By on April 14, 2010

Since we overdosed on Eugene-mobiles yesterday, we’re going to have to hold off on that other definitive official local car, the Volvo 240 series until we’ve recuperated and the flashbacks die down a bit. But we’ve given Volvo short shrift here, so let’s do a car that takes me straight back to Maryland circa 1968, but in the most positive way possible: a 142S, decked out just like a young enthusiast of the times (me!) would have done (minus the non-vintage lip spoiler). This is a car that I seriously lusted after then, and it still works on my limbic system today.

My older brother’s friend was in a position to buy a new car in 1968, to replace his hand-me-down 1962 Buick Special. He considered a Mercedes 190, but it was too poky. Why the BMW 1600/2002 wasn’t on his list is beyond me. But when he showed up with a bright red 144S, I was momentarily taken aback, but quickly jealous.

The Volvo 140 series was the seminal modern Volvo. Sure, the earlier 544 and 122  had deep roots in the a certain segment of the import market on the coasts, but the crisp boxy Scan-design of the 140 broke Volvo through to a whole new level sales and acceptability. By the early seventies, car-conservative Maryland was crawling with these. The Volvo was making serious inroads with a demographic that was highly desirable: youngish and well educated. And forget about all the stereotypes of Birkenstock-wearing granola crunchers: these were lawyers and other professionals wearing button-downs.

Of course it was a cultural trend to drive imports on the coasts, one that eventually became a tidal wave. But the Volvo’s appeal went beyond being a fad, given its rugged build yet stylish (for the times) body and tasteful Swedish-style interior. And that clean boxy styling, which looked pretty modern when it first appeared in 1969, wore incredibly well with time, especially considering how bulbous, swollen and ridiculous most American cars got during the seventies. The Volvo 140 series was the perfect antithesis to them, and its stylistic continuity through the 240 series made it the equivalent of what the VW Beetle had been in earlier decades. In fact, if there ever was a true spiritual successor to the Beetle, it was the Volvo 140/240.  And given that incomes were rising, it’s not a stretch to assume that a lot of Volvo’s buyers were former VW drivers.

But in addition to the then-newly emerging Yuppies, Volvo had a loyal enthusiast following. Vovo’s lusty-sounding fours with the twin SU carbs hanging off the sides were pretty consistently faster than most of the more modestly powered imports. Handling was crude but effective. And it was all easy to work on, fix or modify. And they held up to the abuse young enthusiasts were prone to inflict on their cars.

My brother’s friend drove the snot out of his new 117 hp 144S, from the day he picked it up at the dealer and took us for a ride: memorable, but clearly not in observance of the break-in recommendations of the times. Eventually, it sported a noiser exhaust, and some Minilite wheels just like this. The back roads of northern Baltimore County made a perfect playground, and there was not even a thought of my brother’s tired MGA being able to keep up with the Volvo.

Speaking of MG’s, Volvos always had a distinctly British flavor, from the roarty pushrod fours, SU carbs, simple RWD chassis, and overdrives. The Volvo was the sedan counterpart to the MGB; they sounded and handled remarkably similar.In fact, my brother’s other friend had a mildly worked-over MGB, and the similarities struck me one day as the 144S and B raced each other one day.  And although the Brits made a number of sedans with the same formula, the execution was always a let down, especially as time went on. Volvo probably mopped up the lion’s share of MG and Triumph owners needing a back seat.

When I saw this 142s, with its wheels and missing front bumper near the campus, it exerted a its powerful time machine effect on me. And here is a student driving this one in 2010, exactly like his dad might have driven to the University of Maryland forty years ago. What are the odds his kid will be driving a 2010 Volvo in 2050? More likely, he’ll be driving dad’s hand-me-down 142S.

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32 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1968 Volvo 142 S...”


  • avatar
    dswilly

    I dabbled in Volvo territory briefly when I bought a well used ’85 240 turbo wagon. This thing was a mix of Swedish tractor technology, brick styling and hotrod goodness. Too bad the rust gremlins had already ruined it. It was weird fun.

  • avatar
    Tosh

    missing front bumper, not “fender”…

    I guess someone along the way thought that extra side trim strip was sporty? Nice moose decal!

