Eugene is surrounded by rich forests of huge pine, cedar and fir trees. Timber was the foundation of the local economy until the 1980s, and there are still many lumber mills in the area. Because of the abundant lumber we have very few brick houses (mine being an exceptions), but for reasons that Paul has shown here at CC over the years, and that I will explore in this post, we do have an abundance of brick cars.
The term “brick” is affectionately used by enthusiasts of the Volvo 140/160, 200, 700, and 900 series cars, manufactured from 1967 through the early 1990s. The word refers to the squared-off shape of the 140-series in contrast to the relatively curvaceous 544, 1800, and 120 series “Amazon” cars. Tom Klockau wrote a fine CC on a 144e that Paul photographed here in Eugene, in which he discussed the aesthetic departure the new design announced when it was first introduced in 1966.
One of the many classic Volvos in Eugene is my yellow 1972 Volvo 142e, here parked behind the red 1971 model belonging to my neighbor down the street. Both are “e” models indicating the fuel-injected version of the B20 engine, a technical novelty in the early 1970s. His is an automatic, mine a 4-speed manual with overdrive. Mine has rims from a 1980s 200 series, whereas his has rims from a turbo model, I think. His has original dash and seats, a couple dents, and a missing rub strip on the driver’s door.
Mine has replacement front seats (from a sedan, which makes access to the back a chore), and a round gauge cluster cut into the dash in place of the original ribbon speedometer. A previous owner in San Diego made these modifications.
Both of these 142s are un-restored survivors, and there are many more bricks in our neighborhood.
Tom Klockau also wrote up this 244DL that Paul photographed, just a few blocks away. That was a couple years ago, but it’s still here. It is in better original condition than mine, and has the same yellow paint. I love those big figure 8 black headrests, and the rims, but the sloping trim around the twin headlights doesn’t suit my tastes as well as the simple single lenses and small bumpers.
A brick connotes density, consistency, conservatism and reliability. The Volvos of the 1960s and 1970s, like the VW Beetle of the same era, appealed to buyers who disdained the frequent redesigns and planned obsolescence of Detroit models, and who were unimpressed by sex-appeal advertising campaigns. Literary critic and occasional New York Times columnist Stanley Fish once wrote an essay entitled “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos” in which he proclaimed that English professors like himself (and myself) drove Volvos because they did not want to look flamboyant or materialistic in a Jaguar or Cadillac: “the ugliness of the Volvo becomes its most attractive feature for it allows those who own one to plead innocent of the charge of really wanting it….we buy them because we want to be safe.”
This photo could use better depth of field, but enables a viewer to judge if my Volvo resembles a brick, and if either car or brick is beautiful. The key feature I think is the beltline running the length of the body, and the clean vertical front and rear ends. The proportions of this rectangle are close to those of the brick. The small bumpers of these early cars don’t obtrude on the rectangular outline the way the larger black mid-70s bumpers, and the sloping grilles and headlights of most 200-series cars do.
This photo in a rare Eugene snowstorm emphasizes a design motif that Volvo revived in the post-brick models of the 2000s, and which I believe is makes for beautiful cars, no matter what Stanley Fish says. The sill or shoulder of the body runs in a slight arc from stem to stern, making a ledge outside the large windows. Snow collects on the shoulder.
On my car, the shoulder means that the dinky little rear-view mirror does not stick beyond the side of the vehicle, which is a handy feature in my narrow garage.
The XC90, Volvo’s successful but now outmoded full-sized sport-ute, has a wide shoulder, and an enormous taillight. The XC90, V70XC, C30, and V50, and S60 don’t qualify as “bricks,” but I think perhaps they should, for they all have the shoulder.
All the cars photographed in this post live within a few blocks of my house. This household owns two S60s, and I like the way the shape of the bulbous, overgrown taillight accentuates the shoulder, which follows a crease across the hood and (on sedans) the trunk-lid. But I have to wonder about a couple who would each drive the same model of car. Does this suggest a certain lack of imagination? If so, it’s not a problem peculiar to Volvos for I see plenty of dual-Camry households as well.
Just a block away from that car is this 960 wagon, its leaky sunroof sealed with tape, parked beneath a big deodar cedar. The household also owns a 960 sedan that sometimes parks out front. If there were more Volvo-rich neighborhoods like mine, perhaps Volvo would not have sold out to Geely of China.
The safety-geek, risk averse conservatism of the Volvo owner was satirized by John Irving (who lived in Iowa City back when Paul did) in his best-selling novel, The World According to Garp. The hero, T. S. Garp, is an over-protective family man and writer who drives Volvos, and perhaps the most memorable scene in the book is when he unwittingly avenges his wife’s adultery by crashing into their Volvo, at the same time killing his son. Irving suggested that Volvo owners were over-compensating; that by obsessively worrying about driving, death, or marital fidelity, they actually exposed themselves to greater risks.
The turbo models seem especially popular with Volvo enthusiasts, who may embrace the “brick” moniker for the paradox of speed and density. With the 200-series turbo variants introduced in 1981 Volvo tried, with some success, to revive the racing heritage of the 544 and Amazon, and keep up with the sporty image of its rivals Saab, BMW and Mercedes. This nicely-maintained red wagon from 1985-89 doesn’t scream “sports car” and has endured better than most sports cars. The CC readers can chime in on the question of whether the blown engines fell apart sooner than the naturally aspirated 2.0 liter and 2.3 liter engines. Around Eugene it seems like fewer of them, at least of the 1981-83 models, survive today. We do enjoy a number of Volvo specialist repair shops, however, including Swedish Engineering, and Alpine imports.
What I love about my 142 is the fuel injection, which always starts on the first try, and the overdrive, which makes highway cruising possible. It also has the best outward visibility of any car I’ve ever owned, and a monster-sized trunk, large enough for a lawn mower, or even some adult-sized bicycles.
Even better would be a 145 wagon, such as this one, owned by a true Swedish patriot that lives here in Eugene.