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Volvo Amazon

Published: 3rd May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Cockpit not luxurious but sturdy and comfy. Watch for leaks and split dash tops Cockpit not luxurious but sturdy and comfy. Watch for leaks and split dash tops
Engines are MGB robust and as easy to maintain; 1.8 is best all rounder, 1.6 hard to source parts for. Engines are MGB robust and as easy to maintain; 1.8 is best all rounder, 1.6 hard to source parts for.
Classic looks have worn well and Amazon makes a fine and durable family classic Classic looks have worn well and Amazon makes a fine and durable family classic
Nice touches, gearchange long but ok Nice touches, gearchange long but ok
Leaking screens need old style mastic Leaking screens need old style mastic
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What is a Volvo Amazon?

It’s the car that introduced Volvo to a wider audience, way back in the mid-Fifties. Until this point, the company’s PV saloons were available with left-hand drive only, and you could have a two-door fastback design only. But the Amazon changed all that; this brought with it a thoroughly modern three-box saloon with two or four doors, plus an amazingly practical five-door estate that still makes a fabulous workhorse that’s thoroughly usable in modern conditions. Even better, there are all sorts of upgrades possible, to make the car better able to cope in modern traffic.


The Volvo 120 series - unofficially tagged the Amazon - was first produced some half a century ago, although it didn’t arrive on these shores until 1958. This PV544 replacement was initially launched as the Amason (no, that’s not a typo!) in its home market, but when scooter manu-facturer Kriedler threw its toys out of the pram, claiming ownership of the brand, Volvo decided to call its new family car the 120 Series. 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. Each Volvo engine carried an in-house identification tag; early Amazons featured a B16 engine with a 1.6-litre displacement. The B18 arrived later, with a 1.8-litre capacity while the latest cars feature a 2.0-litre unit, known as the B20. With numerous different badges and what would seem to be frequent identity crises, working out which Amazon is which, isn’t especially easy. Here’s a quick-reference 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 had 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 was dropped in 1967.

122S (B18D): A twin-carburettor version of the 121, current from 1961 until 1968. There was a two-door available from 1963, while the last four door was built in 1967. Power outputs were 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 was a 90bhp enough to give a 100mph top speed.

122S (B20B): The most powerful Amazon of all, the final 122S model (which lasted from 1968 until 1970) had a 118bhp 1998cc powerplant normally fitted to the 140-series. Offered as a two-door only, it could manage over 100mph.


You’d probably think of the Amazon as an unwieldy beast, that’s ponderous and generally pretty unpleasant to pilot. However, nothing could be further from the truth, as the car has much more agility than you’d think possible considering its size and solidity. In its day, the Amazon was a true sporting saloon; Hannu Mikola started in rallying by driving a 122S. Even in standard form, as long as you’ve got at least 1.8-litres under the lid, the Amazon is decently sprightly A 1966 Motor road test on a 221 Estate saw 0-60 in 16 secs, 88mph but economy at just 23 mpg, a lot of this due to the car’s sheer weight of quality metal. With its rear-wheel drive the chassis has more poise than you’d imagine, and when this is combined with strong brakes plus a clean gearchange, the Amazon is genuinely fun to drive at speed.

However, what really surprises is the quality of the ride combined with the way the car grips through corners; Volvo got the balance just right. Even the steering feels quick and precise, and much lighter than you’d think. The real beauty though is that all this applies to the standard car; you can easily make the Amazon even better to drive – but you can also spoil things by going to far with the modifications. That’s why you must tread carefully before making changes to the standard and acceptable enough specification.


The general Amazon rule is that the newer and more powerful the car, the more valuable it is. As a result, the 123GT is the costliest Amazon to buy while the early 121 (the one with the 1.6-litre powerplant) is the least valuable. At the lower end of the market there’s not that much difference in values though, with any restoration project typically carrying a price tag anywhere between £500 and £1000. As the condition improves, so the difference in values goes up. A decent B16-engined 122S is worth £3000, while an equivalent 121 B18 is £500 more - £4000 nets you a good 123GT or B20-engined 122S model. For cars that are in superb nick, but not necessarily concours, these values can all be doubled.

Useful modifications

Amazons are easy to upgrade, with mechanical improvements both pretty cheap and straightforward. Generally, a 121 has one carb while a 122 or 123 has two; if you’ve got a 121 it’s worth fitting twin SUs and a manifold from a 122. These, with a 123GT camshaft, can realise 120bhp without = problems, as long as you’ve also invested in a more free-flowing exhaust manifold. If you’re keen to realise as much power as possible, install an 1800E cylinder head; the same design was fitted to the last of the 140-series as well and it allows the engine to breathe more easily. The final trick is to convert to electronic ignition; use either an aftermarket system or the one from a post-1975 Volvo 240, complete with distributor, ballast resistor and wiring harness. If you want even more power, it’s possible to fit a B20 powerplant from a late 140 series (1970-1973 example), then bore it out to 2.1-litres. With the right carburation, a reliable 150bhp can be coaxed from the unit. However those extra horses need taming, so fit Bilstein dampers and shorter coil springs and if there are still drum brakes at the front, convert to the discs of later cars. If you want to convert to overdrive you’ll need to source a replacement ‘box complete with an overdrive unit; you’ll also need a shorter prop-shaft. It’s the overdrive that’s getting hard to find, but if you know of a redundant Volvo 140, snap it up quickly and nick its transmission. If you’re upgrading an Amazon for historic motorsport, tread carefully. While it’s the 2-litre (B20) cars that everyone wants - because they’re erroneously perceived to be the quickest - you’re better off with a 1.8-litre. Take the B20 route and you’ll be up against all sorts of modern machinery with which you will probably struggle to match.

