It’s not the fastest or sleekest classic out there, but if you want a tough, family-friendly old car, few candidates are better qualified than this trusty Swede
How much to pay
• Project £950-2000 • Good £7000-13,000 • Concours £14,500+ •
Running costs ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★★
If only all classics had been engineered to the levels of the Volvo Amazon, a lot more models would have survived from the 1950s and 1960s. These stylish Swedes are among the most durable of all old cars – a fact that’s borne out by their popularity and success in historic motorsport. Yet despite a reputation for being heavy, the Amazon is surprisingly fleet of foot and utterly usable. Buy an estate and it’ll cope with anything.
The Volvo Amazon – officially tagged the 120 Series – was first produced in 1957, with the first cars arriving in the UK in 1958. This PV544 replacement was initially launched as the Amazon in its home market, but when scooter manufacturer Kriedler claimed ownership of the brand, Volvo came up with the 120 Series moniker. Confusingly, though, no Amazon ever carried 120 Series badges; instead, there were 121, 122, 123, 221 and 222 derivatives, as well as 131 and 132. Confused? Then read on and we’ll tell all.
Your AutoClassics Volvo Amazon inspection checklist
Three engines sizes were offered. The 1780cc B18 unit is the most common, while the 1986cc B20 lump was used for the final cars; these are both five-bearing motors. The earliest Amazons featured a three-bearing 1580cc B16 engine, but these units are now rare and parts for them are scarce.
An Amazon engine will easily last 250,000 miles if serviced properly, and because it’s so simply engineered DIY maintenance is a breeze. The key, as ever, is to regularly replace the oil and filter; the latter needs to be the correct Volvo item, with a non-return valve so the bearings are lubricated on start up.
Worn timing gears produce thumping noises when cruising, at which point there should be 50-55psi of oil pressure once the engine is warm. If the engine struggles to get warm suspect a failed thermostat, leading to heavy fuel consumption. However, this can also be caused by worn needles in the Stromberg carburettors or the SU carbs needing fresh jets.
Some Amazons got a three-speed manual transmission, while others left the factory with an automatic gearbox. Most have a four-speed manual, though, with or without overdrive.
Whichever transmission is fitted, it’ll be tough; as long as it’s not abused and neglected, an Amazon gearbox will despatch hundreds of thousands of miles. If a rebuild is needed, the parts are available – or you can fit a serviceable used unit.
Drive shafts, clutches and rear axles are also tough, but eventually the rubber centre bearing in the propshaft wears out. Three different propshaft designs were fitted (B16 and early B18, later B18, B20), yet everything is available.
Although differentials don’t wear readily, if you do find yourself needing to replace one bear in mind that there were all sorts of ratios fitted, depending on the car’s original engine and gearbox combination.
Suspension and brakes
The suspension gives few problems. Up front there are double wishbones, the bushes for which may have seen better days – most owners fit polyurethane items, as these last longer. The coil springs can also snap at the bottom, but replacements aren’t costly.
Until 1966, the rear suspension featured a single radius arm that was made of pressed steel, so it can corrode. Replacements are available and they tend to last much longer. The estate was fitted with much more substantial radius arms with bigger bushes, but the arms can crack if the car is heavily loaded up.
The conventionally engineered braking system is dependable and there are no parts-availability issues. All B20s got a servo and dual-circuit brakes; earlier cars had a single-circuit system and only some models were fitted with a servo. The rubber diaphragm can perish in the remote Girling servo fitted to some B16 and B18 Amazons, and while a rebuild is possible, most owners just switch to a new Lockheed servo instead.
Despite its age the Amazon is a tough beast, and structural corrosion is a rarity. The biggest killer is a leaking screen seal – front or rear – that’s left unchecked. Old-fashioned mastic must be used for effective sealing. Once water starts filling the cabin it’ll attack the structure, starting with the corners of the bulkhead along with the footwell walls behind the cardboard trim panels. Damp footwells might also be down to a leaking heater valve, which is easily replaced.
