One of the stirring sights in Historic Racing in the Gauteng region is to see Alan Poulter’s ancient Volvo mixing it with all manner of giant V8 saloons, racy Alfa Romeos, BMW 2002s and Lotus Cortinas. When you mention race track greats from the 1960s, Volvo isn’t the name that immediately springs to mind. And yet, for three seasons counting down towards the Covid lockdown in early 2020, Alan’s battleship-grey 122S was the overall champion in the Pre-’66 Legends category.
“I’ve done 18 seasons with that car, and if I had to sum up why racing it has been such a pleasure, I would use the word ‘indestructible’ ”, says Alan. “If I’d known about Volvos when I started racing back in 1972, I probably would have used one of them instead of the Cortinas, Corsairs or Datsuns that I raced back then.”
Alan happened upon the 1964 122S two-door by accident, as he has delivering a car to a customer in Boksburg. He saw this old tatty Volvo mouldering away in the back of a workshop, said to his associate Pat Lee that he thought it would make a good race car, and a deal was done. That was more than 18 years ago, and ever since then the Poulter Volvo has been astounding Historic Racing fans with its pace, and the verve with which Alan pedals it.
“I had to scratch around for an engine for the car, and eventually someone sold me two engines and two gearboxes, all in bits and pieces. I ended up fitting a 2,0-litre motor, which I had bored and stroked to 2,2 litres. And later on I developed a bigger 2,5-litre version of the same motor, which is in the car today.”
Having served an apprenticeship at VOMS engineering works in the 1960s, Alan soon learned all about race cars, as VOMS was the place where shrewd racing types went to have any sort of engineering work done. The famous camshaft man, Richie Jute, worked there at the time, as did many other men who practised their racing craft over the weekends.
Alan started racing on oval circuits at the old Wembley track in Jo’burg, and later graduated to the Castrol Clubmans series at Kyalami, Welkom and Zwartkops, where he campaigned what was described as “the world’s fastest panel van” a Datsun 140Y van fitted with an indecently quick SSS-based engine.
“I eventually wrote the Datsun off at Midvaal, and that’s when the Volvo came along. I learned everything about the Volvo myself, because at the time no-one was racing them. Lawsons, the Volvo importers, ran endurance 122S in the 1960s and they did well in rallies because they were so solid, but they were never in the speed league of the hot Alfas, the Lotus Cortinas, cars such as those.
“I used an 1800 cylinder head on my car to get the compression up to 12,5:1 and fitted much bigger inlet valves, because I’ve always believed in that. Experts told me it wouldn’t work, but it did. I fitted the 48 mm Weber side-draught carbs I had from the Datsun van, and Richie Jute recommended a T800 camshaft, and that’s the mix I still use.
“I also managed to lighten the Volvo a lot, because 122s are heavy cars. I fitted a much lighter cross member; the Alfa Berlina limited slip diff used is about 40 kg lighter than the original Volvo diff, and all in all I think we’ve made the car about 300 kg lighter than standard. Recently, with the help of Pat, I moved the seat way back to get the balance better, and I also have brake-bias adjustment on the car. But there’s nothing really that ‘trick’ about it. It’s all pretty much stuff I had lying around. The Wilwood racing brakes I use up front I bought second-hand for five grand, and they have been in the car for the past eight years, and I have never even changed the pads!”
Alan says one of the advantages the Volvo has is that it can run 15-inch wheels, because that’s the way the cars were back in the 1960s. Historic racing rules don’t permit fitting bigger diameter wheels than what the cars’ originally came with, a rule meant to preserve the aesthetic purity of historic racers. So Cortinas, for instance, are stuck with 13-inch wheels and smaller brakes, and this gives Alan a big advantage.
“The car is a hell of a lot lower than standard too. It runs the same wishbone design up front and coils at the back, but I have modified them. And I use coil-over dampers front, and rear, which I also had in stock from my Datsun panel van racing days. Those shocks are over 20 years old.”
All of the above is testimony to the race craft of Alan Poulter and Pat Lee, as far as building cars that handle, stop and go. But Alan’s driving is also a huge factor. He says part of the reason he is still quick behind the wheel is that now, at the age of 70, he has only missed one season of racing since he started in 1972, and that was when he was building up his home workshop in Glen Austin, known as SA Swiss Auto Services.
As for the amazing reliability of his 57-year-old car, after 18 seasons of racing, he says he changes the oil after each and every race, and sends the old oil away to a specialist for analysis. On more than one occasion, the specialist has picked up a problem with a bearing that is about to run, and saved him a lot of heartache in terms of having to do a full engine rebuild.
If you visit SA Swiss in Glen Austin, just up the road from the old Teasers restaurant, you are more than likely to think you have entered a time warp, thanks to all the classic road cars and historic racers scattered around. But the firm’s bread and butter is in fact normal servicing of late-model cars which are out of warranty.
Apart from the race Volvo, and his classic Cortina Perana V6 that he campaigns in Historics from time to time, Alan owns a collection of classic cars, nothing fancy, more likely ones that mean something to him personally. He has a bunch of Fords, Corsairs, Zodiacs and the like, but he also owns five road-going Volvos.
The ones we used for the photo shoot are typical of Alan’s tastes in road cars “I’ve never really gone for standard cars, I prefer the whole street-modified look.”
Hence his classic road-going 122S, painted black, with a set of rust-red, widened steel wheels, white wall tyres (“just for fun”), spotlights behind the grille, and a super-low ride height. The road-going 122S came his way also by accident, and he bought it as a rust bucket, that he was going to turn into a race car.
In fact it runs the 2,2-litre engine that was previously in the grey race car, but with a set of S.U. carbs to make it more street-able. “It goes very well. In fact, I have seen the speedo way off the clock in fourth gear, at 7 000 rpm, and that’s close to 200 km/h.”
The hump-backed PV544 is a fairly new addition to his stable. It also came his way as a car intended for racing, but Alan decided it was too original to turn into a track car. It runs a 2,0-litre 122S motor with Weber side draughts and a hot cam, and Alan has also lowered the car, and fitted wheels from a Ranger bakkie that he happened to have in his store. The 544 came without bumpers, so Alan completed the café-racer look by fitting a small nerf bar to accept a pair of spotlights up front, and there is almost no trim on the car.
Alan says the reason he has so many Volvos is that because he races one, so every time one comes up for sale, people phone him up to see if he wants to buy another one. Lately he has been doing a lot of engine work for owners of very expensive classic Mercedes-Benz models. But when he goes on a Merc owners club run, more often than not it will be in the white PV544, and apparently the Merc owners love it!
Story by Stuart Johnston
Pics by Jay Groat