COAL: 1985 Volvo 245 Turbo the Second – Oops, I Did It Again

On 6 October 2002, I impulsively decided that, having done my time in a K (ish)-car, I was rehabilitated and ready to return to productive society. The ’92 LeBaron I’d bought off my mother for $1,200 had given me utterly reliable, dependable, inexpensive service and really owed me nothing, but the driver side of its split bench seat had deteriorated from passable to distinctly uncomfortable for the hours-long drives Bill and I were in the habit of. In retrospect, I’d’ve done better to refurbish or replace the seat and carry on driving, but I decided it was time for a replacement car.

This decision was nudged along by my having spotted that day a really nice ’85 Volvo 245 Turbo…on EBay (minor chord here). Intercooled, 4-speed plus overdrive, limited-slip differential, air conditioning, power everything, leather, a buncha gauges, and 120 kilomiles. It was just outside Wilmington, North Carolina. On 7 October, the seller told me Shocks have been replaced. Bushings not sure, will check on that. There isn’t any popping or creaking or other unusual noise. Michelins like new, stock size. Car starts instantly and runs perfectly. A/C is blowing 40 degrees at the vents. There is no rust on this car anywhere. It is as “turn key” as you’ll find. Owners were one doctor, his good friend, then me. I have sevice records that are recent and they give one the understanding of the excellent care this car has had. Thanks for the interest and I will try to veiw all the bushings to tomorrow as I’m going to take undercarraige pics for someone else.

On 8 October: Bushings all in great shape, no cracks, no sag, no missing chunks.

The Ebay auction ended without meeting reserve at $5,250, and I emailed the seller—back then Ebay just handed out email addresses. We agreed on $5,500, and he’d be perfectly happy to store the car for awhile while I made arrangements. Money sent, bling; title received, blong. So I’d bought another 1985 Volvo 245 Turbo on Ebay! Bodily it was the diametric opposite of Den Rostiga Björnvagn: not a speck of rust anywhere, and structurally A-1. But a car, particularly such as a turbocharged and intercooled Volvo with a bunch of options, has a great many working parts assembled to that structure. Many of them on this car were rather closer to Z-26 than to A-1, and the car wound up causing me great aggravation and expense in the five months I owned it.

I was living in Toronto on the most grudging, yankprone kind of visa—permanent residence was still years ahead, let alone citizenship—and registering the car in Ontario would have made problems if the Canadian Government had decided to kick me out, so my car was registered in Michigan. I made arrangements with the service writer at an independent garage in Traverse City; he’d sell the LeBaron for me.

On 8 November I got a call from one of the service writer’s customers. This guy had a fireproof credit card on file at the garage; when his ’80 Rolls Royce (V8, multiple SU carburettors) needed service, he dropped it off, whatever parts and service were charged on the card, and he picked it up when it was done. The money behind that credit card came from this guy’s expertise in big, fancy chassis dynamometers, which he sold to automakers. He told me Chrysler do a lousy job of building a great design, Ford do a great job of building a lousy design, and GM do a mediocre job of building a mediocre design, and with exceptions here and there, I think that’s apt. His newphew was driving a ’91 LeSabre that was clapped out plus a year, and badly in need of replacement. We exchanged e-mails, and he asked when he could see the LeBaron.

On Monday 11 November I swapped the nice CD player out the LeBaron into my truck, and the truck’s generic FM/AM into the LeBaron. I reinstalled the mile-primary speedometer after advancing the odometer to match the KM total, and cleaned out all my junk.

On Tuesday 12 November I drove the LeBaron from Toronto to Traverse City—about 750 km / 470 miles, gave the friendly service writer the title and a matched set of “sign here” bills of sale, told him I was asking $2,000 for the car and would probably accept $1,700.

On Wednesday 13 November I flew back to Toronto. There was unpleasantness with Customs and Immigration; that went with the territory of that grudging visa I was on.

On Friday 15 November I flew to North Carolina. While waiting at the baggage reclaim in Wilmington, I checked my voicemail. Rolls Royce guy had left a message: Nephew and I test drove your LeBaron…it’s perfect, just what we want! Will you take $2100 for it?

Hrr? I’d never had a counteroffer higher than what I was asking. I called Service Writer, who said Yeah, I told him you wanted $2k for it, and he said ‘Naw, this car’s too nice for $2K, I’ll give him $2,100.

Sold, then! It seemed to me I was developing something of a track record of selling cars in nicer shape than I bought them. The guy who bought the LeBaron said exactly the same thing as the guy who bought my Spirit R/T : I can’t believe this car is 10 years old!

