(first posted 1/4/2017) In the not-so-vast, somewhat leisurely changing Scandinavian automobile landscape, with the possible exception of the classic Saab 900, there is no more iconic car than the Volvo 200 Series. With 2,862,573 examples produced over 19 years — an eternity in the automobile industry — the Volvo 200 Series was the car that put Volvo on the radar of many North American buyers, and the car primarily that kept the lights on in Gothenburg for all those years.
Introduced in late-1974, the 200 Series was not an entirely new vehicle, but a heavily re-engineered replacement for the 140 Series that had been produced since 1966. As a matter of fact, the two shared the same basic body shell, owing to the 200’s already classic looks in its early years.
From the cowl-forward was where the 200 visually differed most, with a longer hood and more substantial front end. 260 models (and 240s from 1978-onward) exuded a more classical front end, with what could be described as a Scandinavian interpretation of the Rolls-Royce radiator grille, seen in the image below.
A more prominent front end was not purely an aesthetic change, but one made for enhanced crash worthiness. In addition to front and rear crumple zones, incorporating features such as three-point seat belts, anti-lock brakes, and an energy-absorbing steering column significantly enhanced the safety of the 200, and it was this car that largely made the Volvo name synonymous with the word “safety”.
Around back, things were initially very familiar with the 140, with the 200 sharing the very same rear end. This featured car’s 1979 model year included the first, and most significant rear face lift of the 200’s run, with larger, wraparound taillights and squared-off corners for a more prominent appearance.
Mechanically, the 200 Series was a mix of old and new. The vehicle’s basic architecture was largely carryover from the 140, though wheelbase was 1.8 inches longer, at 104.3 inches. Rear suspension was little-changed from the 140, however front suspension now used a MacPherson strut design, something very advanced for an everyday family sedan of its day. Equally innovative for the 200’s class were standard four-wheel disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering, with power steering standard on higher trim models.
Engines offered over the 200 Series’ production span were not entirely new either, but rather a mix of the old pushrod B20 inline-4 from the 140, Volvo’s newer “Red Block” family of inline-4s, a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo-developed V6, and Volkswagen-supplied inline-5/inline-6 diesels.
As somewhat typical of Volvos from this era, there was significant variation across the 200 range dependent on trim level and country. These variations included everything from the more predictable engine and equipment availability, to actual front end design, which like the later 700 and 900 Series that followed, gave the impression the Volvo was just slapping on whichever front ends they had lying around.
Early interiors of the 200 were very minimally-changed from the 140. The dashboard was largely retained, with the replacement of the jet-inspired round vents with more conventional square vents the most major transformation. The clock and shift-lever were also new, and the handbrake was relocated from the left side of the driver’s seat to the more standardized location between the two front seats. Head restraints were also changed to an open plastic design, something that would become an iconic trait of the 200. A later-model interior with the redesigned dash is seen in the photo two above.
And yes, despite its age, the 240 was still a very safe vehicle even by 1993 standards. Always having a tank-like body, by this point the 240 boasted a standard driver’s side airbag, rear headrests, and three-point safety belts for all outboard seating positions. In fact, my current boss happened to briefly own one of these some time ago and was rear-ended by a Toyota. The whole front of the Toyota was mangled, but the Volvo sustained no body damage — only a dent in the battering-ram like bumper.
Like so many long-produced vehicles, the 200 Series (more specifically, the longer-produced 240 range) holds a place in the memories of many, many people, whether it be personal ownership, ridership, or a form of indirect experience. Even if you never rode in one, the chances that you’ve seen infinitely many of this car over the years is highly likely, even someone like me who was born just a month before the final 240 rolled off the assembly line.
Now I usually don’t condone such a lengthy production of a car, particularly a family sedan, but the 200’s story is a little different. It’s important to remember that Volvo was neither a GM nor a Ford, each of which were producing millions of vehicles per year and held cash reserves that were probably greater than the GDP of many small countries.
As a small, independent automaker, Volvo simply did not have the resources to roll out all-new vehicles every 2-5 years like most competitors. It should be noted, however, that the 200 was not neglected over its two-decade run. Various mechanical, safety, and creature comfort improvements were made almost annually to the 200, with minor styling tweaks also occurring every few years.
Additionally, unlike so many vehicles that came and went during the 200’s lifespan, the Volvo 200 had a certain character that was hard to replicate, leading to its status as an automobile icon. Much like other “icon cars” including the VW Beetle, MINI Cooper, ’55-’57 Chevy, the original Corvette Stingray, the classic Saab 900 and the SJ Jeep Wagoneer, the Volvo 200 was decidedly a love-it-or-hate-it design. Its various quirks are something one views with either affection or contempt.
A true testament to their sound engineering, exceptional quality, and overall solidity, it’s not uncommon for 200s, particularly later 240s to run for 250,000 miles and above, largely trouble-free in their lifetime. Along with a little love from their owners, this is likely why we still see 200s of all ages still on the road so many years later. Skål!
Featured 1979 244 DL photographed: Rockland, MA – December 2016