CC Driving Impressions: 1988 Volvo 240GL – Brick Loving

The Volvo 240 series is certainly no stranger to Curbsiders, with 9 separate COAL entries and numerous other pieces on the site covering the model quite comprehensively. So is there anything left to say about the 240? Well I’m certainly going to give it a try, because this particular example deserves it. Old school rear wheel driven Volvos have been interesting to me since I was a kid, because my mom’s boss in the early 90s had a Volvo 940 as a company car and I got many opportunities to poke around it and even rode in it a few times. It seemed so solid and felt like being inside a tank, while the smell of the leather and plastic seems to be ingrained forever in my olfactory memories. That red 940 kicked off a lifelong affinity for old Volvos, and though I haven’t yet owned one, it seems like it will be only a matter of time.

The 240, which is probably the best known of the “classic Volvos” was not something that was very interesting to me at first. But thanks to CC and other car culture publications, I’ve become aware of the combination of qualities that make it revered, and my respect for it has grown quickly. That’s not saying it was unfamiliar, of course, because I pretty much grew up seeing them on films and television as the car of choice for college professors, families, and various other types of upstanding citizens (can you remember an occasion where a 240 was used by a villain? If so, chime in!)

Not a Fjord, but it’ll do.

My friend Kishan, who also developed a major liking for old Volvos chiefly from seeing them in old movies and TV shows when growing up, decided a while back that he’d like to have a 240 in his collection. 240s were not exactly commonplace here in Sri Lanka but a fair number of them had arrived in the 80s for government use, along with some private imports. Unfortunately, most seem to have vanished off the roads, or have succumbed to local “ingenuity” when spare parts were hard to find or expensive.

As Kishan quickly found, most of those that appeared for sale usually had some form of Toyota diesel lump in the engine bay, as well as missing trim, shot interiors and all kinds of other horrors. He had just about given up when this 1988 example appeared in an online ad. Even in the ad pictures it seemed pretty rough, but it was running, and still had the original 2.3 litre Volvo petrol engine inside! So he made an appointment with the owner, who turned out to be someone who really liked the car but was in over his head and didn’t have the time or resources needed to get it back into good shape.

The 240, as purchased

The car seemed quite straight, but it was wearing lights and grille from a 940, which obviously didn’t fit properly, and had faded paint, a tired looking interior and a few other flaws. To most, this would not have been worth the effort, but Kishan had a vision of the 240 he wanted, and this car seemed like a good enough base for that. So he bought the 240 and brought it back to his (very well equipped) home workshop, and set about looking for the parts needed to transform it into exactly what he was envisioning. Somewhat to his surprise, it turned out that parts for old Volvos were abundant overseas, both used and brand new, which was a major relief because his new acquisition needed a full restoration. Eventually, he decided that the most practical approach would be to find a good donor car, and he managed to find one fairly quickly in the UK and ship over everything required.

Once the parts arrived, the base car was stripped down to its shell and restoration proceeded. The body and structure were apparently in decent shape and needed only minor remedial work, while the mechanical side needed quite a bit of attention to be brought back to A1 condition. Fortunately, 240s are simple cars and straightforward to work on and the work was completed without too many surprises. Once everything was bolted back together, Kishan decided that the car could do with a more interesting colour than grey or silver and ended up choosing this shade of metallic blue, which is an original Volvo colour code, no less. It definitely makes the car pop, and suits the lines of the 240 really well.

Can a 240 be called good looking? I think so…

I followed this project with great interest and when it was done Kishan was kind enough to offer me a drive, so of course I said yes! So, early one Sunday morning I found myself getting closely acquainted with the car. My very first impression was that I’d somehow time travelled to a Volvo showroom in 1988 because the car is basically immaculate! The paint is extremely deep and shines brilliantly, while everything else on the exterior also presents basically as new, a testament to the attention to detail lavished on the restoration.

Something that I found surprising was the size of the 240, because in my mind it was a bit of a large barge, but in the metal it really is not, especially in today’s context. It is quite long, but surprisingly narrow and seems noticeably smaller than, say a Mercedes W124, while a modern Camry simply dwarfs it. The shape is crisp and no nonsense, with no frivolous ornamentation and combined with the colour, really looks good to my eyes.