I picked up the Volvo, and learned (and, from the experience with the 1990 Jetta, wished I hadn’t) that the seller was a salesman at a VW dealer by profession. He’d had his detail guys go over the car, which I guess was a nice gesture unless it wasn’t, and they’d used some kind of godawful-smelling dye or other chemical on some interior part. The car reeked of volatile solvents.

North Carolina was great. Awesome seafood, nice people—Y’all come back now, y’heeyah?—and I was able to pick up a bag of grits per Bill’s request, only I don’t think he had the 5-pounder in mind. I spent the night in a rental cottage on the beach. The next morning I affixed my Michigan plate, installed the Marchal quartz headlamps I’d brought along with me (because of course I had) and guessed at their aim, and set out for Toronto through rain, fog and snow.

The car did fine, pretty much. I was irked to discover the rear frog lamps didn’t work—there I was, in weather conditions warranting their use, in a car equipped with them, and I couldn’t! That wouldn’t do; it didn’t take much poking and prodding to figure out the fuse had gone missing. I installed one and the rear frog lamps went blazing at the touch of the switch.

Outside of that, the car seemed to need some tweaks, tunes and fixes, but nothing terribly major, I thought, at least nothing major enough to stop me spending first effort (and, er, money) on an upgrade instead of a repair: I replaced the quad-rectangular headlamp setup with the quad-round headlamp setup used on earlier 240s. Size for size, round parabolic lamps work better than ones with corners and walls and floors and ceilings. I put Carello H4 lamps outboard, the ones with the bulb shield that makes the lamps look black when viewed head-on, and equipped them with my French-spec yellow bulbs. Like most small H4 lamps, they were objectively weak on low beam, but comfortable to drive with on account of the relatively strong foreground light—how good a headlamp’s performance feels is often far out of line with how good it actually is.

The inboard mounts got a set of seldom-seen Cibié high beams with sealed-in H2 bulbs electrically isolated from the metal headlamp reflector. These had been made to permit European headlamps to be installed in Japanese cars with ground-switched headlamp systems; the conventional H1 high beams put the bulb ground in common with the headlamp reflector, so the always-hot headlamp circuit and metal-to-metal-to-ground mounting meant no turning off the high beams, ever. Hence the little-known isolated-ground Cibies. When one can’t walk from desk to bookshelf without tripping over headlamps, one runs weird lights!

But repairs quickly became necessary. Some of the issues were with the HVAC: with the control set for fresh air, there was a constant vacuum hiss, and the recirc door would not move to the fresh-air setting or anywhere else. The hiss went away when recirculated air was selected, but the recirc door still wouldn’t move. I found no vacuum leak between the engine and the funny-lookin’ vacuum reservoir, nor any leak in the reservoir itself. Both other buttons on the control panel worked briskly, so no leak between reservoir and button box; the leak at the button box, betwen the button box and the recirc door actuator, or in the actuator. I couldn’t get access to carry on my diagnosis, nor did I have the primary main important tool for that job, a factory service manual.

I was accustomed to buying the FSM for any car I bought. This was never a problem with any of the Chrysler products, nor with the Crapiece, nor with my ’71 Volvo 164. But sometime after building the ’71, Volvo decided FSMs are proprietary. It’s not that I couldn’t buy one, it’s that the price was $2,600 (I am not making this up; that was the actual quote). I intensely disfavour aftermarket books; they leave stuff out and get stuff wrong. I imagine the Bentley manuals are at least somewhat better than the useless waste-of-dead-trees Chilton/Haynes items, but then they could scarcely be worse.

What was more, the temperature slider didn’t exert much control over the amount of heat; the range was from very warm to hot. My previous 245 hadn’t a working heater, so I had no comparison basis, but I thought it would be lovely to have a full choice of cool-warm-hot. And to be able to open all four windows (and maybe even…close them again?). And to be able to use the handbrake, and get useful information—or any at all, really—from the oil pressure gauge, and stop hearing numerous rattles and other spurious noises from under the car. And since I was already that far into this flight of fancy, I decided it would be cool if the engine would idle at a normal speed…and idle down to that speed promptly when foot removed from accelerator…and otherwise like that.

And in the process of removing the previous owner’s white-blue-yellow gauge face overlays, I found the speedo cable just sort of lying there, more or less in place, but not actually secured to the speedometer head, just the remains of a short coil spring that seemed not to attach anywhere. I reckoned this was probably contributing to the palsied behaviour of the speedometer needle. The Volvo listserv nerds explained the PO had removed the cable carelessly and not bothered repairing it. Whee!

