COAL: Cars and Life In Transition

The “ubiquitous” Volvo Wagon

If I’ve learned anything in my sixty-plus trips around the sun, it’s that the only constant in life is change. And as I moved on from the early 80s into the 90s, the changes were coming pretty quickly. On the professional front, the regional carrier I’d joined in 1978 was growing nearly exponentially in an industry that was radically changing as a result of the Airline Deregulation Act. And then, the game was radically changed in 1986 we were acquired by Trans World Airlines.

This transition impacted all of us in various ways. By 1989 I had transitioned into the emergency procedures division where (with a few exceptions) I stayed through yet another acquisition until 2003. On the personal front, I’d married and we purchased our first house in 1984. By 1990 we had three children, and the cars my wife and I drove reflected those changes.

In 1987 we purchased a new Jetta GL and by 1988 I was tiring of the impracticalities of the TR-3, and as often happens when things are changing quickly, sought some familiarity, which I found with a used 1983 Rabbit GTI. It was a one-owner car, placed on the market by an Air Force Colonel at nearby Scott Air Force Base. As Yogi Berra once said, “It was déjà vu all over again.”

Like my previous model, this was silver, with red interior and a sunroof. The only difference was an AM/FM radio in place of my former AM/FM/Cassette unit that now resided in the Jetta. I take good care of my cars and I could tell the colonel had as well, so I snapped it up quickly. As my first was, it was titled as a 1983, but had some minor changes. The front and rear bumpers were now closer to the body and the speedometer topped out at 120 mph.

It was just as fun and responsive as my previous GTI. This was my main car for a couple more years, until with a third child along the way, we went full “suburban” and began searching for a Volvo Wagon.

Ours was not this sporty

I did not know much about Volvos, except that they had a reputation for being safe and reliable. Although I had long been a reader of all the major car magazines, most of the cars featured were those sought by enthusiasts. I do recall a review from the mid-sixties in Popular Science where (I think) the team of Norbe and Dunn praised the 124 as the “poor man’s Rolls-Royce.” Of course by this time, with some help from Lisa Birnbach’s best selling” Official Preppy Handbook,” they’d become kind of a cliché. Her description (under the chapter titled “Prepmobiles” and lumped in with Peugeots and Mercedes-Benzes) read, “More of the same. Everyone is supposed to recognize right off that you’ve dropped a lot of bills on the car, and at the same time they’re expected to see that you’re a person of understated taste. You have bought the car presumably not as a status symbol but because you care about good machinery. That a basic Toyota performs most of the functions of these cars is never mentioned.”

We found a very nice used 1982 240 DL (I think that was the trim) wagon with around 100,000 miles on it that belonged to an older man in my sister’s neighborhood. It was a kind of brown metallic (although looking a bit bronze in the right light) with an automatic transmission, those “turbine” alloy wheels and leather interior, in very good condition with the exception that the previous owner was a smoker. In fact, there was a slight deformation of the plastic appliqué on the center stack above the ashtray that looked as if at one time a minor conflagration had occurred. I put the GTI on the market, and pulled the advertisement after two days. I could have sold a dozen, and nearly everyone who inquired had the same story. “I had one and sold it, and I’d like to get another.” So the Jetta became my primary vehicle.

My first experience with leather

Although it was purchased for my wife to drive, I logged a lot of time behind the wheel, and I can’t say enough about these cars. Even at ten years old, it was solid as a safe. It was certainly not a performance car (our neighbor had a newer 700 turbo wagon, and there was no comparison) but I’ve often thought these would have been the perfect car to get any sixteen year old once they obtained their driver’s license. Too slow to get into trouble unless you really worked at it, and if you did, enough safety features to keep you relatively intact.

It chugged on quite a while, probably close to five years, until my wife got the minivan bug. I came home one day to find a new Mercury Villager in the garage. My wife and gone to the dealer and they’d given her a demo to take home. By this time, we’d bought a new house that was pretty close to our limits of affordability, and the day after we closed, I (along with every other non-contract TWA employee) took a straight 15% pay cut, so our financial situation was pretty tight. We kept the Volvo for another year, then bit the bullet and purchased a new Villager.

Ours was blue

A postscript on the 240: We’d paid around $3,700 for it, and now with about 150,000 miles on it sold it for $2,995. The backstory is, the blower motor went out (apparently a common problem with either the motor or the resistor in the switch). In those days before the Internet if something were amiss, I would simply call Brentwood Volvo (the largest dealer in the area) and run my problem by someone in the service department. I figured (almost always correctly) there were probably a million or so of these things out there, what were the chances ours was having a unique issue? In this instance, the service guy told me you had to replace the switch and the motor as a unit, and added that it was a tough job. There was a salvage place in South St. Louis that specialized in European parts, and yes, they had what I needed. I will never forget, as I wrote the check and the guy pushed the motor, switch and harness across the counter, he paused to say, “It’s a tough job.” Yes, it was.

I spent three evenings disassembling the entire instrument panel, replacing the motor, and then reassembling it. However, this allowed me to clean and apply Armor All to every component prior to assembly and the result were no less than a brand-new appearing interior. Combined with freshly shampooed carpet, this car showed well and sold for asking price (despite a bit of rust beginning to bubble within the rocker panels).

No CB radio, but the same color

A lot of people will knock minivans. I’m not one of them. Yes, they’re boxy. It’s the best shape for space, and that’s what they’re about. While I always felt the first generation Chrysler products were a bit on the tinny side, they started a revolution in transportation. The Villager was a joint venture between Nissan and Ford, and they wisely chose a single power plant/automatic transmission drivetrain combination that allowed the suspension and drivability to be fine-tuned. It was reliable and had a solid road feel. It seated seven very comfortably, and while we chose the base model, it was quiet and comfortably appointed.

Unfortunately, change being the only constant in this life, the Jetta and Villager both outlasted the dissolution of our marriage. Psychologists and counselors will tell you that when you’re under stress, your chances of having a mishap or accident essentially multiply. I was driving home on a Friday evening, on a familiar road in a residential area. The lanes were divided and I looked left, then right, and then began to proceed into the intersection where a large, red Suburban belonging to the Fire Department that I had not seen was just passing through. It was a minor collision, but enough damage to total it out. The Villager suffered a similar end. My wife had remarried and a thunderstorm caused a tree to fall on it as (thankfully) it was parked in their driveway.