What To Look For

  • The Amazon’s engine is amazingly durable; huge mileages are no problem with proper servicing. Because it’s such an uncomplicated powerplant, it’s also easy to maintain on a DIY basis. Three displacements were offered, the most common being the 1780cc B18 unit. The earlier 1580cc B16 engine and the 1990cc B20 that was used for the last of the cars are both relatively rare, but all three units are essentially of the same design. A rebuilt B18 or B20 engine is £1300, but, the 1600 costs more to rebuild because parts aren’t as easy to find.
  • Both the B18 and B20 engines are durable, racking up 200,000 miles quite happily as long as they’ve had regular oil changes (can leak a drop, too). Make sure the oil filter is the correct Volvo item, complete with non-return valve, as anything less will starve the bearings of oil when starting from cold. If there’s a thump like worn big-end bearings at cruising speed it’s probably because the timing gears have worn.
  • Although the engines aren’t frugal, especially poor fuel economy is probably due to a failed thermostat, allowing the engine to run too cool. Oil pressure should be around 40psi at idle once the engine has warmed up, while 50-55psi should be on the clock once the car is on the move.
  • Amazon transmissions are amazingly durable, whichever unit is fitted. Although three-speed manual or automatic gearboxes will be found on some cars, the chances are you’ll be looking at a four-speed unit either with or without overdrive. It’s well worth having overdrive for relaxed cruising, but even if the car you’re looking at doesn’t have it, upgrading the gearbox isn’t difficult - but it will cost at least £1000.
  • The front suspension is straightforward, being of a double-wishbone design which requires little in the way of maintenance. Apart from bushes and dampers/springs wearing, there’s hardly anything to check.
  • The rear suspension is equally problem-free on post-1966 cars, which used a twin-trailing arm design. But earlier Amazons featured a single radius arm of uncharacteristically poor design. Being of pressed steel they rust badly, although most cars have had replacements fitted by now.
  • Estates have a problem of their own with the rear suspension, because their much more heavyweight radius arms contain very large rubber and aluminium bushes. Because of the higher potential loadings on these hard worked cars and greater weight, the arms can crack under the strain.
  • Rust isn’t normally too much of a problem. The thing that can turn an Amazon from a great example to a basket case is a leaking front or rear screen, so your first port of call should be the screen surrounds – once water gets in, it’ll wreak havoc. The problem lies in the fact that using modern techniques to seal an Amazon screen aren’t much use – old-fashioned mastic needs to be used to ensure the aperture stays watertight.
  • If the screens have been leaking, the corners of the bulkhead (and inner wings) are the first to go - this is best checked from the engine bay. Also vulnerable are the walls of the footwells and to check the condition of these you’ll have to remove the cardboard trim panels.
  • The first area to corrode is normally the rear wheelarches, although serious rot is fairly unlikely. The thing to look out for is poorly repaired rust, as the wheelarch lip is double-skinned and some repairers don’t recreate the seam by the corner of the rear door.
  • While you’re at the back of the car, check the panels below the rear wings, which get covered in road dirt then rot from behind. If corrosion has advanced it may have attacked the chassis legs so it’s worth checking from inside the boot just how much rust there is. While you’re inspecting inside the boot, look for a rotten spare wheel well as the drain hole can get blocked. Also examine the bottom edge of the boot lid, which is doubleskinned and much more prone to rust.
  • The front wings can corrode along with the lower edges of the doors; while you’re on your knees checking these, take a look at the underside of the doors and the inner wings. Also inspect the sills along their entire length along with front and rear wheelarches and chassis rails.
  • Amazon estates don’t suffer from rotten spare wheel wells as the layout is different, but the split tailgate can corrode so inspect both halves carefully. Condensation seeps under the rear side window seals, so check panel below them; also take a look at the top of the upper tailgate.
  • The area behind the headlamp bowls gets full of mud which rots out the bowl itself, along with the wing. New wings are just bolted on and plastic bowls are available, so repair isn’t difficult. The bottom edge of the bonnet and the seams around the grille also rusts, but major rot is unlikely.
  • Although most of the exterior trim is high quality stainless steel or anodised aluminium, and immune to corrosion, front and rear bumpers are heavy, chrome-plated affairs which are very expensive to repair or replace. Each unit consists of three parts plus the irons, each of which is of thick steel, so if bent they’re not so easy to straighten out!


The Amazon may be celebrating half a century since its introduction, but don’t assume from this, that the cars are relics that are fit for occasional use only. Even though it’s getting on for four decades since the model’s demise, the Amazon makes more sense than ever. Sporting, comfortable and fabulously stylish, the 120-Series is as affordable as it is practical. Whether you’re buying one for historic rallying or you simply want something different for your commute, the Amazon can be pressed into service in just about any role you can think of. The key thing though, is there are quite a few Amazons to choose from, so you won’t have to look too far whichever version you want; there were 667,323 examples built during 14 years of production. So get looking!

Classic Motoring

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