28 November: I got an inspection report and estimate from the highly regarded independent Volvo garage I’d taken the car to:

NOTE: Car is very rust-free

NOTE: All undercar rubber is in some state of deterioration. Not safety critical at this time, but cracking is visually observable.

Engine mount, LH–soggy. Replace. Part $30, Labour $90 to replace 2 mounts
Engine mount, RH–OK for now, quoted under labour anyway
Trans mount–soggy–Replace. Part $31.29, Labour $45

Suspension: Strut mounts, cracking. Parts $208, Labour $294, DOES NOT INCLUDE ALIGNMENT
Bushings, Control Arm, cracking. LR and RR part $31/ea Labour $157.50
Add’l bushing, strut mount: $24
Trailing Arm Bushing–replace–both sides: Labour $226.80
Torque Rod Bushings–replace Labour $112.50
Parts: Trailing Arm Bushing $64.20
Parts: Torque Rod Bushings $120.00
Tailgate harness, replace, labour: $180
Parts: $100

Disassemble/repair 3 door window regulators, labour: $225.00
Misc parts for above: $50.00

Repair wire to oil sender: Labour: $150
Possible Sender, if needed part cost: $124

Heater Control Valve, part: $100
Labour: $90

Parking brake sticks “on”, labour: $159.60
Parts if needed: Cable $100
Labour if cable needed: $75

Brake booster bleeds down after 3-4 minutes after shutdown: Booster itself
has small leak. Used booster $100 or reman $275

—Above is work not yet authorised. Below is work already completed—

Engine vacuum hoses misrouted, distributor vacuum advance/retard disconnected. Reconnected/rerouted and set base idle. If engine continues to hang at high speed between gears, CIS motor probably at fault. Recommend against used. New part is expensive.

Exhaust mounted improperly, numerous points of contact w/body. Corrected as much as possible, reduced noise.

Fuel pump mount assembled incorrectly, making contact w/body. Corrected, reduced noise.

So I owed them $290 or so. Not so awful, but the whole shemozzle was $1,419.49 in parts and $2,215.50 in labour and $545.74 in tax, for a grand total of $4,180.73. Eep! Clearly I’d managed to hose myself with the aid of the VW salesman. I had much of the work done, and tried to walk off the sharp, shooting pains in my wallet region. Also I decided new rule: no more Ebay cars.

Not very many days later—because that’s the time scale this whole experience went on— I noticed a popping exhaust leak noise from under the hood under hard acceleration. I took it back to the independent Volvo garage. They kept the car two days, told me they’d found and replaced two snapped-off manifold studs which had required drilling and Heli-Coiling, charged me a considerable but fair amount of money, and wished me well. I went out to the parking lot, started the car, and thought I still heard a little “pft-pfft-pfft” exhaust leak, though I couldn’t be sure over the din of the engine. The service advisor listened and said that if it should turn out to be a leak, I should bring the car back. Good enough for me.

Shortly after that, I drove the car from Toronto to the suburbs of Washington, DC; I was working (at large) for a vehicle lighting-related small business there, and an on-site visit was required. About 100 miles outside of Toronto, the popping noise came back. On arrival, I called the Toronto shop. Oh, yeah, we were wondering if you were gonna call, they said. We got a bad run of Elring [OE brand -DS] gaskets for that application. We’ve had to redo two other B21FT exhaust manifold gasket jobs because of those gaskets. Bring it back when you get back and we’ll take care of it for ya”.

Very good, but over the next week, the leak got louder and louder, went full-time, and the popping was joined at high RPM by a hair-raising teakettle shriek of escaping gas. The boost dropped to zero, and the interior of the car began to fill with exhaust. This was unsafe, and not conducive to selling the car, which I was trying to do. Not only because I wanted out from under it, but because what I wanted from it, it couldn’t offer; Bill didn’t fit in the car.

He’s 6-foot-4 (193 cm) and 280 pounds (127 kg)—tall, okeh, though not enormous—but anything longer than a 15-minute trip was miserable for him. It wasn’t just a matter of the seat not going far enough back, though there was that; everything was in the wrong place. The coin tray hit his left knee. The console cramped his left foot. The armrest hit his right knee. The door pocket got in the way of his right foot. There was nowhere to put his left elbow, so he had to hold his left hand with his right. And on and on and on. Every time he moved even a couple inches, he smacked into something. Said he felt much more confined than he did in the LeBaron, actually physically claustrophobic: “I cram myself in and then that’s it, no further movement is possible”. Strange, since the Swedes aren’t known for being short or small, but there it was.

