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As the transporter’s ramp gently touches the pavement, its side doors slowly swinging open, the sense of workmanship that has gone into Declan Burke’s Volvo Amazon 123GT quickly becomes apparent
The Pearl White paintwork is perfect, each mirror-like panel reflecting an incredulous expression in crystal-clear detail.
The gaps are millimetre-accurate, the chrome impeccable, the dark red interior so fresh that you can almost smell the leather through the window glass.
Underneath, its immaculate painted floor glistens like driven snow, an order of magnitude cleaner than when it left the factory in 1968.
Preparing a car to this standard isn’t easy.
It takes a level of dedication and an attention to detail that will be alien to most, and only truly appreciated by those who have got down on their knees to scrub tyre treads with a toothbrush.
In Burke’s case, the desire to be the best was passed down from his father, Tony, an Amazon fanatic who took a 100,000-mile 122S and turned it into a concours legend.
“He always had an affection for Amazons because of the build quality and styling,” says Burke, “but it wasn’t until around 1983 that he started showing them.
“He’d been inspired by a red 121 owned by club man Barry Unicom, so he took his car off the road and carried out a top-side restoration.”
“He did quite well, but was told that to reach the next level he would have to restore the underside to the same standard,” Burke continues.
“So he took six months off work, lifted the car on three feet of scaffolding and painstakingly scraped off all the underseal with a chisel before preparing and painting the floor and arches – only to take it off again,” he laughs.
“His friend Chris pointed out that the shade was slightly wrong – he wasn’t satisfied with that.”
As his obsession grew, Burke’s father took aim at some of the biggest concours titles, winning the International Concours Championship at Syon Park and the Benson & Hedges Masters Class Championship as the 1980s drew to a close.
“He would spend days preparing for a show, cleaning the car in fanatical detail,” remembers Burke.
“He was a self-employed mechanic and engineer, but you could almost say he was an artist. He regularly beat six-figure E-types and Astons fresh out of restoration, but he didn’t have a big budget; he had no resources other than his own two hands.”
By the mid-1990s Burke’s father’s interest in the Volvo and concours competitions began to wane, and he sold the 122S along with a wagon he had built for his wife.
“I think he’d just done with it. He’d achieved what he wanted to. It was the same with all his hobbies; he did it with antique clocks. When he sold the car he moved on to fish, filling the garden with Koi carp.”
Beaulieu Garage ran the Volvo for a short time before moving it on in 1998, when a gentleman named Ed Carter flew in from South Carolina and went home with the Amazon, most likely taking the estate as well.
At the point it left the country both Burke and the Volvo Owners’ Club lost touch with ‘KBY’. Burke Snr died in 2014 having never again seen his beloved Volvo, but the memories were still treasured by his son.
“Two or three years after he passed away I thought ‘you know what, I’m going to get an Amazon’,” Burke says.
“I’d always wanted a GT. It’s a super-rare car. Volvo only made 1500 or so – 300 of those are right-hand drive, and I believe there are only six or seven in white in the UK.”
As well as the two fewer doors compared to the 122S – the Amazon was officially the 120 Series outside Sweden – the 123GT brought a number of desirable upgrades in 1967 that set it apart from the more mundane 1583cc, 85bhp four-door saloon launched a decade earlier.
Power came via a high-compression 1778cc B18B engine lifted from the sporty 1800S, while the new model was fitted with foglights, driving lights and wing mirrors.
Neat interior touches included Recaro reclining seats, a new steering wheel and a racy dash-mounted tachometer.
“Volvo claimed it was a bit faster because it had a slightly different ratio in the final drive, which was out of an estate, and that allowed them to publish a slightly quicker 0-60 time,” explains Burke.
“It was all smoke and mirrors. The engine was no more powerful – it was 115bhp out of the factory.
“I found the GT as an old scrapper, really, with the intention of doing a rolling restoration. I then moved to a new house with a garage and thought I’d like to do a rebuild in the same vein Dad did his – using all of his old tools and doing all the work myself – to see if I could put into practice all the things I’d picked up from him over the years.
“It quickly turned into a much more extensive project than he ever took on; before I knew it I had the car up on a rotisserie, chopping out floorpans and cutting out rear quarter panels. I had to fabricate a new boot floor, and went to Holland to get a door.
“I drove to darkest Devon to pick up a door one day – you just can’t find many of those bits.”
Just as Burke started tearing into his new project, whispers began to circulate that his father’s old car was back in the country.
Then came a phone call from Amazon registrar Peter Ragg, explaining that the 122 had resurfaced at a dealership in Cheshire and had been bought by new club member Rob Green.
“I was hugely surprised to find out it was still around,” says Burke. “If I’d known it was for sale… but everything works out for a reason.
“I got chatting to Rob and I’m so thankful it’s gone to such a great guy, someone who’s interested in its history. And someone who uses it!
“The car spent so many years under a cover in the garage, to see it being used is just magic.”
