By on February 23, 2010

Owning an old Volvo is like having a garden. There is always something to do in a garden. Likewise, the quality of your compost, soil, and water is going to dictate your harvest. The same is true for your driving habits, parts and fluids when it comes to keeping any old car. Okay, enough of the analogies. We’re all enthusiasts here. A 1991 Volvo 740 came to me with a two ton jack and a gas can in the trunk as well as enough spare parts to start it’s own Volvo shrine. It also came with the crappiest car seat covers I had ever seen, a blue wire that connected the alternator to trunk speakers that were removed (it had been Gomered). Finally, it had to be pushed through the auction lane because it wouldn’t stay running. But I bought it anyway for $175… and then the fun began.

I couldn’t get the damn thing to stay running for several reasons. The plugs were hanging right on the engine which meant that the heat was generating a few of the misses. I bought the plastic wire holder… which did nothing. Then I cleaned up the throttle body, put in new gas, examined all the hoses, and even bought a $50 IAC valve recommended to me by a fellow brick enthusiast. Nothing… nada… boy was this gonna be a tough nut to crack. After a couple day’s worth of picking and prodding I gave up the proverbial ghost and had it towed for $50 to what I call Amos’ place.

Amos is a long-time mechanic with his own shop up in Hiram, Georgia. The city of Hiram has as much to do with the city of Atlanta’s culture as Tecumseh Sherman has to do with Def Jam Records. You go into his shop and the world changes back to an All-American automotive heyday. Camaros, Challengers, Mustangs… classic pick-up trucks that are still used for more than just show are occasionally mixed in with a 1970’s Maverick or 2002 thrown in for good measure. There’s always a line where the enthusiast’s eye defers to the knowledge of a long-time mechanic and Amos has literally saved my bacon quite a few times.

The bacon this time came in the form of a coil unit. It was functioning properly when the car was at idle. The car could literally idle all day and did while everything else was checked. But once it was on the road the red brick engine would literally conk out within a half mile or so. One OEM part later and the 740 ran like a dream… except the transmission wouldn’t shift to overdrive.

The strange thing about this was that there was no blinking arrow that would signify a bad shift. It just wasn’t shifting into overdrive period. Not even a jutting of wanting to shift. Again, more time spent at the enthusiast sites. Summoning the oracle that is the 740/940 FAQ guide at brickboard, I found out that the overdrive relay may need to be replaced. One $15 part on Ebay later and the 740 had found its overdrive. Except that it was shifting at around 4000 rpm. Bad tranny now? Not quite.

Volvos of this vintage have a kickdown cable where you can literally change the point of shifting. Gomer the Boy Racer had decided to pimp out the prior owner’s ride by changing this. Another quick visit to the brickboard and I find a simple how-to guide that eliminates that boogeyman. By this time I’ve spent enough energy on this vehicle that I’m knee deep in the keeper religion. If I keep it instead of the Insight, wouldn’t it be cheaper to own? Thanks to the 30,000 miles I drive a year the answer is an emphatic no. But maybe my wife would like it? Nope, she wants to keep the Civic. So what to do?

Sell it to an enthusiast. Once I fixed the problems, I ended up with a car that had not only been a dealer queen… but a diplomat’s king. It had been imported to the States back in 1991 (a base cloth model with no turbo and no sun roof, go figure) and was adorned with Volvo OEM parts right until the last owner who thankfully kept it for all of five months. The manual has dozens of maintenance records stapled onto it. The hoses, wires, radiator, filters, and belts are all emblazoned with the ‘Volvo’ moniker along with the OEM equivalent. No paint fade. No cracks. Perhaps, I haven’t turned the clock back 19 years. But I have got it to the point where an enthusiast with genuine mechanical skills could make it a keeper.

Then again I’m already renting out cars for $15/day and a classic brick like this may be the perfect vehicle for that purpose. But I have to drive this thing a bit longer to be absolutely comfortable enough to do that. Maybe a few months. Maybe a year. Maybe never. I already have a spare engine, transmission and leather seats from a wrecked 940 that had only 105k on it. I have about $300 in everything at this point so I’m weighing it in.

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16 Comments on “Hammer Time: The Tinkerer’s Car...”

  • avatar

    Gotta love them Volvos. Every time I read “Hammer Time”, two thoughts come to my head:

    The first is: man, you’re a genius when it comes to secondhand cars.

    The second is: man, you’re a sucker for punishment.

    Since you’ve got a 740 for just $300, I’d keep it as a back-up, personally. You’d have to drive the Insight a quadrillion miles (about a million battery packs’ worth) to balance out the books on this one. And from the sound of it, you’ve actually got a fairly interesting specimen of the species.

