COAL #19: The Volvo Handicap Car

During my first several months at Volvo, I put quite a few miles on the ’74 Audi Fox, considering that my commute alone added roughly 500 miles each week. By the fall of 1976, however, I was given the chance to run up the odometer on the first Volvo I had the opportunity to drive for an extended period, so I was understandably eager to take the keys.

It wasn’t a company car, strictly speaking, since my “permanent temporary” employee status made me ineligible for that particular perk (as well as any other benefits, for that matter). No, this was a two-door Volvo DL sedan (a “242 SRA” in sales-version speak), meaning that it was equipped with a manual sunroof, three-speed automatic transmission, and power steering, none of which were standard equipment on an entry-level 242 in the mid-1970s.

My ‘non-company-car’ Volvo two-door was one of two cars in Rockleigh which were equipped with pneumatically-operated accelerator and brake controls, operated by large paddles within easy reach of the steering wheel rim on both sides. The idea was that a disabled person who might not be able to access the Volvo’s foot pedals could still enjoy safe mobility with such an arrangement. Working in unison, a forward push (away from the steering wheel) accelerated the car, while pulling the paddles closer to the steering wheel activated the brakes. A slight but noticeable hiss always accompanied the paddles’ operation.

Nearly fifty years on, these handicap controls remind me of the shift paddles of modern hypercars…


Outside North America, Volvo literature of the time referred to this model as a “disabled driver’s car,” suggesting that the added controls were available either as an off-line factory option or potentially through dealership installation. At the time, we in Volvo of America’s Product Engineering & Development department often perused Gothenburg’s offerings in other markets in search of potential Stateside business opportunities. I’m sure these “handicap cars,” as we referred to them, fell into that category as well, though nothing ever came from this particular effort.

The ‘pull-to-brake’ motion took advantage of one’s natural (but unnecessary) tendency to hold the wheel in a death grip when braking.


I’m guessing that this example must have been sitting at Port Newark exposed to the weather for a while before being transported to Volvo’s Rockleigh, New Jersey headquarters, because the beige two-door had already sprouted a few small paint bubbles between its front bumper and grille. Not that those small defects affected the two-door’s suitability as a daily commuter, mind you.

The same beige, but my ride had steel wheels and hub caps, not these classy alloys. And this one also has a later grille and headlamp doors. (Source: Bring a Trailer)


Finished in non-metallic beige with a brown cloth interior, the 242 was a solid and comfortable car, though its leisurely acceleration, not helped by the automatic, obliged me to adopt a more relaxed driving style. Once rolling, however, the Volvo always responded predictably and reassuringly, if not quite exhibiting the nimble, quick reflexes of the Fox.

Like the rest of the car, its controls evoked a sense of substance and solidity. The supportive (but not heated) driver’s seat exposed me to the wonders of an adjustable lumbar support for the first time. I found that to be a real advantage, especially during my one-hour homeward commute, and the Volvo’s manual sunroof was an unexpected luxury I hadn’t experienced before.

Lots of commuting hours were spent in an interior just like this one. No cup-holders, unless you count the small circular depressions on the inside of the glove-box lid. (Source:


While 1976 was a good year for domestic-brand autos, which saw their calendar-year sales increase by nearly 1.5 million units over the previous year, to an 8,606,573-unit total. Imported brands weren’t so lucky, as their combined sales declined about 5% from the previous year, to just under 1.5 million units (1,493,00o, to be exact). Even more unfortunately, Volvo’s 1976 U.S. sales suffered a 27% drop from a then-record 60,336 units in 1975, totaling just 43,887 deliveries. A consequence of significant currency-related price increases and, to be honest, a few niggling quality issues as well.

Things would improve in 1977, when my first small design effort would hit the road…

(Auto sales data from 1976 and 1977 Automotive News Data Books. Featured image from