Volvo (and Owner) that Never Stops Running

New York State resident Irvin Gordon still has that famous Volvo P1800S after 4.5 million km

When Irvin Gordon has a hankering for a good crêpe, he doesn't fool around.

He thinks nothing of climbing into his 1966 Volvo P1800S to drive the 700 km from his East Patchogue, N.Y. home north to Montreal in an afternoon, savour a rolled pancake, then promptly turn around and head back to Long Island, easing into his driveway in the pre-dawn light.

It's impetuous trips like these 'don't expect Gordon to win any carbon-friendly environmental awards anytime soon' that has clinched this retired school teacher's name in the Guinness World Records book for the highest mileage racked up in the same vehicle.

Over the past 44 years, Gordon has accumulated 2,819,000 miles (more than 4.54 million km) on his diminutive Volvo car he bought almost by accident after his last two General Motors vehicles he purchased new in 1963 and 1965 broke down at every infuriating opportunity.

"Thats when the bean-counters took over,"says Gordon of GM and the other vaunted American automakers. Planned obsolescence became the new money-making strategy in Detroit.

Frustrated by broken rocker arms and pushrods, as well as electrical issues that frequently stalled his '65 Chevy, Gordon abandoned the automaker and walked into a Long Island Volvo dealer, where he stumbled upon his automotive love: a fiery red P1800S coupe.

"It's a grand touring car," says Gordon, dotingly. "It has three-point seatbelts, a collapsible steering column” it was ahead of its time.

In fact, Gordon, who turned 70 this summer, could not have found a more timeless machine in 1966.

His P1800S is motivated by an overhead-cam 1.8 L four-cylinder engine fed by twin SU carburetors. To save production costs, Volvo simply used half of its stout V8 truck engine, complete with five main crankshaft bearings. The motor is mated to a four-speed manual transmission with an electrically actuated overdrive gear.

The B18-series engine is good for 115 hp. By comparison, today's Volkswagen City Jetta makes the same power from 2.0 litres of displacement.

Unveiled in 1960, Gordon attended the 50th anniversary celebrations in France last month, the P1800 was styled by Italian design house Ghia.

Famed coachbuilder Karmann was supposed to craft the bodies, but dropped the project when major client Volkswagen threatened to cancel its contracts. The task was given to British firm Jensen.

The sporty Volvo was assembled near Birmingham, England during the first two years of production, which explains why Briton Simon Templar, played by Roger Moore, drove a white P1800 in the popular TV series The Saint.

Volvo located sufficient capacity to shift production to Sweden in 1963, in part due to quality lapses in the English plant. The Swedish cars got an "S" affixed to the nameplate to distinguish them from the earlier cars.

During his daily 200 km commutes between home and school, Gordon grew enamoured with his Volvo's impressive dependability. As the miles racked up, he began writing testimonial letters to Volvo.

After the half-million-mile mark, a photographer came to snap Gordon's picture; his mug and car appeared in a 1978 magazine ad extolling Volvo's longevity. After he retired from teaching, Gordon devoted most of his waking hours to driving his car all over the U.S. and beyond.

He's logged about 42,000 km outside of the U.S., primarily in Canada and Mexico, as well as in Europe. Canada is a frequent destination, Gordon says, and not just for the crepes.

"I have been to most major cities, from Vancouver to Halifax, and many vacation spots throughout the Laurentians. I usually make at least two trips annually to the London area for Volvo events. I have also had my car at the Toronto auto show, as well as dealer openings in the area."

From what he's witnessed, Gordon says Canadians distinguish themselves when they're behind the wheel.

Seems to me that Canadians are generally more courteous . . . at least compared to New York City/Long Island drivers. It always amazes me as to how many Canadian drivers actually use their directional signals, something most U.S. drivers have forgotten about.

However, I've got to say that Canadians drive a lot faster regardless of the posted speed limit, perhaps because of the smooth roads and general lack of periodic tolls.

When he crossed the 2 million-mile threshold in 2002, he was invited on The Today Show, where Jay Leno's people spotted him. They asked him to appear the following Monday. Ironically, his Volvo had to be shipped to Los Angeles by truck.

"There was so little time, it was the only way it could be done. I followed by plane," says Gordon, a little wistfully.

On The Tonight Show lot, Gordon spotted an oil slick under Leno's French Delahaye racer and ribbed him about the lax maintenance.

He learned you shouldn't poke fun at Leno's cars.

"Leno vowed to get me back. In the on-camera interview, he teased me over my divorce and my traveling," he recalls.

Gordon says Volvo over-engineered its cars " a good thing" but he also admits no auto will last long without a good maintenance regimen.

"Read the owner's manual and follow the service intervals. Who knows your car better than the engineers who designed it." says Gordon.

Oil changes are done as prescribed: every 3,500 miles (5,600 km), and he travels with spare belts, hoses, brake pads, water and fuel pumps, even generator brushes (the car predates the alternator).

"It's easier, and cheaper, to do maintenance than to get stuck at the side of the road and be at the mercy of some small-town mechanic," says Gordon, speaking from experience.

Last year, he had the P1800's engine rebuilt for the second time. Thinking the motor was worn out, he bought Teflon-coated pistons and all the best parts money could buy. He needn't have bothered.

"When they took the engine apart, there was so little wear there was no need to bore it out as planned," says Gordon.

