It is hard to explain why I like this car so much. Of all the vintage cars I’ve owned, it’s by far the most pedestrian of the lot. It’s not charmingly weird like the Saab 96, not sports car cool like the Morgan Plus 4, or a style icon like the Mustang (or whatever the opposite of a style icon is with my Subaru XT Turbos). It is a normal car, an appliance, driven by suburban moms and dads to schlep their kids around town, with no pretensions towards anything more exiting than the rush of finding a coupon for the brand of cereal you like in the Sunday newspaper.
In other words, I can’t explain to most normal folks why I have this car. Just what do I find so special — so appealing — about this car?
Perhaps we can start off with the fact that it is yellow.
Finding the Volvo 240
I wasn’t looking for a Volvo, specifically. I have a regular local Craigslist search that plucks out all manual transmission equipped cars for sale by owners (protip: create a search for “manual|stick”), and the car came up in one of my daily Craigslist browsing sessions.
The first thing that caught me eye was that it was yellow. Not only was the exterior yellow, but so was the interior, with caramel brown vinyl seats that had plaid yellow cloth seat inserts. Second thing that caught my eye was that it was a wagon. And of course, it had a manual transmission: a 4-speed with an electric overdrive.
The wagon looked super old school, with its four round headlights on the front, polished metal window trims, and a polished metal roof rack. The later and far more common 240s (after Volvo abandoned the 242, 244, and 245 naming convention) had square headlamps and blacked out trims, making them look very 80s. One look at this car and it was clear that it was a child of the 70s (despite its 1980 model year).
Also, the seller of this car was in my neighborhood.
Almost the day that the ad went up, I contacted the seller and swung by his house to take a look at the car.
The car was very yellow. It was also rust free, having originally come from Arizona. The original owner took delivery of the car there, and the seller was the second owner, having bought the car via an eBay auction. The car came with its original window sticker, which explained why the interior had plaid yellow cloth seat inserts — the dealership added those and I’m sure it padded the margin on the car quite nicely. The dealership also added air conditioning.
Naturally, the air conditioning wasn’t working, or it at least wasn’t blowing cold air. I took the car on a test drive and tried turning on the overdrive, and that wasn’t working either. I could flick the little switch on the shift knob back and forth, but the light on the dash wouldn’t illuminate. The seller said that he never drove the car on the freeway and so never bothered trying to figure out why the overdrive wasn’t working. Hmm, okay then…
Now, the smart thing to do would be to go home and stew over a purchase decision, do some research so you know what to look for, and maybe consult some experts in person and online.
I didn’t do the smart thing. I made an offer on the spot, and bought the car.
I happily drove the car around town for a week before I started noticing some weirdness in the transmission. I would be cruising around in 4th gear when suddenly the RPMs would drop. Sometimes, I would be leaving a stop light or a stop sign, and the car would struggle to build speed in 1st gear. Every now and then, I’d tried to reverse the car, and the car simply wouldn’t move.
Eventually, I figured out that the overdrive unit on the transmission had gone out — it was slipping in and out of overdrive by itself — and probably suffered terminal damage. No problem, I thought. I’d just go get another Laycock overdrive and slap it on the transmission, or get another M46 transmission and swap the entire unit in the car.
But then life got in the way. I was busy transforming my just-bought-back NC Miata into a track car, and still doing things with the Mustang.
And so the Volvo sat, for nearly a year, in the garage while I was busy doing other stuff.
Then one day, I found a complete M46 transmission that the seller claimed was fully functional, and, moreover, it was within driving distance so I could go get it myself rather than pay out the wazoo for shipping. I took the Fiesta ST down to Toledo and picked up the transmission, ferrying it back to my house where the transmission then went directly into the back of the Volvo. I nursed the Volvo the 2 miles to my favorite shop, and told them to swap the transmission.
“When do you need this done by?”
“Oh, I’m in no hurry.”
And so the Volvo sat there at the shop for another half year. I didn’t press the shop too much, as I was still trying to take care of all my other cars, but as soon as the Woodward Dream Cruise passed by and the backlog of work at the shop lifted, I went back and asked that they prioritize the Volvo and get it back to me by the end of September. Which they did.
The car could shift into all four gears and use reverse, but there was still the issue of the overdrive not turning on and off. A little bit of jiggling of the wires got the overdrive solenoid to activate, but inevitably, the overdrive would switch off again.
