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.

Bosch ø 8″ European headlamps (Cibié also made them—nicer but scarcer)

So at last, I had a 164! A beautiful early-model low-miles loaded one. Hoorah! I eventually flew out to Seattle to get it. Packed a set of the Volvo-specific 8-inch European headlamps in my luggage; I was not interested in a road trip feebly lit by 7-inch sealed beams. Swapped ’em in grandpa’s driveway, spent some time with my grandparents, then drove down to Eugene to look in on some friends and some not-very-old haunts. The car’s radiator was looking and acting too old, so I had it re-cored in Eugene, and some other work done, as well. I think we put in a fuel pump and a water pump to tidy up some leaks, changed all the fluids, and otherwise like that. Went to Discount Tire and got a set of Michelin X-Ones for it. Stopped in at Car Toys and got a stereo of some kind; I forget the particulars.

Generally the car ran well, except for a high and sputtery idle as though there were a vacuum leak. Which there probably was—at least one. This car had a pair of Zenith 175-CD2SE carburettors. Similar to SUs, but less well regarded and with some quirks of their own. They were mounted on a log-style intake manifold, not nearly so elegant or dynamically correct as the buncha-bananas Slant-6 item I was used to. This Volvo intake had high-volume exhaust flow routed through it to better vapourise the incoming fuel mixture to lower HC and CO emissions. It also served to efficiently heat up the carburetors. Aw well, I had long-term plans for fuel injection anyway.

I drove the car around Eugene awhile, stretching its legs and visiting with friends. Then came word dad’s lymphatic cancer had worsened, and I needed to head back to Denver. So I pointed my old Volvo eastward and hit the highway. Along about the middle of the state, it occurred to me that if I used the right route, I could stop in at Oñati!

No time to pull over; I dialled information (I now have a no-exceptions policy against phoning while driving), got the area code for Boise, dialled Boise information, got the number for Oñati, dialled Oñati, and spoke with a very helpful employee named Jamie, who told me the restaurant’s opening hours. I glanced at my watch and was unsure I could make it at all, and I hadn’t even crossed into the Mountain time zone; that’d cost me another hour.

I made very rapid, somewhat illegal progress, with absolutely no unnecessary stops. But as the afternoon wore on, I could see I would not make the dining room hours. I called Jamie back, asked him if the restaurant could package up a meal for me to take away. He said that they could. Terrific, I was happy. I ordered the daily special—meat with a bunch of irresistible side dishes—and hung up the phone. About 75 miles later, I reached into the cooler I had on the passenger seat for a can of pop…and the idea light went on above my head (“Ding!”). I called Jamie back and told him to triple everything and add a bottle of the red wine. (What was it called? King Philip? King Edward VI? I can’t remember, and I never found it anywhere other than the restaurant).

Jamie and I had some tense conversations as the hour grew late and the Volvo and I chewed up miles, but 10 minutes before everyone was to lock up and leave for the night, I pulled into the parking lot at the bottom of Orchard off Chinden. Jamie was waiting for me, and all the food was packaged up in takeaway boxes. I tossed all my pre-packed provisions out the cooler and carefully packed two of the dinners into it, taking care to make sure nothing would spill. I was exhausted from my flat-out drive, found a local motel with refrigerators in the rooms, and headed for bed…but not before devouring one of the dinners. The other two went into the room fridge; they’d be untouched until Denver.

The next day’s drive started not long after sunrise, and ended at another motel with room fridges. And the day after that, I arrived back in Denver in the middle of the afternoon. I headed directly to the hospital and hoisted that big cooler up to dad’s room. He had no idea what was inside. I warmed everything in the microwave, put it on a wheeled cart and brought it round to his bed. You should have seen his face light up. He recognized it immediately and it just put the brakes on a day that had been going from bad to worse for him. I hadn’t seen him smile that widely since he first got ill. We happily ate one more Oñati dinner and drank that bottle of wine.

It was a bright spot in a dark time. Dad came home from hospital, but by and by began to have trouble breathing and needed to go back. In accord with prearranged protocol, I was the designated driver. Sister—26 years old—wouldn’t have any of it, though; she grabbed the keys (to my car) out my hand and played keep-away, of all things. I was asking her for the keys back as calmly as possible, but insistently and repeatedly, and she was refusing to give them over. Dad, whose breathing wasn’t critically difficult but who did need to get to the hospital, told her a couple of times to give over the keys, then had to focus on breathing. Mother was useless (I’m being diplomatic).

