HARDBARNED! The Blog

My Volvo 240 Wagon (Slow, Heavy, Practical, Timeless)

In February 2013, I wrote to Volvo’s North-American car division headquarters because I wanted to suggest that they start remanufacturing my 20-year-old 240 wagon (AKA the 245, AKA the Classic, AKA the Brick), the greatest rectangular grandma grocery-getter ever built, a 114 horsepower, 26 mpg rear-wheel driven gear-hauling beast of weather-proofed-pickup-truck capacity if there ever was one.

I have some weird complex about writing letters to corporations, usually when I'm pissed off. Okay, maybe the Volvo 240 wagon never was sexy. I can admit that. Mine isn't a turbo or a crazy V8 mod, so it sure as hell isn't going to win any races, but it'll damn well get you there and keep you and your junk safe along the way. Yeah, it was boxy, but it was good.* It still is. Volvo is Latin for "I roll." I still do.

After an impressive 19-year run, the 240 series was sadly discontinued in 1993, when Volvo was still owned by the Swedes, before the brand eponymous with safety, reliability, longevity and practicality was sold, first to Ford and then again to Geely, a Chinese company that sounds like it should be making ice cream or something. Volvo no longer boasts a single wagon in their entire lineup, as the "crossover SUV" (XSUV) appears to be the vehicle du jour for American new-car buyers. I'm not sure why a jacked-up, top heavy, insect-like gas guzzler appeals to so many drivers, but everyone sells XSUVs now.

These days, Volvo sells several of these and a few sedans, but to me, there is nothing iconic about their designs anymore. Today's Volvos look like everything else and at a glance could easily pass for a Ford, Lexus, Infiniti, Nissan or Toyota. Volvo designs were once distinctive, like my 240 or the 140, the P1800 or the Amazon. Check out the Volvo Club of America for great pictures of unique Volvo design specimens of the past, still of showroom quality and on the road today. Another of those inimitable Volvo designs, a meticulously maintained P1800S, is about to hit three million miles on the road. I drove a Camry for a decade (and 208K miles) between the two Volvo wagons I've owned, and it was a great car, but come on, three million miles? I loved what you did for me, but take that, Toyota.

Yes, old Volvos are that good, but maybe I’m biased. Maybe I actually do have irrational reasons for buying the most rational of cars. I grew up with 240s and learned to drive on my Dad's 1982 240DL sedan (four speed manual with overdrive). That sedan also happened to transport the two of us 15,000 miles around North America one summer of 1991 when I was a teenager. The trip began and ended at our home in Tennessee and included memorable stops at the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mexico, Canada, Universal Studios Los Angeles and many beautiful vistas along the Pacific Coast Highway.

I don't remember ever having car trouble or even being uncomfortable. What I do remember is a fantastic trip with my Dad in a truly great car that made a lasting impression. Dad held onto that 240 for 17 years and 373,000+ miles before he finally traded it in for a Camry. A few years after learning on Dad's Volvo, I bought my mom's five-speed manual 1987 240DL wagon, and she picked up a 1990 240DL sedan to replace it. Her sedan ended up saving her life when she was T-boned by the careless driver of a PT Cruiser, perhaps the ugliest "retro" car design ever made. The 240's airbag broke Mom's nose, and other than that (and being traumatized and a little banged up) she was fine. She replaced that second Volvo with a third.

Mom's original wagon hauled me safely to and from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to my home in Tennessee (12 hours) many times, as it did on many other road trips, like a dive trip to Key Largo and back (14 hours each way) without problems. I drove it for five years. When the manual transmission started to fail after 225,000 miles, I kept driving it until I only had functional second, fifth and reverse gears. Unwilling to part with my beloved wagon, I took out a loan from my Granddad and installed a factory reconditioned Volvo transmission. Luck was not on my side. Four months later, the engine overheated, the head gasket blew, and I was forced to retire Hugo the blue 240 instead of taking out a loan for new Volvo guts for my beloved all-purpose ride.

I was crushed when I had to sell the crippled car and fully intended to one day find (and afford to fix and maintain) a replacement. My life and career went through many transitions, but after 12 years of searching, I found my wagon. For years I received email updates from eBay whenever 240 wagons went up for sale, anywhere across the country. I rarely made a bid but carefully eyed the going rates and condition of the few wagons that caught my eye. Many were sold (and continue to be), but not that many were (or are) up to my standards.

In November 2012, well over a decade after losing my 1987 240DL wagon, I replaced it with a 1993 Classic Limited 240 wagon. I flew to New Hampshire to pick it up, and though I had planned to break the trip home into two days, I was so happy to be back in my own 245 after so many years that (with a little help from some caffeinated beverages) I immediately drove it 21 hours straight back home without a single problem. I hope and expect to drive, maintain and enjoy this car for many decades to come.