Other areas likely to corrode include the front and rear wheelarches, rear quarter panels and chassis legs, along with the trailing edge of the boot lid, door bottoms and sills. The spare-wheel well can also rust on saloons, but it’s unlikely on the estate. However, both halves of the estate’s tailgate can rust badly
The wings can rot around the headlamps, while corrosion is common in the leading edge of the bonnet as well as the grille seams.
The interior trim lasts well, but if anything is missing or damaged high-quality repro parts are available at sensible prices. More of a problem is rusty three-piece bumpers, as these are very expensive to repair – especially if they’re dented, as they’re made of thick steel.
Most of the exterior trim is made of anodised aluminium or stainless steel, so it tends to survive intact. Some bits are made of mazak, but they tend to last well as they’re made to a higher standard than most such components.
The electrical system is generally reliable. The 30-amp fuse in the engine bay can blow, and the rear light reflectors go dull, yet these can be repaired or replaced. The switchgear and instruments don’t normally give problems, but used parts are available if needed.
- 1956: The Amazon is first shown in 121 four-door saloon form.
- 1957: The Amazon goes into production.
- 1958: The 122S is first shown at the Geneva Motor Show, and the first Volvo Amazons are imported into the UK.
- 1959: Three-point seatbelts become standard on home-market cars – a world first.
- 1961: A two-door saloon is introduced and the Amazon gets a 1.8-litre engine; so renamed the 130 Series.
- 1962: A four-door estate joins the range, called the 220 Combi.
- 1963: Automatic transmission option is introduced.
- 1965: The entry-level (poverty-spec) Amazon Favorit is introduced.
- 1966: The 123 GT joins the range.
- 1969: The Amazon estate is discontinued.
- 1970: Production ends in July after 234,208 four-door saloons have been built, along with 359,918 two-door saloons and 73,197 estates.
Amazon spotter’s guide
- 121 (B16A): The first production model, built between 1957 and 1961. Fitted with a 60bhp 1582cc single-carb engine, four doors and three-speed manual gearbox.
- 122S (B16B): Produced between 1958 and 1961 for export, this one has an 85bhp twin-carb 1582cc engine and four-speed gearbox.
- 121 (B18A): Still just one carburettor, but a new cylinder head and capacity increase to 1778cc means there’s 75bhp, or 85bhp from 1966. Built from 1961 to 1968, there’s a choice of two-door or four-door saloons, although the latter is dropped in 1967.
- 122S (B18D): A twin-carburettor version of the 121, current from 1961 until 1968. A two-door is available from 1963, while the last four-door is built in 1967. Power outputs are 90bhp (1961-’65), 95bhp (1966), 100bhp (1967) or 115bhp (1968).
- 221/222: Amazon estate, made between 1962 and 1969, with a 1778cc engine. Sometimes referred to as the 121 or 221 Combi or estate.
- 123GT: 115bhp version of 1778cc P1800 engine, featuring just two doors. Built between 1966 and 1968.
- 121 (B20A): Available as a two-door only, with a B20A 1998cc engine as usually seen in the 140 Series. Produced from 1968 until 1970, there is 90bhp – enough to give a 100mph top speed.
- 122S (B20B): The most powerful Amazon of all, the final 122S model (which lasts from 1968 until 1970) has a 118bhp 1998cc powerplant normally fitted to the 140 Series. Offered as a two-door only, it can manage over 100mph.
Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly classic, something you can take touring, or something that’s strong enough for historic rallying, the Amazon ticks every box. Sporting, comfortable, tough and stylish, this Volvo is practical and affordable, too.
Almost 670,000 of these workhorses were built, and thanks to the strong construction the survival rate has been pretty good, so you shouldn’t struggle to find something that suits your needs.
If you want one as a daily driver – or simply for regular use – it’s best to go for a 2-litre car with its standard dual-circuit brakes. Better at going as well as stopping, these later cars are the pick of the bunch. It’s also worth seeking out a model with overdrive, as this makes long-distance drives much more relaxing.
Pictures courtesy of Volvo Media
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Volvo 121 (1961-1965)