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Volvo Amazon turns 60

Named after the female warriors in Greek mythology, the Volvo Amazon was first introduced to the world 60 years ago.

The four-door model was revealed in the first weekend of September in 1956 in the Swedish town of Örebro, showcasing a brand new design which differed greatly from the common perception of what a Volvo should look like at the time.

The man responsible for the design was 26 year old Jan Wilsgaard, who went on to become Volvo’s head of design for many years, designing the 140, 240 and 700 series, as well as parts of the 800 series. Jan Wilsgaard recently passed away at the age of 86.

The new car was Volvo’s second postwar model, following on from the PV444, and had been named Amason - spelled with an ‘s’. The name came from Greek mythology, in which the Amazons were female warriors. The spelling was changed to the more internationally viable Amazon prior to the launch of production in 1957. Unfortunately, the German moped and motorcycle manufacturer Kreidler also happened to launch a moped called Amazone at the same time, which meant the name was unavailable in a number of key markets.

A deal was reached to allow the Volvo model to be known as Amazon in the Nordic markets. In the rest of the world, the standard model was known as 121 while 122 was used for the sport model. The estate model with a standard engine was called 221, while 222 was used for estates with the sport engine. However, the car is now known as Amazon around the world.

In 1959, Volvo’s patented three-point seatbelt became a standard feature in the Amazon - a world first! No single other safety feature has been anywhere near as significant. It is estimated that at least one million lives have been saved by the three-point seatbelt over the course of its 57-year lifetime.

Various iterations of the Amazon were produced over its 14 years of production, including an estate and the sporty 123 GT, which borrowed its engine from the 1800S sports car. 

667,791 Amazons were built between 1956 and 1970, making it Volvo’s most manufactured model at that moment. The Amazon switched Volvo’s focus from the domestic market to the export market with 60 per cent of total production sold outside of Sweden.

The Amazon was also the first Volvo to be assembled outside of Sweden. In 1963, Volvo’s plant in the Canadian city of Halifax began producing cars for the North American market and later, an assembly plant was also opened in Durban, South Africa. However, the biggest investment was in the Belgian city of Ghent. As Sweden was outside of what was then the EEC, it was important to get a foot inside the European customs union. In 1965 the factory opened with an initial capacity of 14,000 cars per year.

On 3 July 1970, the final Amazon was built at Torslanda. It was dark blue and was driven straight into the collection of cars that later became the Volvo Museum.

10 little-known facts about the Volvo Amazon

  • Around eight per cent of the approximately 297,000 Amazons sold in Sweden are still around! The most common edition is the model from 1966, of which there are still 4,804 registered cars. In total, there are 24,282 Volvo Amazons registered in Sweden.
  • Volvo’s factory driver, Carl-Magnus Skogh, won the 1965 Acropolis Rally in Greece driving a 122S.
  • The Swedish police cooperated with Volvo, and they jointly developed equipment that was later included on ordinary production cars. The police cars featured disc brakes, brake assist and radial tyres several years before they became common in production cars. The police Amazons were equipped with rear window fans and there was a button by the steering wheel connecting the windscreen cleaner with the fastest windscreen wiper setting.
  • Colin Powell, the USA’s former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a big fan of cars. He has owned several classic Volvos, including a 1966 Amazon estate. When he left his post as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993, he was given an Amazon in dire need of renovation by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
  • The 1963 Geneva catalogue featured the Volvo 122S Cabriolet - its creator was listed as Jacques Coune, the Belgian coach builder. It was a beautiful conversion, featuring doors without window frames, door openings that were gently rounded at the back and rear lights that were angled forward. The catalogue gave the impression that it was a production car, but Volvo had nothing to do with the initiative and only four were built.
  • Advertising man Amil Gargano of New York took on the Volvo account in 1962. He concluded that Volvos could withstand practically anything, and this became the brand’s USP. An advertising film shows an Amazon being driven hard on gravel roads. The advert’s payoff is just as clear as it is impossible today: “And you can drive it like you hate it. Cheaper than psychiatry”.
  • There were plans to put a V8 in an Amazon - an evolved version of a truck engine. Five prototypes were said to have been built, but in the end Volvo’s management realised that a V8 was not suitable for the Amazon, not least given there was no six-cylinder version and the leap from a four to a V8 would have been too great.
  • The Amazons built in Volvo’s assembly plant in Halifax, Canada were marketed under the name Volvo Canadian.
  • When Volvo’s range of models expanded thanks to the Amazon, Volvo regained its position as Sweden’s best selling brand of car in 1958. This is a position it had retained every year since then.
  • In “All The President’s Men”, the movie about the Watergate affair that forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, drives a white Amazon.