The “whisky cars”

From the book “Volvo P1800-from idea to prototype and production” by Mats Westerman (Eriksson) and Kenneth Collander

On March 29 1962 a dramatic incident occurred on the River Thames outside London. The Freighter m/s Kassel collided with the m/s Potaro. m/s Kassel was loaded with tubes from Germany and had just taken aboard additional cargo in the form of Scotch whisky and 29 Volvo P1800 cars, and was destined for Houston, Texas. At the impact m/s Kassel was ripped open at the bow, from the railing down to the keel, and the water poured into cargo holds number 1 where 18 of the cars were stored. The cars floated around crashing into each other and the roofs were heavily deformed.

In connection with this incident, Sven-Olof Andersson, based at Jensen, was ordered to come to London to inspect the damaged cars. Together with Lloyd’s the insurers, Andersson and his colleague Lars Grapengiesser, went to take a look. Grapengiesser was responsible for the shipping of cars from Jensen. Andersson recalls “We were met by a depressing but fascinating sight. The cars had been placed on the hold on a wooden floor on top of the German tubing under which the whisky was stored and the situation could have been worse but it was bad enough. m/s Kassel was bound for Texas bur shortly after the ship left the quay in London, it collided with another freighter and started to take in masses of salt water through the hole in the bow. The situation was so bad that the crew actually abandoned the ship in the middle of the river. The cars quickly named the “whisky cars” considering what was onboard”.

The ship was taken to a dry dock in Tilbury and kept under close guard because of the whisky. The cars had obviously gained an interesting smell from being soaked in Scotch and water. Andersson took some photos showing the demolished cars which was covered in mud. The people working in the dock nonchalantly walked around on the roofs of the cars and they were in general treated very carelessly during the recovery work. They were hoisted ashore with chains hooked directly in the wheel arches, causing some of the bodies to break. The aluminum panels on the dashboard corroded very quickly in the salty Thames water.

11 cars had not been damaged and were subsequently shipped to Houston on the first possible occasion whereas 18 damaged cars were shipped to Gothenburg and parked, covered by flannel sheets, in a closed section of the Lundby plant, where they couldn’t be spotted. Four of the cars were damaged beyond repair but the remaining 15 were sold at an internal auction. Carl Gunnar Söderberg and Hans Liljequist remember that it was mainly people from Volvo management that bought the cars. Hans Liljequist, a test driver at Volvo for 42 years was involved in driving the first Jensen-built cars that came to Sweden. As expected, the best cars were sold first at the Volvo auction and the worst ones were the last to go. They all went cheaply, the price ranged between 4,000 to 6,000 Crowns (dealer price 21,000). About four cars per week were sold and the fewer the remaining cars, the higher the bids. It had become apparent that the cars really did not need so much attention as it had seemed which of course affected the price. The last to be sold, however were really badly damaged with the roofs caved in and a lot of big dents all over the bodies. The buyers had to promise Volvo not to re-sell the cars to “outsiders” until at least three years later. Volvo didn’t want the cars to get to the market because they would most likely start to rust much quicker than the ordinary production cars and thus create a reputation for bad quality. But promises are made only to be broken, so several buyers fixed their cars and sold them off more or less immediately, at a much higher price, making really good deals and Volvo couldn’t do anything formal about that.

Are there any cars still around today that were among the “whisky cars” ? From the Volvo archives, the information has been found that the following cars were involved: 3226, 3227, 3233, 3239, 3241, 3242, 3252, 3260, 3261, 3262, 3263, 3266, 3267, 3274, 3278, 3283, 3284, and 3285

Bengt Lidmalm. the son of Tord Lidmalm and an ex Volvo man himself was one of the lucky buyers o a whisky car: “Oh, what a beautiful car the P1800 was. During the summer of 1961, I was privileged to drive around in a silver-coloured car, thanks to my father who used it as his personal transport. Gunnar Engellau had one in gold an Svante Simonsson a bronze car. This was just after I had passed my exam and my fellow students thought it was a gift from my father! Sadly not. But to be able to use the car was also a kind of a gift and that someone else took care of the fuel costs.

Alas, this was not to last but during the spring of 1962 a fantastic opportunity came by 18 British built cars had been dragged out of the River Thames after a collision involving the freight ship they were on and another ship. I remember that my father was involved in the British production one way or the other and spent a lot of time there during these years. He was not too happy with the situation and the production was later transferred to Sweden. Nevertheless, the cars were salvaged and we, who knew the British built Volvos, knew that they leaked but but these cars had at least been leaking less than the ship carrying them. The floated in the cargo hold and bumped into each other and everything that surrounded them. They were hoisted abroad very brutally which caused further damage to them. Most cars had bashed in roofs and bent wings. They were brought to Gothenburg and put aside at the plant in order to be sold on offer. Having driven a brand new and shiny P1800 before, you were a bit spoild but all of a sudden, here was a chance to to acquire a P1800 at a reasonable cost although a bit dented and smelling from dirt. Stories about the cars circulated. One of them was that all the copper in the electric wiring had already corroded away, and so had all the aluminum parts. And the rust. I opened the doors of one of the cars and my shoes got we from the water that splashed out. Apparently water leaked into the cars, but not out. I put bids on two red cars, 5,500 Crowns each, and got them at that price.

I kept one and gave the other to my uncle. dad’s brother. I had to promise not to sell the cars for three years. But the cars were not so bad as reputed and I learnt a lot from taking my car apart. The myth goes that some of the buyers only made and oil change and used the car again, but that was only a myth. Everything had to be taken down. I hosed the car down with fresh water, let it dry and then disassembled it completely. When I opened the engine oil plug, water poured out of the engine and after the water came the oil. This had been high up in the engine which saved the liners and the cylinder head and valve mechanism. The SU carburetors were badly corroded but a couple of days in a bucket of Kerosene made them work again after a bit of adjusting. All ball and roller bearings were corroded. The front suspension, the gear box and the rear axle had to be taken apart and all bearings replaced. The Smiths instruments with all their delicate parts were cleaned and I got them all to work again, except for the oil and water temperature gauges. These ‘roller blind dials’ never worked properly so I had to invest in new ones. The body and the subsequent painting I left with pros and to prevent the car from rusting, it was ML treated with Dinitrol rust-proofing. This worked except around the boot lid edge which started to corrode shortly afterwards. The electrical relays had to be replaced and the interior had also suffered from the swim. The Dunlopillo foam rubber couldn’t handle the salt water, making the seat position much lower, which in fact I needed.

Eventually the car was ready for the road, and after my military service, a friend of mine and myself took it to the French Riviera. It worked perfectly except that there was still some water in the brake system. After some inspired driving going downhill at St. Gotthard I suddenly lost the brakes. The pedal went to the floor due to the boiling brake fluid, or more correctly boiling water. The parking brake came to use on the next corner where a coach had just driven in a straight line and ended up with his front wheels hanging out and over the cliff and a number of pale tourists standing beside it. It was probably more luck tha skill that preventing me from sending both the bus and us into eternity. I had learned a bit about skidding on the Swedish winter roads and knew how to handle the car. From that point I was slow cruising in 2nd gear down to St. Gotthard. We had a great time and we also had a great car. Less fun to park though. Later, I got my racing driver license and went to race the car on several occasions. After four years I sold it to a man in the northern part of Sweden.