Suspend your disbelief, because the 2021 Volvo P1800 Cyan really is a Volvo. It has a race-bred 413-hp engine, a five-speed manual transmission, a body made almost entirely of carbon fiber, and a base price of $500,000. It’s fast and loud and raw. It is one of the most exuberantly irrational Swedish cars ever built. But it really is a Volvo. The chassis number says so.
The P1800 Cyan is the brainchild of Cyan Racing, a company founded in 1996 to build and develop Volvo race cars. Cyan moved into building go-fast Volvo road cars under the Polestar Performance name in 2009. Polestar Performance was acquired by Volvo in 2015 and has since morphed into the Swedish automaker’s electric vehicle brand, which just launched its Tesla-fighting Polestar 2 sedan. Throughout, Cyan Racing kept, well, racing. And in 2017, its Volvo S60 Polestar TC1 won the World Touring Car Championship.
What does all this have to do with the P1800 Cyan? “We wanted a celebration of our years with Volvo and that 2017 world championship, which came 90 years after the founding of Volvo,” Cyan Racing general manager Hans Bååth said. “So we picked the coolest car Volvo built and wondered what we could do with it.”
The P1800 Cyan starts life as a regular Volvo P1800, the iconic coupe made in Sweden from 1961 to 1972. Well, bits of one. Of the 2,200-odd pounds of metal, glass, rubber, and plastic that make up a complete P1800, only 110 pounds—mainly parts of the inner body structure from the A-pillar rearward, along with the hood catch, the windshield wipers, the e-brake, and the heating and ventilation controls—make it into the Cyan version.
The most important piece carried over is the chassis number. It’s this that makes the P1800 Cyan technically a restomod and thus able to be registered and driven on the road—though it’s clearly way more mod than resto.
At first glance, its carbon-fiber bodywork looks like a reasonable facsimile of the original P1800’s sheet metal. But a closer inspection reveals the P1800 Cyan has fundamentally different proportions. The front wheels are moved forward, giving the car a longer dash-to-axle than the original. But the rear wheels are also moved forward and the rear overhang shortened, thus visually moving the cab further rearward. The fins are slightly lower, too.
With pumped fender openings to cover a wider track and wider wheels and tires, the subtly nuanced P1800 Cyan has a much more muscular stance than the original, which was designed by Pelle Petterson while he was working at Italian design house Frua in the late 1950s. (Petterson’s authorship of the P1800 was originally suppressed.
Volvo was worried that if it became known the P1800 had been designed by a Swede rather than Pietro Frua himself, it would, as one Swedish newspaper later reported, “kill all the magic around the car”. Bååth says Petterson has seen the P1800 Cyan and approves of the 21st-century tweaks to his design.)
Just as the original P1800 was powered by a four-cylinder Volvo engine, so too is the P1800 Cyan, which has a massaged version of the turbocharged 2.0-liter engine found under the hood of every current production Volvo, from XC40 to XC90. The Cyan’s four-banger makes its 413 hp and 336 lb-ft of torque with the help of a single BorgWarner turbocharger mounted low and out of sight under what looks like an old-school set of headers. Cyan knows this engine well: Using one of the first 25 blocks made, it started development work on it for its C30 race car in 2010, five years before a version appeared in a Volvo production car.
The engine is bolted to a five-speed manual transmission made by Australian race-car transmission specialist Holinger. “We wanted to keep the ’60s analog feel in the transmission, but with more precision,” Bååth said, adding that it was difficult to find a transmission with that sort of feel that could also handle the torque the engine produced. A carbon-fiber prop shaft connects the transmission to the limited-slip differential, which is also made by Holinger and can be ordered with custom final drive ratios.