Sister finally threw the keys on the front lawn, held forth with a shrieky, dramatic monologue about how I was tearing apart the family, and stormed off down the street on foot. No time to give chase, we had to get to the hospital. We piled into the 164, and I started driving. East to the end of our street, North on Happy Canyon Road, West on Hampden Avenue, North on Colorado Boulevard. I concentrated on driving swiftly but safely. Dad was in the passenger seat up front next to me, and mother was in back. She should’ve been keeping full attention on dad, but instead she was putting out a constant stream of DanielDanielLookOutThere’sACarOnThatSideStreet! and LookOutThisGuyIsGoingToChangeLanes!.

About halfway up Colorado Boulevard, dad snapped. With obvious pain and difficulty took as deep a breath as he could, struggled around under the seatbelt until he was facing rearward, and exasperatedly tried his best to raise his voice, which he very seldom did in his entire life: RULE NUMBER ONE! LET DANIEL DRIVE! RULE NUMBER TWO! LET DANIEL DRIVE! and then flopped back into his seat, even more exhausted and out-of-breath than he had been before.

Once dad was being attended to, it came time to see what had become of sister. Telephone calls to the house yielded no answer. We called the relevant Police; I don’t remember whether they were able to help or not (might’ve been a “can’t look for them until they’ve been gone longer than such-and-such a time” deal). Eventually she returned to the house.

On 15 October 1999 it was 48°F (9°C) and sunny, and I went scouting at a Denver-area wrecking yard I think was out near the airport. It was called Pick-‘N’-Pull or Pick-A-Part or Pull-‘N’-Save or maybe Pick-‘L’-Jar; something like that. Didn’t have my tools with me, just thought I’d see what I’d find. And find I certainly did: a very complete early 164. My car’s serial number was 50496; the one in the yard was 40596. I reckoned it had to mean something—specifically, that I was fated (fated, I tells ya!) to get back there the next day and go on a feeding frenzy for parts. Who am I to argue with fate? Besides, the next day was “Everything you can carry for $29” day at that yard—Ohboyohboyohboy!

The next day was 33°F (0.5°C) and snowing steadily: perfect hunting weather, eh! I emptied some of the bigger junk out my car and started it up (I like manual chokes), slung in the green backpack with tools, brushed off the snow, turned on the backglass defogger, and headed for I-225. Once on the highway, I hit the overdrive switch. Because everything was still cold, it engaged immediately…and promptly disengaged about 30 seconds later, and the O/D indicator light went off. Huh?

I glanced down and since I hadn’t yet put the dash back together after fixing the air conditioner duct, the fuse –box– board was exposed so I could see the fuse for the overdrive had blown. Oh, neato, am I gonna get to chase short circuits in the snow? That’s my favourite. Just before arriving at the yard, I noticed the backglass defog switch light was also dark. Say what? How’d that happen? It was an off-low-high switch without an automatic or timed cutoff. Then suddenly the light went on about the light going off; it occurred to me the defog and O/D were on the same circuit. The blown fuse was an 8-amp item I’d put in; I made a note to check the yard 164 and see what it had in that spot. These were those poorly-designed pointy-ended European fuses—often called “ceramic” fuses, but for many years now usually made of thermoplastic, which aggravates the design defects. Buss used to make much better glass fuses to fit, with corrosionproof ends, but eventually the MBA disease spread to that company and some dillweed who considered product expertise beneath their station in life—it’s all just product—cancelled those and sourced cruddy plastic ones from the Trinketstan. Whee!

Anyhow. I arrived at the yard around 11:30 and figured I’d have to hurry fast, for I knew I wouldn’t have too much time before my paws quit working from the cold. I quickly came to wish I’d thought about my feet; I’d left my boots at home.