Businesslike, definitely.

The cabin doesn’t stray from the rectilinear design theme of the exterior, it certainly seems that curves really were frowned upon at Volvo in the 80s! The blue fabric on the seats and door cards adds a welcome touch of colour and prevents it from looking too dark, while the slim pillars and generous glass area let in lots of light and ensure that the visibility is first rate. The seats feel like a comfortable old armchair, but somehow also are quite supportive.

It’s pretty clear that nobody bothered about anything as frivolous as styling when it came to this interior though: if you told the average person it was from a Lada, they’d probably believe you. Still it’s clearly very well screwed together, and has survived without falling apart for over three decades, so evidently Volvo knew how to put them together. Indeed, it’s difficult to find a single major flaw in the interior of this 240, and it seems more like a car celebrating its third birthday rather than its 36th.

Everything you need, nothing you don’t, including styling. 

Alright, time to hit the road. Under the hood sits a late derivative of Volvo’s stalwart “Redblock” four cylinder motor, designated B230E to denote its 2.3 litre capacity. Equipped with Bosch K Jetronic fuel injection, it has a reputation for exceptional longevity and durability. Here, it fires up from cold after a couple of cranks and settles into a fairly smooth idle, with minimal noise and vibration intruding into the cabin. The five speed gearbox has a lovely, positive shift action and a reasonably short throw, while the pedals’ weights are all consistent and easy to modulate. Even if you’ve never been behind the wheel, it’s easy to get used to a 240 really quickly, or at least I found it so. The fact that you can easily see all four corners of the car from the driving seat is superb, and a quality I really wish modern cars had, because it makes placing the car through tight spots almost trivially easy. The power assisted steering is quite light but also manages to give you a fair amount of feedback, and helps add to the overall ease of driving the thing.

The mighty B230E, looking very tidy.

In fact “ease” is probably the defining characteristic of the 240 driving experience, for me. It’s a car that puts you at ease, allowing you to relax and gobble up the miles without getting stressed. The engine and drivetrain are perfect for this brief as the big four has loads of low end torque and doesn’t mind lugging from almost no revs, so you don’t really need to shift very often and can just cruise along. Throttle response is surprisingly lively, and if you do step on it a bit the 240 responds with some level of enthusiasm, even. However, the red block most certainly does not like to be rushed, and absolutely does not enjoy operating above 4500 rpm. I’m told this is because the cam profile is quite conservative, and tuned more towards longevity than high revving ability. That’s fine though, because this isn’t the sort of car that you drive like your hair is on fire, it’s far more suited to relaxed mile munching.

Popular opinion makes it seem like a 240 is a wallowing mess on the handling front, but that isn’t how a properly sorted one actually drives. In fact, it’s pretty competent, with eager turn in, well controlled body motions and generally predictable behaviour. It may not be as fun as, say a contemporary BMW, but if you want to give it some stick on a nice road it is not going to fall over itself either. The basic chassis is quite sound, and there is apparently a whole smorgasbord of aftermarket options available to tighten up the handling and turn a 240 into quite a weapon.

A great tool for getting you to nice looking places

That said, I would say it’s all a bit unnecessary because the stock 240 is just such a pleasant car to be in and to operate. After a few miles in it, you can feel your stress melt away and you become a happier and more relaxed driver almost without realising it. Once you get underway you stop worrying about the destination and truly enjoy the journey, marvelling at the comfort and ease with which this old Volvo deals with whatever the road throws at you. If you haven’t driven a 240 yet, I highly recommend that you try one out, it certainly is an experience worth having. This specific car is probably quite unique because I don’t think very many people in the entire world have yet bothered to do a full scale restoration of a 240, so I’m very glad Kishan decided to bite the proverbial bullet and take it on. It’s probably the closest you can get to experiencing a showroom fresh 240, which makes it very special in my opinion.

The only problem I have now is, I would really like to have one myself!