Irv Gordon – the man with a 2million mile Volvo P1800

| 2 Jul 2013

When Irv Gordon walked into a Long Island Volvo showroom one day in June 1966, he had no idea that his life was about to change for ever. He tells his story in a gentle New York drawl, much of it while relaxed in the leather seat of his shiny red P1800 as he clocks up yet more miles, one hand on the wheel, the other out of the window, clamped to the roof. No wonder he looks comfortable: he must have sat in that position for some 40,000 hours, or 4.5 years of his life.

Amazingly, the car feels solid. The engine – last rebuilt 1.4 million miles ago – has good oil pressure and few rattles.

“I’d had a $250 car for college,” says Irv, embarking on the fascinating tale of his motoring life, “but when I was ready to start teaching science in ’63 I could see concrete through the floor. I needed a new car to get to and from work, so I went down to my Chevy dealer and bought a new convertible.

"Four blocks from the showroom, it had to be towed back and never got any better. The engine was the problem, but GM didn’t want to know, they said I was abusing it – they had fitted the wrong camshaft, I found out later: it kept breaking rocker arms. I had that car for about five months and couldn’t afford to keep it. I didn’t know what to buy so I went out and bought another Chevy, even after all that, and that one used to have ignition problems and shut down in the middle of the highway.

"Around 1965, a friend of mine had seen an ad that showed a Volvo convertible – Volvo never made a convertible but the dealer used to cut the tops off them. So we took a test drive and I loved it, but I couldn’t afford the air-conditioned convertible so I wound up with the red car in the showroom, which is the one I’m driving now.

"Everything you see except the CB was on it when I bought it. This car came with a water temperature gauge and an oil pressure gauge but no gauge on the charging system. I couldn’t get a deal, no matter what: it was $4150 with the overrider bars, the mudflaps, the AM/FM radio, the two reclining seats and I couldn’t get a dime off. I only made $5200 that year so this was almost a full year’s salary.

"The convertible was $5000, a new Corvette was $5200, a new Cadillac was $4300. A regular Volvo was $2200. So I said to the guy, ‘Look, I’ll buy it but I’m not driving a car that just has an idiot light, I like to know when a thing is not working properly, I want an ammeter’. So he said, ‘OK, I’ll have them install an ammeter, no charge.’

“I put 1500 miles on it that weekend: I took my folks for a ride, then told them I’d see them later and Monday morning I came back and took the car for its first service, because that’s what the book called for. The discussion at the desk that day was funny; they told me ‘Go away, you only bought the car on Friday’ but I was saying, ‘No, no, it’s 1500 miles’.

“So I’m tickled pink with my car, I love it to death, I’ve never had so much fun driving a car before. I’m travelling 125 miles to and from work every day, and I had a girlfriend in Philadelphia at that time and I had another one in Boston, so one weekend I’d be going 200 miles and back, and the other 300 miles and back. I’d go skiing on the weekends in the winter, go to Vermont, every weekend – I was a single guy, I loved driving this car, it was terrific in all kinds of weather so the miles just kept adding up.

"I always had the car serviced at the same dealer: I’m changing the oil every three weeks. I was there so often it’s like I’m moving in, I was their best customer for coffee and bagels in the morning. I’d do a few things myself: the first time I went in for front brakes, the mechanic showed me how to do it and told me he didn’t expect to see me in for front brakes again.

“When I had 250,000 miles on the car I wrote to Volvo in New Jersey and told them how happy I was with this product – you can imagine, after the past two cars... I hadn’t made one repair on the car, not a screw or a bolt, nothing – just normal maintenance: change the oil, air filters, etcetera. I got a letter back saying: ‘We’re happy you’re happy with the product, don’t forget to buckle up, have a nice day’.

“When I had 500,000 miles on my car I wrote to them again and said I’ve done nothing to this car, just valve adjustments, normal things. I got another letter back saying: ‘We’re happy you’re happy with the product, don’t forget to buckle up, have a nice day.’

“I couldn’t believe it, I thought ‘I guess these cars just go on for ever’. By then my parents had bought a new Volvo, my next-door neighbour bought a new Volvo, everybody I know is driving a Volvo because they know how happy I am with my car. When I had about 535,000 miles on, the dealer contacted me to say Volvo’s ad agency in the States was looking for cars that had high mileage on them. I did the ad, there were 12 pictures on one page of old cars, and a new one on the other page.

"I never heard from Volvo for years after that. I was a good friend of the service manager at the dealership; he told me that every so often Volvo called to see if I still had the car. It was only when I had over 900,000 that Volvo finally started to invite me to come down to the headquarters, bring my wife for dinner, meet the staff. They were terrific people. These guys had their own Volvo race cars that they used to race on the weekends and they started asking me to come along. Every time they would invite me it was a bit further away. They were just testing me to see how far I would go.

“We’d be at some race track and there’d be five or six guys from Volvo there. Two would take me off for a beer and the rest would have a good look under my car, checking the serial numbers – this all came out much later. They went through all the records when I got close to the first million, checking all the casting numbers and asking for any parts that came off the car so they could check them.

