Cars Of A Lifetime: 1987 Volvo 245 – Practically Sensible and Serenely Safe

If one doesn’t want to spend a fortune on a safe, efficient, and roomy ride for their family, what choices does one have? Sure you could get a minivan; but firstly, I hate them, and secondly, to get one with really good fuel efficiency one has to purchase something fairly new, which raises the total investment price too much to offset the fuel savings. So what’s left? Really, only a few if you want to haul around more than six people. Of those few, the Mercedes W124/123, E320 wagon and the various Volvo wagons stand out as the most safe and efficient choices. But why would I choose an old Volvo 245 over an E320 or a XC90?

The answer is simple: investment versus return. As part of my plan to make our family life more efficient, we sold our other cars and were pursuing a new strategy. We still feel the need for two cars so at least one of them has to be a decent commuter vehicle. And if you know me by now, you know at least one of them has to be four-wheel-drive. Since our van was on the fritz (and because I was learning to hate it) we purchased another four-wheel-drive family vehicle, which will be the next and last COAL from me.

However that still left us with our Nissan 720 pickup and a broken van. I came to realize that our secondary vehicle (my commuter car) did not have to be four-wheel-drive. In fact, if it was more efficient than our big mover and could still haul everybody, we would not need to drive the big one as much. One would think that this idea would have occurred to me long ago.

We initially thought of another Toyota four-wheel-drive Van. It is the perfect compromise vehicle; gets about twenty miles-per-gallon on the highway, is roomy, and fits seven people. But it is a compromise and we were looking for something to really offset the terrible fuel consumption of our big mover. So we looked into Mercedes E320 wagons.  The Mercs are fantastic automobiles, available with 4Matic even. But they had two big drawbacks; high initial purchase price, and higher insurance rates. So with much begrudging, we looked elsewhere.

And then I thought of an old favorite of mine, a car I have never owned, but always wanted to, the 1991-96 GM B body wagon. Particularly an Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser or Buick Roadmaster due to their higher trim level and vista roof. The fuel efficiency of said wagons is pretty good on the highway and they are quite roomy. However in-town mileage is not so good and a good clean example was hard to find.

So we were left with the Volvo wagon as the clearly sensible choice. The 740 wagon is plentiful on Craigslist around here, and affordable. I won’t consider an 850 or V70; I like my wagons to be rear wheel drive. But as I was looking around I realized there was really only one real choice: the Volvo 245. Why? My very first car was a Volvo 142, so when I think of Volvo’s, I think safe, square, efficient, simple, and affordable.  The 740s were great cars, but they were not made of the incredibly heavy dip-galvanized steel  that the 240’s were made of. To me, “real” Volvo’s stopped being made in 1993.

What makes the Volvo 240 the obvious choice is its cost per-mile-per-passenger; it is simply unmatched. With the optional third seat in the back one can haul seven adults and children in safety and comfort, getting great miles per gallon, and in a car that cost less than two thousand bucks to buy. How could Volvo do that? The curb weight of the 245 is around three thousand pounds so it’s not terribly heavy but it’s no light weight either. Then how can the old 245 get around eighteen to twenty two miles per gallon in the city and twenty three to twenty seven miles per gallon on the highway? Even Volvo’s current offerings can barely match that.

And nothing else at the time the car was produced even came close. I don’t know how you can manage to build a car like a tank, give it copious interior volume, make it incredibly safe, and still get the highest miles per-gallon-per-passenger of anything on the market. Maybe it’s some secret Swedish magic like the way they make those meat balls or those blondes. And though I don’t fully understand how the magic works, just like the blondes and the meat balls, I  don’t need to to know, to know that I need one.

It would seem that finding a Volvo 245 in Oregon would be the simplest thing ever. After all, in Eugene and Portland they make up about every other car on the street. Yet good luck finding a nice one for sale; obviously folks hang on them, seemingly forever. And if you want the third seat, you’ll need some good mazel. It seemed every car on Craigslist was either lowered, wrecked, or was in dubious ownership. I went up to Portland to look at one but after checking it all out and finding it good, I looked underneath to find huge rust holes in the floor.  Then it was on to Eugene where after months of searching I finally found this one advertised for seventeen-hundred dollars.

Unfortunately it was an automatic; we had really wanted a manual. But by the 1987 model year Volvo had switched from the Borg Warner 35 to the Aisin Warner AW 70/71 lock-up converter transmission. So fuel efficiency didn’t take as big of a hit as it did in the pre-84′ 240-245 auto box cars.  However this car did not have a third seat either.

The man who owned it was the typical older Eugene sort. He had two Volvo 245’s which he used for work. He was a self employed handy man and the white 245 he called his truck. He had Yakima roof bars on it and used it to haul his wood and tools around. The inside of the car was covered in sawdust, the windshield was broken, and the seats were ripped up. The odometer read over three hundred thousand miles! But he had taken great care of the drive-train. The engine was rebuilt several years ago, the transmission as well. He had just had all of the seals replaced on both. He had recently replaced most of the front end components, the tires were good, and the stereo was nice.

We went for a test drive. The smell of sandalwood and patchouli was overpowering.  The dash tray was full of crystals, sea shells, doo-dads, and half burned incense sticks. But the car drove like it was new. After that we looked under the hood and found everything clean and in order. He used only Mahle, Bosch, or Mann oil filters, Valvoline oil, etc. Good signs for a good karmic history with this car.  The outside was filthy and somewhat mossy but straight and not rusty.

The owner told me that there was a third seat in the right color located at a junkyard in Eugene for one hundred and seventy or so dollars. I told him that his price was a little high as I would need to replace the windshield, put in that third seat, the gas tank was nearly empty, etc. We eventually agreed on fourteen-hundred. It’s a good thing because I only came with fourteen-fifty! On the drive back the car was flawless.

After having the windshield replaced and deep cleaning the car it looked nominally better. But it is not going to win any Concours d’Elegance awards. The third seat required two trips to the Eugene junkyard and a little more drilling than I had anticipated. But my son was able to do most of it himself with my guidance. Now we just need to find some better front and middle seats.

So now that the car is mostly fixed up I have been using it daily. It has been a long time since I have driven an old Volvo. I had forgotten about the idiosyncratic but sensible controls, the nearly foot thick doors that sound like a walk-in freezer closing, the thick foam European seats, and the soft yet composed ride.  The seating is a bit cramped for me, but not bad.

The car is a bit of a beater and at first it was a little depressing to drive. But I find myself warming up to it. It feels incredibly solid (because it is), it’s quite comfortable, and it’s fairly quiet. It seems to get exactly double the miles per gallon of my other vehicle at about twenty-two mpg combined. So unless I start getting paid enough to take the increased insurance hit of a Mercedes W123/124 diesel or E320 4Matic wagon, this will hopefully be my daily driver for the foreseeable future.

I actually purchased this car after buying my new big mover to replace the van. But it was more fun to end on the next rig than on this one. It’s funny how things come full circle isn’t it? I started out with an old Volvo and I really should be ending on an old Volvo; squaring the circle. It seems I could have just avoided the forty-seven or so cars in between and just moved from a 142 to a 245. But where’s the fun in that?