I called the Toronto shop, thanked them for agreeing to replace the defective gasket on my return, but said that I couldn’t safely make it back to Toronto with the car. The owner of the place immediately said “Have it fixed down there; we’ll refund our work when you get back.” Slightly taken aback at the lack of resistance, I asked whether he wanted me to follow any special procedures, take any pictures, get any statement from the US garage, save old parts, anything like that. He said “No. Are you lying to me?” I said “No.” He said “Well, then I trust you.” So far, so good.

But I still had to get the car fixed. There was a small shop in the same industrial park as my employer. Place was named for its owner, who was a master diagnostician, a fine judge of technician competence, and a concert pianist—no foolin’. The appointment was made for Thursday, but when I pulled up to the shop (car sounding like a mufflerless lawn mower) and went in, the owner was ashen-faced and barely able to speak. His office manager had got in a horrible crash that morning while taking a longtime customer to work. Jaws of life, car sawed in half, office manager okeh, customer fractured pelvis. He asked me to come back the next day; I was happy to oblige.

So that was Friday, then. I dropped off the car at 8 and walked across the car park to work. At 10:45, my phone rang. It was Bob, over at the shop. “Mr. Stern, we need to show you something”.

Back across the car park, what they showed me dropped my jaw. Everything had been removed from the right side of the block, to reveal two old broken studs and no new ones. There were crude punch marks in the stub of one of the broken studs, as though someone had made a half-attempt to remove it. There was nothing wrong with the gaskets; they simply hadn’t been clamped, for there was nothing to clamp them. I had been charged for essentially no work at all.

The tech informed me, and I agreed, that drilling broken studs in an installed head is fraught with risk, especially in an aluminum head. If the drill went astray or seized and snapped, the head would have to be removed and either repaired at a machine shop or replaced with a remanufactured item. Whiskers drooping and thoroughly peeved at the Toronto shop, I returned to work. So did the pianist and his crew.

5:00 came and went. No call.
5:15 came and went. No call.
5:25 came and went. No call. The shop closed at 5:30 sharp.

At 5:28, my phone rang. “Come pick it up.” As I walked into the shop, the tech got in the car, started it and backed it out. It ran more quietly than I’d ever heard it. They only charged me 5 hours, and they gave me all the old gaskets and studs in a plastic bag to show to the Toronto

The car ran vastly better than ever: much quieter and smoother, and much stronger with all the exhaust reaching the turbocharger. I ran various mind-movies of how to approach the Toronto shop, but I really didn’t get it: what motivated them to do this kind of nonjob? It couldn’t have been greed, or they’d have simply called for a much juicier head swapout. Perhaps bad communication between an unscrupulous tech and the service writer, who bought the bad-new-gasket story from the tech without checking? I don’t recall the details of the resolution. I think the Toronto shop paid up without much of any backtalk, which makes me think they had a tech gone bad.

I’d put up ads for the car, and auctions, asking something like $7,000. Pristinely clean 245 Turbos are worth more in salt country than down south, everybody said who saw the car, and so I thought I’d see what interest there might be. Got a fairly steady stream of enquirors, but no solid bites. One evening while perusing Hemmings in my hotel room, I saw an ad for a ’79 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, very loaded—350/4bbl engine, F41 suspension, Posi-Traction, gauge package, Comfortron HVAC, sunroof, 2-tone black over silver, red interior, top-spec seats, fancy wheels, etc—with super low miles, for $3,250. I called to learn I’d missed it by less than a day. Sigh. Just as well, I supposed at the time; I’d’ve had to figure out how to juggle the logistics of a car-for-sale in DC and a bought one in…Ohio, it might’ve been, or Indiana, and all that.

While I had the run of the company car park, I took all the photos you see here of the car. I had thought them lost and gone forever, but the Internet Archive had about 75 per cent of them from all the way back in 2003 when I put them up on a personal web page.

I drove the 245 back up to Toronto. It ran reasonably well on that trip. But after the professional mixture/idle/timing adjustment I got done, a new and very disturbing problem showed up on cold start, the car immediately began running roughly and spewing black smoke. It would clear up after a minute or two, when it seemed to lean out to the correct mixture. I knew little about the ’85 K-Jetronic system’s cold-engine enrichment setup, but something was obviously pushing things way, far too rich. I thought perhaps the cold-start injector might be inappropriately active, so I disconnected it before the next cold startup. No change at all, the car still started right up and immediately ran rich/rough.

The apposite nerds on the Volvo listserv suggested a heavy concentration of fuel injector cleaner. I couldn’t find anything decent in Toronto—no Techron, no 44K, none of that, just machts-nichts moneywastes in colourful bottles at Canadian Tire. So I poured in three quarts of lacquer thinner, which contains a savoury brew of acetone, xylene, and methyl ethyl ketone. This did nothing.

