Friday, April 5, 2013

Thinking About Cars: Volvo 240

Certain cars become icons of the science and art of automaking.  Ford's Model T brought the automobile to the masses when other manufacturers were making cars that were largely for the rich.  Ford Motor Company eventually built over 15,000,000 of them, and the last six rolled off the assembly line in 2002, built using parts left over plus as-new parts manufactured from original engineering plans.

A couple of decades after the last T came off the (original production run) line, Volkswagen started cranking out the Type 1, which eventually became known and loved under various names, including the one we know best in North America: the Beetle.  And if a 19-year run of over 15 million seems like a lot, the VW Beetle's run cast a deep shadow over the humble T: 65 years and over 21 million units produced.

Significantly less prolific but still coming from a long production run, we find the Volvo 240.  To be completely upfront, the 240 was actually a mild rebody and mechanical upgrade of its predecessor the 140 - the genealogy from one model line to the other is easily recognized.  And when it was time for Volvo to retire the staid, stodgy 240, nearly 3 million examples had been produced.  If you want to include the 140 series as part of that total (and I do) it's over 4 million, and the 240 was produced as a distinct model for over 18 years.

My car
Not really.  But mine looked exactly like this one.

My Volvo came to me as a gift from a former coworker and all-around good guy who has since both left the office and the town.  He moved off to Chattanooga with his equally charming wife and now they are raising their young family there.  Please, Chattanooga, be nice to him.  But Nate had heard my kids were going to college and simply gave his old Volvo to me for them to use.

Son #1 liked the car for its robust simplicity.  Not being a gearhead, he doesn't want to be challenged with a complex car, and on that front the Volvo really delivered.  It doesn't look complicated, it doesn't drive complicated.  No problem.  Son #2, however, is a gearhead and loved the Volvo's huge support in the aftermarket.  If you want to keep an old Volvo alive for decades - might as well point out now that the last 240 was produced in 1993, so if you see a Volvo 240 on the road, it is already literally decades old - you can.  Parts can be had.  I had had a couple of small problems with ours, and one supplier in particular brought a raft of experience and parts to fix the niggling little things that kept it from making the leap from merely good to great.  Bothersome visor clips that break: no problem, pack of two for a couple of bucks.  Failed overdrive solenoid on the automatic tranny: block-off plate, $40.  That's a pretty broad spectrum right there and really doesn't begin to cover iPdUSA's range of support just for the 240 - and they support lots of other Volvo models too.  And Son#2 was just eating up working on the car, investing a little effort and ingenuity and seriously taking ownership of the car in a much more visceral way than 90% of all Americans take with their cars.

So Son#1 was on his way home from visiting friends in Nashville, coming through Oak Ridge TN and nearly home, slowing for a light that was changing when wham, he was rearended.  The guy behind had simply crashed into him.  Not paying attention or following too close, something like that.  Bonk.  When I got there, my first question was, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay.  Little scratch on my arm but that's nothing."  And indeed it was, I've wounded myself more grievously shaving...and I use an electric shaver.

Second comment:  "I just bought these damn taillights!"  And indeed, they were destroyed.  The 240 wears a constellation of lights at each rear corner and can be the source of quite a frustrating search for the cause of the annoying LIGHT indicator on the dash.  But it is a rewarding sensation to make the indicator go out, and when the brake lights go on they really light up traffic behind you.

We went for coffee to decompress, and when we got back to the car I gave him mine to drive so I could feel out the situation with the Volvo.  High idle, ugly noises from out back, it didn't feel safe to drive.  I parked it, called for a tow, we went home.

Long story much shorter, the 23-year-old Volvo was handed a death certificate by the other driver's insurance company.  That's a terrible shame because frankly there aren't that many cars on the road that are 20 years old or older.  Funnily enough I drive a couple of them even after the Volvo is gone, but the point is that the Volvo's greatest strength is its longevity.  If you were never looking for fancy, if you valued safety and reliability, the 240 was everything you needed.

That singular construction, the we'll-build-it-our-way-thanks philosophy that wrought a car that made few compromises, may never come again.  And that's too bad.  As a 240 owner, I felt like a member of a club, of a group of people who would wiggle fingers from atop the steering wheel at each other as we passed, like Jeep owners.  With the passing of this car, my membership has been withdrawn.

Well.  I still have a geriatric Toyota, and that's another club.

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