A member of the Amazon family, the Volvo P120 was introduced for 1957. It was designed by a young Swede named Jan Wilsgaard and had a clean, European look and feel that helped establish a positive international reputation for Volvo. Despite this eventual success, though, the moments before production of the Amazon and P120 were controversial.
Internally designated the P1200, the Amazon series faced problems with German moped builder Kreideler which had launched a new bike named the Amazone around the time of the Volvo Amazon's inception. Kreidler got to the name first, and registered the 'Amazone' title for its own use. The one-letter difference was not enough to evade licensing laws, so Volvo was forced to strike a deal with Kreidler.
The resulting agreement gave Volvo the right to use the Amazon designation in the Nordic market only. In other markets, the car used a confusing array of model designations. The 4-door sedans were officially named P120, the 2-doors were called P130, and the wagons were designated P220. Further exasperating the situation, the cars had slightly different names in some markets than others. Since P120 referred to a series of 4-doors and not to a specific car, it should be noted that the Volvo 122 and later 122S were the model names under which the P120 was sold in most markets.
Though the subject of this article is the P120 range of 4-door sedans, keep in mind that the 2-doors and station wagons were similar cars in virtually every aspect except for their names. After all, in Sweden these vehicles were simply called Amazons.
If you can get past the dizzying nomenclature issues, the P120's history is a straightforward one. It started with the 122. This car succeeded the aging PV444 and used a bored-out version of that model's engine, dubbed the B16 in its new application. Producing a modest 60hp out of 1.6 liters and combined with an uninspiring 3-speed gearbox, the initial 122 was feeble.
It was not intended to be a hot rod, though, and it succeeded in adhering to the traditional Volvo virtues of sturdiness and longevity. The 122 established a solid foundation for Volvo to develop its new car in typical Swedish fashion: through minor changes and enhancements over a long production life.
In time, those changes came and managed to produce a car that was as engaging to drive as it was reliable. Put into production a year after the 122's installation to the Volvo fleet, the 122S offered a choice for the more enthusiastic driver. With more power and a proper 4-speed transmission, this new model was the best-driving Volvo yet.
The model kept evolving, and by 1965 a 1.8L four was offered with a respectable 95hp. The fun factor wasn't the only feature to mature over the production run. Safety-obsessed Volvo introduced a breakthrough feature to the P120 line when in 1959, just two years into production, three-point safety belts were featured on the front seats. It wasn't until decades later that the rest of the auto industry caught on and three-point belts were made standard on all cars.
Bringing European flair to a sturdy, safe, and sensible vehicle was a new concept for the late 1950's. In succeeding, Volvo developed a recipe that they're still using today. With over 234,000 units of the P120 series produced, this vehicle taught the automotive world a surprising and valuable lesson: Safety sells.
'Volvo Amazon.' Volvo Cars 13 Mar 2009 http://www.volvocars.com/intl/corporation/Heritage/History/Pages/default.aspx?item=5.
'Volvo History 1960s: P120.' The Volvo Owners Club 13 Mar 2009 http://www.volvoclub.org.uk/history/p120.shtml.By Evan Acuña