By on March 25, 2011

The San Francisco Bay Area once had one of the world’s highest Volvo 240 concentrations, but a number of factors are conspiring to send vast numbers of Swedish bricks to The Crusher in recent years. How many? Let’s take a look at the 240 inventory I spotted yesterday at a high-turnover East Bay wrecking yard.

Keep in mind that this particular yard (which is owned by a steel company) keeps a car in the inventory for about two months before crushing it and shipping the result straight to China. Here we have 13 Volvo 240s, which will be replaced with a similar number two months from now, and the process will continue until they’re all gone.

This has gone on at a dozen or so Northern California junkyards, day after day, for the last five years or so. Here’s the same junkyard’s 240 inventory about a year ago.

Why? The last 240s rolled off the assembly line nearly 20 years ago, which means most of them have six-figure miles on the clock and frequent repair needs by now (the temperamental electrical systems, the 240’s only serious weak point beyond the stodgy image, tend to get flakier with each passing year).

However, the rise of the Toyota Prius among those who want to make a political/lifestyle statement with their cars has likely been the main culprit. During the pre-Prius era, the Volvo 240’s image of safety and frivolity-free Scandinavian stoicism made it a big hit in NorCal (despite the brick’s drunken-sailor-grade thirst for fuel)… but the Prius came along and the 240s got sold to those who couldn’t afford the annual $1,500-$3000 in repair costs from Sven The Volvo Mechanic when the usual 25-year-old-European-car problems cropped up. High steel prices mean a typical broken 240 is good for $400 in cold cash from the scrapper. Next stop, The Crusher!

Because plenty of folks still swear by the old Volvos and would sooner ride a mule than get behind the wheel of a damn Toyota, there will always be some of them roaming Bay Area streets. If you can do your own Volvo repairs, you’ll be assured of plentiful and cheap junkyard parts for at least the next few years.

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55 Comments on “The Northern California Volvo 240pocalypse Continues!...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Hmmmmmmmm it looks like a few of those Volvos just need a “heart transplant.”  Ford 302V8 or SBC anybody?  (BTW a common swap for these old bricks, the only reason the idea intriques me is I picture blowing the doors off a kid in a riced-out Honda or Toyota with a family sedan/wagon.  The kid might not stop crying till the end of puberty.) 

    • 0 avatar

      Dan, here are your guys for heart transplant know-how:
      Get the factory shop manuals for the donor vehicle the engine is coming from as well as the Volvo, JTR can help fill in any blanks…they’ve been doing this stuff for a couple decades now. Their parts and books helped me convert an Olds 307 equipped ’89 Caprice wagon to 350 TPI power. Talk about having fun with a grocery getter…

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Oh I’ve seen a few of these conversions.  I knew it was one of the one’s JTR did.  (Nothing wrong with the original reliable Volvo set up it’s just nice to know you have options if the Volvo engine develops an incurable or very expensive condition.)

    • 0 avatar

      Did a 302/C4 swap into one of these. The only real issue was fabricating custom headers to clear the steering linkage on the left side. This was a ’68 with recirculating ball.

    • 0 avatar

      I guess you could say my 740 has had a “bypass”? It’s still the original redblock but with a bit of work.
      And I can confirm with first-hand experience that it is very amusing to blow the doors off the riced-out imports. For less that they paid for tax & title, I have watched Golf R32, Mustang GT, Mazdaspeed 3, TransAm WS6, and others fall away in the rear view mirror.

  • avatar

    This was one of the few cars which broke the “make it to get out of warranty and to hell with the used car buyer” rules.
    Friends had a 240 wagon.  Slow as molasses with a 4 cylinder and stick, but lasted forever.  Biggest issue was that the front seat (a stout construction, no less) was worn out, and a search of scrapyards could not turn up a replacement that was not in WORSE shape.
    If I had a garage this would have been a candidate for V8 engine swapping.

  • avatar

    I was fortunate enough to own a sort-of-rare ’85 240 Inter cooled turbo wagon. Unfortunately it was about to break in half due to the cowling leak that caused the car to rust from the inside out behind the front seats. I would love to find the same car in decent condition, best pick-up truck I ever owned.

  • avatar

    Always wanted a 240 wagon ever since European Car magazine souped one up.

  • avatar
    Buster Brew

    There are a few entrepreneurs making a fine living rebuilding Jeep Grand Wagoneers, Toyota FJ40’s, BMW 2002’s, etc.  I would think someone out there is missing an opportunity to do the same with the 240.

