COAL: 1971 Volvo 164 • Dreams Deferred Indefinitely

I’ve always liked the Volvo 164. The first one I remember belonged to a teacher at my elementary school in the early 1980s, Mrs. DeLeo. I liked the boxy body, the vertical taillights, and I just loved the frontal design—so elegant, it seemed to me! In the middle of November 1998 I was sitting in front of my computer in my 15th-storey apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, randomly mousing about on Auto Trader, when I found a 1971 164 offered out of Victoria, BC.

It was a medium metallic blue car with black leather seats, and seemed in fine shape. 33,616 original miles, owned by a doctor. And unlike the de-contented, mostly automatic American models, this was a Canadian-spec car with a 4-speed plus electric overdrive, sunroof, frog lamps. It even had air conditioning—unusual for Canada.

Mine was originally this same colour, but had frog lamps.

A sturdy case could be made that I ought to have learnt my lesson about remote-bought cars from the ’61 Valiant, but the human mind has a funny way of magnifying the good stuff and minifying the bad stuff. I guess that’s a sanity-preservation strategy to avoid being crushed under the weight of accumulated grief and grievance, I guess it’s where the false notion of the good ol’ days comes from, and I guess it’s why the sweet ’62 Lancer held more sway in my mind than the sour Valiant.

The plaque on the right side of mine said OVERDRIVE.

So on 21 November 1998 I finalised arrangements to purchase that young old 164 for four thousand Canadian dollars, which at that time meant $2,530 American—an amazing exchange rate of 1.581 (today we’re around 1.220). I got on my 1950 Raleigh and headed to my credit onion, who didn’t sell Canadian-dollar cashier’s cheques, but directed me to a bank downtown who would. I pulled the cash out the credit onion and biked down to the bank, who sold me four C$1,000 cashier’s cheques—I think that was a maximum for some reason. Fine, that works; the car’s seller and I had agreed a C$1K deposit with the balance on pickup.

For each of the $1,000 cheques, the teller had to go through each step on their screen while I watched. Eventually I had my four cheques, and I biked back to my apartment. I mailed one of them to the seller, and the other three to my grandfather in Seattle, who had agreed to duck up to Victoria and get the car for me. That all worked out fine, with the minor exception that grandpa’s last handshift car had been whatever came before his new 1956 Plymouth, so it didn’t occur to him there would be any gears available above third. I don’t recall his getting much of any hassle from the border guards on his way in.

These bolt-on, gasketed hubcaps are most protective.

The bought-and-paid car had been parked in grandpa’s driveway for about a week or maybe ten days when I got a call from the branch manager at the bank where I’d got the cheques. They’d made a mistake on those cheques they’d sold me, they said, and wanted me to please come down to the bank to talk it over. They’d applied the buying exchange rate rather than the selling exchange rate on those Canadian dollars they’d sold me, they said. So I owed them more money, they said.

Big, clunky American-spec side marker lights.

I had a hard time swallowing that idea, no matter how small bits I cut it up into. I put a hypothetical to the branch manager: suppose it had gone the other way, and you’d overcharged me. Would you have called me in to come get my refund? Answer: That’s not the situation at hand here. Oh, uh-huh. And what was the disposition of those four cheques you sold me? What was their status? We honoured them when they were presented. So the transaction was all the way finished, and I saw no reason to change that. I walked out the bank, extra-happy with my decision to be a credit onion member instead.

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