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The tale of the Volvo P1800 “Whisky Cars”

Chris Haining September 24, 2015 All Things Hoon 15 Comments

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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.

(All images, and all facts gleaned from the excellent “Volvo P1800- from idea to prototype and production” by Mats Eriksson & Kenneth Collander. Trafik-Nostalgiska Forlaget ISBN 978-91-86275-71-6. Buy it.)

  • longrooffan

    Great story and one of which I had not previously heard. I remember some years ago a roll on, roll off carrier capsized and broke in half, IIRC, exposing a bunch of smashed up late model Volvos. Damn if I can’t find an image of that, or the story anywhere. My google-fu is not that strong. Thanks again for the story Rusty.

  • memikeyounot

    This is very interesting. The things you learn about on the internet. One of my favorites when I was a kid was the sinking of the Andrea Doria and the loss of a 1956 Chrysler Norseman concept, never recovered along with most of the other cargo. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chrysler_Norseman

    • mseoul

      Exactly. The one thing I too can remember about the Andrea Doria.

    • Windbüchse

      My parents and I were in Germany in 1956 and had booked return passage on the Andrea Doria. Upon seeing the capsized ship on TV in a bar, we had to make alternate plans. Later, when my father related the story (I was 1.5 y.o. that summer), I researched facts on the Andrea Doria and her 50 car garage.

    • dukeisduke

      That story has fascinated me for many years.

    • Cameron Vanderhorst

      There’s a Steely Dan song that namechecks the Andrea Doria and every time I hear it, I just end up thinking of the Norseman instead of the Audi TT mentioned elsewhere in the lyrics.

  • evan r

    Five cars in that s/n range are listed on the Jensen-built registry at http://www.v1800reg.org/pages/Jensenbuilt.pdf

    • mzszsm

      I asked in MKE last year an owner about this and the whereabouts of these 29 are unknown to him or anyone he knows. That range had other cars in it not shipped to TX.

  • Sjalabais

    I had read of this incidence before, but I’ve never seen photos. What a shame! Today, reselling of flooded vehicles would probably not have happened?

  • Stephen

    Fascinating story. Awesome photo history.

  • Not sure if it’s a tribute to your photography or the quality of your scale models, Chris, but some of these pictures look more like miniatures than yours do.

  • El kabong

    MM Scotch and Volvos, two of my favorite things

  • Sam Seward

    If the rest of the cargo had been fine bourbon, sour mash or Canadian whiskey, I might have been interested in one. However, I never acquired a taste for Scotch!