Estates of the nations. Need plenty of space in your classic, but don’t want to sacrifice style? Look no further than this European trio. Words Andrew Roberts. Photography Tony Baker.
WAGONS ON A ROLL Classy load-luggers for the middle classes from Triumph, Fiat and Volvo
For a long-term enthusiast of both ’60s culture and fine estate cars, this group is a dream come true. You can just imagine a go-ahead chap – it was more likely to have been a ‘chap’ circa 1967 – somewhere near Weybridge compiling a shortlist of prestigious station wagons that offered comfort and a reasonable degree of performance, while also reflecting his status as the sharpest management accountant south of the Thames. And, being a Continental-minded sort of a gent – he once read Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book – he’s even prepared to consider one of those ‘foreign jobs’, such as a Fiat 2300 Familiare or a Volvo 221, as well as a Triumph 2000.
The 2300 is the rarest of our trio, despite Fiat being one of the few overseas car manufacturers to offer a full range of cars to British motorists during the 1960s; Iain Salmon’s 1967 model is believed to be the only one on the road in the UK. When Turin was planning a replacement for the 1950-’1959 1400/1900 range, it was aiming at a car that would combine bourgeois propriety with a dynamic appearance, a vehicle that was suited to autostrada and town use alike. The coachwork was understated, combining a contemporary look that wasn’t overly flamboyant with fins that denoted a new Fiat that was at least partially aimed at the US market.
The original 1800 and 2100 models made their debut in 1959, the latter powered by a straight-six, followed a few months later by the Familiare. In 1961, the 2100 was replaced by the quad-headlamp 2300, which featured an Aurelio Lampredi-designed engine with an aluminium cylinder head. Back then, Fiat’s London dealer was Jack Barclay, so anyone wishing to arrange a test drive could enjoy the social cachet of dialling ‘Mayfair 7444’. That same year came the 2300S flagship, but today the wagon is a far more exclusive sight. From a 2018 perspective, a Fiat 2300 is not so much chic as downright glamorous; it also has the air of being transport for a gang of enemy agents in an Italian B-film or an Incorporated Television Company series.
The Familiare marked quite a departure for Fiat, being its first large station wagon to deliberately target the affluent leisure market. Giovanni Agnelli, the firm’s playboy president, used a 2300 for his golfing trips and a ‘Fiat Wagon’ would be equally at home outside the Connecticut villa of an up-and-coming corporate lawyer. In 1963, Motor regarded the Familiare as ‘smooth, quiet, fast, extravagantly equipped and meticulously finished’, and the Fiat does seem rather too svelte for mere workhorse duties. The polished finish of the load compartment’s slatted floor suggests the world of the exclusive clubhouse rather than the building site. The passenger area strikes a balance between the luxurious and the practical, with separate reclining backrests on the front bench, warning lamps on the leading edges of the doors and even a hand throttle – it is never a wise idea to confuse the latter with the choke.
From 1966 onwards, the 2300 became the first Fiat to be offered with a fully automatic transmission and the Borg-Warner ’box is perfectly matched to the 2.3-litre engine. Naturally, the selector is mounted on the steering column, which is entirely in keeping with a car that makes a delightful long-distance cruiser. With disc brakes on all four wheels and that refined engine note, there’s an air of unassuming but genuine sophistication that cars costing thousands more would struggle to match. Fiat claimed, without undue modesty, that the 2300 was ‘a noble vehicle for city or open road’ with performance that ‘fills you with enthusiasm’.
Hearing the soft purr of the straight-six motor as the needle effortlessly moves across the strip speedometer is enough to bear out those claims. Our next car is the most commonly encountered, testament to its durability and its impact on European middle-class motoring for over five decades. The 221 was not the firm’s first estate car – that honour goes to the 1953 Duett – but it was the first Volvo wagon based on a saloon rather than a light commercial vehicle. Known as the Amazon in its homeland, the saloon was launched in ’1956, with UK imports commencing in ’1958; four years later, Volvo proudly announced ‘an exclusive estate car, designed for European conditions’ that would be shown for the first time at the Stockholm Motor Show. From the B-pillar forwards the wagon was identical to the saloon, but the roof was strengthened and the rear side doors were unique to the load-lugger.
The price of the Amazon estate meant that it occupied a rather different sector of the market to the Duett, so the older model remained in production. The 221 rapidly became de rigueur for the ambitious Swedish professional, and was also the first of an extensive line of Volvo wagons to win favour in the most respectable of circles. Imports started in ’1963, and Autocar regarded the Amazon as ‘a chunky practical car, well-equipped in plain fashion’. By the middle of the decade, Volvo estates were being used by antique dealers and gentleman farmers alike, while 221s were also seen in the driveways of haute suburbia.
Like the saloon, the 221 estate (although they were never badged as such) was first powered by the 1.8-litre B18 engine, gaining servo-assisted front disc brakes in 1964. This 1968 example has a later B20 2-litre unit that, when combined with overdrive, makes the Volvo ideal for towing a caravan, according to owners Jayne and Simon Gill. Of course, comparatively few British Volvo drivers of the 1960s would have been interested in appearing contemporary, for although the Amazon’s styling was not as time-locked as a Vauxhall Cresta PA, it certainly did not seem especially up-to-the-minute by the late ’60s.