    PN: Didn’t you promise us an old SAAB a while back?

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    If I had a dollar for every 240 crawling the streets of Ithaca NY, I’d have enough money to buy a new S80.

    They all also have at least one of the following bumper stickers: “Bush Must Go”, “A Living Wage is a Family Value”, or “End thisless war”. Often all three.

  • avatar
    talkstoanimals

    It’s a little odd to think of Volvo and BMW in the same breath today, but back in the late ’60s this car was a legitimate rival to the 1600/2002. In fact, my old man opted for one over a 2002. His reason – the Volvo dealer threw in a trailer hitch that allowed him to tow his day sailer. According to him that was all it took because the cars were so evenly matched in other ways.

    • 0 avatar
      talkstoanimals

      As a postscript, since comment editing has mysteriously disappeared – Paul, I think you nailed it on the head when you say Volvo captured the English sports car drivers who moved on to more practical rides. Both my father and grandfather moved to Volvos immediately upon abandoning their British roadster days, as did many of their friends. My grandfather stuck with Volvos for the rest of his life as the evolution of their cars kept pace with his aging sensibilities. My old man never fully moved on from his sports car lust and ultimately moved to other brands, only returning to the Volvo fold for 2 years spent unhappily driving an S60. But for a time in the sixties and seventies, Volvos were oh so British in spirit.

  • avatar

    One of my friends, a classics professor at U Wisc, until recently had the ’68 wagon her parents–father a classics prof at Berkeley–had bought new when she was eight years old.

    I drove one of these (a ’70 wagon) across the country in 1974, Cambridge to Stanford CA, for a Stanford Prof. It was a very nice car, but they’d crammed it absolutely full with their stuff for the trip across, so that when a rear tire sprung a leak probably in Nebraska, I was in denial until I’d had to refill the tire about three times. So I stopped in Rawlins, WYO, I think, to have the tire repaired. The whole thing was real difficult because you needed the Volvo jack. you couldn’t just put a jack under the bumper, because while the bumper was extremely capable in the horizontal plane, it had very little vertical strength. The station owner very cleverly did something or other to lift the rear end, all the while complaining about “these German cars.” After about five times I ceased trying to correct him. When all was done, he told me to come back through on the way back east, and to be driving a Cadillac, and to fill the tank at his station.

  • avatar

    Well Paul, at least we have one thing in common.

    My father had a red one of these too —the 8th one off the line in 1968 —but he purchased it around 1990. It was supposed to be my mom’s car, but she hated manual transmissions and never got beyond her learner’s permit. The car just sat in our driveway, rusting away. By the time I was a teenager with a learner’s permit of my own, the clutch was seized and I couldn’t start it. Dad bought used Volvos as daily drivers, not as project cars and future classics. When the expense of a repair exceeded the residual, he’d just donate them to our mechanic; so that was the end of our 142S. Right now, he’s got a ’98 S70 Turbo and I’ve got a ’99 base model… and they look and feel as good as new.

    This CC example looks to have interior modifications as well… our 1968 had a linear speedo… can you remember if yours did too?

    I particularly like the conspicuity of Volvo’s evolutionary DNA starting with the Amazon all the way to the S90. There’s always some aspect of their designs donated from one or two series prior.

  • avatar
    vermontwalton

    Forgive me…. I’m green with envy.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Extrapolating from my own experience, this was a watershed car. After having bought American forever, my father tired of the reliability issues of our 1966 Chevrolet and replaced it, in 1970, with a Volvo 144S. In college at the time, I probably can claim some credit for persuading my conservative father to take this leap. This was a very honest car, with comfortable seats and reasonably responsive with the 4-speed. (The automatic version was a real slug.) Also the brakes worked to a standard unknown to the drivers of Detroit iron, even though they were sometimes noisy and the pads required frequent replacement.

    This car succeed in its mission with my Dad, it was the first of 4 Volvos that he owned, the last one being a rather unreliable 1994 850. His experience with that one — and the preferences of the woman he married after my mother died, led him to abandon Volvo and buy a Lexus ES 300.