But with all the ordered parts on hand, Gordon proceeded to have his 1.8 L motor bored out to the "B18" 2-litre displacement for which the new pistons were intended.

With more power on tap, Gordon feels like he's driving a new car again. The paint likewise has been freshened over the years.

"The original paint was enamel, which never ages well, especially in red," he says. "Over the years I've had various parts of the car sprayed with modern two-stage paint and it finally matches up."

Gordon takes his world-record responsibility seriously, driving to distant car club outings, auto shows and dealer openings to spread the word about automobile maintenance and to act as an ambassador for Volvo.

He's confident there is no one in his rear-view mirror: "There are a few cars with one million miles on them, but none with two million."

The 3 million-mile mark is still a couple of years away; the goal beyond that is anyone's guess. Gordon suggests that last year's engine rebuild was so thorough, "the car will be rolling long after me."

Gordon's ongoing world record will likely hinge more on his own mortality than it will on oil quality or metal fatigue. And despite his growing celebrity, he remains a humble servant to his car.

"I really haven't done anything out of the ordinary. I have no special talents," he insists.

"I just go along for the ride."

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star Wheels Section in Sept 2010.

10 Ways to Boost Your Car’s Longevity

Volvo located sufficient capacity to shift production to Sweden in 1963, in part due to quality lapses in the English plant. The Swedish cars got an "S" affixed to the nameplate to distinguish them from the earlier cars.

During his daily 200 km commutes between home and school, Gordon grew enamoured with his Volvo's impressive dependability. As the miles racked up, he began writing testimonial letters to Volvo.

After the half-million-mile mark, a photographer came to snap Gordon's picture; his mug and car appeared in a 1978 magazine ad extolling Volvo's longevity. After he retired from teaching, Gordon devoted most of his waking hours to driving his car all over the U.S. and beyond.

He's logged about 42,000 km outside of the U.S., primarily in Canada and Mexico, as well as in Europe. Canada is a frequent destination, Gordon says, and not just for the crepes.

"I have been to most major cities, from Vancouver to Halifax, and many vacation spots throughout the Laurentians. I usually make at least two trips annually to the London area for Volvo events. I have also had my car at the Toronto auto show, as well as dealer openings in the area."

From what he's witnessed, Gordon says Canadians distinguish themselves when they're behind the wheel.

Seems to me that Canadians are generally more courteous . . . at least compared to New York City/Long Island drivers. It always amazes me as to how many Canadian drivers actually use their directional signals, something most U.S. drivers have forgotten about.

However, I've got to say that Canadians drive a lot faster regardless of the posted speed limit, perhaps because of the smooth roads and general lack of periodic tolls.

When he crossed the 2 million-mile threshold in 2002, he was invited on The Today Show, where Jay Leno's people spotted him. They asked him to appear the following Monday. Ironically, his Volvo had to be shipped to Los Angeles by truck.

"There was so little time, it was the only way it could be done. I followed by plane," says Gordon, a little wistfully.

On The Tonight Show lot, Gordon spotted an oil slick under Leno's French Delahaye racer and ribbed him about the lax maintenance.

He learned you shouldn't poke fun at Leno's cars.

"Leno vowed to get me back. In the on-camera interview, he teased me over my divorce and my traveling," he recalls.

Gordon says Volvo over-engineered its cars " a good thing" but he also admits no auto will last long without a good maintenance regimen.

"Read the owner's manual and follow the service intervals. Who knows your car better than the engineers who designed it." says Gordon.

Oil changes are done as prescribed: every 3,500 miles (5,600 km), and he travels with spare belts, hoses, brake pads, water and fuel pumps, even generator brushes (the car predates the alternator).

"It's easier, and cheaper, to do maintenance than to get stuck at the side of the road and be at the mercy of some small-town mechanic," says Gordon, speaking from experience.

Last year, he had the P1800's engine rebuilt for the second time. Thinking the motor was worn out, he bought Teflon-coated pistons and all the best parts money could buy. He needn't have bothered.

"When they took the engine apart, there was so little wear there was no need to bore it out as planned," says Gordon.

But with all the ordered parts on hand, Gordon proceeded to have his 1.8 L motor bored out to the "B18" 2-litre displacement for which the new pistons were intended.

With more power on tap, Gordon feels like he's driving a new car again. The paint likewise has been freshened over the years.

"The original paint was enamel, which never ages well, especially in red," he says. "Over the years I've had various parts of the car sprayed with modern two-stage paint and it finally matches up."

Gordon takes his world-record responsibility seriously, driving to distant car club outings, auto shows and dealer openings to spread the word about automobile maintenance and to act as an ambassador for Volvo.

He's confident there is no one in his rear-view mirror: "There are a few cars with one million miles on them, but none with two million."

The 3 million-mile mark is still a couple of years away; the goal beyond that is anyone's guess. Gordon suggests that last year's engine rebuild was so thorough, "the car will be rolling long after me."

Gordon's ongoing world record will likely hinge more on his own mortality than it will on oil quality or metal fatigue. And despite his growing celebrity, he remains a humble servant to his car.

"I really haven't done anything out of the ordinary. I have no special talents," he insists.

"I just go along for the ride."

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star Wheels Section in Sept 2010.

10 Ways to Boost Your Car’s Longevity


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