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Vintage Volvo Performance, part 4
John Parker

Editor's note: The project 1800 was hit and seriously damaged by a drunk driver while parked in front of John's shop.

Since the last installment my wrecked 1800 has nearly completed the road to recovery. By the time this is published it will again be in operation as the test/demo car for the supercharger system. (Not much to look at but it goes like hell.) At the same time I am still in the process of turning the prototype B18/B20 supercharger system into a production kit, and these should be ready soon. But even though I chose to go the supercharger route, this series was never meant to be just about supercharging. It was meant to explore all of the reasonable options for transforming the performance of vintage Volvos.

The prior articles have generated quite a bit of interest, and I frequently receive inquiries about various performance options. One of the largest categories of questions I have received are about engine swaps. And in this category, most who contacted me wanted information on how to install a V8. Since I didn't have any information on installing a V8 in an 1800, I had to do a little research. In the process I learned a lot. The following is the result of that research.

For those of us who remember auto racing in the '50s and '60s, there will always be a special allure associated with the idea of taking a 4- or 6-cylinder engine out of a European sports car and swapping in a big American V8. "There's no substitute for cubic inches," was the slogan. The Cobra was probably the most famous and successful example of this process, but was by no means the first or the last.

While other manufacturers both in the U.S. and Europe were doing everything they could to enhance their performance image and supported racing as a principle method of achieving this goal, Volvo chose another route. Rather than promoting sales through a performance image, coupled with efforts to improve that image by offering larger engines and other options, Volvo devised an advertising campaign for their sports car, the P1800, that sacrificed the performance image in order to promote other qualities. The ads claimed the 1800 was in a class with Ferraris, Maseratis and the other fine GT cars of the day, but with differences. A typical header on one of the ads reads: "This car is 44 MPH slower than the rest of the cars in its class. It's also $6000 cheaper." Even back then, I always thought of that approach as a mistake, especially for a manufacturer whose cars were perpetual contenders for Rally Championships and were being raced quite successfully both in the U.S. and Europe. What a great car the 1800 could have been if it was as fast as the "other GTs," but cost significantly less.

Well, it turns out that there were those in the automotive business who also thought that way, and thought the 1800 might be a great seller if it was as "fast as the other cars in its class." What most people, myself included, didn't know is that this thinking resulted in a proposal to create a V8 powered version of the P1800 back in '63. In fact, it got as far as having a prototype built by Holman and Moody that was presented to, and tried out by, Volvo's top brass in '64. Here's the story as I understand it.

Back in '63, Robert Cumberford was an automotive designer working for Holman and Moody, the legendary race car builders largely associated with Ford stock car projects. Now he's an editor at Automobile magazine. In an editorial in the May 1999 issue of that magazine, he described how close we came to having a factory-produced Ford V8 powered Volvo 1800(?).

In the early '60s he drove a 544, but admired the styling of the new P1800 and had the idea of putting the then-new small Ford V8 in it and making "a line of seriously fast GTs, at seriously competitive prices." It would have the added advantage of alleviating a shortage of the B18 engines and enhancing Volvo's image in the U.S. He pitched the idea to Jim LaMarre at Volvo's North American headquarters. The idea was well received, so, with LaMarre's encouragement, he went back to Holman and Moody and built a prototype.

setback transmission tunnelIn order to clear the front suspension and front cross member, the engine was pushed far back in the chassis. This required that the firewall and transmission tunnel be cut out in order to clear the V8 and attached automatic transmission. The exhaust manifolds had to be switched around for sufficient clearance, with the left one being from a Falcon Sprint and the right one being the left side manifold from a 289 Galaxie. The battery was moved to the trunk, and the heater unit moved to the original battery location. A rectangular tube was welded in at the top of the firewall to enhance structural rigidity, which may have been weakened by removing the center section of the firewall and original transmission tunnel. New transmission mounts and supports had to be fabricated, and a one-piece, shortened Galaxie drive shaft was used. The stock Dana 27 rear end was retained, with the ratio changed to 3.07. Cumberford had determined that since the Dana 27 was used without problems in the Studebaker Champion with a V8, it had a sufficient rating to handle the torque of the Ford as long as a suitable axle ratio was used.

Upon completion, Cumberford took the car to the Ford Proving Grounds in Michigan for testing by Ford. After passing various tests, the idea was apparently approved by Ford. The car was then driven to Volvo's North American Headquarters in New Jersey, where it was presented to Volvo's chief executive, Gunnar Engellau, during his next visit. Engellau was Volvo's CEO from 1956 through 1971, and is credited with making "the Volvo name synonymous with safety, quality, durability and value " He personally tested the car quite vigorously, and acknowledged its performance, but felt that if P1800s came into the U.S. without motors and then had Fords installed, "People will think there is something wrong with our motor." That put an end to the project. A few years later, Cumberford sold the car. It was last thought to be somewhere in Iowa and no one knows what has happened to it.

Mitch Duncan of Genuine Classic Parts was able to confirm Cumberford's version of the story through other long-term Volvo NA employees. His information indicated the car was purchased by a Volvo NA employee and was around the New Jersey headquarters for years before eventually disappearing. But that's not quite the end of the story.