    A one-car family at the time the 144s was purchased, Dad liked to keep cars a long time. The 144s was succeeded by a 1977 model that was the first car he ever owned with A/C and an autobox. The 144 became “his” second car until he bought a 740 in 1992. Then the 1977 car became his second car.

    The 740 ended up in my hands, and I turned it over to one of my college-age daughters, and then her younger sister. Finally, failing to pass an emission test and with me not wanting to spend the $$$ for a new cat converter, I sold it to a specialist mechanic who parted it out. Mechanically sound, the interior was in terrible shape and the paint was peeling down to the primer.

    All of these cars could be said to be descendants of each other, but my dad’s experience suggests that when Volvo went to transverse-mounted engines and FWD, it lost the virtues that had sustained it in the marketplace (in the US at least) for 25 years.

  • avatar
    bunkie

    I spent a good part of the summer of 1968 in Sweden and Aunt Ulla and Uncle Knut had a new 142 which I remember fondly. We’d pile into it to go to the lake at midnight, negotiating the dirt road that led out of my Uncle’s country house where we were staying. I really love the metal grill and the small bumpers of the 14x cars. Seeing it reminds me of a wonderful summer filled with sunlight and laughter.

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    GT gauge cluster, Nardi wheel, ipd air dam … I’d bet on a set of ipd anti-roll bars underneath as well. Nice. It’s hard to imagine a car that would be cheaper to keep on the road or easier to maintain and fix.

  • avatar
    red60r

    My experiences with Volvo started back in 1966 with a 122S that replaced a rapidly-wearing TR-4. It was about as fast as the Brit, but had a way bigger trunk and a back seat that swallowed a couple of kids easily. The Volvo stayed with me for the next 8 years, traveling from Chicago to Houston to East Lansing before succumbing to excessive NaCl. There was an economically dictated Toyota break for a few years, after which both I and my wife were driving 244s (hers auto, mine 4+overdrive and intercooled turbo) for an aggregate of about 300K miles and 27 years of use. We fit the target demographic. I guess the Triumph’s aging process had been accelerated by some 10,000 miles of rallyes over 2 summers. I often wonder how that would have gone in my current 300hp AWD Swede. The A/C would have been nice, too…

  • avatar
    Revver

    Ah, loverly! Nobody EVER recognizes the Volvo 140 series as a driver’s car. I seem to fit your profile fairly well, as a former Triumph, Austin Healey and BMW owner, there was much I recognized when I picked up a nice 1968 144 in the early 80s. A classic by even then, its simple mechanical parts would give an enthusiast pause, but a very, very capable chassis (much more stable at speed than a 2002) and excellent brakes gave a driver real confidence in driving the original brick hard.

    I subjected my dear ride to rallies, autocrossing, student-level maintenence and near daily commute to night school in NYC and trust me, slogging along the Bruckner Expressway and FDR drive, are East African Safari-esqe in terms of automotive masochism.

    It wasn’t until I could afford a decades-newer 535i that something surpassed the Practical/Fun quotient.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    I never knew there was a 142 until now. In England we only got the 144.
    As a kid I thought the 544 and 122 had a certain coolness , but when the 144 appeared I stopped thinking about Volvos – they were just not suitable for anyone under middle-age. Still wouldn’t contemplate a Volvo today, although middle age looks attractive.

  • avatar
    stevejac

    I used to work with someone back then who bought one of these. The AT failed at about 8months, and the warranty was just for 6 months. Volvo refused to help at all.

    The crazy guy went out and bought another one (but he did get a stick).

  • avatar
    wmba

    Compared to my 1965 Volvo 544, this thing was slow but had nicer seats. 600 pounds more weight made it a bit of a slug — more hp, the same basic torque. Far too respectable looking, so my buddies and I looked elsewhere for fun. End of interest in Volvo. Felt completely betrayed. Just like I do with the new Subies compared to the old. Sales soared, of course, as Volvo went sort of mainstream, but the 17 year longevity Volvo claimed in ads for the old ones went the way of rust with this beast.

  • avatar
    carnick

    Ah, Paul, once again you bring me down memory lane with uncanny similarities. It was 1980, my first year of grad school, and I too was driving a tired 1962 Buick Skylark (a slightly tarted up version of your friend’s Special). So, to be better prepared for the rough winters of Syracuse NY, I sold it and “moved up” to a 1968 Volvo 142, also uncannily like your CC special, but mine was in its beautiful original faded red (sort of a brick-like color when I got it).