  • avatar

    I had some very bad experiences with the 144 series in my youth so I have no sympathy for their siblings.  What I can take from this is that I may live long enough to see the same story only with the ubiquitous silver Prius up on blocks gutted to provide parts for my grandson’s go-cart.

  • avatar

    Bought a 1980 244 4 spd w/od with a LSD new when the first child arrived. It replaced a Pinto Runabout w/auto my wife brought to the marriage. I was not going to have my child in a car that would explode upon impact. Drove it 150k mi. and then sold it to my neighbor, his wife drove it to 250k mi plus. Replaced it with a 740 Turbo wagon which we drove to about the same mileage and sold to the same neighbor. Then Volvo went FWD and we moved onto a BMW 5 series. Also a proper  manual tranmission RWD car. I would love to get the old 740 wagon back and stick a LSx in it to bomb around in, it could haul a ton of stuff.

  • avatar

    All I have to say is that I have never been attracted to pricier cars aside from a Cadillac because I can’t see the value, real or perceived, of buying something expensive when I can buy a car much cheaper that will get me down the road just as well, as long as I care about the particular vehicle I choose. Having said that, I have a real soft spot in my heart for some of the old Volvos, specifically the PV544 and P1800, but that was a long time ago. One of my wife’s friends recently bought a C-70 Volvo convertible, and it impresses the daylights out of me, as the only American OEM that makes anything like it is the Chrysler 200, in which my jury is still out if it is a decent car or not. The ones pictured? Nah. Clunky-looking except for the wagon, which fits the style perfectly.

    • 0 avatar

      buy a car much cheaper that will get me down the road
      What else are you going to spend the money on?

    • 0 avatar


      Paying off the mortgage! I’m too close to retirement to take any risks right now! As long as my 2004 Impala keeps on truckin’, I love that. If it goes belly-up, I have our MX5 to fall back on for a while, but with a 100-mile R/T commute coming in a few months, I suppose I’ll re-evaluate then. Stay tuned…

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Rarely has been there a time when I didn’t have a RWD Volvo somewhere hidden in my inventory.
    With that being said, the Toyondas of the same era tend to be far more durable vehicles. If you took the red brick engine and the wagon shape out of the equation, I doubt that the 240/740/940 would have received even a fifth of their enthusiast following.
    Problems with these cars include…
    1) The electrics that you aptly described…
    2) Biodegradable wiring harnesses (so common that I have to mention it separately)
    3) Fuel system (it seems like fuel delivery is a chronic problem with most of the ones I see at the auctions.)
    4) Substandard interior parts (like most vehicles from this era…)
    5) Diagnosis tends to be on the difficult side (even hardcore enthusiasts I know often have to replace several parts before finding the ultimate answer)
    6) A/C. God, the A/C systems on these things are an absolute bear to keep up.
    But with that being said you also have…
    1) One of the strongest, safest and most durable vehicles built from that era.
    2) An ‘authenticity’ to the driving experience that has never been duplicated anywhere else.
    3) One of the easiest vehicles to work on for the last 25+ years
    4) Enough cheap high quality parts that will likely enable this car to outlast most everything else out there… from that era.
    5) Modifications that are very cheap and widely available (or discussed at the brickboard)
    6) If you don’t get a wagon and are handy, you can pretty much buy a good temporarily non-running one for $500 a pop.
    7) The 740/940 brethren have standard features that some midsized vehicles built 10 years later would be envious of.
    The early-90’s Accords, Camrys, Civis and Corollas pretty much wrestled off the title of ‘best bang for the buck’ if you’re look at this strictly from a durability and (forgive me for saying this) quality standpoint. But the 240’s will always have far more character.

    • 0 avatar
      Swamp Yankee

      I am on my second wagon.  I am no expert mechanic but I can keep them going and going with only occasional visits to a local independent mechanic.  While as Murilee says it may take 1500 to 3000 dollars/yr to keep them going if you have a mechanic do all of the work, for a DIYer, the parts are really cheap they are mostly dead easy to work on and, in my experience, the stuff that breaks has never kept me from using the car as a daily driver.
      Plus the 5 speed manual cars are more entertaining to drive than they should be.

    • 0 avatar

      Except for one minor detail for those of us in the upper half of the country have to deal with – RUST! All of those “durable” Japanese cars turned into dust in 1/3-1/2 of the time of a Swedish steed. And that is compared to 240s, 740s and 940s are essentially immune. There are nearly no early 90s Accords, Camrys or Civics left in Maine, but there are Volvos of that era by the tens of thousands. And Saabs, tons and tons of Saabs.

      A RWD Volvo is pretty much the ideal DIY vehicle. Simple, everything is easy to get at, parts are cheap, and you can pretty much fix them with a hammer.

