Rearview Mirror The Amazon was the Swedish company's first attempt to take advantage of the lucrative export market, and its radically different design made it the marque's most successful product.
The car that made Volvo a global brand, Amazon has stood test of time
Back in the 1980s, Volvo was a marque synonymous with set-square styling, vast estates and redoubtable saloons. Inspired by the artistic school of cubism, Volvo cornered the market for the safety-conscious middle classes, though the style conscious didn't give them a second look. But this wasn't always the case and, when Ford bought Volvo cars in 1999 and looked to give the range a makeover, it took as inspiration the iconic 1950s Amazon. Its new model, the V70, shared many of the Amazon's hallmarks, including sloping shoulders and slight tail fins.
The Amazon was the Swedish company's first attempt to take advantage of the lucrative export market. As such it represented a brave departure from its traditional designs. In fact, its design, with imposing grille and bulging bonnet, was inspired by contemporary models across the Atlantic. It is very reminiscent of Chryslers of the era, though after its launch in 1956, designer Jan Wilsgaard admitted he had been heavily influenced by an American Kaiser he had seen at Gothenburg harbour.
With a bold new design came a bold name. Amazons were a female warrior tribe of Greek legend who were famed for their strength and ferocity with bow and arrow and said to have played a pivotal role in the Trojan War. The name was, perhaps, a bold statement of intent in Volvo's aspiration to conquer new sales territories. However, no sooner had it been unveiled than Volvo faced a legal challenge. Amazon was already being used by German motorcycle manufacturer Kreidler, forcing Volvo to badge all export models as the 120 series. Not quite as catchy, which is perhaps why, legal verdict aside, it is still known as the Amazon to this day.
Despite this unexpected name change, the model was to be the most successful in the marque's history. Between 1956 and 1970, almost 700,000 were built, 60 per cent of which were sold abroad. It sold at double the rate of its predecessor, the PV444, and demand was soon such that Volvo commenced production in Belgium, Canada, South Africa and Chile to meet orders from export markets. Many point to the Amazon as the car that established Volvo as a global brand, with the estate variant featuring a split rear boot, laying the foundations for its future reputation as a specialist in estate cars. Today, its cars win admiring glances and a look of consternation when unsuspecting onlookers see the Volvo badge.
As with many cars that enjoy a long production run, the original model was rather basic compared with the evolutions that followed. Originally only available as a four-door saloon, it was powered by a modest 1.6L engine and was only available in two combinations of two-tone colour schemes. In 1958, a 1.8L engine was offered providing 100mph (161kph) performance. This transformed the car's desirability and it was this powerplant that was first exported to the UK market later that year. In 1961, front disc brakes were introduced and a two-door saloon was offered, which proved particularly popular in Sweden. In 1962, the estate was unveiled, featuring a number plate that rotated 90 degrees so that it could still be viewed when the boot was lowered. Finally, 10 years after its launch, the range-topping 123GT was released featuring the 115hp engine from Volvo's P1800 sports car.
In 1958, the Amazon became the first mainstream car to be offered with driver and passenger seat belts as standard. That Volvo introduced a safety innovation should not come as a surprise, but that it did so in a desirable drivers' car goes some way to explain the success and enduring appeal of the model. Ten years later, some models were also offered with rear seat belts. The Amazon also featured other safety features such as a padded dashboard and collapsible steering column. In 1965, it was offered with adjustable lumbar support, another first for a saloon.
The Amazon is still a familiar sight on roads across the globe. Their legendary longevity is largely down to an extensive anti-corrosion treatment before assembly that was designed to allow them to withstand harsh Swedish winters. They are not entirely rustproof but, compared with some contemporary cars, they have lasted the test of time well. Allied to robust engineering and heroic reliability, they still provide day-to-day transport for many families. It is estimated that half of all Amazons sold in Sweden are still in use, surely a statistic few other models could boast. The owners' club also claims many models have passed the million-mile mark. All told, the Amazon is a car fondly revered and remembered the world over; not bad for a vehicle that lost its name from the outset.