I returned to Southern California in August of 2012 in what seemed like a precarious situation. A little more than a year before, I had sold my Honda and moved to New York City to pursue a degree in tax law, and an increasingly wayward girlfriend. At the end of the adventure, I landed at LAX with a dog, a different fiancée, and my old job. I had no wheels, beyond a really nice Impala that I had rented for 3 weeks or so. And for housing, I got a good deal at the Airport Sheraton.
I set my requirements optimistically: my next car had to be a wagon (dog), with airbags (fiancée), not requiring credit for purchase (don’t ask). The ideal was the beautiful E34 BMW 5-series wagon. But even the ones that were promising enough for a test drive looked like they’d been half-eaten or worse by automotive termites. Lesser, but still grave, infestations and afflictions struck the local Caprice, Roadmaster, Accord, Taurus, Subaru, and W124-T populations. (I admit this list is pretty insane, but I really didn’t want to spend more than $6000 on this thing.)
That left Volvo. The Wagon Master (apologies to former owner Ford). Due to the constraints described above, my purchase was not the historic PV-series Duett …
… or the beautiful (but elusive) Amazon.
It could have been the iconic 240 wagon, but it wasn’t.
Here you have my first station wagon, a 1995 Volvo 960. It’s a great highway cruiser, a capable hauler, a white elephant, and an evolutionary dead end. On its introduction in 1991 as the 940, the 900 series marked a dubious signpost in the evolution of the 1970s-engineered 700 series (sold in America since 1983). After coasting through the mid-80s on the strength of the US recovery and strong dollar, Volvo faced the 90s with pretty old stuff, compared to most other automakers. Not bad, just…old.
The lion’s share of Volvo’s engineering resources in the 80s were dedicated to Project Galaxy, the front-drive program launched in 1978. The first product of this program to come to the US was the DOHC 24-valve inline-6 “whiteblock” engine in the 1992 960. This engine is a wonder, of sorts: the wonder is how it goes so happily from 3,000 and 5,000 RPM, given how long it takes to spin up to 3,000. It’s very smooth at any speed, highway fuel economy is about twice as good as city mileage, and its descendants have powered Volvos until Drive-E took over for 2015. As of 1992, Volvo’s engines, at least, were no longer old.
The first complete car from the Galaxy project to come to the US, the 850, showed up a year later, in 1993. (The smaller FWD 400-series, produced by Volvo’s Dutch subsidiary, debuted as a coupe in 1986 and a sedan in 1989, but smaller Volvos wouldn’t arrive in the US until the S/V40, in 2000. The appearance of a 15-year product development process is only partly true.) Meanwhile, the 900 series saw evolutionary change. This instrument panel first appeared in 1994, though it’s either timeless, or very similar to earlier Volvo designs. I’d like an oil temp gauge, to keep track of the impact of the many trips of less than 5 miles I drive. The information and controls are very easy to use, but there’s no sign of the everything-is-expensive look that was coming into vogue.
The seats, also updated after the 960 name was adopted, are the best I’ve experienced. I’ve driven from LA to San Francisco without any orthopedic complaint or rest stops.
In 1995, the 960 was given a lower profile grille, to reduce aerodynamic drag and make the appearance more consistent with the 850.
Volvo also introduced independent rear suspension for the 960 wagon in 1995. This feature inspired Paul Newman and David Letterman to build supercharged, 380-horsepower monster wagons. That’s twice the stock horsepower.
Believe it or not, they fit the new setup under the car without any visible bumps in the floor (other than the wheel well). Or maybe they had lots of room underneath the car: the rear seat is noticeably higher than the front seats, giving an effect like stadium seating. (Perhaps Volvo should have made a 960 Vista Cruiser to take advantage of this situation.)
The 960 wagon, renamed as the V90, lasted until 1998. My own 960 experience has been mixed. The dog loves his ride to the park. The 960 has been a reliable daily driver, but it’s an old car. I’ve had most replaceable pieces of the front suspension replaced, just as I expected. Less expected, I’ve replaced most of the cooling and HVAC system. The essential parts have great service life, but many essential peripheral systems do not.
The repair to end all repairs may be somewhere down the road. But until then, we’ll be enjoying our fully depreciated dead end.