In late August 2000 I flew back to Michigan for my last year of university, having spent a couple of months in California trying to put my brain back together after my father died.
I was living near North Campus—good for access to the solar car office, shop, and workspace, and to UMTRI, but most of my classes were down Central Campus. I needed a car that would keep the snow off me to and from the nearest campus bus stop, about a mile from my apartment.
Southern Michigan is a difficult place to buy a good cheap used car. On eBay I won the bid for a 1985 Volvo turbo 245 (i.e., 240 station wagon) with 4-speed plus electric overdrive. The story was that it had body rust but was in excellent mechanical condition, had been owned for many years by a Volvo dealer tech, et cetera. It was in Grand Rapids, and I caught a ride there with a solar car teammate in his ’88 Mazda 626.
It was a polychromatic (i.e., rusty) brown car with working overdrive, four power windows and three power locks, a relatively nice leather interior, 15″ alloy wheels, and 153K miles showing. I paid the $700 and drove it 140 miles back to Ann Arbor. It ran well, but when I say I had a blast on that drive, I mean it; the car’s exhaust system was rather less than intact, and the seller hadn’t mentioned that slight steering wheel shimmy at 90 mph.
I put a couple hundred dollars into it straightaway: a new windshield, and I had to have three feet of exhaust pipe welded in, as the headpipe had pulled apart at the flange under the floor. That fixed the giant leak, which made it possible to hear the big leak up front, right where the elbow off the turbo attached to the catalytic converter. I tried gooping the joint with exhaust system repair paste, but it was no use; after a day or so the stuff just cracked and fell off.
So I called for a quote on a new catalytic converter for an ’85 Volvo 240 wagon with 2.1 turbo. The lowest quote I got was $185 from a shop in a run-down part of one of Detroit’s run-down tentacles. A few days later I drove over. The shop owner/tech/bookkeeper/chief cook/bottle washer seemed unfazed by the crusty condition of the car. “Does this car have to have a catalytic converter on it?” I asked.
He replied “What year is this car?”
I said “It’s a nineteen…seventy-four.”
He said: “Then no, you don’t need one.”
I said “Oh, fine! Can you bend me a plain headpipe instead?”
And that’s how the car came to have a headpipe that looked like this what Volvo installed on cars built for countries that still used leaded gasoline in 1985:
The car still had a catalytic converter, mind you, but now it was in the cargo area. The muffler was still anointed (holy), but at least now pretty much all the exhaust made it pretty much all the way to the back of the car.
I noticed no L-Sonde (Oxygen Sensor) light on the dash when cranking, so I pulled apart the dash to find there was no bulb in that socket. I installed one, and then the light stayed lit full time. This didn’t surprise me, really, because of what else I was finding under the hood: vacuum hoses cut and plugged with random screws (or oil-rotted and open to the air). Random wires missing or dangling. The idle was unstable, hunting around all over the place, and closing the throttle meant a slow drift eventually back down to idle speed.
I disconnected the hose running from the throttle body down to the idle air motor and squirted a bunch of red-label brake cleaner down it. Waited a few minutes, then cranked the engine. It sputtered mightily and came to life for a few seconds, then died. White smoke out the back and the frightful stench of burnt brake cleaner indicated there was at least some travel possible through the idle motor. This was a stupid, foolhardy stunt, for red-label brake cleaner is—or at that time was— tetrachloroethylene; burning it produces hydrogen chloride (very toxic) and phosgene (unbelievably toxic, and there’s no antidote). Add this to the list of chemicals I wish I hadn’t messed with.
Howe’er it was, I repeated the trick a few times with carburetor cleaner, then reattached the hose. The idle was much more stable, though return to idle was still very slow.
I’d had the intercooler-to-throttle-body-elbow hose off, and at that time noticed that a microswitch attached to the throttle body was missing one of its wires, which was dangling adjacent to the switch. The terminals on the switch were crusty; I cleaned them up, ox-garded them and re-secured the wires. It made no discernible difference.
But the car started without much fuss and ran and drove passably well. The handbrake didn’t work; the cables had rusted away long ago, so I just parked it in Reverse and hoped for the best. Certainly it was adequate to get me to and from the bus stop, to and from the grocery—little short errandy stuff like that. Oil pressure was indicated as damn near zero at idle—by which I mean about 1,500 rpm. Good job it wasn’t any lower or the oil pressure really would have been zero.
While fiddlefutzing around with the car, I made a neat discovery about Volvo option codes: my car was equipped with the Michigan flow-thru ventilation package, option code Fe02! I emptied out the wayback, and hosed down the rusted-through spare tire wells with brake cleaner to get rid of the oil, rust dust, and dirt. I covered the big rust holes with aluminum tape, then repeated this step on the outside, sticking tape to tape. I sprayed over the tape with rubberised undercoating to create a –
The tailgate wiper didn’t work, and the backglass defogger barely did. Neither did the cruise control, or the air conditioning. The power steering was semi-retired until I found the pump mount was missing one of its front-to-back through bolts, which allowed the belt to slack off and slip on the pulley. I remedied that, after a fashion, with a pencil crammed through the bolt hole. The heater blower motor was noisy, which meant it was past due, and the ’73-up Volvo 100-200 series cars were built around the blower motor. Replacement is a notoriously difficult and complicated job, though I’m told with practise and ingenuity it was possible to get very quick at it and make excellent money beating the hell out of the flat-rate allowance on that job. Me, I just left the blower always on second speed, which centrifugally minimised the noise from the dead motor bearings.