I paid the $1 admission, signed the waiver of liability, made a beeline for the 164, and went on my feeding frenzy. All four excellent door cards, both correct sideview mirrors, licence plate lamp, fixture, bezel and gasket assembly (now available as a repro; back then very difficult to find in good condition), both taillamp assemblies, one front retractable shoulder belt assembly, complete instrument cluster, left and right front seat reclining mechanisms, nearly perfect front and rear bumpers with nearly perfect rubber inserts, windshield washer pump, pocket full o’ fuses—this car, not equipped with overdrive, had a 16A fuse in the defog-O/D slot, aha. Front end trim, left and right side trim, trunk trim, nameplates, no-frog-lamp blankoff plates, and a fine pile of miscellaneous bits and bobs. Pair of carburetors, air cleaner housing. Most of this stuff fell into the in-case-if-I-might-need-it-someday category.

There was no way I could comply with the $29-day rule—you had to carry everything in one go—so I just loaded it all into a yard-supplied wheelbarrow and headed in. The guy took pity on me (maybe as a frequent flier at that yard) and handed me a yellow coupon, so the total with tax was $32.89. Supplied wheelbarrows, wide paved pathways, cars up in the air on gravel, hand soap and hot water in clean, working washrooms, safe food and drink available…this is what the good yards were like before LKQ bought them all up and ruined them.

Drove home—O/D and defog working again with a 16A fuse installed—and arrived home cold and wet and had to unload the trunk immediately, for it hadn’t closed completely over those bumpers. Also, there was stuff in there that needed to dry out; paper grocery bags aren’t optimal for lugging yard parts on wet days. “Home” was my folks’ house, so the parts had to be hidden, and those that wouldn’t hide had to be put away so as to provide plausible deniability (What? No, those have been there for…gosh, three years? Four?). And I considered it a fine day’s productive entertainment.

And now if you’ll indulge a bit of woo-woo: I would say that one at the hospital was our last Oñati dinner together, but I’m reasonably sure it wasn’t. Dad died in March of 2000. A few months later, I headed out West to try to recover somewhat from the shock and sadness. When it was time to head back East, I carefully planned my route to include dinner at Oñati. This time, because of the advance planning, I didn’t need to bend any speed limits or forego bathroom breaks to get there. I arrived in plenty of time for an early dinner. The dining room wasn’t very full; there were lots of tables available. Without asking or being prompted, the greeter led me to the very table where dad and I had eaten our first Oñati meal nine years before.

I looked at the menu, decided on something—I don’t remember what it was—and ordered it. The waiter went away, but came back a few moments later to apologise; they were out of what I’d ordered: “May I suggest the lamb shank instead?” Zonk. Lamb shank was always dad’s most favorite dish. He ordered it on special occasions or when celebration was called for. There were a few other zonk-moments like this that night, enough to make me wonder if perhaps dad came a great distance to share one more dinner with me at Oñati. It was an ideal place for our farewell dinner, if that’s what it was. And even if it wasn’t, everything was delicious.

I’d been collecting not just wrecking yard parts, but also accessories. There were scads of accessories offered for the 164 by Volvo alone, plus a healthy ecosystem of third-party suppliers. Rallye 5-gauge instrument cluster. Bumper guards. Driving lamps. A custom one-off wood-veneered set of dashboard panels from…Finland, was it? I collected with gusto, even going so far as to source a metal exterior sunvisor and backglass venetian blind from Hy-Way in Australia.

I had big plans. Oh, yes, I did. This 164 was going to go to eleven with all the best-of-best parts and accessories I had collected. European-spec front park/turn signals to go with the EU headlamps. Chrome headlamp bezels. Turn signal repeaters to replace the big, ugly American-spec side marker lights. Big electric sideview mirrors. A rear fog lamp. Swedish-spec headlamp wiper system, complete NOS. A reserve fuel tank sized and shaped to fit in the spare-tire well on the other side of the trunk from the one used to hold the actual spare tire. A set of Virgo Turbo alloy wheels from a 240. A centre console from a ’72.

Real wood veneer

The taillight bezels on these cars were made of clear plastic with shiny stuff on the inside surface. I didn’t like how that clear plastic yellowed in the sun, so I sent a set of them to a company in Florida who put actual, real, metal chrome plating on the outside of them. They came back looking as though they were metal through and through. My rotating-electrics wizard friend custom-built me a Delphi alternator and Bosch permanent-magnet gear-reduction starter. Sanden A/C compressor with custom-built bracketry.On and on and on; I meant to leave no detail unimproved.

