The Original Car Of A Lifetime: Forty Years With An Amazon

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(This is the post that started the whole Cars Of A Lifetime series. Ray Charlton (“amazonray”) suggested it to me in 2010, when I was at TTAC, and it ran in its original form then. If you have one or more cars you’d like to chronicle, do let me know – PN)

It was October of 1973, and it was my seventeenth birthday. My father’s idea of the perfect gift was to give me his daily driver, a 1968 Volvo 122 Amazon. He had bought it new, and he had put 74,000 miles on it. Well, needless to say I was very happy to get the car. But I’m even happier to still have it today, 40 years later.

Sure, it needed some work when I first got it. But I had just taken 1st year Auto Shop at my High School and I figured I knew a few things about cars. (“a few” being the operative words here).  Right off, I had to give the car a tune up, a brake booster rebuild and last but not least have the automatic transmission rebuilt. Yes, it has an automatic; a Borg Warner Type 35 three speed, and probably the weakest part of the entire car. It is the one thing that has given me the most trouble over the years. But at the time I was not worried about it. I figured I would have the car for 5 years or maybe 10 at the most. Little did I know.

I kept signing up for Auto Shop. It was my favorite class, and between my excellent teacher, and my car, I was learning a lot. I enjoyed every minute of Auto Shop, knowing that I would much rather have my hands on a tool than on a textbook. And having a car that needed a lot of things fixed on it was actually an advantage for a change.

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I did a quick engine rebuild on it, (quick meaning I did not pull the engine out of the car).  One thing I learned right off was that “tight is good – too tight is bad”. I probably twisted off half a dozen valve adjustment screws learning that lesson. And when a valve adjustment screw is twisted off, the entire rocker arm assembly has to come off to change it. And of course all the valves then needed to be adjusted again, giving me 8 more chances to break another adjusting screw.

For the next sixteen years, the Volvo was my daily driver (twenty six years total). I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I took the car on several long road trips, including visits to Arizona and Northern California. As I put more and more miles on the car, and as it got older, I soon got to be good friends with the parts guys at my local Volvo dealer. He soon started giving me a discount since I was such a good customer. Back then Volvo parts were cheap. As cheap as VW parts.

I owned the car for four years before I started modifying it. I installed a set of IPD front and rear sway bars, and a year later I installed IPD coil springs which lowered the ride height, and a set of Bilstein shocks. The car now handled a lot better, but it just seemed like it did not have very much power. So I bought a used engine from a junkyard for $200 and totally rebuilt it, using IPD parts. I bored the block .30 over and installed a camshaft that increased the torque.  A set of custom alloy wheels were next. A Weber two barrel downdraft carb replaced the balky SUs, and a set of headers completed the package. That second engine now has 145,000 miles on it and is still going strong.

I have been a loyal IPD customer since 1977, and I seriously doubt that I would still be driving the car if it was not for them. From the headlights to the tail light lenses, and pretty much everything else in between, whatever needed replacing, the parts probably came from them. (As the car got older the Volvo dealer carried fewer and fewer parts for it.) Right now the car has 271,000 miles on it, and the only parts on the car that are still original are the fuel tank, the fuel quantity sending unit, the heater fan motor, the heater core and the wiper motor. Everything else has been repaired or replaced at least once. I have had the windshield replaced 4 times, but the rest of the glass is also original.

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I have had that damn automatic transmission rebuilt seven times. (I have always done the R&R myself.) The first few times I took it to repair shops that did not do a very good job. But I have high hopes for the latest rebuild, (always the optimist). I looked into swapping out the automatic transmission for a manual, but it turns out the chassis is different. The body as built at the factory in Sweden has a much larger tranny hump for the automatic transmission than the body built for a manual transmission does. So after a transmission swap there is not enough room for the driver’s feet to fit on the pedals. I was told by a guy who had done a Amazon transmission switch it that it would be easier to just buy another car than to do a transmission swap. So much for that idea.

As recently as five years ago I was using the car as my daily driver. It was a rather strange feeling driving a 40 year old (at that time) car around every day. I realized that most of the time as I was cruising down the freeway I would be driving the oldest car on the road.

Back in 1989 I bought a brand new Saleen Mustang, and the Amazon then became my second car. It was a real shock going from a 21 year old car to a brand new vehicle and all of its modern conveniences, and there is nothing like the power of a V-8. The Saleen has 110,000 miles on it now, and it is my daily driver.

Four years ago I bought a 1991 Mazda MPV minivan from my ex-wife,which she had bought new when we got married. I had taken care of the MPV since day one. At that point the Volvo became my third car. The MPV, which has 304,000 miles on it, was my daily driver for 4 years.  I think that fact that my three cars are all runners is proof that if you buy a good car to start with it, and take care of it, it can last you a very long time.

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Looking back over my life it is hard for me to imagine not having my Volvo in my life. My father got it when I was 12 years old, and I’m 56 now. I can see it sitting outside in the driveway as I write this. That damn car is like a family member, it’s been in my life for so long. I think of all the people I have hauled around in it and all the places and jobs it has taken me to. My two daughters grew up with the car, and both of them have driven it. I think it says a lot about a car that three generations of one family have be able to get behind the wheel of this car and cruise on down the road.

The car needs a paint job, which will be its third, and it has some body rust I need to get fixed. But with a little bit of work I could drive it tomorrow.

My father passed away in 1988. Not many days go by that I do not think of him. I still feel a very strong connection with him, and my still owning this Volvo is a big part of that. It is very easy for me to think back to times when my father was driving my younger brother and me around in the car, and I can remember a few times when I was driving Dad around in it. I like to think that he sometimes looks down on me driving his old Volvo around and smiles. He got a lot of car for his money when he bought my Volvo back in 1968. He paid $3,000 for it, which was $20,000 in today’s money. I think he got a hell of a deal.

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