Thursday, May 3, 2012

Car of the Week: Volvo 240 Wagon

Volvo 240

Our 1991 240: 16 inch wheels from a 740 and IPD sway bars
You knew the day would come! How could I not review a car that has been with me through most of my driving life? The Volvo 240 is a wonderful blend of reliability, safety, comfort, and driver feel. I also like its looks. Some crazy people will say that is a box but that is not true. There are wonderful lines that hide the hugeness of the car. It you want to see a poorly designed box look at a picture of the Volvo 740 wagon... yuk. Its reputation cannot be understated. Click and Clack (The guys of NPR's Car Talk) have recommended it as a the perfect car for the young driver. They are inexpensive, reliable, slow and safe; just what you would want from a car for a reckless teen.

The 240 was produced from 1974 to 1993 with only minor changes. The engine had already been around for decades before the 240 started production. The world record for the most miles (2.5 million miles) is a 1966 Volvo with the same basic engine design. Of course there were changes over the years and there are more desirable years but any 240 with a 4 cylinder can be bullet proof. The best were the B230F engines produced from 1985 to 1993. I won't bore you with too many more details but the internals were optimized and a new fuel injection system made these the best.

I am going to pay special attention to the wagon because of its versatility. With the back seats folded down it will fit a twin bed and make a comfortable camper. With the seats up it will swallow gear. I tested many of the newer wagons out there including Subarus, Audis, Mercedes, 850 Volvos and the new V70's and NONE of them can come close to the amount of space in the back of a 240. I have owned 3 different wagons in my life and each holds a special place in my heart. I wish I had my pictures with me so I could scan some of each of these beauties!

The first wagon: 1982 240. This was a project from the beginning. I bought the car without an engine and the engine from a 1978 242 gt. Over a summer I did the engine swap where I had to rewire the engine compartment as the engine had a different fuel system than the car. I put a bunch of money into suspension because the 240 handles remarkable well with larger sway bars and some bracing. This car got me through some fun times at Cal Poly, trips to bike races almost every weekend, two trips to Washington and many trips back and forth from college to my Dad's house. When I sold this car I immediately started having 240 withdraws and soon bought my next one.

1985 240 Turbo: My next project... this thing ran but barely. I would come to a stop and it would hesitate, cough, and die. Many hours of tinkering and fixing the many issues that it had made it drivable but it would still do weird things. I did not care because this thing was fast. I don't mean fast like V8 muscle car fast but more like I have been driving an underpowered Volvo wagon and now this seems fast. There was some turbo lag, so when it finally started doing its job it was impressive. This was a work truck for me while I was at Columbia Junior College. I ended up selling it when I moved up to Arcata.

My family car: 1993 240 (this is the car pictured here). This was a solid running memory maker. At 260k miles it survived a trip up to Canada and back. Jessica and I reupholstered the seats which made it a special one. When we found out we were pregnant with Lola we decide to sell it and buy something with working AC, updated safety features and with less miles on it. We ended up with a 2003 Audi A4 wagon which was nice, and fast, and new... but it was no 240.

A Picture of the reupholstered seats and the white faced gauges.
After periods without a 240, when I buy a new one and slide into the drivers seat and it just feels right. The driving position is more upright than other cars and all the controls offer wonderful feedback. The brakes are amazing for an older car, the steering is precise and gives you a feeling for the road. If the suspension is in good order, the car handles well and is very predicable. With a few upgrades the car becomes impressive in its road holding ability. The turning radius is unrivaled in any other car of similar size which gives it a maneuverable feel. I test drove the new Mini Cooper and its turning radius is way bigger than the 240.

Obviously not everything is amazing, there are some issues. The are getting old now. Even the last one made is now 20 years old! So there are rattles, broken seat springs, a bad AC system design, the wiring the the trunk hinges is probably broken, suspension bushing are probably gone, there is a drive line support bearing that will need replacing, the vacuum line are probably shot, and the odometer might not work. Most of these are easy fixes especially if you know what to look for and once they are taken care of you will have a nice car that will do exactly what you want. For a dose of reality, it will never be a nice car in the way a BMW is a nice car. The 240 has a cheap plastic interior and there are no creature comforts like dual climate control and memory power seats... but one does not need to borrow $30,000 to buy a used one. Despite the issues I would take the 240 over any other Volvo. After the 240 was the 740 (similar mechanically but horrid looks and bad suspension) and then it just started going downhill. The 850 was a move to a front wheel drive 5 cylinder that killed the neutral handling of the 240. The current issues with Volvo transmissions make the newer ones at the bottom of my list of cars to own. As a rhetorical question: What is it about this 20 year old car that makes it more desirable than many newer cars?

