Ask any 10 automobile enthusiasts, and you’re likely to get 12 opinions. Yet for some reason, enthusiasts seem to be in complete agreement on the desire for one car: a brown, RWD, Diesel station wagon with a manual transmission. At least in the USA, this is a rare beast. I may be one of the few Americans who has ever owned one. As the Packard ads used to say, “Ask the man who owns one.” Well, I don’t anymore, but I used to, and here’s the story…
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had a fairly successful side business of buying junk Volvos, mostly 240s, and parting them out for sale on eBay and some of online Volvo forums. At one point, I had listed on eBay a set of immaculate door cards from a 1980 244GL, in blue.
A fellow from the next town over contacted me, asking if I would be willing to deliver, if he won the auction. I was happy to, as I was not particularly excited about boxing up door cards. That’s how I met Bob.
Bob was an anachronism. At the time, he was a 25-year certified ASE Master Mechanic, working at what must have been one of the last remaining Service Stations in America. Yes, they sold gas and had 3 service bays. You could drive across the hose that made the bell go “ding” inside, and an apprentice mechanic would run out, pump your gas, air up your tires, and wash your windshield! in 2002!
Being that Bob had done every common auto-repair task hundreds, if not thousands, of times, Bob made a hobby of buying obscure vehicles and restoring them. This was his way of taking on new challenges.
Bob had done a mechanical restoration of a 1985 Volvo 245DL Diesel. The body was pretty rotten though, so he had found a 1984 Volvo 245GL Diesel with a dead engine, and was in the midst of a re-body.
He was using the blue interior from the donor car, but it had holes in the door cards for window cranks. The new body had power windows, and that’s why he needed my door cards.
The new body was brown (of course!) Volvo never sold a brown over blue 240, so Bob’s creation was a one-of-a-kind. I found the color combination quite fetching.
Bob and I became good friends, and still are. He’s now past 40 years on his ASE certifications, and he runs his own one-man shop.
Fast-forward to 2006. I was driving another mythical beast, a 1992 Plymouth Voyager minivan with a five-speed manual. I was already planning my relocation from Michigan to Las Vegas and although the van was running decently enough, the air conditioning was totally inop, and I knew I would want A/C in the desert.
I brought the van to Bob to assess the viability of a full rehab of the A/C system. His estimate was 150% of my purchase price of the van. I asked Bob if he had any better ideas.
“Well,” said Bob, “The guy I sold my Diesel wagon to is looking to get rid of it. Last I saw it, the A/C still worked.” I called the guy and bought it immediately for $1000.
I spent about another $500 for Bob to do some neglected maintenance and minor repair. Since the whole car was Bob’s work, I knew it was good. I trusted and respected Bob more than any other mechanic I have ever met.
The gasoline-powered Volvo 240 was no speed demon, and the Diesel was worse. Even on a fresh rebuild, the 0-60 time could be measured on an hourglass. I was no stranger to slow cars, having previously owned a Mercedes 240D (stickshift, naturally), so I re-taught myself how to drive a slow car and had a blast driving my “new” wagon!
Still, I was planning on driving this 22-year-old car on a cross-country relocation, so it needed a good shakedown. A couple of months after purchase, I took my wagon to a family function, round-trip from Michigan to DC.
With the exception of a loose alternator belt, the trip went flawlessly. I discovered that the D24/M46 was happiest at 100 km/h, or 62 mph, so I kept to the right lane and let the cruise control do the work. At that speed, even on the rolling hills of that trip, I got 36mpg. It made me happy, and all it took was some patience.
[Vanity plate amused me. Prancing moose decal from davebarton.com]
By February of 2007, my divorce was final, my house was sold, and the wagon was packed to the gills with all my worldly possessions. I even mounted a cargo carrier to a trailer hitch that I had installed, loaded with even more stuff.
(Side note: The car weighed about 3200 lbs. empty. Even with the under-powered 80hp Diesel, Volvo rated the car to tow 3300 lbs. Please don’t ever try to do that!)
