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Dozens of vintage Volvos roll into Fairbanks after long drive from Panama

Dermot Cole
JanHenk Hermans, left, and Frits Antonius, right, represented the Volvo vanguard of a collection of 56 vintage Volvos that reached Fairbanks on Sunday, Aug. 17 2014 after a drive that began more than five weeks prior in Panama. They hope to hit Deadhorse at the northern end of the Dalton Highway before turning south for Anchorage. Dermot Cole / Alaska Dispatch News

FAIRBANKS -- They may not be from the automaker's home country of Sweden, but the 56 two-member teams of drivers who pulled into Fairbanks Sunday say there are no limits to how far they'll go in vintage Volvos.

That's why they have spent the past five weeks driving about 10,000 miles from Panama to Alaska in various models of old Volvos, most built 40 or 50 years ago and bedecked with international decals and license plates.

To take part in the “Volvo Classics -- Panamericana/Indian Trail” journey, the drivers had to own one of the classics -- the Duett, the Amazon, the Volvo 140, the Volvo 240, the Volvo 164 or the P1800.

There is no minimum age for the drivers, but most have been around a good deal longer than their Volvos. About 12 of the teams hope to head for Deadhorse Monday for a trip to the edge of the Arctic Ocean, while the others plan to motor toward Denali National Park before going to Anchorage.

Three of the teams are from Germany. The rest are from Holland.

Many of the drivers are retired professionals and business people. Several have participated in long-distance ventures with their Volvos before, including driving the length of South America and driving to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.

One of the vehicles hit a cow in Central America, but other than that the trip has been a smooth one, as far as accidents go, though there have been multiple mechanical issues -- despite the Volvo being the world's finest car, drivers said.

There are three mechanical teams with the convoy and a truck that carries many spare parts. Many of the cars also have supplies of extra parts with them.

"It's a safe car," Frits Antonius said of the Volvo. The name means "I roll" in Latin and the one he drives at the moment has rolled about 2 million kilometers -- more than a million miles -- so far. He has owned and driven his orange 1972 Volvo for about 35 years. He rebuilt it about 10 years ago. His teammate on the trip is JanHenk Hermans, a retired IT architect from the Netherlands.

"Volvo is a safe car. You can trust it on any road. And the chairs where you are sitting are perfect," said Antonius, a retired mechanical engineer who worked for Volvo for 35 years. He said there are two things that make a good car: the driver, and the vehicle's mechanical operation.

"If you have a bad driver you have a bad car, no matter what it is," he said. The trip so far has been a good one for him, Antonius said, with only two flat tires in Honduras.

A sign on the back proclaims in Spanish: "I'm not an antique. I'm a classic."

Like many of the other cars on the tour, Antonius has his covered in decals. When asked, he explained each one and said that he also drives the car at home every day and will keep the decals in place for the next year. The hood of the car features an illustration of a famous Dutch windmill built in 1791, as well as tulips and wooden shoes.

Orange is the national color of the Netherlands and he has a website, which translates into "my orange Volvo" in English. He wore an orange shirt Sunday. 

Two years ago Antonius drove from the southern tip of South America to Panama with some of the same Volvo fanatics as on this trip.

Fairbanksan Bob Anderson, who recently went to Sweden to buy a new 2014 Volvo, met Antonius and Hermans at the Wedgewood Resort Sunday and exchanged comments about their appreciation for the Volvo.

"I heard a radio interview this week and I thought I would drop by and see the cars," he said. "It's too new for the trip, but it still shares the lineage."

The company is now owned by the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., a Chinese firm, though new Volvos are not what this gathering is all about.

In addition to having fun on their journey, Antonius said they are raising money for an auto mechanics education program in Honduras. He said when they take a trip they want to make a charitable contribution of some kind along the way.

"We are all lunatics. When you are completely sane you don't do this," said Martien van der Valk, a Dutch businessman, when asked why Volvos, and why make the trip. "But it is very enjoyable to do. Also the people are great."

About five years ago he and his wife visited Fairbanks, but he wanted to see the northern part of the state. Asked how many kilometers are on his 1965 Volvo station wagon, he replied 74,000, a low number, relative to the mileage some of his peers have accumulated.

"That's very low, yes, but I don't know how many times it has gone around because it only goes to 100,000 and then it goes around again," he said.