  • avatar

    Keep it! As you know very well by now: parts are readily available, cars are well designed and easy to work on, it would take an ICBM to stop it from running.

    Volvo wagons are a gem – especially turbo bricks!

  • avatar

    No roof?

  • avatar

    “Owning an old Volvo is like having a garden. There is always something to do in a garden.”

    Pickup trucks are like that too. I picked up a 2WD 1991 Ford F-150 with a 4.9L straight six and very little rust for cheap last year. After tinkering around with it to get it running better it’s time for other stuff. Stuff like replacing the basic AM/FM stereo and speakers with better aftermarket stuff. Got a used cap for the bed, didn’t care for it, and sold it and got a tonneau cover. Got plans for painting on a Herculiner when the weather improves. Also planning on installing new shocks, a class III hitch, and a brake controller. Might get studded snow tires for it before winter is over. Probably tinker with the stereo some more too. You know how it is.

    Steve, as for the Volvo why not keep it? You bought it for peanuts and fixed it for a few more peanuts. If you really enjoy these kind of Volvos why not keep it around as a weekend car or for when the Insight is in the shop?

  • avatar
    Eric Green

    I have put 500K km on RWD Volvos in 22 years, 400 of which have been in 745s. My experience is that once one has sorted the inevitable SPOTs, one cannot drive cheaper/safer/longer- one of my current DDs is a 90 745 with 309K km on it.

    Just install iPd anti-sway bars and poly front bushings in it; change the oil/filter regularly; use OEM parts; get it rust-sprayed annually and four quality winter tires if required; swap out the lousy OEM “stereo” and speakers for a modern rig- and then run it forever. As in, forever. Ideally, your vehicle will have the M46 4+OD manual transmission, and MOMO has a steering wheel adapter to replace the Volvo bus wheel if desired.

    These cars’ useful life is measured in decades, and their utility is unsurpassed. My only regret is that I did not buy another 745/945 in, say, 1996, and store it. You know, for when in 2024, I have to replace my current ride…

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    The Insight is never in the shop.

    If I sell it, I’d like to have it go to an enthusiast. I also have a spare engine, tranny, and leather seats for it that I got for $200 earlier last year. That wrecked car only had 105k on it and was serviced by a Volvo specialist.

    I’m really leaning towards using it for a side business I have. $15 a day car rentals. I already have a Cavalier and Crown Vic that fit well for that purpose and the Volvo would probably be ideal given what I already have parts wise.

  • avatar

    Easy…keep it! Your Volvo reminds me of my 1997 Toyota Tercel (actually, my son’s…but he can’t have a car where he goes to school until May of 2011)…189k, starts every time…nothing major has ever broken…so I tinker…she needs new struts/shocks all the way around, CD player crapped out, window tint in back is severely bubbled, could stand a throrough tune-up (heck, I don’t think the tranny fluid has even ever been changed in 13 years), paint is faded and both bumper caps are shot. I’m thinking of going through all of that, repainting it and sending it to my son out in Colorado next year when he can have a car again…the thought of selling it just makes my stomach turn…it’s too good of a car to let go…just like your Volvo!

  • avatar

    The rental idea sounds solid and would complement the other vehicles in your fleet. Then you still have the brick around if you change your mind.

  • avatar

    My parents had a silver ’88 740 GLE wagon that went to about 250K before they sold it a few years ago. I don’t any major repairs aside from a radiator replacement and some routine work on the automatic trans. That car ran and would not quit!

    We are and always have been a Volvo family. We’ve had 4 240s and the 740. My parents currently drive a ’97 850 sedan and a 2008 S60, and they prefer to hold on to them until they fall apart.

  • avatar

    The RWD Volvos are the next best cars ever built! I bought an old 144 once for 100usd. After giving it new oil and straightening the pushrods with a hammer against a wise and then reworking the rocker arms with an angle grinder (the car had been driven without oil for some time) I drove it for several years. The best car of all times? Chevvy Caprice 1977-1996! Like an old Volvo but big enough!

  • avatar

    Just be aware, Steven, that old Volvos WILL get under your skin if you’re around them for long. It’s kind of like puppy rescue. They’re difficult to get rid of.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    I don’t think I’d put it in the wrent-a-reck fleet. It would be easy for one of your customers to use it to haul something that would trash the interior. This might be something that gouges, cuts, scrapes or tears. That would reduce its appeal. They also might use it to haul something that drips, drains or smells bad.

    If any of that happens with a Crown Vic, you can hose out the trunk. But you can’t do that with a 740.

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