Four years ago this week (as I write this in the middle of August) it came to be that our standard fleet of two cars became three. Fortunately, the third was another wagon.
The wagon part you might have figured out given my proclivity for wagons and their overwhelming utility. How we got the car – a 1976 Volvo 245 DL¹ – may be the real story here, and that too is probably not hard for readers to guess.
A road trip. In August. How very American.
The whole thing really started with a 16 year old who had recently acquired his license and yearned for something to drive. I believe that I’ve gone on record here at CC for being adamantly opposed to buying new drivers new cars. I frankly am essentially not in favor of buying a new driver a car, period. Unless they pay for it themselves, but that wasn’t going to happen in this house mostly due to said 16 year old not having had any sort of paying job prior to being 16 and hence having no money to put toward a car. The “no job” thing is a whole other story, but suffice to say that I was entirely content to let the new driver drive one of the existing two cars when it was mutually convenient to him and the family. Which was how I grew up; and so there you have it.
Maybe to just throw a little more certainty into my side of any potential argument, I’d also gone on record in the household as stating that “I thought” that a kid’s first car should be one that was something that they could learn to maintain and do basic wrenching on themselves. I issued that opinion and felt that I could rest assured that the case would therefore be essentially closed on the matter of adding cars to the household.
Obviously I was new to this whole kid-raising thing, and clearly not out of what should have been the beta-testing phase (at the end of which the plan would be to simply throw out the trial children and use what we had learned to issue the ready for commercial release children).
Because, lo and behold, months after the 16 year old possessed his license (and in the ensuing Spring had not wrecked any cars or killed – much less even injured – anyone), I was presented with the idea of:
You know what I’d really like would be an old Volvo. Like a station wagon with a manual transmission. Something I could learn to fix but also drive.
Great. In three sentences he managed to subvert most of the
entirely permeable barriers I’d erected. Well, there was always my retort of:
Yeah, but those things are all rusted out by now, you’d never find something actually drivable that wasn’t entirely rusty.
Mind you, this was just before the current spike in prices for these things, so I couldn’t grasp at the last straw of affordability by pleading poverty. I’d seen plenty of old Volvos locally that could be had for a couple of thousand, but nothing at that price could be legally driven in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Which is how I found myself on a plane to Albuquerque in mid-August, 2017. Fortunately, I used miles for our tickets, so it’s not like it actually cost anything to fly out there…
The car that awaited in Albuquerque was a very basic and very rust-free 245 that the kid found on eBay. It had almost 286,000 miles on it,² but for a Volvo of this vintage (and for me in general), that was “just well broken in”. Plenty of life left!
After several days of wrangling on the phone and by email – much of which was spent securing a full set of under-body and interior pictures and arranging for an independent local inspection – it was determined that the car was truly an unmolested survivor and that the seller was an honest dude looking to make a few bucks off of a car that he’d bought at auction from the charity to which its original owner had consigned it. Yeah, original owner for 41 years. All in Albuquerque except for a few in Santa Fe.
The inspection was done by a respected – by all reports I could find from 2300 miles away in a city I’d only visited a handful of times in the past – independent Volvo mechanic. My main instruction to them was to let me know if it seemed that this car was mechanically sound enough to drive back to MA. The inspection came back with an honest and well-documented, “yes”. Aside from stuff that one might expect on a 40 year old car, such as an inoperable (and entirely aftermarket) 3rd brake light, a few burned out bulbs, and a broken rear window wiper, as far as they could tell the car had clearly been maintained as a daily driver and seemed to be able to do so continuously. As a desert car its entire life, it was both baked and preserved.
The sun had pretty much toasted the most exposed surfaces of the interior vinyl. This was evident on the tops of the door cards and of course on the substantially cracked dash hidden under the carpeted mat.
Substantially cracked, and pretty much ruined with the addition of a microphone bracket. That turns out to be significant.
