AMAZON GRACE

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By Stuart Grant and images from Etienne Fouche

Volvo’s 120 series, also known as the Amazon, is widely regarded as the car that put the brand onto the sporting saloon map. But it also introduced the world to the firm’s superior build quality, impressive feature list and rigorous pursuit in the safety department, all clothed in a practical yet elegant curvaceous Jan Wilsgaard-designed body.

With a vast number of 122Ss still in daily use it might be difficult to believe that these gems first hit the streets sixty years ago. But they did, launched in 4-door format during September 1956 at Örebro, Sweden. Although sharing the same wheelbase, high H-Point seating position and tallness, the new 3-box design was a radical departure from the predecessor PV444/544 models and like so many of the European cars of the time, aimed directly at the massive American market. 26-year-old Wilsgaard, who later went on to be Volvo head designer, is said to have drawn styling ideas from the early 1950s like the Chrysler New Yorker sedan and 300C hardtop coupé. The broad rounded shoulders and rounded off tail ‘fins’ that characterised Wilsgaard’s design became so iconic that when Peter Horbury set about undoing Volvo’s boxy lines of the 1980s and early ‘90s with his V70, he took inspiration from these two aspects.

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During the design phase the name Amason, derived from the fierce female warriors of Greek mythology was chosen, but was modified to Amazon for the production launch with Volvo seeing it as the more internationally recognisable spelling. This too proved a problem as German motorcycle-maker Kreidler had registered the name already and the only solution that the two firms could settle on was to allow Volvo to call the new car Amazon in Sweden but come up with something else for all other markets. Volvo’s solution came as a 3-number badge, initially as the 121, but by 1958 the more sporting 122S. For the 122 the 3-speed manual box was replaced by a 4-speed and the 60 horsepower B16A engine made way for the B18B unit and twin SU carburettors, which made it good for 85BHP.

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South Africa saw its first 120 Series in May 1967 when the 122S B18B was launched. Assembled from CKD kits at Motor Assemblies in Durban, these were available in both 2- and 4-door format and would set you back R2 642 to own. It is possible to spot a South African-assembled car by looking at the rear bodywork where the fenders join the boot surround – if there is no visible seamline, the car is a local build. Of course if it hasn’t been removed, there should also be a Motor Assemblies body plate on the firewall and a body number on the inner front left wheel arch, and unrestored interiors reveal that our smooth seat fabric differs from the textured European cars.

Local 122S B18B production continued until late 1968 when the 122S B20 was launched and only came in 2-door guise. A capacity increase from 1780cc to 1986cc and the resultant increase power (albeit miniscule) were the only real changes. Sales continued through to late 1971 before the new hard-edged Volvo 144 took over as the company’s saloon offering.

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In 1967 2 012 B18Bs sold at the mentioned R2 642; this was followed in ’68 by 1 374 units at R2 662. 1 465 B20 cars sold at R2 825 in 1969, 1 555 at R2 825 through ’70 and in 1971 the last 330 122S rolled onto South African roads at R2 925.

Volvo claims that 667 791 Amazons were built between 1956 and 1970, with the last being produced on 3 July 1970, a dark blue unit that went straight into the Volvo Museum. It is this statement that raises a few eyebrows in South Africa. As mentioned, 330 Volvos were sold here in 1971. Sure they could have been manufactured earlier and sat waiting to sell but as listed in Auto Digest Data, 122S was only discontinued late in 1970 and the production records from Motor Assemblies show that 5 568 122 Volvos were made up from kits between May 1967 and December 1970. Furthermore, a 1971 newspaper article confirms that the last of these Volvos left the local production line on 18 December 1970.

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This last 122 wasn’t sold to the public though, being handed by Motor Assmeblies’ boss John Sully to Lawson Motors marketing director Dion Lardner-Burke. With the demise of Volvo in SA this beige 2-door 122S fell off the radar and its whereabouts are not known today. Volvo club members continue to search for it though, aware of its historical significance and the need to preserve our proud motoring past.

The Amazon sedan wasn’t the only Volvo to be assembled locally though, with 462 units of the predecessor 544 being built between April 1961 and December 1962 and 1 008 station wagon versions of the 122 from March 1962 to October ’67.  The new 144 and 164 models dovetailed with the 122, kicking off in February 1968 and November 1969 respectively.

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Sliding into the seat of this Tom Campher Motors B18 122S immediately makes me realise why these were such great cars. Upright seating not only allows for good road visibility but also means that rear passengers have more than enough legroom. The door closes with a reassuring thud and not the tinny acoustic found in so many old cars. Instinctively I reach over my shoulder for the seat belt, but having driven many cars of this era I am only partially hopeful I might find said item. I do! Yes, the Amazon was the first car to employ Volvo’s patented 3-point safety belt system as standard equipment. The dash top is padded too, which not only looks classy but, like the revolutionary crumple zones built into the 122, was also a safety feature in the event of an accident. Whether the ring around the handbrake button is a safety feature to protect your thumb nail I don’t know, but the placement of it between the driver seat and door does free up the centre section of the car so you are not always touching the passenger’s knee by accident.

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There is no risk of doing this either when swapping cogs on the 4-speed manual as the floor-mounted lever sticks up higher than any knee in front of the dash and easy to reach. Cranking the key sees the 1780cc motor jump to life with a crisp exhaust note. With syncro in all four forward gears there is no need to double-declutch but the perkiness of the engine means you do it just for a laugh. Clutch action is light and the Volvo pulls off hassle- and shudder-free. This is when the steering wheel shows its hand: not only is the horizontal spoke design with chrome hooter ring and ‘Volvo’ script a thing of beauty, but it sends inputs to the cam and roller steering system without any slack.    The lack of power-steering never enters your mind as the steering ratio is light at parking-lot manoeuvering speeds, and weights up when on the open road.

When compared with other machines of the period the interior is by no means sparse, perhaps up there with more expensive luxury saloon offerings from the Germans. Chrome ashtrays are sunken into the padded upholstery and the cold, hard-looking window winders and door handles balance out against soft door cards and pleated pockets.  Like Nordic furniture design, the form-follows-function dash simplicity means that not only are all the pull buttons for the likes of choke, headlights and wipers easy to reach, but also break up the body-coloured dash facia.

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Pulling into the underground parking lot necessitated switching on the lights. With the click of a switch the horizontal strip speedometer glowed in green. This particular car, being a relatively early local version, sports an mph gauge but the later South African units had that marked in km/h. Scratching around while the photographer did his job revealed a switch on the passenger side that threw the same green light under the dash on that side – nowadays this would be called ambience lighting, I suppose. And the ventilation controls lit up too. How many cars of that age and price bracket featured these high-end features?

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And how many show the longevity and have survived as well as the 122S? In Sweden it is estimated that 8% of the Amazons built are still on the road. Judging by the number of South African ones you see being used as daily commutes and the enthusiastic members of the Volvo Owners’ Club of South Africa, I’d estimate a similar percentage are still on the road here. The classic Volvo reliability, spares supply and solid build quality mean that it is one of only a few classics that having an odometer that has clocked over a few times is a badge of honour and not a negative.

Hey, there is even a Volvo High Mileage Club overseas, so this ruggedness and style is definitely no myth. The Amazon is the rightful leader of this club, like the female warriors it borrows its name from:  fighting the battle with strength and beauty.

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