If Old Cars Were New Cars: The Volvo 940

Welcome to a new column here at Curbside Classic where we explore the glorious rides of years past and try to morph them, in a Back To The Future DeLorean-esque time machine, into their new car incarnations.

Our first car is nothing less than the rolling embodiment of automotive longevity: the Volvo 940.

The Volvo 940 was nothing short of a multi-decade culmination of four essential classic Volvo ingredients.

1) Rear-wheel drive

2) A four cylinder, B230 engine, commonly termed the ‘Red Brick’

3) A unique interior that was durable, functional, and high quality.

4) A reputation for safety that was second to none.

It’s this last ingredient that deserves special attention given the fact that these days nearly every SUV, crossover, minivan, and inbred vehicular combobulation can lay some type of  claim to that safety mantle.

This wasn’t the case back then. While BMW’s were busy laying their commercial claim to the ultimate driving machine, and a Lexus was relentlessly pursuing perfection, Volvos  throughout the 1990’s remained boxy, but the pinnacle of safe.

They could take on most anything. Cliffs. Trucks. Crazy drivers who crossed the double yellow line.

While Cadillac Cateras would zig their way past those double yellows in commercials that offered a bit of risque along with a heaping load of stupid, the Volvo 940 owner was a risk-averse customer who valued their family and the ‘enduring qualities’ of their automotive investment.

Many years after these commercials came and went, I started buying Volvo 940s at the local auctions here in Atlanta. I would buy them at dealer auctions, public auctions, tow yard auctions. Heck, there was even a time when I got paid for my bid calling by receiving a perfectly running Volvo 940 turbo sedan.

Like all the other Volvos of that time period, the 940 was hard to kill and usually easy to fix once you became familiar with the car’s weaknesses . With a brief cleaning of the throttle body, one moderate repair (usually the ABS sensor or the rear main seal), and some minor cosmetic work, I could sell these Volvos to folks seeking the European equivalent of a Toyota appliance with a bit of Swedish design tossed into the recipe.

This was an easy lay up by the time I started retailing cars on a daily basis. Thanks in large part to the fact that by the mid-2000’s, Craigslist was still a bastion for IT professionals and other educated folks seeking a worry-free ride. The conservatively driven and well-maintained car of that time was hot in demand and I had no trouble racking up dozens of 940 sales. The prior owners of these vehicles made it easy.

The original new car 940 owner almost always brought these vehicles to the Volvo dealer for maintenance during the early period of ownership. As these vehicles aged and dealer maintenance began it’s climb into the nether-regions, a lot of these cars would be kept up at Volvo specialty shops.

Here in Atlanta these specialty shops were a huge booming business. These rear wheel drive Volvos were surprisingly easy to maintain. But they were sold to folks who usually had little to no familiarity with wrenches and auto parts stores. As the years went by, I began to see receipts that reflected a real-time hourly labor rate of around $150 and even beyond.

It was farcical and a bit insane. Throttle body cleanings that took less than five minutes would often be changed in $79 and $99 increments. Automatic transmission drain and fills, which required all of one bolt to be removed whenever the oil got changed, were charged another $99. An ABS module would cost $700… but you could have it shipped off and rebuilt in better than new condition for all of $100. The business maintaining these near luxury vehicles became obscenely profitable.To the point where some long-time Volvo mechanics started working out of their garages and charging a more modest multiple of the local labor rates.

From my experiences, the new car Volvo 940 buyer represented a unique recipe of consumers who could be categorized as the following…

  • Risk-averse
  • Safety Conscious
  • Willing to pay a premium for repairs
  • Apathetic towards real world performance
  • In the case of wagons, a need to sometimes seat seven in a pinch.

So what cars of today would best represent these types of virtues?

I would say at the high-end, the modern Lexus RX350 would come closest to these qualities. Lexus is still primarily a favored brand for the conservative new car buyer, and in the case of the RX350, it appears all those bullet points I mentioned above are firmly checked off with a few others thrown into that mix.

The RX350 has a pleasing exterior that has been far more emulated than the right-angle happy Volvo 940 over the last 10 years. But to me, that’s a debatable point.

Whenever I used to see Ford Five Hundreds and a Ford Flex, I would always ask myself, “Why didn’t they make a Volvo version?” The evolution of the Subaru Forester from upright wagon-like SUV to today’s rolling blah-ness of curves, may represent how tastes in the family vehicle have morphed from the Clinton Era to the present day.

I would argue that the Volvo recipe of firm lines and minimal curvaceousness has already been tried with mixed results. The new car buyer of today’s time simply prefers the smooth curves of a Lexus RX with a higher up seating position.

The Lexus RX350 seems to offer the most direct bullseye in the higher-end of the market. A popular premium family vehicle that is catered towards those who care for safety and durability above all else. Yes, the RX350 contains plenty of power in today’s time. As the Volvo 940 turbo did among the four-cylinder brethren of twenty years past. However, the new car shopper who ended up picking one of these two vehicles likely considered real world performance a secondary issue.

So on the high end, the Lexus RX350 likely represents the modern day vehicle that best caters to those seeking a modern day version Volvo 940. Or maybe not? Perhaps I am looking too heavily on the wagon side of the equation? Well, if that’s the case, the brick enthusiasts of the modern day are going to really hate me for choosing a sedan that I have no doubt best represents the virtues for that Volvo buyer of times yore.

The Lexus ES350. I can almost hear the online groans in earnest, “Not another Lexus!”. Well, in my opinion, the RX350 and ES350 represent the two Lexus models I would recommend if that 1990’s Volvo 940 buyer took a time machine right back into the modern new car showroom… and I will tell you why…

These cars are bought primarily for their perceived lack of faults and their ability to last well into the time when the keys are handed over to the kids for college, and beyond. This may not sound like the enthusiastic rallying cry for the hardcore auto enthusiasts that frequent this site. But as we all know here at Curbside Classic, new cars that were never intended for the budget enthusiast eventually morph into old cars with a loyal following.

I see the Volvo 940 baton passed off to these two Lexus models. But maybe I’m wrong. Would you consider a Forester? Or a Santa Fe? Or dare I even say it, another Volvo?What would be the true successor to the Volvo 940? Feel free to post your thoughts. It’s going to be a long hot week.