When the SCM 1965 Volvo 122S automatic arrived last week, SCMer Dean Koehler arrived to inspect the car.

Dean is the founder and the self-appointed Volvocrat of the PDX Round Fender Volvo Club. He’s also the iron-fisted content arbiter of the PDX Volvos FB page.

As he walked around “ELF” (my powder-blue 122S) he immediately and emphatically said, “Just don’t touch anything on the car. Leave it alone. Don’t modify it like you always do. It runs fine now.”

Dean was right that the new-to-me 122 drove “just fine” as it was.

But “just fine” doesn’t work for me.

By modern standards, “stock” and “just fine” for a 55-year-old car are really pretty crappy.

With all of my cars, I try to make them perform and handle as well as they can, while still being streetable. I don’t worry about increasing power; if they can go 75 mph on the freeway that’s enough.

This can mean eschewing things we used to do like putting new tires that are wider and lower-profile.

Turns out the suspension designers of 1960s sports cars, including Alfas, MGs, Triumphs and Volvos, knew what they were doing when they put 165×15 radial tires on their cars. Skinnier tires with tall sidewalls allow a car to slip-side away through the turns. You can feel like you are going really fast without even approaching the speed limit. And they don’t have rock-hard rides.

This is my recipe for improvements, with apologies to Mr. Koehler.

This same recipe goes for every classic car I own.

I immediately have all the suspension bushings, front and rear, replaced. Period. A car with a loosey-goosey front end is no fun at all.

I find intermediate springs that lower and stiffen the car slightly — but don’t make it rock hard to drive. I prefer Bilsteins for everyday use, as Konis can get a little tooth jarring.

I have the cooling system flushed, and I often replace the thermostat and the radiator cap. They are not expensive and why let a small part strand you? I also renew all the cooling and heater hoses. All of them.

I change the fan belt and put a spare one in the trunk. A shredded fan belt is the one part on an old car that defies an improvised, roadside solution.

I replaced the front windshield gasket on my 122 as it had spent its whole life in dry, hot Southern California. I’d rather replace the gasket BEFORE Oregon rain starts dripping onto my feet.

I always make sure the cigarette lighter socket is hot, so I can plug a USB adapter into it. I also have an auxiliary USB adapter mounted under the dash. Upgrading the car audio is also part of my car upgrades list.

I have a reputation for being the “King of Cupholders” for vintage cars. Keeping a hot latte between my legs on a curvy road isn’t really the fun time I was looking for in an old car. The SLOrolling vintage Volvo group created some purpose-built cupholders, and I am buying a set.

I also have the windshield wiper blades replaced. Why not?

Of course you change all the fluids, including flushing the brake fluid.

I make sure all the window winders work. I want all the lights and switches to operate, including the defroster and heater fan. I upgrade the headlights to halogens.

My 122 had already been upgraded to an alternator. I’m not set on this, as a properly set up generator and regulator will give you plenty of power for most situations.

An electronic ignition had already been installed in my Volvo. Given how little we actually use our old cars, I think a new set of points, a cap, a condenser, plugs and wires will serve you just fine.

I make sure the spare tire is inflated, and the proper tire-changing tools are in the car. I like to have a reflective triangle to put out if I stop by the side of the road.

When all of this is done, I will have doubled my “investment” in the car.

But I need all my vintage cars to start on the button when I want to drive them. I want then to handle as well as they can while still being good on the street. I want the wipers to wipe and the heaters to heat.

I have done exactly the same thing to every one of my classic cars, from the Land Rover 200 TDI turbo-diesel to our now-departed Mehari. Every Alfa is set up this way.

When you are done, you have an old car that is fun to drive and reliable. It isn’t cheap to set up a car this way.  However, you will know that sitting in your garage is a vintage car you can get in to, rain or shine, and head out on a road trip, destination unknown.  And have a hell of a good time driving it.

Isn’t that what it is all about?


  1. Koni vs Bilstein?

    Certainly, each to his own. I spent decades in the imported auto parts biz, and watched many customers buy both. Often, an enthusiast would take their new Konis and crank them up to half or full hard, under the belief that they knew better than Koni.

    Most shocks are soft in compression, and do their real work controlling rebound. Tightening a Koni somewhat stiffens compression, but mostly stiffens rebound.

    Billsteins are the only shock I know with a stiff compression, due to the high pressure gas loading. I’ve driven many Alfas with red Konis on full soft, Bilsteins, and a variety of original shocks.

    For good handling with a comfortable ride, Konis win every time.

  2. I agree with Dean, and I agree with you, Keith.
    As far as I can tell the springs are the only real modification you did? Everything else is just good maintenance. Oh, there is the cup holder thing. I don’t like liquids inside when I’m carving corners, but that’s just me.
    Here’s my classic drive indulgence. I picked up a set of Bose Bluetooth sunglasses. With Spotify on the smartphone, and a flat cap with ear covers, I have reasonable audio, and still hear all the ambient driving sounds. I’ve used it in the Giulietta Sprint, and the Elan with soft top up.

    • I have no radios – or no operating radios, in any of my small sports cars (5). I want nothing but the sounds of the car when I am out for a quick drive in remote areas.

  3. With the exception of the shorter/stiffer springs, I would describe the work you intend to do to the Volvo as “maintenance” not “upgrades”. Things like replacing belts and hoses of unknown age are just prudent; they’re not modifications. I don’t see how Dean Koehler could object to that.

    Personally, I go farther, installing modifications such as alternators, electronic ignition, electric fans, etc. I want to drive my classics with a minimum of worry and that level of modification improves reliability without irreversibly sacrificing originality. Dean might differ on this and I respect his position.

  4. Keith, very honest Amazon, I just sold a project wagon in the same color. I think I agree that you’ve done more maintenance oriented repairs then modifications that shouldn’t bother a soul except for maybe the extreme purist. I on the other hand have jumped off the wagon over the past 8 years as I gradually went from stock to refreshed (much like you did) to now having a bored B20 with dual Webers and swapping in an M41 overdrive from a P1800 along with a full 123GT interior… basically hand picking all the parts from each car of the era to make my own variation of the ultimate vintage Volvo. It’s really gotten out of hand, I’m now swapping in a vintage limited slip in my Dana 27. Sometimes it’s better to just stop at the point where it’s good enough. Enjoy what you have! About that BW35 automatic though…

  5. Perhaps you were not there in 1965 and have forgotten that most European cars used 155X15 and 165X15 tires including all Porsche models. Other tires had not been invented yet.