I still shop for 240's out of habit and still peruse the IPD web site to check prices (they make the suspension upgrades for Volvos). I hover over the bid button on ebay when I see a 240 with 60,000 original miles and daydream about how I would have it delivered to my house so that when I come home for the summer I will have one to drive... I have a collection of old 240 dealer literature, a model of a 240 wagon and a Volvo key fob that lays in wait to keep the key for the next 240 company. For those interested the price of a good 240 is on the rise. 5 years ago you could pick up a clean one for $2000 and now is is creeping up to the $5000 mark. Sure you can still find the deals for under $1000 but the interior is shot, plastic pieces broken, suspension shot and over 200,000 miles. Not to say that they should be sent to the junk yard, they are still great cars that with some money would be solid. But for the price of the "deal" and the money to fix all the problems you could buy a nice low mileage one that has been sitting in some old lady's garage for the past 20 years and is in great shape. There is no other car out there in this price range that will do it all the way the 240 will... I wonder if there are any new ones on Craigslist?


  1. I agree with 100% of what was said here. (Except that the best engine was actually the 1984 only B23 due to slightly higher compression and better oil passages at the front of the head). I have some slight regrets still of offing the 79GT, but my current 92 wagon is so much more usable. 240 for life.

    1. I should have known I overlooked something! Thanks for catching that. Oh Ryan, I was thinking about you GT the other day and I never should have let it get crushed... There was an imaculet one on craigslist the other day. I am in the market for a wagon and my list is pretty long: 240 turbo wagon with a stick and less than 200k miles. Let me know if you see one!

  2. Comment about the 240's engine already having been in production before the car came out. This is only partially true. The side cam B20 had been in production for years, and was used in 240's up through 1975. In 1976, the 240 series got a completely new engine design in the form of the overhead cam B21 series. This wasn't just a refinement of the earlier B20, it was radically different (crossflow aluminum cylinder head, etc). Great commentary on the 240 otherwise, although I have to say that I find the 740's quite attractive, similar to the 240's in that regard!

  3. I very much enjoyed reading this! I am the second owner of a super clean, rust free, sky blue '83 244 DL with 123k with a peach of a 2.3L. Favorite car ever. Agree with Ryan B23F is an endurance champion of an engine. Some 83's did have them! IPD is amazing, and I've had great experiences with FCPeuro as well. Totally agree with how remarkably sweet the steering is, and the mind blowing turning radius. But man, is that steering wheel an extra large pizza or what?

    Agree with Anonymous that 740's aren't fugly, my first car was the '89 740GLE 16V. Miss that car greatly, my mom killed it by driving with a broken fan belt on the highway fully aware something was broken but choosing to ignore the warning lights. Kaboom. I came back from that summer away to find a Dodge Intrepid base model... worst car ever, 10x more problems new than my 740 had at age 11.

    Lastly, very nice job on the seats. Wish you good fortune in finding your next brick!

  4. As much as I love the classic look of the 240 series, it had a ton of flaws. I have owned about 8 of them, for no particular reason then when I got sick of the color of one I would sell it and buy another. I have also owned several 740's as well, mechanically these were a little easier to work on with the little clearance between the block and firewall. Out of the the RWD's by Volvo the 940 was the champion. It didn't have any of the issues of the previous two. I currently have a 93' 944 Turbo. It has zero rust, yes not one pin prick of rust on the entire body. It doesn't have that annoying trim issue that you get with the 240, where every 6 months you have to glue it back on which included an afternoon of sanding the old glue off. Everything works as it should including the heated seats and A/C.,,,and it has almost 400,000 miles on the clicker!

  5. Agree with comments ,the 240 is probably the easiest car to fix, The AC system is bad design-im going to replace the evaporator with a modern plate fin design and the orifice tube system-colder due to flooded evap design and uses less gas