Volvo 120 Series
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4
Perhaps the most famous and recognisable Volvo is the 120, with its classic American styling (imitating the bull nosed look of Chryslers from the 50's). The car quickly gained a reputation for reliability and durability with its resistance to rust
(due mainly to the high quality steel used in the construction).
Starting life with a 3 speed manual, an optional 4 speed was adopted in 1958 (fitted to the 122S) - the same year that twin carburettors were also fitted. Engine size was increased in 1961 to 1.8 litres, along with an optional 2 door (131). Known in Sweden as the 'Amazon', this vehicle can still be found on today's roads and the remarkable condition most are still in is truly amazing!
Volvo 123 GT
The Volvo 123 GT was not the cheapest high-performance car in Australia; and it was not the fastest. But it was one of the most economical, arguably the best built and most durable and likely the best all-rounder. While there were plenty of cars then on the road with more cubes on offer, they rarely would have been described as offering quality – and none could do it with the composure and dignity of the Volvo.
In fact you could do everything in a Volvo 123GT with composure and dignity: you could recover from a diabolical wet-road slide with no more effort than the simple ceremony of crossing wrists or stop for an unexpected obstacle while nonchalantly gazing out your own window with confidence.
The average person might have enjoyed the sheer pleasure of driving a quality car that did exactly as they wanted: but the average person would not drive a Volvo 123GT – because invariably there were more mundane and less expensive performance cars on offer. But time would judge the 123GT well – it was, as it is now, a car to be coveted in the tradition of the modern classics. Can you name a car you could buy off the showroom floor today that you could guarantee would be a future classic?
The 123GT wasn't as spectacular or sensational as a high performance car – it was simply un-dramatically efficient. When you tossed it hard into a corner it didn't scream tyres
and hang out on lots of lock. It just leant over on its chassis a bit to take up some of that G load off the suspension
and went around without protest. This was all part of the business of getting a good ride and handling
Behind the Wheel
If you were driving on a wet road very fast and you were observant you would have noted the front wheels in very fast corners sometimes pointing the way your head was facing – so long as your head was facing out the side windows. But this would all occur without alarm. The handling
was brilliant – a time when Volvo were really on the money – and if you read any reviews of the tamer brother, the 122S, you will understand why. But in the GT the adhesion limits appeared to have been upped to coincide with a power increase by slightly firmer damper settings and (possibly) slightly firmer spring
settings. This made for increased adhesion, probably more body
roll, and some extra noise (only slight) on rough surfaces.
Of course that roll-oversteer sensation at the limit was delayed a little longer, but it was still just as predictable and controllable when it came. For a good driver one of the most pleasant sensations of speed could be obtained on high speed sweeping corners, when the rear end tended to crab a little at the limit of adhesion. It was very gentle, didn't need any steering
correction and didn't introduce rear-end steer, but it did become accentuated on slightly uneven surfaces and needed to be treated as a warning of approaching on-the-limits cornering.
Driving in a straight line wasn't nearly as complicated: it was simply a matter of poking it with the steering
dead straight. There was no wheel tramp, axle dance or spinning wheels, unless you were very careless with the clutch, but there was strong straight acceleration especially after 3500 rpm where the cam and howling exhaust
came in together with a blast. That didn’t mean the Volvo was a fussy competition machine either. You could mumble around town in any gear with a minimum of clutch slip and drive-line clatter, although low rpm gearchanges did introduce the occasional dull transmission jolt when not handled with absolute smoothness. Apparently it felt more like a loosening universal joint than a driveline engineering fault and we have only noted this sensation in the one car review of the time.
When you left the city limits behind the 123 GT would start to smooth out. This was a trait common to only the best Continental high performance machinery and the sort of person who bought this car would revel in the way the car could be sent down the highway at maximum speed mile on mile with a smoothly connected series of cockpit movements. The Nuvolari-sized steering
wheel, occasionally too large in tight spots around town became a delight to swing on, and the low-speed feeling of front end weight on the steering
disappeared too. The brakes
were a little heavy to operate around town and quite savage when they wereused hard, were perfect on the open road. The top end performance was first class and body
roll movement decreased with speed. Briefly, the car was completely sensitive.
On the Inside
Along with the extra performance was plenty of extra kit. There was a very good heater de-mister, grab handles, coat hiiks, opening rear vents and map lights. The paintwork was extended to the interior and would match with the upholstery (black on the crash padding and below the door sill bottoms) and white perforated pvc trim for the headlining. The GT came as a two-door only, because Volvo figured the person who wanted sporting performance would not mind sacrificing the extra weight to having their kids clamber in over the fold-down seat backs.
A true wolf in sheep's clothing, it virtually had the P1800S
sports coupe's mechanicals. Engine and gearbox (complete with O/D top) come straight ex-P1800S
and the rear axle ratio was added for obvious reasons: the standard 120 series sedan with type B18 engine didn't have overdrive. The difference was 4.56 to 4.10, the latter being standard. The P1800S
engine was worth an additional 15 bhp on the normal 122S sedan: that gave it a rating of 115 bhp at 6000 rpm, whereas the 122S developed its peak at 5700. Torque was increased to 112 lb/ft at 4000 rpm from 108 lb/ft at 3500 rpm. Most of this came from better breathing: The GT had a cleaner head and 10 to 1 compression ratio (122S was 8.7 to 1) plus a mild cam grind that you could almost tune on the exhaust
note - it came in around 3500 with a bellow, but otherwise still pulled smoothly and strongly.
Volvo also fitted competition shock absorbers to make sure that any increase in power was met with a proportional increase in handling
ability. We suspect the springs got a gentle up-rating too. Volvo felt the braking department didn't need any attention apart from the addition of a power booster and what felt like competition linings, though there was no mention made of this in the literature on the car. The clutch was a slightly soft point on this car though it was doubtful whether the average owner or even a particularly demanding one would ever discover any ultimate failure. It broke down on acceleration runs when some road testers were undertaking performance testing, but recovered quickly from slip with a short cool-off period. We have also found evidence that the only troubles suffered by Volvos in endurance racing at the time were to do with the clutch, so it may have been one of the weaker points.
Volvo attention to detail was meticulous but nowhere so apparent as under the bonnet where you could forgive a company for being a little sloppy and concentrating more on the functional than the sanitary side. But you only had to lift the counterbalanced lid and take a look in for the final evidence. Like the boot compartment it was automatically lit, and also like the boot it was clean. All exposed metal surfaces were enamelled like the exterior and there was little chrome - but lots of polished alloy on the rocker boxes, carby bells, inlet manifold, brake booster and so on. The cooling system
was sealed with a special overflow spill tank and all the electricals were housed in little alloy boxes out in front along the guard, where you could get at them. There was also an alternator.
Price-wise the Volvo was a bit of a loner in Australia. Its tamer sister, the 122S, sold for some $600 less and the distortion in extra value was due entirely to the import taxes these cars suffered. It was good for near-110 mph and would go down to low 17 seconds over the standing quarter mile with a few miles behind it. Back then you had to pay out at least Ford Falcon GT
-money for that sort of urge, so you can understand how the Volvo added up to a value package. These days the Volvo GT is a highly sought classic. Hopefully, after reading this article, you will understand why.