“Cars go through different phases,” muses Green. “It’ll never be the same concours car again, and it wouldn’t be right to do that, I don’t think.
“It’s still in really good nick for its age, with a fresh layer of paint that maybe wasn’t the best job, but it certainly freshened it up.
“The car was in the States from 1998 until 2005, after which David Wellman bought it before starting Sunningdale Classics.
“He put about 3000 miles on the Amazon and I bought it in 2016.”
“It was nice enough underneath, a bit of surface rust on nuts and bolts but nothing major,” continues Green.
“They’d put a new windscreen in, which was leaking when I got it so the carpets were sodden. I had to lift them to clean surface rust off the floors. They’re getting a bit thin in places so it may need new floor panels at some point.
“I’ve refurbished the carburettors and brakes, painted bits and pieces and re-chromed the rocker cover and mirrors.
“The bumpers are original, though I painted the inside with silver Hammerite to stop the rust.”
Unbeknown to Burke, Green and Ragg had hatched a plan to reunite his new project with his father’s old car at the NEC Classic Motor Show in late 2019, launching a concerted campaign to convince him to finish his car for the deadline.
“It was around April,” recalls Burke. “I’d just ordered the engine and was around halfway through the build when Peter called me.
“I thought it was too soon, it wasn’t doable. But he kept on and on at me, before eventually admitting he was planning a surprise.
“Of course I realised it was a once in a lifetime opportunity – all I could think about was driving into the NEC and pulling up alongside Rob’s car. To see the pair of them together would be incredible.”
With a target of mid-November now in his sights, Burke redoubled his efforts, working late into the night and throughout weekends with the help of his dad’s pal and Volvo Owners’ Club stalwart Chris Keaveney.
“Without him there’s no way I would have made it to the NEC,” says Burke. “He helped me with everything.
“The motor went in first. It’s a very special build by Ben Flierman at Tinustuning in The Netherlands. He’s probably the best Volvo race-engine builder in the world.
“With around 115bhp from the factory I knew it was never going to satisfy me or light my fire. I wanted a car that was torquey as hell but still driveable, so he built a B20 engine with a stroker crank and it’s now 2.5 litres.
“It’s got an aggressive rally cam, has had the head ported to match the inlet and exhaust manifold and is fitted with twin 45DCOE Webers, paired with an M41J, G-type gearbox, which has bigger bearings. It’ll be pushing 200bhp with around 240lb ft of torque – not bad considering where it started!”
Compared with the gentle burble of Green’s saloon, the two-door is something of an animal, snarling angrily through its stainless-steel exhaust with the lightest tickle of the accelerator pedal.
“It’s very lively,” Burke says with a smile. “You don’t have to give it much throttle and it just wants to go. It should be good for 6-6500rpm – there are a lot of lightweight race components, including pistons and rods, and the crank alone cost £3000.”
An all-round drop of 60mm was achieved through a combination of Classic Swede lowering springs and GAZ adjustable dampers, with Superflex polyurethane bushes throughout, while a number of rare parts were sourced from the widow of a club member who knew his father.
Among the treasure trove was a rare Nordic rocker cover, which now adorns the engine, plus new-old-stock early grilles, which are now near-impossible to find.
Like his old man, Burke tackled almost every aspect of the build himself, including a paint scheme that matched KBY’s white body and contrasting black roof.
“Everything on the car, from panelwork to paintwork, I had to learn how to do myself,” he enthuses. “How to weld, and how to spray, everything.”
More than 120 hours went in to wet-sanding and polishing the GT’s now pristine paintwork, its inspiration always coming from the memories of his father and his admirable work ethic.
“I never saw Dad with a rotary mop or dual-action polisher,” Burke beams. “He did it all by hand. He would approach a job with a vision and wouldn’t walk away until he achieved it.
“I’m pretty fussy, but I know the limits of my patience and what I’m prepared to commit in terms of time. Dad didn’t have that – he would just work, overcoming any lack of capability or resource with bloody hard graft.”
Through a combination of grit, determination and his understanding other half, Jess, Burke put the finishing touches to his 123GT just in time for the show.
“I was in the garage until 3am on the day of the event,” he laughs. “I had an hour and a half’s sleep, it was that close to the wire. I had so little time I didn’t even road test it; the first time I drove it was off the trailer.
“It was very emotional. My mum came down, and she hadn’t seen KBY since the late 1990s. It was hard for her, but at the same time she knew how much work I’d put in to my car and how special it was.
“It was such a nice way to remember someone. This was the car of my childhood,” he says, motioning to the four-door. “To see it parked next to my GT in the same colour scheme was incredible. It’s been a mad journey.”
With the two-year build now complete, a pampered life of being preened and polished on the show circuit could beckon.
But, despite his fond memories, there are no plans to prepare the car for such competition.
“Concours can be an unhealthy obsession,” says Burke wistfully. “And I didn’t do it for that. I built the car as a tribute to my dad. I’m not going to worry about stone-chips – I’m going to get out there and drive it.”
Images: Will Williams