I removed the four wet previously-sealed beams and installed a very nice pair of Carello H4 outboard lamps with French-spec yellow bulbs and white Cibié H1 inboard lamps, which is kind of amusing given the condition of the rest of the electrical system. The car was severely corroded; it was a rolling faulty ground. Repairs were futile, but the effort started out as a mission to figure out why the left front turn blinker was intermittent in more than just the usual way. Cleaning the lamp’s ground wire running to the fender had helped before, but didn’t work this time. With the ignition switched off, I found 50 ohms between the fender ground point and battery negative. With ignition switched on, I got 180 ohms(!) at the same place. Yee! I pulled the many ground wires off the three fender attachment points, cleaned them all up, gooped Ox-Gard on all of them, cleaned and Ox-Garded the battery cables.
Now I was seeing only about 2 or 3 ohms between fender and battery negative regardless of whether the car was switched on or off—much better, but still no left front turn blinker. Couldn’t suss out any faulty components, but in exasperation I yanked the entire lamp-and-wiring assembly and installed my spare, which happened to be a European-spec item. Presto, the left front blinker now worked. The car looked a little lopsided, with one US and one European front corner lamp assembly, but…eh! It worked.
Then I lost both right high beam headlamps. I pried apart the 2-wire headlamp disconnect and found its red and blue wires were mostly green inside. I chopped off the disconnect, cut back the wires until I hit copper, and bridged them with some bits of what was probably speaker wire.
The car leaked so much oil from the oil pan, cam cover, turbo drain, and surely others at freeway speeds that the tailgate glass grew impossible to see through with 10 miles’ highway driving. I pulled the crankcase vent hose off its fitting on the airbox and saw some blowby coming out, but not too much. Put my thumb over the end of the hose with engine idling, and felt pressure building up, and building up, and building up, then lots of smoke as oil was forced out through many leaks onto the hot exhaust pipe.
Wait a sec…highway? What happened to putt-putting around town, a mile here and a mile there? Exactly two weeks after I bought the car was Saturday 9 September 2000, the weekend before classes were to start up on the Monday. That morning I was mousing around on the website of the Motor City Bears, which was a little weird, as I’d found them something of a disagreeable group a couple of years before, and chatting over AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, which was a thing at the time) with a friend in California. I had a vague recollection he’d lived in Toronto some years back, so I mentioned to him “Oh, hey, lookit there: the Motor City Bears are having a bar night in Toronto tonight”.
He said “Cool, you should go!”
I said “Toronto’s 300 miles away!”
He said “You just told me you got a car.”
Leaving aside the difference between putting 600 miles on a car like this one at a time versus 300 at a time, I changed protest tactics: “I don’t know anyone there!”
He said “My ex still lives there; you should call him” and gave me a phone number.
Well…sure, why on earth not! I rang the number and a friendly-sounding voice answered. “Hi there”, I said. “I’m Daniel. You don’t know me, ah, yet, but Stephen said to call and tell you I’m coming to visit.”
“Oh, when?” said the friendly voice.
“About…six hours “, I said.
Shortly later, I tossed an overnight bag in the back seat and headed up I-94 toward Canada, where I’d last been eight years before in pursuit of D’Valiant. I don’t recall whether I used the tunnel or the bridge, but I pulled up to the Canadian border in a mangy car with wrong-colour headlamps and a paper temporary licence plate, for my cheap-in-Michigan vanity plate (UH BEAR) hadn’t yet arrove. At that time a passport wasn’t needed to cross the border, and I didn’t have mine with me. The standards of acceptability for what-is-the-purpose-of-your-trip were loose enough back then that I was allowed in, despite my long list of sketchy factors.
I had some difficulty navigating; this was well before smartphones and live nav, so all I had to go on was my directions written out in longhand, which I couldn’t see because it was dark. I got lost a few times in and around Toronto and wound up going way out of my way trying to find Bloor Street. It was close to 10:00 and I was tired, cross, and starving by the time I found the address the friendly voice had given me. He took me in and fed me homemade squash soup the same orange colour as his kitchen walls. As I write this, we’re a couple of months away from our 21st anniversary.
Just under two months after I bought the car, I took it to Swedish Engineering, a highly-regarded independent Volvo shop in Ann Arbor, for a complete checkover. I’d been making all these 620-mile round trips to Tronno, and while the car never left me stranded, and got remarkably good mileage, I had nagging doubts about the wisdom of it all.
The checkup was to cost $70, for one hour’s shop time. They sent me out in one of their loaner cars—a much nicer 245—and eventually called me back in. When I got there, the car was still on the hoist. “I’m going to charge you half an hour, $35”, said the head tech, “but you have to promise to drive straight home and park it for good. You have to stop driving this car; it’s not safe.”
Only the remains of the carpet were preventing the driver’s seat falling through the remains of the floorpan. The front brakes were worn out, with both front rotors well under minimum thickness. The rear brakes were worn out, too, with several seized pistons and very rusty rotors. Both lower ball joints had about ¼” (6.4 mm) play. The front and rear bushings were dead, and the engine mounts. There were numerous major oil leaks. The tires were well past due; hell, the whole car was well past due! Even my free ’63 Valiant wagon hadn’t been this decrepit.
I sold the car for $900, somewhat less than what I had in it, to someone who may very well comment on this post. I’d got about 3,200 miles out of it, so I wasn’t too awfully sad, but finding a suitable replacement was going to be a hassle of one kind or another, there in rusty Southern Michigan. That’s not where I wound up buying the next car, so…stay tuned!