So Volvo owners "think different" like Apple users? Could be. So far, my 245 Classic has not given me a bit of trouble, but I’ve been investing in it. After purchasing the car for considerably less than I expected, I decided to do some comprehensive, preventive maintenance and upgrades, end-to-end, basically just to build up the car from day one, as it was already 20 years old, but it barely had around 120,000 miles, which was just breaking it in. I plan on keeping it on the road and using it, not storing it like a collector’s item. I realize all cars will deteriorate with age and use, but I wanted to start out with everything in as nice and ship-shape fashion as I could, making it feel more like my own. As I understand it, only 1600 Classic Limited models were made, and of those, 800 were wagons. Of those 800, rumor has it that only four had manual transmissions; I can’t confirm this, of course. Of those four, I may have the only one with a sunroof, but I can’t confirm that either. It’s aftermarket, but it’s a great addition that I was always on the lookout for. Dad's 240 had one, of course.

Who knows if Volvo will consider my idea of reanimating the 240 series? Revamping a popular model from a bygone era seems to have worked pretty well for Volkswagen’s relaunched Beetle, despite Tyler Durden's opinion in Fight Club. Though Chuck Palahniuk hadn't mentioned it in his novel, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton were offended by Volkswagen's late 90s redesign and thought that the old Beetle was synonymous with the 60s counter-culture and anti-establishment mentality--that somehow repackaging that symbol was a crass attempt to commodify the previous generation's youth culture and sell an ideal to the next. I loved both the book and David Fincher's film adaptation, but a car's a car. It either looks good or it doesn't. If a car makes you feel warm and fuzzy, counter-cultural, culturally dominant or culturally anonymous, like you're Magnum P.I., Mario Andretti, The Invisible Woman or exactly whomever you want to be, good for you. We Americans tend to ascribe identities to our cars, whether we realize it consciously or not.

...This Jeep makes me look outdoorsey. This Escalade demonstrates my general superiority. This Prius subtly reveals my dedication to the betterment of the human condition. This Charger announces my mancrush on Vin Diesel...

What exactly does the Volvo 240 project, though? Does it mean I had middle class, safety conscious parents with liberal arts degrees? That I'm a vegan with a beard and tattoos and live in Brooklyn? Maybe it just means I'm a cheap bastard who likes old, slow, heavy tank-like bricks that are built to last? Maybe I just like driving a 20-year-old windowed greenhouse with room for a couch. I don't really know how to explain it myself, other than the practical reasons and the fond childhood, adolescent and young-adult memories associated with my family's several decades of lifesaving, continent-traversing Volvos.

The idea of an updated 240 wagon from Volvo (er, Geely?) with perhaps a more powerful engine and some upgraded iPhone-era electronic bells and whistles indeed sounds intriguing, but what if it's not cool? What if it looks kind of like the 240 but not enough, or even too much? How different should it be, or how much of an imitation is no longer flattering? Could they make important improvements while retaining the overall uniqueness? How much design alteration would fans of the original accept before closing ranks around their meticulously maintained originals and shunning the revamp?

It's hard to say until it happens, but the idea has potential. I think I made my case pretty well, and Donna at customer service was a pleasure to deal with. She promised to forward my letter to the design group and even sent me free Volvo stuff including a hat, mug, 100K-mile badge, a black Volvo journal and a paint touch-up kit.

In March I wrote to IPD (the 50-year old Volvo parts supplier in Portland, Oregon) to enter their build contest for free parts and labor for upgrade projects. I didn’t win. I thought briefly that I might look into a turbo conversion. You see...I have this thing about Volvo 240s. There are plenty of other nuts like me out there—many of whom are considerably more obsessed and most of whom are far more mechanically talented—like Dave, Jay, Balu, Sea Dog, and even GRYNCH the rapper, but there are plenty of good reasons to love an old Volvo.

These virtually indestructible cars are still on the road everywhere; roughly three million were made for the North American market, and they can usually be spotted in any major city and in-between. They are affordable, reliable, fuel efficient and can save your life. One saved my Mom's, and you probably know someone else who walked away from what might otherwise have been a gnarly experience. These old tanks are heavy and slow and square, but those are just more reasons to love them.

Evidence of masses still devoted to these stalwart road warriors can be found at online Volvo gathering points like Turbo Bricks, Swedespeed, Brickboard and the Volvo Forums. It's not too late to find an old used brick and make it your own. They just don't make 'em like they used to.

*The car pictured in the print ad featured in the clip that I linked to from the Dudley Moore movie Crazy People (1990) is actually a 740 model, released after the 240 series had been around for several years, but the boxy concept still applies.