    I had been through a bunch of “foreign” cars by that time, but the 142 was still a revelation. In addition to being practical enough to haul all my worldly goods around, and starting every morning even in the Syracuse deep-freeze winters, it was a blast to drive. Not in the V8 muscle car sense of course, but “sports car” like handling, great brakes (for its time), comfortable on long hauls, felt solid, and ridiculously easy to work on. I drove it on many multi-hundred mile hauls without missing a beat. It did everything pretty well, with timeless understated looks that didn’t look out of place even when it was 15 years old.

    In short, a very satisfying car to own. It was one of those cars (like a similar vintage Saab 99 I owned a while later) that just had a great feel and combination of attributes that I have rarely found in “modern” cars. Those Swedes got the formula right back then (later Volvos I owned were OK, but just weren’t the same).

    Like old Saab 99′s, this is one of the cars I still troll craigslist and ebay for.

  • avatar
    Syke

    All I had to do was see the long shift lever coming out from under the dash and the memories came flooding back: Rallying in Steve Kneller’s 69 four door sedan, medium blue. It was probably the only car that could have survived him, given what an animal he could be with any type of transportation (snapped bottom bracket on a Gitane Gran Sport Deluxe?).

    By the way, the pictured car has the factory optional dash. Steve’s had the standard thin red line that sorta gave you the speed, plus or minus ten mph.

    I still remember driving that car back from the Agora in Cleveland (The Stooges – Raw Power Tour – opening for Slade). I was driving because, being under only one and a fraction hit of acid (Steve had dropped three, our dates were on two apiece), I could get the key in the ignition and the car was talking to me very nicely all the way east on I-90 back to Erie. And I was quietly growling at Steve’s date for the night, promising to tie her to the back bumper and drag her home. She was quietly screaming in fear.

    The red 240 wagon he replaced it with just wasn’t quite as neat. It had the feeling of being too respectable.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    All of these cars could be said to be descendants of each other, but my dad’s experience suggests that when Volvo went to transverse-mounted engines and FWD, it lost the virtues that had sustained it in the marketplace (in the US at least) for 25 years.

    Amen. Our ’98 S70 drove and felt like a tank, had incredibly comfortable seats, and a killer sound system. But after 4 years and 70k, it needed complete A/C and ABS systems, and the transmission was acting up. $10k in repairs? Regrettably, the last-model-year S90 was only $2k more and we didn’t go for it.

    Although the Bertone coupe and 740 wagon still warm my loins…..

  • avatar
    shiney2

    dswilly:”It was weird fun”.

    Thats the best description of rwd Volvo ownership I have ever read!

  • avatar
    TAP

    As wonderful as these cars were to drive, and I drove a’70 142S stick for 10 yrs, they were never cheap to keep on the road. Try 3 water pumps, one valve job, 2 alternators, all in 100K.
    If I drove 300mi over the 6K tune-up interval, it would simply and abruptly quit running. Not to mention tuning the Zenith carbs.

  • avatar

    I owned three different 140s. The first was a 142 that threw a rod soon after I got it. I foolishly rebuilt the engine (there was a chip in the cylinder skirt where the rod hit it, but it was nowhere near the rings and the shop said it was fine to rebuild). I say foolishly because I didn’t realize how rusted the thing was till the track bar bracket broke away from the unit body while going around a corner. I patched it with some sheet metal, first brazing, then welding using coat hanger wire for welding rod.

    Then I started looking for a solid body. I found a nice 142s in Detroit that had a lunched engine and the external overdrive that many Volvos came with. It also, I discovered one day, had some heroin stashed behind the dashboard.

    When I put the good engine in it, I rewired the overdrive switch to work in both 3rd and 4th gears, which was fun to play with.

    It was a pretty spartan 142, with rubber mats, but it was rock solid reliable, other than needing a heated dipstick if we wanted it to start on really cold mornings.