I made a complete error, though, when I assumed a quirky distance-friend who liked headlamps and old Volvos would make a good restification contractor, and so I unwisely took the car, cram-packed with parts and accessories, to his shop in the middle of rural Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. We’ll call him “Darryl”; same guy who had enticed me about a year before to spend a long weekend doing a performance-driving school at Road America in my Spirit R/T.

So I drove the 164 from Denver to Wisconsin. I don’t remember much about that trip, but I seem to recall the car ran and drove well—which I wish had been enough of a signal that I should just drive the damn thing and enjoy it. I did have an interesting lesson in Volvo sunroof construction along the way: I was driving along with the roof open when it very suddenly began to rain very hard. I reached up and turned the crank, and the sunroof dutifully slid forward on its way closed. But then it stopped with about five inches left to go. The crank would not turn further. Huh? I cranked the sunroof back open, hoping to clear whatever had jammed it; the gamble, of course, was that it would get stuck more open. It didn’t, but neither did it stick any less open: five inches to go, and the crank would turn no more.

I pulled off the highway to assess my options, which were few and increasingly soaked. The crank handle was held to its base by a single screw, and the base was held to the roof by two screws. Nice chrome-plated hardware with a shiny black plastic knob very much of its day. Maybe if I removed the crank I could…I donno, figure out what was the matter, so I did, and discovered the base was loose. It wiggled at a finger’s touch. H’mm! I tightened its screws and tried the crank again: no luck, though its action felt more direct. Sigh. Off with its screws! I quickly had the base in hand and began scrutinising it. What’s the secret here? Soon enough the answer came: the crankshaft stopped hard after a certain number of turns even in my hand, not connected to anything. Aha!



This wasn’t just a box with a crankshaft with a spline on one end and a pinion on the other, it had stops! With its screws loose, its pinion must have jumped off the sunroof’s driven gear and lost some turns, so the crank hit the closed-stop before the roof was closed. With thumb and forefinger I backed the shaft off from the closed stop, installed the dingus on the roof, cranked the roof all the way shut, removed the dingus, turned the shaft to the closed-stop and backed it off a fraction of a turn, and installed it on the roof again. All fixed. I went on my way.

By and by I got to Darryl’s place, and then I compounded my error very badly. Darryl was a friend; we didn’t need an explicit work order. Y’know, just build the car! It’ll be fine, we both decided.

It wasn’t. Darryl kept the 164 for most of a decade, during which time he got very little actual work done on it. There were flickers of progress every nigh and then: a mutual acquaintance of his and mine went visiting from Maine and she rebuilt my car’s overdrive—purportedly with Darryl’s help. Odds are pretty good he mostly helped by smoking weed; he was very good at it, and practised often. He was also very good at inhaling cigars, and at putting together old Volvos and driving them fast at Road America. Those were his main passions in life. His email signature said Racing makes heroin addiction seem like a vague wish for something salty, and at the time I thought that was funny (it’s not).

High in front because engine out. Virgo Turbo wheels, Jaguar/Jeep side mirrors, minus side markers, plus repeaters. Schmancy!

There was evidently a difference between putting together his own Volvos, which he did, and putting together mine, which he didn’t. He farmed out the bodywork and paint to a buddy of his—they later had one of Darryl’s fallings-out, but before that happened, the guy did a pretty nice job fixing the rust (there was more of it than had been apparent) and painting the car. I specified the same metallic medium green as my dad’s ’62 Dodge, but something got lost in the translation, or maybe the paint code was difficult to read through all the pot smoke; the car wound up somewhat more of a dusty-sage silver-green by comparison. Also, there was some badness when the sunroof didn’t get aligned properly on installation and the roof put a nasty gouge in the paint on top of the sunroof the first time it was cranked open.

