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Volvo Adventures is an independent New Zealand based resource for the older Volvo models

Volvo 120 Series
By John Smith
With thanks to the Volvo Owners Club (UK) for publishing this article

Photo: The webmaster's Amazon at Rawena Ferry in Northland (NZ)

This introduction is intended to give a brief introduction to the Volvo 120 Series known generally as the 'Amazon'. Half a million were built by Volvo between 1956-1970 and gained a well-earned reputation for toughness and longevity. Many would argue that the 120 series really made Volvo's name in world markets. When introduced the car caused some surprises for a relatively small-engined car with a performance matching and in some cases exceeding some sports cars.

Brief production history:

September 1956:
121 four-door saloon introduced. Fitted with a 60bhp B16A engine, two-tone colour scheme. In early 1957 the car goes on sale at 12,600 kroner. In December the 5,000th car is completed.

March 1958:
122s introduced. B18B engine with twin SU carburettors, 85bhp and four-speed gearbox. In August front three-point seat belts are introduced as standard.

First 122's imported to UK. £399 (including purchase tax).

August 1961:
New engine fittedóB18. The single carte version B18A (a Zenith) produces 75bhp. The B18D with twin SU carburettors, 90bhp at 5,000rpm, 12volt electrics are introduced and an uprated front suspension. The 122s with the more powerful engine is fitted with front disc brakes.

October 1961:
Two-door saloon introduced.

February 1962:
220 estate car introduced in Sweden.

February 1963:
100,000th car built.

August 1963:
Automatic introduced fitted with a three-speed Borg Warner box. The two-door saloon is available in twin carte form.

August 1964:
1965 models announced, fitted with an orthopedic seat design with adjustable lumbar support.

August 1966:
123GT introduced. Two-door fitted with the B18B from the P1800, 115bhp with four-speed gearbox and overdrive, rev counter, fog and spotlights, wing mirrors, a P1800 type steering wheel along with new wheel trims are the differences. The 121 saloon is fitted with a Stromberg carb which increases the power to 85bhp. The 122's B18D is increased to 100bhp from 95.

August 1967:
Divided steering column designed to collapse on impact.

December 1967:
Production of four-door saloon discontinued in favour of the new 140.

August 1968:
The B20 (1998cc) introduced, B20A single carte, 90bhp and the twin carte B20B 118bhp.

August 1969:
The estate discontinued. The remaining range is only two-door saloons with either engine option. Front seat headrests and rear seat belts fitted.

July 1970:
Production ends.

Totals: Four-door saloons 234,208; two-door saloons 359,918; estates 73,197.

There is a great deal of confusion over the numbering system adopted by Volvo for the 120 series. Four-door saloons are designated P120, two-door saloons as P130's and estates as P220. However, one sees a two-door badged as a 121 and can be badged as a 122's. The badging is generally an indication of the engine originally fitted ie 121 indicates a single carte engine, 122's twin, the 'S' for sport. Later cars are often called 131, 132 and 133 but are not badged as that, using the existing numbering system, 121, 122's etc. The exception is the 123GT. To establish what a particular example is one is advised to consult the TYPE number. This is found in the engine compartment on the 'box' which holds the brake master cylinder or in later cars the servo linkage. The number is a five figure number. The first three are the main clues.

The first: 1 = Saloon, 2 = Estate,

The second: 2 = four-door or estate, 3 = two-door saloon.

The third: figure relates to the engine.

1 = B16A or B18A or B20A,

2 = B16B or B18B,

3 = B18B or B20B.

Having given a basic history of the car and the various models, a few words on finding a worthwhile example. what to look for, spares availability and hints on maintaining the vehicle. The 120 series has a justified reputation for strength and reliability. Parts availability is good and there are a number of specialised suppliers who offer a wide range of alternative parts and secondhand spares. Although it is an older model, Parts geek has in stock auto parts for your Volvo 120 series vehicle

The cars are not immune to rust but cope with it far better than most of their contemporaries. The most common areas are the front wings which are easily replaced, rear wheel arches and on saloons the spare wheel well. Doors can suffer from rot in the lower regions and spare doors are becoming scarce. Obviously if one finds a badly rusted car, especially in the floor pan, one should seriously consider the cost of repair. Bonnets and boot lids are generally rot free. Interiors, replacement material is scarce but the average car does not usually suffer from poor interiors as the original is very durable. Note that rubber mats were fitted as original; carpets suffer in the Swedish winter.

Mechanical problems are usually down to lack of servicing. Engines will last 150,000 miles before major work is required, especially if the oil has been changed regularly along with the oil filter. The early B16 engine is somewhat rare and the spares for it are becoming very difficult to obtain. The later B18 and B20's do not have this problem. 

The  transmission is a very robust affair, gearboxes are almost unbreakable, any judder is probably worn engine and gearbox rubbers. On the early saloons the rear support arms are pressed steel and can rust; replacements are available and reasonably priced. Service the car at the recommended intervals ie change the engine oil at 3,000 miles and the filter at 6,000 miles. Whilst on the subject of servicing, the only special tool required is the rear brake puller. The drums can be extremely difficult to remove and I make it an annual event to remove the drums even if the brakes do not need servicing, just to make sure they do not become very tight. A good set of A/F size spanners/sockets, screwdrivers will enable one to complete most work.

There are improvements and modifications one can make to the vehicles. One of the most popular and useful is to fit an overdrive - it gives a better fuel consumption and lowers the revs (one can also hear the radio at 70Mph). Another is changing a single carte into a twin. When doing this it is also advisable to fit a twin exhaust down pipe if a single was fitted, this will help the engine to breathe. For the more ambitious a camshaft replacement will give more 'go'. One modification I firmly believe in is the fitting of a stainless steel exhaust system. Their robustness and long life make them an excellent buy.

In the early sixties a small Sussex company, Ruddspeed, modified production cars. They offered three stages of tuning, brake servos were fitted, springs lowered, different tyres fitted. In its stage three form a Ruddspeed 122's could top 127mph. Even an estate given the 'treatment' could reach 100mph. For those of you having been privileged to own a 120 will not need anyone to try to convince you of their virtues:   strength and reliability, practicality and simplicity to maintain. The name Amazon could not have been more appropriate. These qualities have been borne out by their performance in recent rallies, from the Paris to Marrakesh, London to Sydney and the latest Monte Challenge. My own experience with the car goes back over twenty years and until a year ago I used one as daily transport. I never had a problem which prevented me from getting home.

John Smith
Volvo Owners Club (UK) © 1999 - 2021