COAL: 1971 Volvo 164 • Dreams Deferred Indefinitely

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).

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