Really a sharp-lookin’ car…

After the bodywork, the car came back to Darryl’s, and he put it up on stands outside his shop. One day, Darryl’s son came along, drunk-driving a Ford van, with which he knocked the Volvo off the stands. Perfect trim mangled, sheetmetal dented, paint scratched up. Darryl tried to get me to pursue my insurance company about it, and it’s probably just as well I don’t recall the particulars of that fight, just one of many over a lot of years. All along, Darryl was wringing me for money, which I kept sending (fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me—fool me countless times over ten years, I don’t even know what goes here). Sometimes it was for work said to be ongoing, sometimes it was for work farmed out, sometimes it was for parts. I stopped keeping track, and, probably also for the best, I have still never tried to figure out just how much money I flushed that direction.

…from any angle…

My pleas to get the car done never got any traction. He had big plans for the engine, constrained only by my insistence that I would not be buying a costly header and camshaft from Sweden. I had big plans for the engine, too, centred round deleting the dual Zenith carburetors and putting on the fuel injection hardware, powered not with ancient D-Jetronic sensors and brain but with a nifty fuel-and-spark engine management system from SDS.

…including this one.


Bit of a story about that, actually. SDS are a Canadian outfit, and the system I bought was delivered to me in Ontario. I kept hold of it until I had occasion to drive to the States. Had the system right next to me on the seat of my truck, with the receipt on top of the box. Got to the border and the American guard in the booth mumbled his questions into his computer screen; I couldn’t hear him despite having switched off my engine, so I had to ask him to repeat himself. He took this as an attempt to evade his questions, and accused me of trying to sneak commercial merchandise across the border. I told him I wasn’t trying to sneak anything anywhere, and pointed out (again) the receipt for the equipment. He sneered “Oh, sure, I’ll just bet you have a receipt. I’m sure it’s not fake, too”, and sent me inside for inspection with a yellow slip that said “COMM MERCH UNDEC”.

The officer inside said “What is it?”. I said “It’s a fuel injection system for an old Volvo”. Officer said “What’s it going on?”. I said “My 1971 164”. Officer says “So…why were you sent in here?”. I said “I was hoping you could tell me”. Officer rolled his eyes and said “Have a nice night”. I rolled on into Michigan and sent Darryl the system from there.

Not that it mattered; it didn’t get taken out the box, let alone installed. I finally—very tardily—came to my senses and undertook to take back what had always been mine, but only in theory since sometime last century. Enough was (finally, at long last) vastly more than enough, and as I write this now, I’m reminded of having used that phrase earlier in this COAL series, in re dad’s Stinkoln Clown Car. H’mm. Like father/like son, I guess! Hadn’t occurred to me until just now.

Anyhow. I was living in Toronto and it had been nearly a decade since I’d left the 164 at the shop in Wisconsin. It was past time to repossess it. So in May 2008 I drove down (politically) up (geographically) to Michigan and joined forces with a properly equipped member of my chosen family—we’ll call him Slim—and we set to a crosslake mission to recover the pieces of my car from the unstable, armed dude we’re calling Darryl. We used a borrowed Dodge D250 whose owner had recently bought it for $250. It had neglect roughly commensurate with the missing zero in that price. This truck would tow a borrowed trailer, which Slim put new wheel bearings in before we got going. We spent two days getting ready, which included a great deal of discussion and rehearsal for the unpredictable interaction we were getting ourselves into.

The Badger is still coal-fired today, but now it has modern combustion and emission controls; at that time it didn’t.

We awoke at 4 Friday morning, got in the truck, and headed for Ludington, where we meant to get on the SS Badger to go ‘cross the lake to Wisconsin. I’d misjudged the distance, so we were running very short on time to get there for the 8:00 dock call. Just when we began questioning whether we’d make it, the truck decided to start misfiring and cutting out. I called the boat when it became apparent we’d not make it before 8:30. Of course they couldn’t delay the boat, but if we could make it before the 9:00 departure, they’d let us on, they said. We got to the dock, sputtering truck and all, at about 8:50 and change. You don’t load your own vehicle onto the Badger, you park it and they load it. We were a lot nervous that the truck wouldn’t start for them, but it did, so it and we got on the boat and had a lovely 4-hour crossing on America’s only remaining coal-fired steamship. I highly recommend the Badger; it’s a whole hell of a lot better way to go between Michigan and Wisconsin than getting stuck in Illinois’ permanent traffic jam. I’d booked us a stateroom which kind of reminded me of my first-year-of-university dorm room, but while I was tired from the early getup, my nerves were too jittery to allow much of any sleep.

