Vintage Car Life Comparison Test: 1961 Buick Special vs. Volvo 122S – An Unfair Comparison?

Does this seem like an unusual pairing for a comparison? Not really, considering that the 1961 GM “senior compacts” were intended to compete with the mid-range imports as well as offer domestic brand buyers an alternative. These two were priced quite similarly: $2495 and $2529 for the Special, although the as-tested price for the little Buick swelled due to being equipped with an automatic, the four-barrel high-compression version of its engine, and perhaps some other options.

They were lopsided in other ways though, most of all in their power plants: The Buick’s 215 cubic inch (3.5 L) aluminum V8 was more than twice the displacement of the 1.6L B16 Volvo four. And the Buick, with 185 hp, had exactly 100 hp more than the Volvo. Nevertheless, the Volvo acquitted itself well enough in other terms, and showed just why a growing number of Americans were buying them, despite cars like the Special.

The 122 was still fairly new to the US, having arrived about a year or so earlier here to supplant the hunchback 544. Given that they both had the same engine, the 122’s greater weight was inevitably going to dull its performance versus the 544. The larger B18 engine would replace the B16 in 1962, offering a bit more power. always welcome in the US.

CL started the comparison at the rear, meaning the trunk. Although the Special’s trunk looked bigger, and could haul more golf balls, it was shallow and its floor was too irregular, whereas the Volvo’s tall trunk swallowed suitcase standing upright. This of course is a reflection of GM’s making these cars look like 7/8 scale versions of the big cars, including a lower overall height. There’s a price to be paid for lowness.

As to the other end of the car, the Buick’s much larger engine obviously made it significantly quicker, with a brisk 0-60 time of 10.0 seconds versus the Volvo’s 16.8. CL notes that given American’s relatively greater affluence and cheaper gas, it’s something of a false economy to give up so much performance for somewhat better fuel economy (27 mpg for the Volvo; 21 mpg for the Buick). They suggested that the Europeans should make larger engine versions for the US market. Well, yes, although that’s a bit easier said than done, but of course that did happen over time: the B18 arrived the next year, and the B20 in 1970. And Volvo created the six cylinder 164 undoubtedly to a large extent because of the US market, but that also put it in a higher price bracket.

CL notes that one of the biggest variables in car ownership cost is repairs and maintenance, and although there was no record yet, at least for the Buick, CL points out that the Volvo would be easier for the owner to work on. There’s no question that these two cars would have very different paths in terms of long term durability: the aluminum V8 became known for its cooling issues and more, and of course the 122 only enhanced the excellent reputation that Volvos were becoming known for.

Of course there’s more to just dollars and cents that drives car buying decisions, especially for the more expensive import brands. Although the Buick presented itself well in terms of its assembly quality, paint and such, the Volvo was clearly in a higher category, with obvious attention to all aspects of materials and construction. The high quality upholstery on the very comfortable bucket seats alone made a big difference from the Special’s bench seat covered in the typical fabric of the times used in domestic lower-end cars.

The Volvo has that indefinable aura of custom craftsmanship, which is one of the primary causes of foreign sales getting as good a toe hold in this country as they had up to the time of the compact’s introduction”. True that, and it’s important to note that Volvo, along with VW, Mercedes, and Peugeot all survived the great implosion of the import market in 1960-1961 without taking a hit. It was precisely for that reason, and buyers of these brands very unlikely to buy domestics again. That was not so much the case for all the folks that bought Renaults, British brands, DKW’s and a raft of other obscure European brands.

In terms of interior room, obviously the Buick had more of it, but CL points out that for those many buyers not needing that space (the majority, for most of the time), the question is, does it matter, especially if the smaller Volvo has a finer ambience, never mind the more comfortable bucket seats?

As to handling, the Special’s fundamentally “good handling” ended at about 85 mph, above which it exhibited a decided lack directional stability. Given its powerful engine and 110 mph top speed, this was a rather typical Detroit disconnect between those two qualities; as in the engine was a lot “faster” than the chassis. Weak shocks were part of the problem, but the “ridiculously-slow steering (4½ turns), which effectively damps out road feel at high speeds“.

As to transmissions, there two were as different as their engines. The Volvo of course came with a four speed floor-shift manual transmission, which helped make the most of the rather modest power. The Buick had the Dual Path Turbine Drive automatic that was “the best darn two-speed plus torque converter type box we’ve encountered—and was a real surprise to us”. This unit was light, efficient, and very effective. Both units worked well with their respective engines, “with the Buick getting the nod for convenience.”

CL suggests that imports that don’t offer automatics may increasingly be at a disadvantage going forward. I’m not sure exactly when Volvo started offering the BW automatic; likely shortly after this time period.

In summation, CL says that “one of the nicest things about the Volvo, for instance, is that we think it makes an excellent example for our domestic manufacturers to strive better.”  How true, but it wasn’t a lesson taken to heart by the domestics, at least not yet for quite a while, as their long decline at the hands of import brands was just starting.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: Volvo 122S – The Cult Of The Amazon

Curbside Classic: 1962 Buick Special – A Truly Special Buick