There’s a mixture adjustment on the K-Jetronic fuel distributor. It takes a 3 mm hex key and a very light touch, for it is highly sensitive. Everything everywhere about this system warns never to turn the adjustment very much. I turned it as much as ⅓ turn in each direction from its origin without acceptable results. I did a quick ‘n’ dirty check on the constant idle system as noted by the shop: I pulled its fuse, started the engine, then reinstalled the fuse with the engine running—whereupon the CIS immediately began trying to control the engine idle, so that checked out.

One night after pulling into an underground parking space and smelling/hearing/feeling the car idling rough and running rich again. I lost my patience and my temper. I stopped the engine, seized my long-stem T-handle hex key, flung open the hood, and cranked the mixture adjusting screw a full turn-and-a-half leanwards. As expected, the car refused to start at this setting. It would fire, but immediately stall.

I turned the adjustor half a turn richward and tried again; the car started immediately. No smoke, and substantially less roughness. Tasting victory, I did a SWAG adjustment on the idle stop screw, verified O2 sensor operation, and shut down for the night. The car wasn’t warm enough to do final adjustments.

No time to faff around under the hood before I needed to use the car for a crosstown trip the next morning, so I hopped in and turned the key. It started up without a trace of the over-rich condition and ran much better than it had in the three months I’d owned it. The idle was still off a little; a trace of surge remained and it stalled once after I disengaged the clutch to stop for a traffic light.

Back from across town with the engine nice and warm, I flipped open the hood and gave the mixture adjustor an almost imperceptible nudge richward. The last trace of surge immediately disappeared. Good enough for me! That experience provided the seed crystal for a new “Psalm 240” I wrote:

The 240 is my transport; I shall not walk.
You maketh me to lie down in green coolant;
you leadeth me to boil out the radiator.
You runneth on coal (or so it seemeth when the warmup regulator faileth).
You leadeth me in the paths of the rightmost lane for safety’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of car payments, I will fear no S80, for thou art with me; thy Chrysler distributor and thy York compressor, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a trial before me in the presence of thy dead blower motor.
Thou anointest my garage floor with oil; thy starter runneth on.
Surely Hondas and Subarus shall follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the garage with my 240 forever.

Now, A 245 has two wiring harnesses routed through the left and right tailgate hinges. These supply power to the backglass defogger, licence plate lights, and rear wiper. The wires break after many years of flexing each time the tailgate is opened or closed. On 22 December I went to install a set of replacement tailgate harnesses—Scan-Tech items I’d bought from one of the two independent Volvo places I knew of in Toronto. I took apart the headliner and tailgate trim panel, and compared existing original harnesses to replacements.

Incorrect terminals would have been easy enough to fix with crimp-on replacements, but the new harnesses’ wires were very much thinner than the originals, and one of the harnesses had a cheesy oops, this wire isn’t thick enough to feed the defog grid without catching on fire, so we’ll cram an extra wire into the one terminal construction. Yuck, no; this was not a job I wanted to do twice. I would have to buy genuine harnesses or make my own, and this confirmed my perception that Scan-Tech parts (a prominent aftermarket brand for Volvos) are uniformly inferior. I already knew to reject their headlamp-shaped trinkets which, like most all aftermarket headlamps, are nowhere near OE levels of quality, durability, or performance. But a simple 2-wire harness made completely wrong…C’mon.

On my birthday in late January 2003, I advertised the car again. Among the defects I listed were Passenger front door storage pocket has a 2″ × 2″ chunk kicked out of it (happened when we were trying to see if Bill would fit in the car…) and Bun warmers (seat heaters) don’t work; switch light comes on, but no heat results and Oil pressure gauge does not work (pressure was tested at the engine and is quite healthy). On the other side of the ledger was the car’s utter lack of rust as well as one month ago: new brake pads and rotors all around; new suspension bushings, new driveshaft centre bearing and hanger, new Pirelli Winter Ice Direzzionale tires, new OE tailgate harnesses and otherwise like that.

I pulled the recherché Carello and Cibié headlamps and installed carefully-chosen sealed beams; yes, it really is true that certain of the old plain tungsten sealed beams put out more and better-focused light than some halogen sealed beams.

On March 18, 2003, almost exactly five months and many dollars after I bought it, the buyer and I converged at Buffalo airport. I signed over the title, and received I think $5,250. He drove the car home to Florida—I should’ve left it in North Carolina—and I caught one or another kind of transport back across the border to Toronto.

Next week I’ll tell about that truck I mentioned swapping the LeBaron’s CD player into.

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