“I turned the first million October 27, 1987 – I went to the Tavern on the Green at New York City, there was a media party for the car. The same year a ’63 Volkswagen also turned a million miles, but that car had had something like 14 engines and 17 transmissions – there wasn’t a straight bit of metal on it. He got into The Guinness Book of Records shortly after that; the VW clocked up 1,600,000, but four or five years ago it disintegrated.

"I finally passed that one and then the parts department went through the service records and got the affidavits together, and I got the annual inspection records from New York State, put everything in a big box and sent it off to the Guinness people. It took them about six months to go through it: we were at a show in Las Vegas when we heard we’d got into The Guinness Book of Records.

“Accidents? Sure – these things happen. Usually when the car’s parked: I’ve had two school buses back into it, and two tow-trucks. I got hit by an Oldsmobile: I saw him coming; the guy was asleep at the wheel. The car took a beating, but I still drove it home. I never go to shopping centres, never, but this last summer I did. I parked in a quiet corner, then two kids hot-rodding in an old Honda came round and ploughed straight into the front bumper.

“I’ve been in every State except Alaska, on most every road. I’ve been to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Holland and England. We have invitations to go to Belgium and Switzerland – if I’d known it was going to be so much fun I’d have bought an open ticket. I retired from teaching early so, while I still had my health, I could enjoy driving the car. I get to see the world and meet a lot of nice people.

“I live right by the ocean and don’t have a garage so the car is outside, rain and snow. You can’t just wash the outside, you’ve got to wash underneath and get the salt away. It’s had rocker panels [sills] and I replaced both jacking points. When I bought the new ones I treated them – they’ve been on the car 20 years. The last time I was in the UK I bought some Waxoyl: I’d read about it and thought, ‘if it’s good enough for the British to use then it’s got to be good for my car’.

“I get the speedo serviced every three or four years – I can’t afford to lose any miles on it! Smiths Instruments’ repair shop is about an hour from where I live so I drive over there, take the instrument out, they clean, lubricate and calibrate it, I put it back in the car and drive home. Even the clock works: I send that to them and it’s good for five to six years. The smaller gauges, I’ve probably had repaired or replaced two or three times.

"Even the radio works – it was a big deal in 1966, that was the first year you could get an FM radio. No cassette or CD, just one speaker. I’ll listen to any station that plays good driving music. I’m a fresh air driver, I always drive with the windows open. I get the windscreen replaced every couple of years, it gets sandblasted; the body’s been painted three or four times.

"It’s the original engine: I had it rebuilt once, at 675,000 miles; it still has good oil pressure. The transmission seals and third gear synchro have been replaced and the overdrive has been stripped and cleaned, but that’s all. I’ve been using Bridgestone tyres for years – tried everything and I finally got to these. I get about 100,000 miles out of them: they’re 195/60x15s. Gas mileage averages around 23-24mpg town, 32mpg on the highway. I’ve paid for all my parts, all my petrol, all my servicing: no discounts.

“I’ve taken the car on road rallies in the US: re-runs of the Mille Miglia in Vermont and California. I was the only one who drove 3000 miles out, 3000 miles back to do a 1000-mile road rally – everyone else trucks their car and has their team to make sure it starts in the morning. When I turned the first million, Volvo gave me a 780 – I’ve put 238,000 on that since ’87, while still driving my 1800.

"We turned the second million on March 27 in Times Square in New York. Everybody had a terrific party while I sat in the car surrounded by policemen in a no-parking zone, waiting to drive the final few yards. Then we got a call to go to the Jay Leno show in California – Volvo had to ship the car because I didn’t have time to drive it. Then we went to Miami beach, then drove back via Philadelphia. Sure, I’m gonna keep driving my car, I love driving it. I know it can do another million miles: but I’m not sure I can!”

IRV’S LONGEVITY TIPSChanging your oil every 3000 miles is the best insurance policy for your car.Get the car serviced by the book and use factory parts. The people who built your car can afford to experiment more than you can in an effort to select the best part.Using one brand of oil assures uniform quality and avoids any surprises.Don’t turn up the radio and hope that knocking noise will go away. If your car develops a condition, take it in and have it fixed quickly. The longer you wait, the greater potential for damage.Spend a few minutes a week checking for low fluid levels or deterioration of belts and hoses. Also look to see that the battery connections are tight and corrosion-free.Use a mild soap and wash your car by hand. In the winter, hose underneath the vehicle. A clean car gives you an excellent opportunity to look for small nicks and scratches, which may be touched in before rust starts to form.Wax at least twice a year. The value of waxing goes well beyond making your car look nice: it provides protection against oxidation and rust

Develop a good working relationship with your dealer and mechanic. Both are your partners in the long run.

FACTFILE: 1966 Volvo P1800SEngine in-line ohv 1778cc ‘four’, twin SU carbs, 115bhp @ 5800rpm, 112lb ft @ 4000rpm

Construction all-steel 

Transmission four-speed, overdrive optional 

Steering cam and roller

Top speed 112mph

0-60mph 11.2 secs

Suspension: front double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle with radius arms, torque struts, Panhard rod, coil springs

Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo

Interview: Malcolm McKay, pictures: Irv Gordon/Volvo