Volvo P1800 on a swashbuckling trip across England with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston stands beside the Volvo
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston stands beside the Volvo

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is best known as the first person to sail non-stop around the world, single-handedly. He completed the feat without modern navigational aids in the same year that man first landed on the Moon.

His craft Suhaili measured just 32ft and was one of the smallest boats to enter the Golden Globe – the first round-the-world yacht race. The former merchant seaman completed the sail in just over seven months, despite losing his self-steering gear off Australia.

A film about the ill-fated race that started in 1968 was released earlier this year. The Mercy stars Colin Firth as fellow competitor Donald Crowhurst. It dramatises his disastrous attempt to win the high-profile event at all cost, with tragic circumstances.

Sir Robin achieved global recognition for his seafaring exploits when he landed back in Falmouth on January 17, 1969. He generously donated his £5,000 winnings for the fastest circumnavigation to the Crowhurst family.

Robin Knox-Johnston with wife Sue and Daughter Sara Credit: Associated Newspapers/REX 

Now aged 79 and with countless ocean adventures to his name, Sir Robin could be forgiven if he hung up his foul weather clothing for good. Not a bit of it.

In 1996 he set up the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, a global adventure for amateur crews and remains heavily involved. He arrived for our drive at the company’s Gosport base in his own rigid inflatable boat, instantly recognisable thanks to weather-stained skin and a white beard.

“My first boat was a raft made from an orange box,” he recalled. “Naturally it sank but as my father had worked for a shipping company I was determined to follow his path. At sea, you make close friends who stay with you for life.”

Suhaili wasn’t a fast boat by modern standards, but on dry land Sir Robin got his thrills driving sporty cars. His first was a Wolseley Hornet Special and his celebrity on return from the Golden Globe later afforded him an MGC GT in British Racing Green.

Robin Knox-Johnston brings Suhaili to London Credit: Terry Gibson /The Telegraph 

“It was a bloody good car for its day. The 3.0-litre engine was heavy but there was lots of power. I did drive it quickly – thank heavens there weren’t any speed cameras.”

Our car for the journey is from the same decade and one of the most stylish coupés of the era. The Volvo P1800 was launched in 1961 and later found fame in cult television series The Saint, starring Roger Moore.

As we headed north from Gosport, through busy Fareham and west on to the M27, Sir Robin scratched some paint off the back of his hand, after having finished restoring Suhaili for a jamboree at Falmouth commemorating the 50th anniversary of his departure. Last month, 30 sailors set off alone in period yachts to recreate the epic race.

“It brought back happy memories for me – I still love to sail but I’m not sure my body is up to it now,” he said as we took a detour north at Swanwick to his favourite watering hole, the Brushmakers Arms at Upham. A no-nonsense country pub, I can easily imagine Sir Robin recounting seadog tales at the bar.

Back on the M27, we have to decide between the A35 scenic route near the coast through Dorchester and Bridport, or the more northerly A303. As it wasn’t the holiday season, we opted for the latter and drove north towards Salisbury.

Our destination is Torbryan, much further west and inland from Torquay. It’s where Sir Robin lived in the 1970s with his late wife Suzie and their daughter, Sara. By then a famous adventurer, he drove his MGC up and down the A303 to events around the country.

“The A303 was much quicker back then – speed limits had only just been introduced and it was actually quite a fun road.”

Stonehenge is one of Britain's most famous roadside landmarks Credit: Clara Ma / EyeEm 

Today, traffic has piled up at all the usual bottlenecks as we inch past Stonehenge and urge the Volvo over the crests of the Blackdown Hills. The P1800 is fitted with some of the earliest safety belts but is too old for air-conditioning, and it doesn’t have a radio either.

Sir Robin told me that Suhaili was originally built in Bombay, where he worked for the merchant navy. Cut from teak, it cost £3,250 and was based on the same design as a Norwegian sailing lifeboat. However, there were problems on the horizon when Sir Robin announced to his wife that he planned to sail the yacht back home to England.

“We had a young daughter and, not surprisingly, Suzie wasn’t too keen on the idea. It became a battle of wills and put a major strain on our relationship. In the end, I went without her and we divorced. I stayed in touch because of Sara and we re-married in 1972,” he said.

As we joined the A30 at Honiton, the road became dual-carriageway and gave us the chance to flick the overdrive switch. On a sunny day, with the windows down, Sir Robin was obviously enjoying himself. “These days I drive a Mercedes estate but I’ve always loved sporty cars,” he said.

Brentnor Church towers above Dartmoor Credit: Adam Burton / Alamy Stock Photo 

“During the 1970s I took part in a few celebrity motor races at Oulton Park and Brands Hatch. We competed in the Ford Escort Mexico and I remember finishing ahead of the England cricketer, Freddie Trueman. I thought I was good but Divina Galica was about to go into Formula One and she beat all of us.”

Bypassing Exeter, we left the A38 near Ashburton for the last couple of miles along narrow lanes to Torbryan. The Old Church House Inn is at the centre of a huddle of whitewashed houses, all dwarfed by the 15th century Holy Trinity Church.

“We enjoyed very happy times here,” said Sir Robin. “We had an old Land Rover and loved to drive the few miles to Dartmoor and walk the dog together when it was snowy.”

I ask where he will be spending his summer holidays this year; relaxing by the coast or floating around the Isle of Wight in Suhaili? “I have a 56ft cruiser, too, so I’m taking a few friends to Greenland. The midges will be hell, but I’m still up for an adventure.”

1962 Volvo P1800 – specifications

PRICE £1,836 (new)

ENGINE 1,778cc four-cylinder

POWER 100bhp

TOP SPEED 110mph

ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 11.9sec


For tips and advice, visit our Advice section, or sign up to our newsletter here

A-Z Car Finder

More classic car stories at Telegraph Cars