The culprit turned out to be the overdrive switch itself in the shift knob. Off I went, searching for a switch. Being that I was new to the world of vintage Volvos, it took a lot of reading and a lot of trial and error to figure out what the vendors were and which stocked what parts, and what parts would work on the Volvo. I thought that I could easily source a new overdrive switch in the US, but I ended up getting one sent to me from Europe. I installed the overdrive switch, and finally had an overdrive that I could reliably turn on and off!
Building the car out as a road trip machine
The car has been mobile for almost a year and a half now, and I’m slowly refurbishing the car into a road trip machine much in the same way the Mustang was built out. The suspension was completely redone, with new shocks and springs all the way around. I put on a new exhaust after the original muffler literally fell off the car and onto my driveway. I also put in a new radio with Bluetooth functionality, replacing the AM radio that was in the center console. (I bought a Continental radio after discovering that classic Porsche people were using the radio in their cars, as it doesn’t have weird displays or super tiny buttons and looks almost OEM in appearance.) It was during this time that I also discovered what the large knob in the center console did: it was a physical balance knob, taking the mono output from the AM radio and splitting it between the two front speakers in the doors! (I tossed that knob from the center stack.)
I also went ahead and replaced the speakers, which was a terrible experience. There isn’t much space in the door for a speaker, as the door is thin and the window regulator is right there next to where the speaker is. There are brackets and kits out there that proport to provide a one-stop solution for mounting modern speakers, some up to 5 1/4″, in the doors, but nothing I tried seemed to work. I don’t know if it was because those kits were all for later 240s and my car was weird because it was an earlier 245, or if I was just had a really thick skull and couldn’t make heads or tails of how to fit things together, but I ended up cobbling together my own mounting solution using self-fabricated metal adapter plates to go between the stock mounting points in the door and aftermarket Volvo HT204-style speaker enclosures on top of the door panels. This took me more time than I care to admit to figure out.
But now I’ve got a Volvo 245 that drives nearly like it did when new, with a good sound system pumping out my jams or the occasional podcast.
I’m currently in the process of adding electronic cruise control to the car. Once that’s done, I just need to figure out how to make the air conditioning cold again, and I’ll have a nice, comfortable road trip machine that looks cool but has nearly all the conveniences a modern car would have.
The last vintage car standing
Spoiler alert: my ’66 Mustang ended up leaving the fleet. That story is my final COAL post, and it’s a good story. But the long and short of it is, I gave up my Mustang and kept this Volvo.
Most people would question, why? I have asked this myself many, many times, and I don’t know if I can really come up with a perfectly good answer.
After all, the Mustang looked good, drove great, had an awesome engine note, and did everything I ever threw at it — autocross, road rallies, long road trips, even ice racing. Meanwhile, the Volvo also looks good and drives well enough, but it doesn’t inspire me to do any sort of performance driving, and it isn’t fast or a sharp handler. The Mustang inspired me to chase trophies, the Volvo inspired me to… take it to the grocery store.
And yet… as a whole, the Volvo 245 speaks to me. It’s a yellow, manual transmission station wagon lightly trimmed with metal accents and wearing shiny steel wheels. It’s a pedestrian car, yet it looks special. A lot of people notice it for the color first, and then realize it’s a classic car to boot.
Honestly, I think all comes down to the color. If it were silver, I probably would have passed this car by. But it’s yellow. Maybe that’s why the original owner who bought the car took such careful care of it. Maybe the fact that it was yellow was the reason (or at least one of the reasons) why the second owner brought it home to Michigan. And it is for sure one of the reasons why I was so instantly drawn to the car, and so quickly smitten.
It’s a really dumb reason to like a car. But I’ve had two other yellow cars, my Focus SE and my Focus ST, so clearly I’m a fan of the color. The Focus SE, I think, best explains my draw to this Volvo 245. Just when I finished school and began working in the “real world,” I bought a totally pedestrian Ford Focus hatchback with a stick, but I went the extra effort to find a yellow one. If I was looking for a new car at the beginning of the 80s, alternate universe me probably would have ended up with something like this yellow, manual transmission Volvo 245.
So there you have it. I have a Volvo 245 simply because I like manual transmission cars, I like station wagons, and I like yellow cars.