Volvo 122S and 123GT | Expert tips on buying, maintenance and more

Photograph Courtesy Volvo

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Road & Track’s first review of the Volvo 122S began with the highest of compliments. “Of all of the cars that are brought to our shores, one of the best-suited to American needs and driving habits is the Volvo 122-S,” the review opened. “Not because the Volvo is a copy of any American design, but simply because it is sufficiently roomy and has the performance required to cope with our brisk traffic conditions.”

And, from there, that 1961 article only got better, with the magazine’s editors also praising the Volvo’s excellent controls, luxurious appointments and high build quality. Their biggest complaints? The cheap vinyl floor mats and the intake note of the twin SU carburetors. Today we can accept those sacrifices.

Production of this Swedish workhorse began during the summer of 1956, with cars finally heading to the U.S. for the 1961 model year. In its home market, the car was known as the Amazon; here it received a less glamorous designation–it was simply called the 122S–and the lineup eventually included a two-door coupe, four-door sedan and a station wagon.

Volvo unveiled their boxy, contemporary 140-series for 1967, but that didn’t mean the end of the 122 as the two lines overlapped. The 122S was available stateside through 1968, while production continued until July of 1970. By that time Volvo had built nearly 668,000 units.

The model line featured a performance version, too, with Volvo unleashing the rally-ready 123GT for 1967 and 1968. Its high-compression engine came from the P1800–both cars shared underpinnings–while the 123GT also received a tachometer, auxiliary lamps, nicer seats, Pirelli tires and upmarket trim. 

Shopping Advice

Mike Dudek has been involved with Volvos for decades. His shop, iRoll Motors, offers parts and restoration services for the brand.

Rust is the biggest enemy of vintage Volvos, which are unibody construction. The Amazon was originally supplied with rubber floor coverings lined with jute as insulation. When water gets past the rubber and into the jute, it is trapped and will start to rust the floors from the inside. Structurally they are very stout, though one area beneath the battery box, where the frame rail meets the firewall, is subject to stress cracks.

The basic Amazon stayed the same throughout the years, with very early cars having B16 engines and 6-volt electrics; 1962 brought a change to the B18 engine and 12-volt electrics. The B18 versions are preferred for their five-main-bearing design, while many have been converted to the later B20 engine for ease of replacement parts. All U.S. cars came with dual SU side-draft carbs. Over the years many were replaced with the Weber two-barrel, downdraft DGV, which works, but is a performance hit. We usually recommend restoring the original SU setup with fresh rebuilds.

The four-speed manual transmission is preferred, especially if it’s been optioned or retrofitted with the Laycock overdrive. Many cars were made with a BW35 automatic transmission, which is functional for around-town driving, but is a pretty inefficient, slushy and sluggish three-speed design that lacks overdrive or even a lockup torque converter. Conversion to manual transmission is pretty straightforward, although the floor pans are different and require some minor fabrication to relocate the transmission crossmember.

Brakes are very good: front disc, rear drums starting in 1962. OEM rotors and drums are expensive as they incorporate the hubs and studs. Aftermarket rotors have just become available. Full inspection is always required and overhaul is recommended if the car has been sitting for more than a few years. We change rubber brake hoses as a matter of course, as they can swell internally and create caliper drag or lockup. Dual master cylinders were incorporated mid-1967 and can easily be retrofitted to all earlier cars.

Most parts are available for restorations. One exception is the seal for the rear-side pop-out window on the two-door cars. Those need to be handled carefully and reused.

These are very well-built cars made to take the abuse of harsh Swedish roads and winters. The heaters work very well and will pour out cabin heat with just a small flow of hot coolant, so it’s important to make sure the heater valve is functioning correctly.

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roverguy New Reader
2/22/21 1:18 p.m.

Back before they were called "Swedish Bricks"  Only because they had rounded corners; never the less built like a Swedish brick S#*t house!

On our 8th Volvo, but nothing older than an '85 245.

Love the brand, worried about the sole being stolen by Geeley Int'l ;-(

OldBumpy New Reader
2/22/21 4:40 p.m.

I had a '66 with the B/W slush box trans back in the day.  Sure do wish I had had the good sense to have kept it!  TR

wspohn SuperDork
2/23/21 10:37 a.m.

The 123 GT ws the one Swedish car I almost bought but never quite got there.  I really like them - rugged, decent handling, tunable engine.  Everything except knock-me-dead styling, but you can't have everything.

Actually that isn't quite true - I did have a momentary urge to buy a Saab Sonett III once but thankfully came to my senses before writing that cheque.  Still rather like that compact little Taunus V4 they used though



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