On the other hand, being a white car, paint fade – while present – wasn’t terribly obvious. The original owner had done a good job over the years keeping the car washed and waxed because aside from being thin in places, the single stage non-clear coated paint really was in decent shape. There were (are) many stone chips, but that’s testimony to the mostly highway miles and rough roads that I’m pretty sure made up most of the car’s 286K miles.
I figured that there would certainly be any number of things that would need to be done on the car sooner if not later, but as long as it could reasonably dependably get around (and its first test of that would be a big one), it would indeed be the “work on it while driving” project that the kid convinced me that he wanted. Not unlike my 71 LeSabre had been 37 years earlier. Except this time I was more cognizant that “work would be required”. He, on the other hand, would have to figure that out as his learning experience.
I settled on a $3000 price with the seller – probably top of the “reasonable” scale for one of these in 2017, but I convinced myself that it made sense since the body was so solid – and we went to NM to pick it up.
Here’s the kid on first meeting his new car. From the looks of it, I don’t think that he quite knows what all was happening at the moment. In his hand he’s holding the invoice from the indy mechanic and a plastic bag with the remains of a crispy crumbled Lambda Sond relay that they’d replaced during the inspection. That also turns out to be significant.
Here I am in nearly the same moment. All I’m holding is a small bag of cookies (Biscochitos) which were the specialty of the bakery next door to where we picked up the car. That’s typical too.
It’s all good. We found the local delicacy. Let’s go…who wants to find barbeque?
Oh there were a variety of hastily prepared details before we departed MA; such as arranging insurance for the “new” vehicle on our existing auto policy – receiving the warning that “You know, temporary plates are illegal in Massachusetts.” – and ensuring that the seller would take care of getting (my illegal in MA) temporary plates from the NM MVD. I didn’t want to get held up dealing with too many details upon arriving in NM as I was squeezing this expedition into a packed end-of-the-summer schedule.
I also did some basic research on what could go wrong with this car between NM and MA that would be a show-stopper for the trip. I landed upon “alternator/water pump belts, radiator hoses, and timing belt”. I figured that these could be things that a roadside garage might not have for a 40 year old car. So I ordered those from IPD and had them sent to the hotel in Albuquerque. Everything else, we’d figure out as we went along.
Which is pretty much my approach to travel. Period.
The great thing about doing this with a 16 year old (at least my 16 year at the time) is that they have close to zero expectations for how something like this is supposed to go…or more specifically, how it can go wrong. I think that this is largely a function of youth, but also perhaps today’s youth who seem to take quite a few things at face value (or at least don’t sweat details). He’d been told that the car was fit, and so it was. He’d never driven more than maybe a couple of hundred miles on a Northeast-Mid-Atlantic road trip; and yet it seemed to make perfect sense to face east and know that home was 2300 miles away in a 40 year old car. And if something broke, I guess he also figured we’d figure it out.
Good attitude, in my opinion.
Of course, adults have to adult, and in my case that meant surveying the scene (in this case, the car) with my own eyes to suss out potential and as yet un-exposed problems. First on this list was tires. The tires on the car “looked” ok, but I decided that there would be no harm in replacing them as they were really unknown variables for a long Interstate trip. I have to admit though that making a snap decision to buy four tires without research and without many choices was a bit daunting. 14” tires aren’t all that easy to come by nowadays in generic tire stores without special ordering. Nevertheless, by the end of day one we were essentially on the road with new tires and many miles to break them in.
Except, by the end of that evening, we soon learned that there was some kind of electrical issue that had rapidly drained the (albeit not exactly new) battery. No worries…we were still in Albuquerque and planning to head out early the next morning, so we called the seller, convinced him to give us a new battery first thing the next morning and THEN we’d be on the road. The next morning, we got the battery and headed out.
We got about 50 miles out of town when the car started bucking and driving poorly. Limping it into a gas station off I-40, we filled up and amazingly found that the drivability returned to normal. Weird, I thought. But just to be safe, we called the Volvo mechanic back in Albuquerque who offered to take another look at the car before we got further down the road. So back to Albuquerque we went.