    Then we got a 142e that was sitting in a friend’s garage out in Washtenaw County. The 142e was pretty rare, very cool, the closest thing to a performance Volvo sedan before they started using turbos. It had the higher compression, fuel injected engine from the P1800es, at least 10% more power, bigger brakes, stiffer shocks, sway bar, and a nice leather interior. Great car.

    When the last 960 rolled off the line in Gothenburg, Volvo stopped making real Volvos.

  • avatar
    red60r

    On 240-series repairs: OK, the 244 turbo needed 3 blowers during it’s life, but, thankfully, the first 2 were under warranty. Subsequently-owned 850 T5 went over 70K miles on its original, then was killed by a rear-end collision. The other 244 developed deterioration of the wiring harness and had some bizarre behaviors like kicking in the starter at 30 mph. 14 years in the dry heat of Colorado summers may have contributed to that. There weren’t real viable alternatives at the time. Chevy Malibu? Ford Fairlane? Audis were still iffy, as were low-end BMWs. CamCord still in period of identity search.

  • avatar

    I owned a 544(favorite),164E,and lastly, a 142. Liked ‘em all and appreciated the structural integrity of the 164 when a little old lady broadsided me in a Horizon and left her bumper stuck in the side of my Volvo. It was written off, but I drove it to a new owner for a future as a parts car. It went down the highway straight as an arrow on the last ride. The 142 survived a carb fire and went on to several more years of use. I also owned a VW micro-bus so you have definitely hit a nostalgic streak with me lately Paul. Incidentally, I’m not a lefty or a college prof, but I liked the Volvos. I wasn’t a hippy either when I owned the micro-bus, but I looked like one in the early 70s.

  • avatar
    tsofting

    ‘Tis the time for trips down memory lane these days, the Townie yesterday, the 140-Volvo today!

    In the early seventies I bought a used 144S of ’67 vintage. It was white, which is a great contrast to the brown of rusted-through front fenders. I battled the rust as long as I owned that car, but I knew it was rusty when I got it, so that was part of the package. The rust problems culminated when the hood hinges broke loose from the inner fender due to excessive rust. After patching this up, it was back in business!

    Keywords related to the 144 that spring to mind are:
    * great seats for the time, nobody else had anything remotely as good as the Volvo seats.
    * Tightening the 3-point fixed seatbelts really(!) tight when going for a country road spin.
    * A window sill perfect for resting your arm on. After a summer with the Volvo I ended up with a very tan left arm and a white right arm.
    * The overdrive unit was a great showpiece, just flick the lever on the steering column to engage/disengage
    * That enormous steering wheel, with lots of leverage to handle the unassisted steering.

    All in all, a great car for the time,lots of fond memories!

  • avatar
    nikita

    Fortunately, Volvo picked Bosch instead of Lucas for the electrical system. A friend drove a 544 and got hold of a 144 with a blown engine. We shoehorned in a 302/Cruise-O-Matic combo from a wrecked Galaxie. Today, I would “rather have the [1962] Buick”, with its all-aluminum V-8.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Bought a new Canadian assembled, mustard yellow 1971 Volvo 142S. Terrific car. Put 115,000 miles on it. Back then that was a lot. Sold it for very good money to a guy who took it to Columbia. Guess the super-size trunk was good for hustling cocaine. Betcha it’s still running.

    There was also a 142E, a Bosch fuel injected model. It was a reliability disaster. Volvo only made them for a couple of years. Most owners converted the engines to carburetors.

    No mention of this vintage Volvo is complete without talking about the seats. They were fabulously W O N D E R F U L.

    If Volvo still made cars this good the disaster Ford visited upon them would not have happened. They would not be in deep doo-doo now.

  • avatar
    vigillinus

    I had one of the wagons, maroon, auto box, and imported the factory rally kit for it. This consisted of a new grille with extra lights, multiple carbs, headers and some other goodies. Maybe a camshaft, don’t recall. Put it up to about 150-160 HP. Fastest Volvo wagon in the US. Sold it to a gent in Baltimore, he later sent me a photo, he had painted orange lightning bolts down the sides.

  • avatar

    So, everybody loves them. Why don’t they bring any money??? I’d be suprised if this one would bring more than $2,000. where as a same year Alfa or Lancia would bring 5 times that.

  • avatar

    Is this dashboard stock??


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