The entire process of the V8 conversion by Holman and Moody was detailed in an article that appeared in the December '64 issue of Hot Rod magazine. (Thanks to Ebay, I have two copies.) With this type of exposure, others just had to try it. A Colorado Volvo dealer did a conversion based on the Hot Rod article. That car was later purchased by Daryl Payne, and is now under restoration in the Midwest. Two brothers in California started another conversion, and it was later finished by Dale and Larry Rembold in Oregon. It is currently pictured on VSA's website photo gallery. Engine placement in the Rembold carIn addition to the V8, it features an independent rear suspension from a '66 Corvette. It also differs from the original version in that it has a four-speed Borg Warner T10 standard transmission. Although Dale is quite enthusiastic about the car's 6.5 second 0 60 performance, he does not recommend the conversion. "The bottom line is, the 1800 is not a friendly candidate for any V8 conversion." Don Bair of San Diego has been compiling extensive information and planning an improved conversion. There is even a convertible 1800 V8 out there, and who knows how many other started or completed conversions. (If you know of any others, or the location of the original Holman and Moody/Cumberford car, please let me know.)

Unfortunately, none of the conversions seem to be entirely satisfactory. The acceleration is a real thrill, and the power and high speed cruise ability make them appealing. But there are problems. In order for the front sump Ford engine to clear the crossmember, it has be placed way back in the chassis. This places the back of the engine behind the firewall; so far back that the rearmost spark plugs are changed from an access hole inside the passenger compartment. The worst part may be the degree to which an 1800 has to be cut up to accommodate the engine and transmission. (See the photos.) There are problems of having sufficient room for the exhaust system, and excessive heat in the car. There are restrictions in the room available for the driver's and passenger's feet. As a result, the pedals are offset to the left with the brake pedal where the clutch pedal would be (part of the reason for an automatic). If a rear-sump version of the Ford V8 is used, the engine can be mounted farther forward, but then there are clearance problems with the front suspension. Most people familiar with the conversions based on the '64 design believe they need further refinement, but the dream of a Cobra-like Volvo still lives in these existing conversions.

My personal reaction is that I would love to try out one of these V8 1800s, and am still intrigued with the idea of building one. On the other hand, my research reinforces the conclusion I reached a year ago that this or any other type of engine swap is a BIG project, far beyond the scope of most of us, and may not be worth the effort involved. From my point of view as a race car driver, it's obvious that significant modifications to the suspension would be necessary to accommodate the added horsepower successfully, and produce a car that has good handling and is safe to drive under everyday conditions. There is considerable evidence that most of these conversion attempts end up, at least at one point or another, with a hacked-up 1800 that is either abandoned forever or later rescued by someone else. Even the original AC/Ford (Cobra) engine swap needed to be completely reworked, including a suspension redesign, before it was successful either on or off the racetrack. And it is this re-engineering of the rest of the car's systems that makes a successful swap of this magnitude difficult to achieve. Just bolting in a big engine because it can be made to fit just does not work. I'd still love to try it though!

In the process of doing this research, Dale Rembold referred me to a website devoted to V8 conversions of British sports cars. (Remember, the 1800 qualifies based on its first few years of manufacture and assembly.) The site is owned by Dan Masters, a retired electrical engineer. He has over 200 V8 conversions on the site, and extensive discussions of the problems and advantages of a V8 conversion. The site can be found at members.aol.com/danmas, and is entitled, "How to Stuff a Small Block V8 Into a Small British Sports Car." In addition, he is editing a newsletter which, in his own words, "is dedicated to helping demented folks like us in putting V8 engines into British cars." That website is at members.aol.com/danmas4/mgv8.htm. At both sites he has "tried to address the common problems/concepts people have with engine swaps that don't normally get addressed in the mainstream automotive press." We are now engaged in an e-mail discussion of the relative advantages and disadvantages of the various performance options. If you are interested in trying an engine swap, I suggest you check out his websites, as they have extensive discussions of relevant engine swap issues.

If you have any additional information or questions on any of the above, please let me know. If you have done a V8 or other conversion, or know of one, send me some photos and a description, and I will try to include them in a future article. I know there are 544 and 122 V8 conversions out there; I even have a 544 that used to have a Buick V8 in it. And don't forget other types of swaps. A V6, straight 6, or even a modern DOHC 4 might be a better compromise.

And maybe someone out there can answer a couple of my questions. The B18 is essentially half of a 3.6 liter Volvo overhead valve V8 engine. Designated the B36AV, it was initially designed in the '50s for use in a luxury car that was never produced. It ended up being used in Volvo trucks and as a boat engine. Was it ever used in an "all Volvo" V8 conversion? Are there any of these engines available in the U.S.? Was it ever modified into a performance engine? Any information would be appreciated.

By the next installment in this series, we should have more information on the performance and testing of the production version of the supercharger kit and maybe even a comparison of its performance with one of the V8 conversions. At some point we will also take a look at the hotrod scene in Scandinavia (DOHC turbo 544s, etc.). Another planned installment will look at the fundamentals of building a vintage race car. If there are other things you would like covered, just let me know and I will give it a try.

Photos courtesy of Dale Rembold.

Part one | Part two | Part three | Part five


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