The trip started off flawlessly. In the flat parts of the country, still puttering along at 62mph, I saw a couple of tanks that netted in excess of 40mpg. I can’t think of many other cars that would have taken that load and returned that mileage.
As it was winter, and I wanted to avoid the snowy mountains of Colorado, I took the southern route. Basically, I-55 south to I-44 west to I-40 west. Somewhere just west of Amarillo, Texas, the wagon flat-out died. Being no Diesel mechanic, I had it towed, to the only shop in town the driver could recommend to work on a Diesel car.
That shop changed a slightly leaky fuel line and sent me on my way. At the EXACT SAME SPOT on the highway, the car died again. By then, the shop that worked on it was closed, but I had the car towed back there again and got a room for the night.
Anyhow, they said they couldn’t get it to fail, and had it towed again to another shop. The second shop could not get it to fail either. They wanted to tow it to the closest Volvo dealer, 150 miles away. Problem was, I was sure nobody at a Volvo dealership had seen a 245 Diesel in forever, and had no faith they could solve the problem, either.
I got on the Internet and started doing some research. All my online Volvo pals pointed me to one man – the Great Guru of Volvo Diesels in the US, Tom Bryant of Maine. I got Tom on the phone, and we talked through all of the possibilities in a two-hour phone call.
The big clue was the car dying twice in the EXACT SAME SPOT. Tom knew, but I didn’t, that the D24 had an altitude-compensating device, designed to adjust the fuel mixture at elevations over 1000 meters. Some quick research indicated that Amarillo was at about 950m, and the highway went uphill as it headed west.
Now we knew the (likely) problem, but what was the solution? Tom asked me if Bob had installed a new engine wiring harness when he did the rebuild, as the Volvo wiring harnesses of that era were problem spots. I told Tom that the car did indeed have a new harness.
The light bulb went off in Tom’s head. There are 2 wires in the harness that go to the Bosch VE injection pump. One supplies 12 volts when the key is on, to open the fuel flow solenoid. The other one provides 12 volts to the altitude sensor. At low altitudes, the sensor passes the 12 volts to the fuel adjustment device, and above 1000m, the sensor cuts off the power.
When Bob had installed the new harness, some 5 years earlier, he had crossed the two wires. Because of that, any time the car got over 1000 meters of elevation, it would shut off the fuel solenoid. For the ensuing five years, nobody, including me, had ever driven the car at high altitude, so no one knew anything was wrong.
Tom told me to go look at the car, after digging up the wiring diagrams. I forget the exact facts, but it went something like this. “If there’s a gray wire on the fuel solenoid, and a blue wire on the mixture solenoid, it’s wired backwards. Switch the two wires and be on your way.”
I got a cab to the shop and, sure enough, Tom was right! I swapped the wires and was finally able to continue my journey. Just like Bob, Tom had become a fast friend, and remains so to this day.
The rest of the journey was totally uneventful in my loaded wagon, with the exception of some of the highway grades in New Mexico and Arizona. I had white knuckles up those hills, barely able to maintain 40mph in third gear, but we made it, that wagon and I!
[Not at all factory. 240 parts are seriously interchangeable]
That wagon kept me going as I got on my feet and found my way in Las Vegas. But in 2 years the alternator died. Unlike every other 240 I have ever known, my wagon had a Motorola alternator, rather than the common Bosch. Nobody knew why, and not many people even knew Motorola made alternators. No remanufactured units or rebuild kits were available anywhere, so my only choice was to convert to a Bosch unit.
As I was hunched over the right fender, trying to figure out what brackets I needed for the conversion, the car *literally* punched me in the gut. The strut bushing failed and the strut popped through, right into my stomach.
Every man has his limits, and that was mine. Through a friend of a friend, I met a mechanic who loved Diesels, and loved Volvos, but had never had the two in combination. The guy gave me $200 and hauled it off on a trailer. I never looked back.
Figuring for the use I got out of it, that car was one of the best automotive purchases of my life. But if you want to live the dream of the RWD, Diesel, stick shift, brown wagon, you had better be a patient person and know some very good mechanics. Tell Tom Bryant I sent you.