How exactly did the Volvo 122 Amazon achieve its mythological stature? Naming it after the eponymous nation of all-female warriors was a good start. Legendary ruggedness and durability solidified its status. Sporty performance burnished it further. Then there’s the magic belt: one of the twelve labors of Hercules was to secure the girdle of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. Giving up her belt ended up costing Hippolyta her life. But it was a worthy sacrifice, because the Amazon’s first-ever three point seat belt has saved untold others theirs, and established the Volvo safety myth. That may now have run its course, but the Amazon’s status on the automotive Mt. Olympus is secure.
The Volvo 120 series was built from 1956 through 1970. When you think of the stereotypical Volvo driver from that period what comes to mind: college professor, engineer, writer? Well, one of each of those informed my early experiences with the 122, so we’ll start with that before we get all factual and historical. More probably, we’ll just mix it all up.
A professor uncle in Austria was driving one when I was there visiting in 1969. Now that was less predictable than for an academic counterpart in the US; Volvos were none too common in Europe outside of Scandinavian countries back then. But he tended to drive odd-balls; his previous ride was a Skoda 440, which had a passing resemblance to the Volvo.
He was ready for something faster than the 42 horsepower Skoda, and the 122S fit that bill. With its twin SU carbs and 115 horsepower, it was a brisk machine in its day. He took me for an exhilarating drive through some of Austria’s more spectacular mountain passes. The B18 engine got a good workout, and I got acquainted with Volvo’s built-in torque meter: that long whip of a stick shift which moved sideways in direct proportion to the engine’s torque curve.
With the twin-carb B18 engine, which appeared in 1961, the 122S was the BMW of its time, especially in the US. BMW’s presence here didn’t amount to much until the late sixties, and really started to gel in the seventies. The Amazon’s most direct competitor was probably the Peugeot 404, which rivaled it in ruggedness, but had that famous plush ride and was less overtly sporty. Alfa sedans were for the hard core Italianophiles, and those on good terms with their mechanic. BMW saw a gaping hole in the market for a car that covered all those bases, and never looked back. And Volvo’s sporting rep began its long decline.
Back in Towson, my junior high buddy’s engineer Dad bought a 122S, a white one just like this one. He ordered his with the overdrive, which made sense for our long, flat freeways. Volvo’s B-Series engines were not exactly noted for their smooth and quiet manners, especially in the upper ranges. They were raucous but tough as nails, as has been all-too well proven by the guy (a science teacher, of course) who’s driven over 2.5 million miles in his 1966 P-1800, with only one rebuild. Does he use Marvel Mystery Oil?
Anyway, my friend’s Dad, the engineer, is the one who finally unveiled the mystery of overdrive units to me. For you young-uns, we’re talking about the accessory units that were mounted to the output shaft of manual transmissions. Volvo used the British Laycock de Normanville box, a version of which is still being built and supported by Gear Vendors in the US today. It’s an epicyclic gear set that, when activated and engaged, reduces rpms by a certain percentage on whatever gear it is available on. I seem to remember that the Volvo units worked only on third and fourth.
I’m a big fan of overdrives; my old ’66 Ford F-100 has one, and it turns the three-speed into perfectly spaced five gears, with 1900 rpm at sixty, in top. There’s the thrill of free-wheeling, which also lets me shift gears without the clutch; a good way to impress riders, if they have the guts to get in with me. And I’m freeweeling off topic again.
Well, our featured car doesn’t have overdrive; it’s got an automatic; yuck! The venerable Borg Warner 35 three-speed did yeoman duty in a raft of European cars in the sixties and seventies. Originally designed for smaller US cars, like the Lark and Rambler, it was efficient enough to put behind the modest powered engines common in Europe at the time. Of course, most European cars equipped with automatics ended up getting imported back to the US anyway. In the sixties, disabled war veterans were probably the main market for automatics in Europe. In the US, women were stereotyped as shift-less drivers, as in this vintage Volvo 122 tv ad.
My third driver association with the Amazon is the writer; Warren Weith, specifically. He had a regular column in Car and Driver, way back in the day. As a kid in that resource-poor era, I literally sucked up every word in car mags, cover to cover. But Warren Weith was a bit of a challenge to my fourteen-year old brain; his articles were thousands of words long, and he wrote in a rambling style that wasn’t exactly kid-friendly: lots of free-associations, references to women and youthful memories (does that remind you of someone?). And there were pointed references to his battered Volvo 122, which had a name, and I believe it was Gustaf. Well that’s a common enough Swedish name, but it turns out it’s also the name of the co-founder of Volvo, Gustaf Larson. Some things have to wait forty years to be revealed.
It’s a challenge to see any old Volvo genes expressed in today’s IKEA-Fords, soon to be IKEA-Geelys: they were straight-forward, hard-riding, sporty, noisy, and made of the finest Swedish steel forged with Thor’s own hammer. Well, there is that safety angle; in 1958, the 122 was the world’s first production car with three-point seatbelts, the Amazon girdle. But unless you’re a sucker for stale myths, does anyone really think new Volvos are safer than a Honda or Toyota?