, they weren’t even allowed to build it even if they had designed it.

The article I read did say, however, that Swede Pele Patterson designed the car. A Swede! Man, I just didn’t see it. So I dug into another book, this one on famous European car designers. When I got to Patterson, I found out it was his rendering of the P1800 the Volvo board of directors fell in love with when Patterson submitted his proposals for the P1800. It turns out Patterson also attended the Italian design house studio Fura as a student in Italy. So not only did Swede Pele Patterson attend the Fura design school for automobiles, but most likely he was taught by the grandmaster himself, Pietro Fura, the studio’s founder. Pietro Fura sadly passed away from cancer in 1983.

So now I knew where Patterson learned all about compound body lines, swoopy curves, aggressive fender lines and the three-piece, egg-crate grille design, as well as slightly tapered and semi-flat hood characteristics. Wow! I knew from reading previous books on automotive history that Pietro Fura was given credit for designing the 1957 Maserati 150GT Spider as well as the Maserati A6 convertible.

So now things started to fall into place about Tom Low’s beautiful Swede, the P1800 sports car. The P1800 isn’t a copy of any particular Maserati or any other Italian sports car. It’s just that Patterson incorporated both elegant, taut and curvaceous lines he had learned in Italy into his design for the P1800. A more stunning design you could not ask for. When it came to drive trains, Volvo decided on an overhead valve, 1.8-liter (1800cc’s) straight, four-cylinder engine backed up by the stout M40 four-speed manual transmission and solid axle rear suspension.

Once the German coach builder Karmann was out of the picture, Volvo turned to English automaker, Jensen. Starting with model year 1961, Jensen not only made the unibody chassis’s, but also assembled and built all the P1800s up to model year 1969, when all manufacturing operations for the car were moved to Sweden.

Upon further discussions, Tom said he had sold the car from photos he had placed on the internet when he first acquired the car. An individual who was a big-time Volvo enthusiast contacted him from Florida. The individual wanted to buy the car and have Tom’s shop restore it. But the new owner had a few stipulations: First, all the Volvo badging on the car was to be removed. He wanted a smooth look to the car.

He also had a love affair with a special 2015 Mercedes Benz Number 992 Selenite Grey Metallic paint color. I have to say the color was the perfect choice for this car because it truly highlights all those classy Italian lines that Pele Patterson had incorporated into his design for the car.

While the shop fabricators were working on the car, Tom ran across a super deal on a very low mileage, 2.3-liter engine from a 1992 Volvo 940. Tom bought the mill and brought it to the shop, where he and his team swapped the old Volvo 1800 cc motor for the modern 940 engine. Unless one is a true Volvo car nut, when the hood is open, the later model engine looks just like it did when the car was brand new. Along with the new low mileage engine, all the wiring was replaced and new aftermarket 12 volt gauges, headlights and taillights installed. The shop fabricators also frenched in the taillights to give the rear of the car a smoother, cleaner vibe.

For wheels, a set of chrome Enkei “Vulcan” wheels shod with Michelin 205/.60-15 radial tires were chosen to cover the new disc brakes in front and drum brakes in the rear. When it came time to redo the tired and worn out interior, Tom chose Lake Marine in Woodstock to come up with a fantastic looking all red leatherette interior with complementary black carpeting.

I told Tom the car turned out so well, he should send photos to Volvo in Sweden. Maybe after seeing the car, they could come up with a next generation P1800 like Ford did with the Mustang. Either way, the new owner in Florida will have a big smile on his face while he enjoys putting mile after mile on the car. I also think a few car show awards are in this beauty’s future, too.

As the car was being loaded onto a car carrier semi truck for its trip down south, I asked Tom what the shop’s next vintage ride project was going to be. He said it’s an obscure little gem, also a Swede: a 1968 model Saab Sonett with V-4 power. The slick little fiberglass-bodied sports car had been found in a barn (of course) in Mundelein.

A Sonett. In an old barn.

Just shows you, old rides are still out there and waiting to be discovered. So keep on looking. It’s one of the many things that makes old cars, trucks and motorcycles such a fun hobby.​

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