Classic Volvo 120-Series Review

The Amazon may have forged Volvo’s robust reputation but care is still needed when buying one…


As far as most of the world is concerned, it all starts here.

The Amazon – originally known as the Amason until German scooter manufacturer Kriedler claimed it as a trademark, then officially titled the 120-series – was the first Volvo to be widely exported beyond Scandinavian shores. Its destinations included the UK, where we first received the sturdy Swede in 1957. Engineered with a solidity that few other manufacturers could match, it set the blueprint for Volvo build quality and dependability. As a result, Britain – or at least a large part of its middle classes – fell in love with the marque and remained loyal throughout subsequent generations.

Amazons possess a surprising nimbleness despite their air of durability. Originally with 1583cc engines, they were upgraded to 1778cc in 1961, when front disc brakes were standardised on the twin-carb variants, then again to 1986cc (for two-door variants) in 1968. The 115bhp 123GT was the most exciting performer and designed to capitalise on Volvo’s rally successes. Production ended in 1970, by which time the new 140 was on the scene.


ENGINE 17786cc/4-cyl/OHV

POWER [email protected]

TORQUE 112lb [email protected]


0-60MPH 13.8sec

Fuel consumption 23-30mpg

TRANSMISSION RWD, four-spd man + O/D


Body beautiful

These cars resist rust well, but if the front or rear screens have leaked, it will cause big problems. This will affect the bulkheads and footwells; look from inside the engine bay and in the car itself. Other known grot spots are the double-skinned rear wheelarches and the rear inner panels. Look inside the boot for a rotten spare wheel well and check the edge of the bootlid too. On estates, scrutinise the split tailgate carefully. Front wings, around the wheelarches and headlamps, plus the lower edges of doors, can suffer from tinworm and, naturally, check all along the sills too. The bonnet edge and seams around the grille are also vulnerable. Front wings are still available, but pricey.

Engine issues

Engines are tough, but the early 1580cc unit isn’t as strong as its successors because it has a three-bearing crank rather than the later five-bearing one. Regular oil changes are the secret to a long life, as is using the correct Volvo oil filter with a non-return valve. Listen for noisy bearings plus loud timing gear. Check the temperature; if it’s running cool, then it may be a failed thermostat, which will harm fuel economy. Needles in the original Stromberg carburettors can wear, so many owners upgrade to SUs instead. Warm oil pressure should be 40psi at idle, or 50-55psi on the move.

Transmission revamp?

Most cars have a four-speed manual gearbox, but three-speeders and automatics are just as resilient. A manual car with overdrive is a wise choice. The rubber in the centre of the propshaft wears out in time; unfortunately, choosing which one of the three possible replacements is the right one to fit is a challenge.

What lies beneath?

Suspension bushes – and those for the wishbones in particular – wear out. Coil springs have a tendency to break too, towards their bottoms. Earlier cars have a rear radius arm that rusts badly, so get underneath and check it. On estates, the radius arms are heavy duty but can still fail. Brakes are generally trouble-free, although the diaphragm on 1.6 and 1.8 Girling servos can perish and allow brake fluid into the engine.

The inside story

Interiors are simple and hard wearing, though certain items of trim can be difficult or expensive to source.

That includes exterior items too – especially the complex bumpers. Electrical problems are usually down to bad earths, corrosion or a blown 30amp fuse in the engine bay. Replacements are hard to come by.


The Volvo Amazon manages to combine kudos and credibility with engineering integrity and ruggedness. These cars are among the most well-built of their era yet still retain a sporty character thanks to their rally adventures – something you can’t really say that about the boxier Volvos that followed.

With many European saloons and estates of the 1950s and 1960s, you need to constantly keep on top of issues such as rust and mechanics. That’s much less the case with the Amazon; you can use them every day, in all weathers, and they won’t protest too much. They also have typical Volvo practicality, seating five in comfort with room for all their paraphernalia in the capacious boot. The estates are even better at load lugging. Amazons are fun but tough.