It was the car that launched Volvo onto the international stage.

It was 1956 that Volvo launched the Amazon sedan. And it was totally unlike anything Volvo had ever built before.

Where the previous PV444 had been a decidedly dumpy thing, here was an handsome, elegant design that drew influences from Italian and American cars. It was the work of 26-year old Jan Wilsgaard, who went on to become Volvo’s chief designer and stayed with the company into the 1990s.

There are some rights issues with the Amazon name - taken from the female warriors of Greek mythology - so it was actually designated 121 or 122 in many markets. Both were powered by the 1.8-liter, four-cylinder B18 engine, but the 122 had slightly more power. Even though some pedants refer to it as the 120 series, it's universally known as Amazon.

In 1958, the Amazon Sport was added to the range, equipped with a twin-carb engine making 85 horsepower (63 kilowatts). In 1962 a wagon version was launched alongside the existing two- and four-door sedans, and 1967 saw the introduction of the 123GT. With 115 hp (86 kW), it was a proper sports saloon.

The Amazon was an immediate success, particularly in export markets which accounted for 60 per cent of the total production run. Indeed, the Amazon was Volvo’s first car to sell in significant numbers beyond the Swedish home market. And it cemented the image we still have of Volvo as a maker of rational, refined, quietly stylish, and safe cars.

A number of safety innovations were included on the Amazon, including industry-first standard-fit front seatbelts. And it was a Volvo engineer who developed the three-point ‘belt, which was added in 1962. Volvo claims it has saved more than a million lives since then.

The Amazon remained in production until 1970, despite the 1966 introduction of the more modern 140 series. A total of 667,791 were built and many are still around - Volvo claims 8 per cent of the Amazons sold in Sweden still exist. It's not just a classic curiosity, either, as they remain genuinely usable.

Volvo has been through ups and downs in the last 60 years, but is now thriving under Chinese owner Geely. But if not for the Amazon, there's a chance it may not still be around at all.

Be part of something big