Volvo’s history goes all the way back to 1927, but its reputation for building cars with understated good looks arguably didn’t begin until the late 1950s, starting with the Volvo Amazon. That car turns 60 years old today, and to celebrate, the automaker is taking a look back at one of its most iconic models.
The Amazon was revealed on the first weekend of September in 1956, showing off a design influenced by Italian, British, and American cars. The car’s classic lines were penned by 26-year-old Jan Wilsgaard, who later went on to design the Volvo 140, 240, 700 Series, and part of the 800 Series. The four-door was named after the female warriors of Greek mythology. The problem was that a German moped and motorcycle company used the name “Amazone” for one of its vehicles around the same time Volvo’s car was launching. This meant Volvo couldn’t use the name in all markets.
An agreement between the two companies allowed Volvo to use the Amazon name in the Nordic markets. But the rest of the world would come to know the four-door as the 121, and the sporty two-door variant as the 122. A later wagon model would be named 221 with the standard engine, and 222 when equipped with the sport engine. Though the car never officially got an Amazon badge in the U.S., the name was adopted and used by enthusiasts.
The Amazon Sport offered more power than the base engine thanks to dual SU carburetors and a more aggressive camshaft, which brought output to 85 hp in 1958. That’s not much by today’s standards—or 1950s standards, for that matter—but consider that the Amazon weighed less than 2,500 pounds. In addition to performance, the Amazon also advanced the brand’s reputation for safety. Volvo made its patented three-point seat belt standard equipment on the Amazon in 1959. The Amazon was the first car to offer three-point belts as standard, and prior to that was the first car to offer standard seat belts of any kind. In addition, the Amazon was the first Volvo to be built outside of Sweden at the company’s plant in Halifax, Canada.
The Amazon’s platform was used for the iconic P1800 and 1800ES sports cars, and later development flowed the other way back into the Amazon for the 123 GT, which packed 115 hp from its 1800S-derived engine. Despite the introduction of the Volvo 140 in 1966, Amazon production continued until July 3, 1970. Between 1956 and 1970, a total of 667,791 Amazons were built. Volvo says that roughly 8 percent of Amazons sold in Sweden are still around today, with 24,282 copies currently registered in the country.
Some other fun facts: A V-8-powered Amazon was planned, with five prototypes built. The idea was ultimately scrapped because there was no six-cylinder option, and the jump from four to eight cylinders was thought by Volvo’s management at the time to be too great. Also, former Secretary of State Colin Powell has owned a number of classic Volvos, including a 1966 Amazon wagon. In 1993, when he left office as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore gifted him an Amazon that needed some TLC.
See how well the 60-year-old Amazon has aged in the gallery below.