After some poking and prodding and consulting of the Green Books, the investigation pointed to several things. First, there was a good chance that we had the “leaky hose on the in-tank fuel pump” problem that is known to happen to Volvos of this vintage. The recommended “hurry up to get back on the road” solution for this is to keep the tank more than half full, keeping the fuel level above the leaky internal hose.
Complicating this was the fact that it also seemed that the fuel gauge didn’t work. So we’d have to handle keeping track of the fuel mathematically, refining our calculations as we began to figure out the car’s fuel consumption. Not a problem…If Charles Lindbergh could cross the Atlantic in a similar manner, we could certainly drive to Massachusetts.
Also, further tests on the battery and charging system – I now wanted to have backup info on the health of the alternator and voltage regulator – indicated that there was likely some kind of short in the electrical system, particularly relating to lighting. Closer examination revealed that the original owner had made modifications in the car’s wiring harness to enable trailer pulling. We later learned that wasn’t the half of it…keep reading. But the mechanic’s advice around the tortured wiring and a generally flaky electrical system in these old cars, was that we should be “careful” about using the headlights and in particular to avoid letting this aftermarket “headlight reminder” thing wired into the car from being activated. The trick was to be scrupulous about turning off the lights before turning off the car…so the reminder device wouldn’t cut in.
Ok, we’ve got this.
And actually, we did have it. We were now 12 hours behind our anticipated departure time, but soon we would depart for a more or less drama-free trip.
The need to get gas about every 150 miles turned out not to be a huge problem. We were traveling on mostly Interstates and there was no shortage of gas stations.
With of course the full range of delightful local merchandise. These were good opportunities to get out of the non-air conditioned car and stretch.
We also purchased a 5 gallon gas container and filled it up in the event of somehow winding up out of range of a station. It never happened. And soon the trip settled into that kind of endless scenery that I love about cross-country trips. There was no radio. It didn’t work, we later discovered a severed antenna wire. (The wires…always the wires.) We took turns driving – the kid covering more miles behind the wheel in two days than he had driven in his life before that. When not driving, and operating the camera instead, he developed a fascination with billboards…as billboards are rare enough in New England that it’s easy to forget that they exist. The sheer quantity, variety, and weirdness of them inspired a non-stop stream of photos.
It was a whirlwind trip, but that didn’t mean missing what for this guy might be once in a lifetime opportunities to see things that he might not otherwise ever stop to see. Such as Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo.
Amarillo also being the home of the free 72oz steak as advertised on literally dozens of billboards between NM and TX.
Original parts of Rt. 66.
Or the Cahokia Mounds just outside of St. Louis.
There was even some stuff even I hadn’t expected to see…or couldn’t fathom.
Such as Missouri’s bizarre local highway naming scheme. This explains everything. These poor people must be pretty much lost most of the time…
Or the unexpected pleasure of meeting perhaps the last human toll collector in NY state. Prompting the “Wait, they can take actual money at tolls?” comment from the kid. That was an observation that came shortly after another expression of sheer frustration around having to “turn a stupid handle” to make the window go down.
Other strange delights included finding someone on the NY Thruway towing a life-size taxidermy giraffe.
I guess sometimes you just have to move the giraffe.
In five days, we were back home…via Chicago for an overnight with a friend and Western Mass to hit a few favorites from the (my) old days.
The one and only Nick’s Nest in Holyoke, MA
And so that’s where I was four years ago today. Since then? Well, the Volvo – named Håns Flœrjëndørffsön by the kid – served him well through his last two years of high school. During that time, we managed to perform a wide range of DIY repairs and improvements.
He has learned how to do brakes, struts, all sorts of suspension work, engine and transmission mounts, a steering rack (manual steering, and I probably sourced one of the few remaining NOS Volvo steering racks on this side of the country). We have installed several alternators until we finally found one that wanted to take up long term residency in the car, replaced the front seats, door cards, dash, etc. etc. etc. Unlike even as recently as 10 years ago, these old 240-series cars are now scarce in junk yards, so it is at times an all-consuming occupation hunting down parts. They’re out there — and ironically, have become a bit more available as these cars obtain a type of cult status among hipsters — but you have to be persistent. We’ve found a few-years-newer wagon at a sleepy family-run salvage yard across the state and make periodic trips out there to schmooze the yard owner and slowly strip parts from the donor car. We keep tabs on the whereabouts – also in the more rural “alternative lifestyle” parts of the region – of mostly retired Volvo mechanics to whom we can turn for advice when totally stumped by something. There’s always something.
