Loving Old Volvos: The Obsession Can Be Catching

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 11, 2016

The popular image of the Volvo owner as a pipe-smoking, liberal professor in tweeds was true enough at one point—in the late 60s. Plucky Sweden was an experiment in benign social democracy, and Ingmar Bergman films (mostly about death) were all the rage. People flocked to theaters to see the 1967 classic I Was Curious (Yellow), and…remember the Swedish secretary in The Producers?
 The author's 1967 122S wagon. A $300 car long ago got him started. (Jim Motavalli photo)Today’s Volvo owner probably lives on one or the other coast, but the stereotype is more the suburban wagon filled with kids. They’re safety cars—dads hand the keys to the kids when the storm rages outside. 
Old Volvos are impressively rugged, and an amazing number of the 1960s models (122S Amazon and 544 sedans, P1800 sports car) are still on the road—where they’ve achieved cult status. Prices are soaring.
According to The Truth About Cars:

How exactly did the Volvo 122 Amazon achieve its mythological stature? Naming it after the eponymous nation of all-female warriors was a good start. Legendary ruggedness and durability solidified its status. Sporty performance burnished it further. Then there’s the magic belt: one of the twelve labors of Hercules was to secure the girdle of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. Giving up her belt ended up costing Hippolyta her life. But it was a worthy sacrifice, because the Amazon’s first-ever, three-point seat belt has saved untold others theirs, and established the Volvo safety myth. That may now have run its course, but the Amazon’s status on the automotive Mt. Olympus is secure.

I’m a cult member myself, having owned a dozen old Volvos, including one bought in 1980 from my esteemed Car Talk colleague Jamie Kitman. I currently have a lovely Euro-edition 1967 122S wagon. Jamie, despite being a British car fanatic, now owns a pristine, low-mileage car exactly like mine. Here's Kitman on the roots of his obsession:

To get at my life-long enthusiasm for Volvos you have to remember what it was like in the 1960s. Cars that got 25 miles per gallon and didn't change body style every year were subversive--see the VW Beetle--and ones that were actually safer than the competition took that a step further. Volvo's advertising made all these points--you weren't a sheep, you wanted a car that performed well, but one that was safe, efficient and not (on paper) about impressing the neighbors. It was enough to sell my parents who bought a 1967 122S wagon in November 1966. As an eight-year-old, budding car fan, I felt very smug about its three-point front safety belts -- the irony of its not having any rear belts lost on me--fortunately, my parents had lap belts installed in the rear a few months into our ownership, which extended into the late 1970s. So there were the politics and there was the fact that with its manual steering and gearbox, and front disc brakes, and relatively light weight, it felt like a sports car compared to most American iron. A well-tuned 122S wagon could keep up with an MGA or MGB, and it had decent heat, didn't leak and had room for friends--tons of friends--whereas an MG was overtaxed with two pals.

I was a confirmed BMW-aholic when I answered an ad for a $300 Volvo. The elegant woman who sold it to me added, at no extra cost, a New Yorker cartoon of a gloomy guy at a bar, telling his companion, “The only thing I love is my Volvo.” The ’66 122S had 70,000 miles on it. I drove it for years. And I was hooked. There’s something about the out-of-time styling, the never-say-die B18 four-cylinder engine, the “safety” interior, complete with industry-first three-point seatbelts and padded dash.
 A big safety feature in the 122S--that padded dash. Don't laugh, American cars then gave you painted metal and knobs like daggers. (Jim Motavalli photo)I know lots of old Volvo guys, and they’re a devoted lot. Probably the highest placed is none other than former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told me about his ’66 122S wagon in an interview for the New York Times:

At one time I had six, stashed at various places around the [military] post so the MPs wouldn’t find them all. My usual pattern was to fix them mechanically and then do enough body work to get them through a quick Earl Scheib paint job. My cars wouldn’t pass anyone’s magnet test. It’s been great fun and I’ve met a lot of interesting people.