It’s a…


…great big rilly cool lamp!

The tension ratcheted up a notch when the boat landed at Manitowoc and it was time to see whether the truck’d start for the unloaders, which it did without complaint. It got us about ¾ mile before it cut out again…directly in front of an auto parts store. We took up a sizeable chunk of the otherwise-empty parking lot and started poking around under the hood, taking note of old age here, there, and everywhere. I went in and bought a distributor cap and rotor, eight spark plugs, some transmission fluid and engine oil, carburetor cleaner and assorted other bric a brac. We topped up the fluids, I cleaned the throttle body as a show of goodwill and put in the cap and rotor, and we decided to save the spark plugs for later. The truck seemed to run significantly better, which I’m sure it did, until it didn’t. It cut out again.

Slim drove the persnickety pickup skillfully, we found a motel and parked our stuff there, had one quick final rehearsal, then drove to Plymouth. We had with us a bag of Hippie Chow to use as a peace offering for Darryl and scorched-earth insurance policy for ourselves.

We arrived at the shop to find Darryl’s 78-year-old mother industriously using a Shop-Vac to vacuum the front lawn. Ahem. Seems the snowplow tends to distribute pebbles in the lawn, so obviously the right tool for lawn pebble abatement is a Shop-Vac, and logically the right person for this asinine task is Darryl’s 78-year-old stroke-survivor mother (…doesn’t everybody?).

Darryl was his usual self. His son—the one who drunkenly barged into the 164—was on a first-name basis with alcohol, hard drugs, a lengthy rap sheet, prison time, and other suchlike, so Darryl had custody of his 15-year-old grandson we’ll call “Helmutt”. Helmutt was fiercely smart.

Inside, the shop looked like cyclones had hit it annually since at least the dawn of the Nixon administration, except for the thick layer of pungent, oily, black dust on everything not moved for more than a month. The shop had a waste-oil heater: oil drained from engines and transmissions and rear axles got burnt—lead, zinc, molybdenum, cadmium, and all—to make heat. Thassallright, though; Darryl just filtered his air through cigarettes, cigars, and a little brass pipe.

When we arrived, Darryl was feverishly working to assemble the engine, as though he could somehow make up for nearly a decade’s inaction in a day and a half. I’m not sure why he was bothering. We said our hello, made an offering of a portion of the Hippie Chow, and endured with a smile a great deal of irrelevant babble. After we got done going on a tour of the property (chickens, ducks, fish in a pond, highly numerous parts cars slowly returning to the earth, and old truck trailers that had to be worth at least $50K in scrap metal doing likewise), we returned to the shop, where Darryl had amassed perhaps 70% of the parts belonging to my car in a space just inside the shop’s roll-up door. Certain costly items I’d bought or otherwise paid for over the years were conspicuously absent, such as the engine management system and the overdrive unit, but I forcibly kept my mouth shut. We all agreed it’d be easiest to return the next morning to get loaded up, so as to avoid trying to put the car on the trailer in the dark. The truck started, and Slim and I went off to find some supper.

So Friday was a sort of semi-moist/damp run: Not quite a dry run, not quite the final show. Saturday morning was the real deal: back to the shop to pick it all up. Helmutt was not only smart, but very helpful; despite the disarray in the shop, he seemed to know exactly where everything was. Even the stuff that had been casually stashed for years. Even the stuff that had been deliberately stashed for days. Slim did a masterful job of keeping Darryl engaged in conversation while I quietly asked Helmutt “H’mm…have you seen the overdrive? Any idea where the engine management system is? How about the starter?”. Those parts and others materialised in Helmutt’s capable arms and were discreetly loaded onto the pickup. I will always suspect that Helmutt knew exactly what was going on and quietly chose to side with us rather than with grandpa Darryl.

Darryl gave me a handwritten invoice, itemised after a fashion—the first he’d ever given me—for something like $6,500. I’d forgot my wallet and chequebook on Slim’s kitchen table in Michigan or somewhere; I didn’t have them on me, so all I could do was remove my left boot, retrieve the $376 wad of sockdamp cash, and give it over.

