Hammer Time: The Tinkerer's Car

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
hammer time the tinkerer s car

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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2 of 16 comments
  • Rocketrodeo Rocketrodeo on Feb 23, 2010

    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.

  • Rod Panhard Rod Panhard on Feb 23, 2010

    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.

  • Kat Laneaux Wonder if they will be able to be hacked into (the license plates) and then you get pulled over for invalid license plates or better yet, someone steal your car and transpose numbers to show that they are the owners. Just a food for thought.
  • Tassos Government cheese for millionaires, while idiot Joe biden adds trillions to the debt.What a country (IT ONCE WAS!)
  • Tassos screw the fat cat incompetents. Let them rot. No deal.
  • MaintenanceCosts I think if there's one thing we can be sure of given Toyota's recent decisions it's that the strongest version of the next Camry will be a hybrid. Sadly, the buttery V6 is toast.A Camry with the Highlander/Sienna PSD powertrain would be basically competitive in the sedan market, with the slow death of V6 and big-turbo options. But for whatever reason it seems like that powertrain is capacity challenged. Not sure why, as there's nothing exotic in it.A Camry with the Hybrid Max powertrain would be bonkers, easily the fastest thing in segment. It would likewise be easy to build; again, there's nothing exotic in the Hybrid Max powertrain. (And Hybrid Max products don't seem to be all that constrained, so far.)
  • Analoggrotto The readers of TTAC deserve better than a bunch of Kia shills posing as journalists.