Custom subframes support a race-car-style multilink suspension front and rear, with adjustable coilover shocks at each corner. Brakes are cross-drilled steel discs—14.2 inches up front and 13.0 inches at the rear—with AP Racing four-piston calipers, and the wheels are 18-inch center-lock forged alloys from Spanish racing wheel specialist Braid. In deference to the lumpy, greasy, wintry British roads, our car has its suspension in the soft setting and is fitted with Pirelli P Zeros, 245/40 items on the front rims and 265/35s on the rears, rather than Cup tires. “We wanted it to feel enjoyable, not intimidating,” Bååth said, eyeing the slippery grass right at the edge of the tarmac.
Right about now, it’s worth mentioning the P1800 Cyan, which weighs just under 2,200 pounds and thus has a better weight-to-power ratio than a Porsche 911 Turbo S, has no stability control, no traction control, and no anti-lock brake system. It doesn’t even have a brake booster. That’s ’60s analog, right there. It does have electric power steering, though. “We didn’t want it,” Bååth said, “but with the big tires, the steering efforts were just too high at low speeds.”
Drive time. You wriggle over the side brace for the roll cage and into a simple, fixed racing seat. You then buckle up a six-point Momo racing harness. Straight ahead, behind the perfectly sized Momo Prototipo three-spoke steering wheel, is a binnacle with a large tach on the left and a speedo on the right flanking a tiny vertical element with water and oil temperature displays.
Three smaller dials—fuel gauge, oil pressure gauge, and an analog clock—march across the dash. At first glance, the instruments look as though they’ve been lifted from an old P1800. Then you notice the tach is redlined at just under 8,000 rpm and the speedo reads all the way up to 260 kph—162 mph.
Turn the tiny key on the dash, just to the right of the steering column, and the engine barks into life. The tall, spindly shifter rattles and buzzes. It’s a dogleg box, so first-gear is across to the left and back; the throw is long but the action as satisfying as cocking an 1873 Winchester. Reach down to the left of the seat, squeezing your hand past the roll cage brace, and release the vintage handbrake. The clutch is nicely weighted and the bite point concise. With only modest revs, the P1800 Cyan pulls away cleanly and crisply.
The engine impresses immediately with its sharp response, and then—after a few miles, when everything’s warmed up—stuns with its lion-hearted thrust all the way to the 7,700-rpm redline. It has the muscular punch you’d expect of a turbo-boosted mill, but it’s been tuned so that both its power and torque delivery is much more like that of a naturally aspirated engine. Peak torque doesn’t arrive until 6,000 rpm, for example, while the power peaks at 7,000 rpm. Despite those numbers, it’s smooth and tractable throughout the rev range, able to whisk the feathery P1800 Cyan along at brisk road speeds from as little as 1,500 rpm. But to keep the tach needle above 5,000 rpm is to discover a happy place. Yours and the car’s.
It’s an immediate, viscerally mechanical thing, this Volvo. The engine barks and snarls, the transmission buzzes and whines, the tightly bushed suspension clonks and clunks. There’s a precision to the brake pedal feel, a meatiness to the steering, and a firm control over the roll angles through corners that leaves you in no doubt the P1800 Cyan was engineered by people who build race cars for a living. And yet, although it has modern underpinnings with better grip and better precision than was ever possible with 1960s hardware, the complete absence of electronic minders means you still drive the P1800 Cyan very much like a powerful 1960s GT car, braking in a straight line on corner entry, then turning in and getting on the throttle early to balance the chassis, the long travel of the gas pedal helping you more easily control the traction.
That’s the exuberance. The irrational bit is that $500,000 base price.
Make no mistake, the P1800 Cyan is beautifully built. The quality of the workmanship and the attention to detail are first class, as evidenced by the precision of the shut lines on the body, the quality of the interior trim, and that immaculately joyous engine bay. Bååth said the company has two customer cars already under construction at its headquarters in Mölndal, Sweden, and can build 10 a year. But are there really enough wealthy Volvo fanatics in the world to allow Cyan to do for vintage P1800s what Singer and Alfaholics have done for vintage Porsche 911s and shovel-nosed Alfa Romeo GTVs? Time will tell.