There was drama. Darryl tried to scare me with gun-related threats. And he wouldn’t allow me to unbolt my custom-built alternator and new air conditioning compressor from the parts car he’d bolted them to years before. But Darryl was no match for Slim’s talent for moving things along; he pointed out that if we wanted to make the boat’s departure, we’d have to leave in a hurry, so we gave over more Hippie Chow and departed. Slim wisely reminded me to wait before celebrating; we watched our rearview mirrors all the way to the dock, but Darryl didn’t follow us. At the dock, it became apparent the truck’s fuel line was leaking. Fortunately, the Badger crew agreed with our assessment of the leak as minor; a drip pan would suffice. I went in the office to get our tickets changed from Sunday to Saturday—Slim hadn’t told any lies; he was absolutely correct that if we didn’t leave Darryl’s quickly, we wouldn’t make the one and only Saturday departure of the Badger. Y’don’t mess around with Slim.

When I returned to the dock, a Polish immigrant and his wife, evidently both avid Volvo fans, were taking turns snapping photographs of themselves in front of my 164. Forlorn and incomplete as it was, missing one headlamp and assorted front trim, they still thought it was cool. And they were right!

Would the truck start back up…?


…Yep, it did, and the truck-trailer-car assembly went backing…





We had a delightful crossing back to Michigan. Pulled into Ludington proper and had an absolutely perfect dinner of hot turkey with mashed potatoes and vegetable medley. Split pea soup on the side. The back half of the restaurant was taken up by the owners of the motorcycles parked outside; we’d seen them pull up en masse to buy Badger tickets while we were disembarking. It was only after dinner when we had just set out for the home stretch that Slim advised me not to scrutinise the trailer’s tires too closely. That sounded like good advice, so I followed it. The truck misbehaved all the way home, but we didn’t care. We stopped every hour or so to let it cool down and resume readiness. We got home late at night, but we got home, and finally the long nightmare with Darryl was over, mostly. He carried on e-mailing me demanding to know when he was going to get paid; I guess it’s true what they say about the duration of a minute depending on which side of the bathroom door you’re on.

The car and mountain of parts went into Slim’s barn, where it stayed for another decade. The informal idea had been for him to put it together, but that didn’t happen on account of the perfectly valid reason that he’s got a marriage, job, home, barns, and cars of his own. So life kept on going on, the 164 stayed asleep in the barn, and life went on some more.

By 2018 I felt boxed in and spread thin. And even without budgetary concerns, there was awholenother stack of questions: we wave a magic wand and the 164 is whole and picture-perfect tomorrow morning; hop in and drive anywhere. Now what? Would I drive it? Surely! I bet it would put a smile on my face. I bet it’d be fun to take it on a road trip. My daily driver was a stultifying genericmobile, to the degree of being dangerously boring to drive long distances. I had no doubt the assembled and tuned 164 would be just the opposite. Those curvies in the mountains of the BC interior would probably be a total hoot with the M410, climbing and descending. And the soundtrack to it all…!

But I couldn’t figure out just how a vintage Volvo could possibly fit in my life, even a super premium extra-cool one with all the goodies, built with skill and talent and passion and love. I think I’d want to give it back at the end of the trip. Where was I going to park such a one-of-none without it attracting vandalism because people suck? How was I going to stop it quickly deteriorating in use as a daily driver, how was I going to insure it adequately, and what shop would fix it today or tomorrow with parts from where?

So I was feeling, as I say, boxed in. Flailing and taking on water. Hard though it was to admit, and much though it torqued me to acknowledge, my active, hands-on, seated-in participation in the old car hobby really was substantially a thing of the past. And here was this 164, which hadn’t actually, practically been mine since late last century, tying me to grand dreams gone amok in my early 20s, sidetracked by my father’s death and my mother’s meltdown in my mid 20s, derailed through my 30s by my poor choice of contractor, de-prioritised by my marriage, and finally fetched up on the shoals of realism in my 40s.

I needed an exit strategy, and Slim and I devised one. The car didn’t travel very far to its new owner; the old-Volvo network is like that. I understand the odds, oddly, are increasingly good that the car will get put together in the foreseeable future. There’s a real chance perhaps one day its new owner will toss me the keys and let me take it out for a drive. I’d like that.

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