If the Triumph was the car for the young professional and the Fiat for a Kingston bypass version of La Dolce Vita, the Volvo looked as though it hailed from the previous decade – but this was part of its appeal. After all, true quality is above the mere vagaries of fashion.
Better still, the Volvo belongs together with the Z-series MG Magnette and the Borgward Isabella in an exclusive club of ‘Designs whose abilities belie their age’. The Amazon steers, stops, corners and generally behaves in a manner that can lead you to believe that you are piloting a much younger car, with the dashboard and the thick windscreen pillars as reminders of its ’50s origins. The body is replete with clever details such as the lumbar-support adjusters on the front seats, the integral steps on the rear overriders so that the owner can adjust a roof-rack with ease, and the hinged back numberplate so that it can remain visible if the bottom half of the tailgate is lowered. The 221 is by far the most versatile member of this line-up, for unlike the Fiat and the Triumph – both of which are too smart to carry anything less than Gucci suitcases – the 221’s hard-wearing luggage compartment is ready to accommodate hay bales or crates of Dresden china with equal aplomb.
Finally, we have the Triumph, and your initial impression is just how small it is by modern standards. The 2000 always seems a substantial vehicle, but it is in fact not much longer than a modern Vauxhall Astra – indeed, each of these cars measures less than 15ft in length. The Volvo and the Fiat both have an extensively elongated roofline, but the 2000’s sloping tail anticipates the forthcoming Saab 99 Combi or the Audi 100 Avant. John Kelly’s extensively restored, and now very rare, 1967 example is a reminder that the Triumph was as much a very stylish five-door saloon as a practical estate car.
If you needed an idea of how the Triumph marque had established itself as the British equivalent of Alfa Romeo or Lancia by the ’60s, just take a glance at the 2000. It is nearly impossible to believe that just two years separate the last Standard Vanguard Luxury Six station wagons from the first of these Triumph estates, so different are their images. The cars share an engine, but while the Standard always carried overtones of National Service and cups of tea in a Lyons Corner House, the Triumph was clearly a machine for the motorway age The 2000 Estate was originally planned alongside the saloon, but wouldn’t appear until two years after the four-door’s unveiling at the 1963 London Motor Show. One challenge for Triumph was to ensure that the Michelotti lines were not marred for the station wagon. Saloon bodies were despatched from Pressed Steel of Swindon to Carbodies in Coventry, and the fuel tank was relocated to accommodate the load bay. The rear suspension was uprated and the result was a model that created its own niche.
When the Triumph estate made its debut, the Humber Hawk had a four-cylinder engine and a middle-aged look, while the Ford Zodiac MkIII Farnham and the Martin Walter-bodied Vauxhall Cresta PB were both larger and self-consciously transatlantic. The Ford Corsair Estate was closer in size to the Triumph but, crucially, lacked that ‘executive’ ambience.
As with all post-1966 2000 Mk1s, there is an improved dashboard with a clock and fresh-air vents (apparently designed to cool the front occupants’ kneecaps), while the seats are upholstered in leather. The cabin seamlessly blends the ethos of an aircraft cockpit with an MD’s office, and one charming – if impractical – detail is the way the wood veneer continues into the load bay. The 2000’s suspension and steering provide an excellent balance between a GT and business transport, while there is space to convey two or three clients on the rear bench.
The ethos of the Triumph is best illustrated by the commercials for National Petrol, in which ‘getaway people’ would cruise along the beach and act in a swinging manner. That’s the aspirational world of the 2000 Estate: while the reality may be a business trip to an Uxbridge building site, with the silky 2-litre straight-six a Triumph driver could envisage becoming a junior member of the jet set. In the words of Leyland’s 1966 campaign, this was an ‘extraordinary combination of aesthetic and functional values’.
The Amazon was discontinued in ’1969, having been supplemented by the 145 two years earlier, while the Triumph was replaced by the longnosed Mk2 in the same year. The Fiat ceased production in ’1968 leaving no real successor, the 130 never being officially offered as a five-door.
Each member of this group would have represented tremendous value 50 years ago, and so individual are they in appeal that you’d really need to purchase all three. On weekdays, the Triumph is ideal for speeding towards the next project designed to ruin the London skyline, saving the Volvo for weekend visits to gymkhanas, ignoring the occasional grumble from retired colonels about a lack of patriotism.
That leaves the Fiat, the perfect estate car for motoring along the Dorset coast on a summer evening, listening to Paul Mauriat performing Love is Blue. I’ve craved the full-scale version ever since I first saw the Dinky model of the ‘2300 Station Wagon’, and after this encounter that ambition has only intensified.
Thanks to Amazon Cars (www.amazoncars.co.uk); Alan Chatterton and the Triumph 2000 2500 2.5 Register (www.triumph2000register.co.uk); Flying Club Conington (www.aerolease.co.uk)