Roger White has owned enough old British cars and spent enough time hanging out in the repair-shop culture that keeps them running, wrench in one greasy hand, wallet in the other, that he bolted together a story around both to create his recently published murder mystery tale, Tight Corner.
But after a dozen years of engine rebuilds, clutch replacements, blown head gaskets and sundry other instances of mechanical malfeasance that frequently interrupted the enjoyment of his MGB sports car, he gave up and now drives a so far more sturdy mid-1960s Volvo that back in the day was badged as the “Canadian.”
“I loved the MG, it was a lot of fun when it was running but there just seemed to be something major going wrong with it all the time. And I had a hankering for another Volvo,” says the newly published author, whose first effort was recently short-listed for the Crime Writers of Canada’s Best First Novel award.
A pair of 1960s-era Volvos, a hump-backed PV544 and a 122 very similar to the 1965 model he now owns, had provided White with transportation in the past and were recalled with fondness although so, obviously, was the now departed MG.
But if he’s passed on the pleasures of open-air motoring, at least it didn’t involve a sacrifice in driving performance. He says of his two-door coupe, which is powered by a drivetrain from the later 140 model, the first of the “square” style Volvos introduced in the late 1960s: “I guess, compared to a convertible, it seems a little staid. But it’s something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it goes. And they have a reputation for being tough and durable, and are more gainly than they look.”
That look was a styling step ahead from the old PV444/544, a car designed during the Second World War and largely influenced by the final cars produced in the United States in the early 1940s. First seen in 1943, it carried the Volvo nameplate into the post-war era, and did so until it was finally dropped in 1966, a move lamented by many.
Its replacement, the 120 series of 1956, was a more modern design that would lead the Volvo charge into export markets. The 120 series was originally named the Amason (with an s), until German bike maker Kreidler pointed out it was using the name. It then became the Amazon (with a z) in the Swedish market only and employed the numerical identity in other markets, with the exception being Canada and the “Canadian” name.
The 120’s styling was influenced by American iron of the early 1950s but with some Euro-influence, which resulted in the classically conservative look it still wears well. It was available in two, four and station wagon versions and was the first production car (in 1959) to offer three-point belts, and belts period, as standard equipment.
Mechanically, the first 121 was conventional early 1950s, with an independent front/live axle rear suspension and drum brakes. Its 1.6 litre B1600 engine produced 65 hp in single carb form and came with a three-speed manual gearbox, but this was later enlarged to become the B1800, which in twin-carb-form produced 85 hp and came with a four-speed gearbox in the 122S of 1959.
The Amazon/121/Canadian proved rugged, reliable and was a popular import choice in Canada where it became the first model produced by Volvo’s Halifax assembly operation. But the introduction of the more sophisticated 140 series in 1966 eventually resulted in its demise in 1970 after 667,791 had been built.
White is an import himself, having arrived in Canada from Britain in the early 1950s as a four-year-old. He grew up in Oakville, Ont., and then embarked on a Sheridan Colleges journalism course, after which he drove a cab before getting his first reporting job at the Etobicoke Advertiser-Guardian. Jobs on other Ontario dailies and a brief stint at the Toronto Sun followed before he moved to a federal government communications job with Citizenship and Immigration in Toronto eventually moving to Ottawa, where he lives with his wife Nancy.
Now retired, he spends his time “playing with mystery books, playing golf, not very well, and playing with cars with no computers in them.”
He says his first personal transportation encounter was with one of the cheap and cheerful beat-up British sports cars many Oakville teens drove in the 1960s, a 1961 Austin-Healey Sprite purchased for a princely $60. He recalls that in those days – “and the blood runs cold at the thought” – you could sign on with the unsatisfied judgment fund for $60 in lieu of buying insurance.
“Which legally allowed me to drive this wreck,” he says, with its fenders and hood literally tied on, until replaced by an earlier “Bugeye” one piece front end from a wreckers. It blew back one day, smashing the windshield, after which he was stopped by the police and fined $50 for driving an unsafe vehicle, fortunately recouped by selling the car for the same amount.
Various motorbikes a Mini, a VW Beetle, the Volvos and more practical rides followed, including a first generation Miata that preceded the 1979 MGB. “Just a lovely car, but I got bored with it. There was nothing to do to it. I think I changed one light bulb. I got the “B” as a more fun, hands on project.”
A little too hands-on it turned out, as White was lured back into the Volvo fold while “trolling Kijiji” and spotting the Volvo he purchased a couple of years ago from a former Ottawa sportscaster.
He says wife Nancy misses the roadster’s open top but he enjoys its torquey motor and solid character. “I love it, it’s a great old bus,” he says, and is used frequently to tour the Capital Region. “We just enjoy driving it around – looking for the best latte in Merrickville.”
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