Six decades ago, Volvo introduced a remarkable little car that garnered very little attention and ended up bringing so much to the automotive world. The Amazon turns 60 this weekend.
Named after the mythical Greek race of warrior women (from a region scholars have determined to be in modern day Turkey, on the southern shore of the Black Sea) the Amazon debuted in Örebro, Sweden (about 200 km due west of Stockholm) on the first weekend in September 1956, and helped establish Volvo as Sweden’s premier auto manufacturer.
The 4-door’s design was a radical departure (drawing inspiration from Italian, British and American designs) from its predecessor the PV, which was a mid-sized offering with the silhouette of the Beetle. It would also become available in 2-door sedan and 4-door wagon, during its production run through 1970, as well as a 4 custom-made convertibles that were not affiliated with the factory.
The second of Volvo’s post-WW2 models, it was penned by Jan Wilsgaard, who would go on to become head of Volvo design and overseeing designs of the 140, 240, 700 and part of the 800 Series cars for the company. It is widely known as the 121 and 122 (for standard and Sport models, respectively), having to be renamed prior to 1957 production because the Amazon name (Amazone, actually) had been copyrighted by motorcycle maker Kreidler. Originally called Amason, it was only sold as the Amazon in Nordic countries.
One of its original design features was the 2-tone body paint, with cars offered in black, midnight blue and red ruby, all with a light grey roof, as well as light grey with a black roof. It was only after 1959 that the car could be ordered in a single exterior colour. Dual-coloured cars were phased out in 1961 and wagon bodystyles came along the following year, as 221 and 222 models (for wagon and Sport wagon, respectively). The sportiest Amazon was 1967’s 123 GT, which borrowed its 115 hp from the sporty 1800S (the sporty Volvo everybody seems to like).
1959 was also notable as the first year that all Amazons were offered with 3-point front belts (as were all Volvos) — a world first safety feature that Volvo soon made available cost free to all manufacturers in the interest of passenger safety. Other safety features were first equipped on Swedish police Amazons — disc brakes, power assisted braking, radial tires and rear defoggers, among others — before they became available, and then standard, on production vehicles.
The car was noteworthy as Volvo changed its focus from domestic distribution to a global approach, and it is reported that 60% of the marque’s total sales are outside Sweden … though 8% of the cars sold in Sweden over its 14-year run are still in active use (24,282 registrations).
That global reach also meant the establishment of the first assembly plant outside of Sweden to supply the North American market — in Halifax, Nova Scotia and marketed as the Volvo Canadian. That plant, which ceased to exist at the turn of the millennium, predated what is today viewed as the capital of Volvo production in the Gothenburg district of Torslanda. It also made Volvo the first non-North American manufacturer to establish assembly operations on the continent. Plants were also built in Ghent, Belgium, to serve the European continent, and Durban, South Africa to supply Africa.
There had been discussions to include a V-8 engine in the Amazon, but they were scuttled after several prototypes were built, with management deeming it wasn’t a good fit for the car.
The last Amazon was built on July 3, 1970 in Torslanda and went straight to the Volvo Museum, down the road in Gothenburg.
Perhaps its catchiest advertising phrase came from a 1962 film campaign out of New York, showing the car being driven hard on a country road and concluding with the line “You can drive it like you hate it. Cheaper than psychiatry.”
Although you wouldn’t be able to broadcast it today, and has widely been replaced in video with the “Professional driver on closed roads. Do not attempt” disclaimer, it did set up the image of Volvos being practically indestructible.