There are many more articles to come, eventually, about some of the various idiosyncrasies of a Volvo of this vintage. That’s in no small part due to the fact that the car has now become a part of the family and seems destined to stick around for the foreseeable future. The kid’s first two years of college – eight hours away from home – were a COVID-fueled mess so he was mostly living at home taking his classes online and driving his car about as much as anyone drove anywhere for the past year and a half (i.e., not much). Now that he’s headed back this fall to live on campus, it seems too crazy to be taking a car out there and being responsible for it. So Hans lives here…where as you have likely guessed he’s become my 45-year-old Swedish hobby. Frankly I have a lot more time and patience for something like this than does a 21 year old college student.
Plus, I enjoy going to commune with (other) old folks to ramble on about our cars. It’s a little hard to get youngins particularly cranked for that.
Working on this car is a constant puzzle that provides what I like to believe is useful exercise for aged minds like mine. The electrical system – with its nest of spliced, re-routed, and desert-baked wiring – is a special Nordic version of hell. We ultimately discovered that the wire butchering was not just a result of trailer-towing, but also that the original owner was apparently an amateur radio enthusiast and had modified the wiring to install various pieces of equipment. Even once we do straighten something out, the basic wiring is so chock full of various relays and switches, many of which are no longer available, that solutions have to be kludged. Remember that crumbled relay in the day 1 picture? Original part no longer available. Sourcing replacements requires special Volvo juju. The same goes for many components in the extinct K-jet mechanical fuel injection system.
Volvo is one of those manufacturers that apparently liked to make rolling (so to speak) changes to cars during the production year. Thus it’s not very sufficient to say “I have a 1976 245” and then to assume that means anything so far as to whether your particular car has a particular part or system. Hans, for example, is a non-catalyst car that has an oxygen sensor. It came from the factory that way, but to heck if any of the manuals can agree on the fact that such a car existed. Old Volvo mechanics though, they have it figured out and can generally cite some obscure fact about how certain cars made in certain years were configured…or they’ve simply seen enough such that they can sort it all out. I guess I’m trying to become the latter, albeit with a very small (1) data set.
I do realize that I could vastly expand my knowledge base by procuring many more old Volvos, as seems to be a somewhat popular thing to do. But then I’d have to move to the Pacific Northwest…and well. Well…maybe that’s not a bad idea.
Speaking of geography, it’s a fact that I’m playing a long game with an inevitable conclusion in expecting a car this old to remain rust-free enough to drive here in salty New England. I’ve had the car rust-proofed as well as can be done, but nothing’s perfect and eventually what is now “patina” will turn into something else. That bridge will probably need to be crossed at some point. Until then, I try to give it regular exercise except in the worst depths of the winter (when the salt is thick…otherwise it’s great in snow). It’s a joy to drive in its elemental – vaguely agricultural – way. It’s right at the cusp of being a fully modern car in that it can keep up with highway traffic but still is at its best with the manual windows rolled down, rowing the gears (4 plus electric overdrive) manually, listening to the distinct symphony of sounds that only a well-used old car can make.
The dog pretty much likes it too. Although he prefers my car. Eventually, the kid will need to get his own dog.
¹I usually omit the “DL” when referring to the 245’s specific model. Except for when I recall the classic Car Talk joke where Tom says that there are 2 types of Volvos…the DL – which stands for “Dumb-looking” and the GL – which stands for “Goofy-looking”. Yup.
²As connoisseurs of these old Volvos will note, a high odometer reading is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply indicates that the odometer is not broken and thus hasn’t stopped thousands of miles before the currently displayed mileage. 90% of these cars have stopped/broken odometers. Better to know what you’re dealing with than not.