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Campus Classic: The Volvo 240

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The 1980s was rife with automotive poster material for dorms. Think Testarossa, 959, C4 Corvettes and DeLoreans. But Volvo 240s? Those staid family chariots probably weren’t showing up on too many homemade magazine-cutout bedroom murals.

Yet today, the Volvo 240 has become an icon – a 4-wheeled reminder of an era made memorable by the likes of big hair, glam bands, Nintendo systems and yuppies. Selling millions of models between 1975 and 1993, the once ubiquitous 240 series was a home run for Volvo. Here in the United States, the Swedish Brick solidified the Volvo reputation for building a safe and dependable, if somewhat stolid, automobile.

In the 24 years since the last one rolled off the assembly line, you can still see daily drivers trundling along with over a quarter-million miles on the odometer. The car simply defines the brand like no other. Just as George Foreman has his grill, KISS has their outfits and Arnold Schwarzenegger has the “Terminator” movies, Volvo has the 240.

The story begins with the Volvo 140 series, a car developed in the early 1960s to serve as a successor to the popular, if dated, Amazon line. At the time, the 140 was a resounding worldwide success, thanks to its clean-sheet design that brought the brand out of the 1950s and into the 1960s. Here in the land of LTDs and Impalas, it helped carve out more market share for the offbeat Swedish automaker. But it would take the 240’s reputation and success to pull Volvo away from the fringe of obscurity and bring it into the realm of unique but mainstream.

At first glance, the 240 didn’t look too different than its predecessor. Jan Wilsgaard, Volvo’s chief designer for 40 years, penned the conservative design. Underneath the familiar sheet metal, however, was a truly new car. Volvo had taken steps to incorporate features from the 1972 Volvo VESC, or Volvo Experimental Safety Car. This prototype featured safety technology far beyond what the average motorist in their metal coffins could ever imagine. Airbags? Yup, the VESC had it. Crumple zones? Ditto. Active headrests? Check.

The front and rear crumple zones that the 240 boasted came from the VESC, as well as advanced rollover protection and disk brakes all the way around. Go ahead and scoff today – in the days of disco this was heady stuff.

Initially, powering the little Swedish box was (for 1975 only) a carryover four cylinder from the 140 series. Starting in 1976, the base engine became the four-banger B21F “redblock,” so named for the color of the block. A SOHC design displacing 2.1 liters and churning out 114 horses and 136 ft/lbs of torque, it was not quite a barnstormer in the vein of other European sedans. But also unlike, say, an Alfa or Saab, it was made out of tougher stuff than paper skin and glass bones. The redblock engines developed a reputation for longevity with only the most basic of maintenance. Flog on it, beat it like a punching bag, ride it hard and park it wet – it didn’t matter. The trusty little wagon would shrug it off and start right up.

The same couldn’t quite be said of the 260 series, a rung up from the 240 with a six-cylinder under the hood. Dubbed the PRV, as it was a joint venture between Peugeot, Renault and Volvo, it was a much more authentic European engine; i.e., far more finicky and temperamental. A variety of issues from oil loss to ignition problems plagued these mills, and by the end of 1982 the 260 quietly disappeared. Also available, and also without the staying power of the redblock, was a diesel (1980-1985) and a Turbo 4 (1981-1985).

Volvo continued to make small improvements as the model years rolled by. The biggest update came in 1986, when the American cars finally received the composite headlights that federal laws had previously prohibited. Also new was a refreshed interior and a bigger displacement engine – the B23F, now the sole power plant of the 240. A nomenclature change saw all cars badged as simply 240, regardless of whether it was a sedan or wagon. The two door had been put to pasture in 1984.

By the time of this mid-cycle refresh, it was clear the 240 was long in the tooth. The styling was positively prehistoric and looked it compared to the competitors. But somehow, this didn’t seem to matter. Brand sales were up significantly, and Volvo was selling around 100,000 cars a year for most of the 1980s, the majority being 240s. At one point, Volvo even tried to replace the 240 with the all-new 700 series, a car that merits its own separate article. Years ahead in features and styling, that car still failed to take the torch from the 240.

Ultimately, the 700 series suffered the ignominy of being discontinued before the car it was originally supposed to succeed; in 1992, a year before the 1993 swan song of the 240. Like a towering, venerable tree that firmly grasps “terra firma” even as forces conspire to bring it down, the Swedish Brick held steadfast through the winds of change that were sweeping the industry. After a numbered run of “classic”-badged 240s in 1993 (800 wagons and 800 sedans), the old 200 series finally went on to that great parking lot in the sky.

After being a familiar sight on roads worldwide since its 1975 debut, the car came to represent the brand better than any other Volvo built before or arguably since. Well-built, reliable and safe, it was a familiar sight in upscale neighborhoods, school pick-up lines, shopping mall parking lots and all the other stereotypical locales of suburbia. People of a certain age almost certainly have had direct experience with one, whether it was theirs or that of friends and family. After the 240, Volvos became decidedly more modern – further instilling the 240 with old-world, they-don’t-make-them-like-that-anymore charm that has led to an avid and cultish fan base.

Yes, many other cars are sexier or faster. But the 240, in its simple honesty and classic aura, has become more than the sum of its parts. It has become a classic in its own right, a rolling pair of rose-colored glasses looking back to the now-distant 1980s. It may not have been poster fodder in its prime, but it well deserves a spot on the wall today.

Anthony Sophinos can be reached at [email protected].

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