I saw him first as a pair of legs, dangling out from behind a white hood. He was me, or at least I dreamt I might become him: a grad student half-submerged in the engine bay of a Volvo Amazon.
(Full disclosure: Volvo recently invited my coworker Erik Shilling to New Jersey to drive its 850 T-5R. I tagged along as a “photographer” just so I could get a shot at driving an Amazon. This particular car was the one that was on that one show, as it turned out.)
There were a lot of Volvo Amazons in my hometown growing up, Davis, a small West Coast college town free of rust or any serious obligations to take a car on the highway. All kinds of old cars survived on the street there, with no need to junk ‘em, from ‘60s Plymouths to ‘70s Subarus on and up the years. Of all of these cars, the Amazons were the ones I thought I’d find myself with. Datsuns were too cool for me, muscle cars too big. I wanted something with the look of an old American car, with the same simplicity, but without the size. In this little microcosm, this Venn diagram, existed the Amazon, a knockoff of the 1955 Chrysler design, but no bigger than a ‘90s Honda. I figured someday I’d be swapping suspension parts on one, fiddling with the pushrod four-cylinder engine. I doodled pictures of myself driving one up to the mountains in the margins of my notebooks.
I just never knew if my dream matched the reality. Then I happened to pass that guy, wrenching on his Amazon. It was imperative I asked him if the car was as simple as I imagined, as easy to own as I hoped.
He stood up out of the car and told me it was as I had dreamt. Better. He’d never owned an old car before, had learned to wrench on this one. It was as easy, as cheap, as straightforward as a car could get.
That was all the answer I needed. I rode off on my bike, a seed planted that one day I’d get one as my first car.
If that gave me my answer on what these cars were like to own, what wasn’t answered was what these cars are like to drive. Then Volvo called.
Rather, my coworker Erik Shilling pestered Volvo until the company invited us to a classic car owner’s day at its new HQ in Mahwah, New Jersey, with a chance to drive some of Volvo’s heritage fleet. Erik drove Volvo’s yellow 850 T-5R. I found my way into a 122S.
The S designation announces that this is the sporty version of Volvo’s 1960s mainstay, alternatively named as the Amazon or 122. This one was a 122S B18, actually. Along with better suspension and brakes than a regular 122, it also got a twin-carb version of the long-lived B18 engine, not so different from what was under the hood of the 1989 Volvo 240 wagon I grew up in. From a current perspective, you could say that the S is the “less bad” version of the 122/Amazon; what was high-performance in the ‘60s is basically par for the course for the ‘70s. It gives you a free decade of modernity.
I was sort of afraid to meet this hero car of mine. I figured that since these cars were as tough as an old truck, they’d drive like one, too.
The car didn’t make an easy first impression, either. The loooooooong-throw shifter advertised a very strange shift pattern, with first where third would be, second somewhere near first, and third somewhere near fourth. Fourth’s location was a mystery. I spent the first few minutes of the drive hunting for relevant gears until I realized the shift knob itself was just loose. The H-pattern was completely standard, I’d looked at the diagram on the knob when it was rotated.
A little bit more comfortable with the car, I felt confident in doing what anyone should do when presented with a twin-carb engine of sufficient vintage: I put my right foot absolutely to the floor.
I’ve not yet met an engine set up like this that I didn’t love. Though the engine isn’t big, or all that powerful, the sound it makes! It’s so wonderfully, extraordinarily good. All you hear is the toooooooooooooooot of the carbs opening up, gulping in air. It’s like a little train conductor lives under the hood; you depress the gas pedal and the guy pulls the cord for the steam whistle. You’re not ever going that fast, you just feel like you are. The engine feels strong, because it sounds strong. Autocar actually complained in 1962 that the car was uncharacteristically loud with a lot of throttle compared to other family sedans of its day.
Autocar also praised the car as feeling well-made, stout, and safe, economical, as well as faster (and louder) than expected. The magazine recorded 25.3 MPG in mixed driving, or about 30 MPG with U.S. gallons. This was a somewhat dowdy-looking car with a live rear axle outdated even when it was new, but it found a way to impress.
Here I am half a century later, struggling with its heavy brake pedal, equally taken with the thing. It’s silly to suggest that this is a good car to own or buy, that it might fit into one’s life as easily as a ‘90s Honda as they’d both fit into the same parking space. It’s a comedy to say that you could really use this as a family car, and if it’s not a family car, it’s a toy, a hobby. But even then, this very simple sturdy car finds a way to worm into your mind. You do start to think that there’s a way you could build a life around it. Honestly, a lot of it is probably just the sound of those twin carbs drawing in air. The rest is probably in the thud of the doors, the click of the three-point belts, the brightness of its eyes.
What if I did go down that path, a grad student in California, half-submerged a Volvo Amazon? How many IPD parts would I have worked into the suspension? How much would I have spent on Minilites? How many times would I have wiped sweat off my brow, synchronizing twin carbs under an unforgiving sun? Maybe that is the path I should have taken, only going as far east as the Sierras, wondering how many years my home state, my car had left in it?