As a mechanic who is conveniently literate and recently bathed, I am regularly approached with the casual, “So, I just need a decent car for the money and not a lot of hassle.” In a commodity that depreciates just by sitting and an investment doomed to capital collapse, the snark potential is limitless. But for the benefit of every broke, hopelessly optimistic student/waitress/artist/new divorcee, here is the first in a series of three cars that reward hard work and have a great support structure in the form of other devoted DIY owners out there.
My personal favorite is the aesthetically challenged and unwieldy machine built by some overzealous Swedes during the plush and techno infused 1980s, serialized as the Volvo 240. It’s been termed a “brick,” and while evoking the trusty building material (or perhaps the street variety), the 240 brick is of an entirely different caliber. Both a self-depreciating term and one invested with solid images of security, frugality and dependability, the moniker conjures up images.
In July 2002, with no wheels and my then-boyfriend’s medical residency interviews coming up (more later on why this was a good investment strategy for me, though my family vehemently disagreed), plus a job that preferred I not cycle eight miles to work in the Virginia summer without a shower, I signed for a 1984 244DL to the tune of $1,100 at County Line Auto, a salvage and wrecker lot in the logging capital of rural central Virginia. It started and drove, and it had a radio, three speakers, and a 4 speed that seemed to make the car go forward and backward (this pretty much qualified as a luxury package by my standards). I drove confidently to nowhere in particular.
Not my first rodeo with old machines by any stretch, but definitely one of my most enduring—the ways the klutzy dame seduced became the same reasons I recommend these cars to the overworked, the budget-conscious, the industrious and the safety-obsessed to this day, for the following reasons.
—It’s hard to get lost: Forget the deceptive engine covers and fancy brackets of BMWs or Mercedes (railed against by Michael Crawford in his book “Shop Class as Soul Craft”), this engine says, “Yeah: it’s here Dumbo! Look.” Nothing is unreachable, and you could have hands the size of God’s in the “Ten Commandments” and still have room left over. You don’t even have to run the risk of putting this heavy gal up on ramps, as there is ample wiggle room under every side. For you gals, this includes your top breadth as well as width.
—Four cylinders, two motor mounts, one distributor cap … oh wait, you don’t know what those are? That’s OK. There’s a guide book: think the “Michelin Guide to Paris,” with instructions on how to pronounce everything and even how to use the token machine for the subway, only it’s called a Bentley and it omits nothing, assumes nothing, wants for nothing. Its substantial cover will sustain many beer spills after that initial distributor timing doesn’t go so well. Please—mark and number your plug wires.
—Only three components are more than $300 on the whole car. Really. Short of having to lick n’ stick a used motor in there, you won’t find anything other than the air mass meter, main ECU or head pipe and catalytic converter that will cost you three Benjamins.
—Four quarts. Yup. And in a day in age when oil changes are pricier than a tank of fuel, four quarts has a nice ring to it. The 14-inch rims are a nice touch too, with tires available in a variety of “economy” ratings.
—You can call for reinforcements. Some of the most dedicated parts staff (who write their own instructions for even the most basic of items personally manufacture plastic pieces now NLA [no longer available] and staff their phones with laid back West Coast gear heads) are to be found here.
—Your loved ones are safe. Very safe. Now, depending on how you feel about your family, you may want to take into account that you are ensuring long life and health by putting them in a 240. From breakaway motor mounts to four-way valve and four-wheel disc brakes to the best crumple zones and frame rigidity in the industry, these things survive wrecks you would only suspect a Soviet-era T-34 tank of enduring. (This happily translates into insurance savings as well, not in the least because insurers know these cars have a hard time getting up to 70 mph downhill with a tail wind.)
—Workable surface area: For those of you looking for a true bargain, you may find the paint a bit lacking on these old gems. The good news is the large, flat panels make excellent portfolio pieces for that friend of yours looking to impress the Maine College of Art and Design with an “art car.”
—So, a few too many $1 draft nights spread over a few years at the Pickle Barrel and the stories are adding up, and you’re going to have to leave the South for a while, but that cousin who is willing to put you up lives outside of Fargo, N.D. It’s OK, the B23/B230 has a cold weather enrichment system that indeed, makes it a breeze to start in sub-25F, to drive to that new job at the truck stop where no one knows your name, and you aim to keep it that way.
—Eastern block cachet: because ugly is the new sexy. Let’s face it, the only automobile that more closely resembled a box was the FJ40 or the Defender 90. The 240 exudes practicality with its box form, but also a “wait, wait, don’t steal me” vibe. The interior is no exception, without a single surface that doesn’t mimic this practicality in a variety of easy-to-clean (disinfect?) lines and vinyl.
—In all seriousness, we live in a world that now belittles physical trades and manual labor to an alarming degree. In a nation combatting unemployment and serious questions about the aggrandizement of higher education and its attendant burdens, it might benefit us as a society to again seek the pleasure of simple solutions and resolving problems oneself. I think the Volvo 240 is just one avenue to that goal. By solving problems as simple as changing a tire, oil, a distributor cap and rotor, or how to get two more miles to the gallon out of your lumbering beast, we empower ourselves with very real skills and a sense of accomplishment often lost in a world of keys and numbers, and Facebook “likes” and people who tell us what’s wrong with the things we depend on for so much, rather than ascertaining it ourselves.
If you own a 240/740 or pre-1993 Volvo (i.e., not a Ford product) and have a question, or you parents are threatening to tow it out of their yard if you can’t make it run, shoot me a line. Worse, if you’re actually taking this advice to heart and considering buying one, shoot me a line and I’ll answer questions and concerns (and parental abuse) in my next column, featuring the BMW E30 and its various iterations.
Hannah L. Coffey is an ASE tech and divides her already-fractured time between teaching at UTC and working/writing about Subarus, Volvos and diesel Mercedes power trains. You can grill her about the latest quirk of your aging machine, what [she thinks] you should buy or whatever else strikes your fancy on her blog or by email. When in doubt, you should always seek the advice of a certified mechanic in your area. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.