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The tale of the Volvo P1800 “Whisky Cars”

Fifty-three years ago, a small group of Americans each put a deposit down on new Volvo P1800 and patiently waited for their Anglo-Swedish coupés to arrive. They were blissfully unaware of the dramatic events occurring on the other side of the Atlantic.

On March 29th 1962,  on the River Thames just outside London, the freighter MS Kassel had just taken on board additional cargo in the form of Scotch Whisky and 29 Volvo P1800 cars to accompany its load of pipes from Germany. It set sail for Houston, Texas, and all was going very well indeed… until she collided with the MS Potaro.

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The violent impact saw the MS Kassel torn open at the bow, allowing water to flood into the #1 cargo hold. This was was where 18 of the Volvos were being carried and the volume of water was enough to have the cars floating around, crashing into each other uncontrollably. The Kessel managed to stay afloat and was quickly dry-docked in the Port of Tilbury for the damage to to ship and cargo to be assessed.

Jensen of West Bromwich, where P1800 production was based, sent production manager and project manager Sven-Olaf Andersson to see just how bad things were.  After the cars were hoisted ashore the damage was all too plain to see.  Apart from having been pickled in a broth of whisky and salt water, and the obvious effects of being tossed around the cargo hold, the cars had been damaged still further by careless handling by the recovery teams, with the hoists being hooked directly under the wheelarches in some cases. Furthermore the aluminium dashboard panels had not enjoyed the experience of bathing in Thames water.

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Amazingly eleven cars of the 29 were undamaged and were shipped on to Houston, to be handed over to excited new owners who knew nothing of the near-miss their cars had experienced. The damaged cars were sent to Gothenburg and concealed in a quiet part of the Volvo factory where they couldn’t be seen. On final inspection four of the cars were damaged beyond salvation and were disposed of appropriately. The remaining cars were sold at an internal auction, mainly attended by Volvo management.

The more lightly damaged cars were the first to sell and it took several weeks before they were all cleared, selling for approximately a quarter of their retail prices. The last few cars to sell were the most severely damaged of the bunch, with major panel damage and caved-in roofs.

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Volvo imposed a caveat to the sales; buyers had to “promise” not to re-sell the cars to the general public until at least three years later, partially due to fears of accelerated corrosion thanks to the cars taking an early, salty bath. This rust wouldn’t have done Volvos’ reputation any good whatsoever. It turns out that this was a rule which was almost immediately broken by some.

So, what of the fate of the Whisky cars? Well, apart from the four scrapped by Volvo, there don’t appear to be any records of where they went. All the cars fell between production numbers 3226 and 3285, if your own P1800 falls within that range and has a mysterious tang of single malt about it, it could well be one of the machines we’re talking about.

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