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60 YEARS OF VOLVO IN THE UK

The name of Volvo is so well established in the UK that is very difficult to believe that there was once a time when it was only enthusiasts of rallying, and ‘foreign cars’ who knew of the Swedish marque. But one of the main attractions of the 1958 London Motor Show was the stand displaying an Amazon 122S, marking the debut of Volvo on the British car market.

The first cars were sold by the Brooklands Motor Company and at £1,399 7s the Volvo was slightly more expensive than a Humber Hawk, but its appeal was to the motorist who wanted a four-door alternative to the Borgward Isabella.

It was also aimed at the affluent professional who craved a prestigious imported car that was built to withstand the worst of the Swedish winter – as opposed to a winter in the Home Counties, where chaos tends to reign following the first sign of frost.

The Volvo’s handsome looks were slightly redolent of the early, rather than the late 1950s but this was not a machine for wide-boy types who considered tail fins the peak of automotive chic.

When the Amazon was being developed, the Jan Wilsgaard designed coachwork did not meet with approval from all of the firm’s directorship; one gentleman apparently complained that there was ‘too much of the pin-up about it’ and so ‘it would be better if it was ugly rather than beautiful’.

However, the 120 range debuted in early 1956 with its looks unaffected while visitors to Earls Court two years later were impressed by its air of purpose. The 1.6-litre engine was capable of nearly 90 mph, and the interior combined a high degree of standard equipment with ultra-practical rubber floor matting and PVC upholstery. As The Motor concluded in January 1959 the Volvo was:

“Right out of the ordinary in its appearance and in the combination of touring car usefulness with highly sporting verve, the Volvo 122S of 1.6-litre size is obviously worthy of consideration by any keen driver who motoring budget might otherwise run to a more orthodox car in the 2 ½ litre class.”

This was high praise indeed, and by 1961 there were 3,000 Volvos in the UK with cars arriving in Felixstowe on a weekly basis and a network of 50 dealers and 25 distributors. The older PV was not available in RHD guise, and it was the Amazon that made the brand the country’s third most commonly encountered foreign car marque behind Volkswagen and Renault.

Given that the Amazon competed in the luxury car  price sector, one far above the Beetle or the Dauphine, this was a considerable achievement. In the early 1960s, overseas-built cars were a very unusual sight on British roads (if you ever saw a Citroën, for example, it was likely to be a Slough-assembled model) but the Volvo was accessible, highly agreeable and far cheaper than a Mercedes-Benz 190 “Fintail”. It was also a superlatively well-engineered machine that could be relied upon in virtually any circumstance.

My own favourite details of the Amazon is the strip speedometer and the low-key dashboard; some models may have boasted duotone paint, but this was emphatically not a frivolous motor-car.

We will be celebrating the key Volvos later this year but for now here is a reminder of how the Amazon appeared to motorists of the past. And continues to do so -  

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