You may have heard of old Volvo owner Irv Gordon, whose 1966 1800S is the most traveled car in the world—more than 3.2 million miles on the odometer now. “I like the new ones, too,” he told me.
 Irv Gordon and his 3.2-million-mile Volvo. He thinks he may have gotten his money out of it now. (Courtesy of Irv Gordon)Turn the clock back to 1966, and Gordon—a young teacher at 26—had been through two brand-new Chevrolets. “They were both lemons,” he said, "and GM refused to stand by the warranties—they didn’t want to fix the problems. So I said I’d never buy a GM car again. A friend who was into foreign cars showed me a magazine about a local Long Island dealer [Volvoville] that was cutting the top off 1800s and making them into convertibles. I drove one and loved it, but couldn’t afford it. I came back with my dad and we bought the red coupe that was in the showroom.”
That was 3.2 million miles ago. So do you think you’ve gotten your money out of it, Irv? “I think so,” he laughs. “It’s still treating me well, never breaks down, and always gets me where I want to go.” Next stop, Hawaii, with an invitation from Castrol.
Another Volvo ownership stereotype is the old hippie, and I’ve seen enough of them on New England “back to the land” farmsteads to say there’s some truth in it. The bastions are the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest. But in the latter, Subaru Outbacks and Priuses have replaced the Volvos. A lot of the old ones are still on the road, though. I talked to some owners.
 Dean and Jayne Koehler with their pristine Volvo 1800ES circa 1978. "It was the shape and styling." One look and they were goners. (Courtesy of Dean Koehler)Dean Koehler of Beaverton, Oregon tells me, “For my wife, Jayne, and I, it was the shape and styling of the 1972-1973 1800ES that entranced us. We actually visited a dealer showroom on a date to gaze at one. Four years later, while on a visit to relatives in Santa Barbara, we saw one with a ‘for sale’ sign drive by and disappear. The familiar lust struck again, and was at last consummated, when, upon driving up into the hills to greet my aunt and uncle, the same lovely ES was sitting in the next door neighbor's driveway!  We still own it 39 years later.”
Mike Gilliland, another Oregon owner, says his attachment was formed early in life. “My memories include pleasant and not-so-pleasant times spent in the back seat of a black 1959 544 with my younger sister in the early 60s, being shuffled to grandma’s house and on (oh-boy...) shopping trips to one of the first malls in the country. This was our main family car. Through long trips to central Oregon and the coast, our trusty Volvo never failed us. The rubber floor mat got a little hot under our bare feet, and putting our foot on the 'hump' while riding in the back seat was verboten by my parents after countless fights for dominance of it. The red-and-white back seat was our domain, with me seated behind the driver, and my sister on the right. Funny how that floor hump and rear seat seems to have shrunk through the years. But I still feel the territory.”   
Today, Mike has an “ant-black” 544, a 123GT (the sporting model) in storage, and just sold both a 1971 1800E and a performance-tweaked 1971 142. Oh, and a 1956 Chevy Bel Air hardtop.
The Saint's old car, at the New York Auto Show's Volvo stand this year. Note the "ST1" license plate. (Jim Motavalli photo)Cheryl Higgins, the owner of a sweet 1966 1800S, says, “I spent a great deal of my childhood in front of the TV,” watching shows  like 77 Sunset Strip, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Car 54, Where Are You? Did that lead to the Volvo? You bet it did, because The Saint drove a Volvo 1800. “That Volvo was my heartthrob; Roger Moore was a distant second,” she said.

Attending Hot August Nights in Reno, circa 2011, she and her husband, Mike, wandered into an auction house for “a cool adult beverage.” There, in a corner, was said 1966 Volvo 1800S. “Isn’t that the car of your dreams?” Mike said. Unfortunately, it was already auctioned.

“As I stood there trying not to drool on this beautiful little powder-blue gem,” Higgins said, “an auction employee approached and informed us that the precious metal object that had eluded me for 47 years had not met minimum bid and was still available to find a loving home. The deal was done in less than an hour.  So after many years and many miles, I now have the man AND the car that make my little world a happy place indeed.” 

Lee Fraitag, until recently the proud owner of a Hyde Park, New York bed-and-breakfast, now has a new obsession—his 1967 Volvo 123GT, which he displayed at the great Rhinebeck Car Show in New York last week. Essentially a 122S with overdrive, a tachometer, fully reclining seats, a special steering wheel and an alternator, it’s quite a rarity today—and priced accordingly.
 Lee Fraitag with his '67 123GT. He learned to drive on its close cousin. (Jim Motavalli photo)Fraitag learned to drive on a 122S. His father, the owner of that car, is from Belgium, and when he found a car with similar parentage (and a big circular “B” on the trunk lid), well, that sealed the deal. He’s wanted an old Volvo for ages, and it’s plain he’s emotionally invested in this new acquisition—which he bought on eBay (here it is on BringATrailer.com in 2014). It needed some (OK, a lot of) straightening out, as they all do.
Essentially, these cars remain as reliable as old boots (as long as they don’t rot away) and a car that gets you home rather than stranded by the side of the road is always going to inspire warm feelings. Here's Lee Fraitag and his 123 GT on video:

Want more? Here's a classic old Volvo ad:

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