  • avatar

    Avast ye swab!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ye slimy ‘wog.  Lowly landlubber. Arrrrrr…. scurvy dog, ye be hoisted upon yon petard and dipped into shark-infested waters and that’s if the mateys be takin’ pity upon thee.
    I am enamored with the styling of the wagon. Raw, brutal in its basicness but pleasing to my eye nonetheless.

  • avatar

    I keep waiting for them to start disappearing from the streets here, but it just doesn’t happen. If anything, there are more than ever. I suspect they’re coming straight from the Bay Area.

  • avatar

    One of my earliest automotive memories was riding in my father’s white Volvo sedan (I forget what model number; probably a 240) as he T-Boned some poor motherfucker who was running a red light. We hit the (empty) passenger side of their flimsy car, which was good, because if we hit the driver’s side they probably would have been killed. Naturally, we were perfectly fine, although the Volvo sadly gave up its life for the cause. It doesn’t take much for an insurance company to total an old Volvo.
    (He later bought another one.)
    I’ll miss these things when they’re all gone, although I don’t think I’ll miss them quite enough to actually go out and buy one right now.

  • avatar

    The 240s are incredibly reliable (once you get away from the years with the ridiculous biodegradable wiring)  I had one with nearly 200,000 miles, and it still ran like a brand new car when I sold it.
    One of the best qualities about the cars is how easy they are to work on.  Plenty of room under the hood, and the RWD layout points the engine in the “right” direction.
    If you ever want an inexpensive “beater”, I’d recommend a 240 over other cars, plenty of available parts, active enthusiast base, and easy to diagnose and work on.  Plus it has a lot more character than say an early 90’s Camry or Accord.

  • avatar

    Drunken sailor grade thirst for fuel??  Did you not separate out the turbos from that survey?

    I noticed the EPA ratings for the turbos was fairly low (23mpg highway?) and we had a 940t that struggled to achieve 24 on trips and usually didn’t achieve 20mpg around town…

    But our older non-boosted 240 wagons (we had two) generally got 22-23 around town and, in spite of roof rack and full load of passengers and luggage, turned 28-29mpg reliably on trips where we’d be doing 65mph.

    They were not quite as reliable as people might have been led to believe but they rarely failed on us (far better than our experience with D3 vehicles) and repairs were usually surprisingly inexpensive (also in contact to our D3 experience).  Simplicity has its advantages.  Yeah, electricals were an Achille’s Heel.

    • 0 avatar

      The 240’s eulogy should include “Astonishing Maneuverability.”  Both my wife and I encountered situations where we surprised our front-seat passenger friends with u-turns that they didn’t think possible.

      “You’re going to hit that wall.”
      “No I’m nott.”

      The delightfully boxy shape (so you really knew where the car ended) and great sightlines, with the surprisingly good turning radius meant you’d never have to pass up a parking spot as long as it was at all big enough to accomodate the car.

    • 0 avatar

      I think most of the European cars of that era had front wheels you could turn almost 90 degrees perpendicular to the side of the car.  I’ve had a few Mercedes 240D and 300D that would parallel park like nobody’s business.  My Volvo Amazons are also great at manuevering tight spots.  You can U turn on a 2 lane road with decent shoulders. 

    • 0 avatar

      The best I’ve ever been able to get out of a tank of fuel in my 740 Turbo has been 24.5 mpg, but it rarely, rarely dips below 20 mpg. It’s as if the car wants to return 21-22 mpg no matter where or how it’s driven.

  • avatar

    Anything newer than ’88 shouldn’t be there unless it’s wrecked. 88-93 had galvanized sheet metal and the wiring harnesses were much better. These are durable, not necessarily reliable, vs. older japanese cars are reliable, though not as durable. If that makes sense.
    I wouldn’t thrust one of these upon a normal person, same applies to any car of this age. Somewhat skilled wrencher can turn these into a very economical daily driver that will not quit even if you wanted it to.

  • avatar

    This reminded me of an ongoing rift between the township I reside in versus a colorful Volvo enthusiast (avoiding the term “hoarder” because of its recent overusage in the media).

    This guy has more 240s, 760s and 850s than I have ever seen.  Over 100.  In his yard.

  • avatar

    Shame to see such fantastic cars crushed to feed the mindless consumption machine.
    My time with an 86 245GL was brief, but I am a changed gearhead, having spent that summer driving a brick. These are cars you can buy for $1000, drive for a year or two, spend less than $500 in tags/title/taxes/maintenance (DIY), then sell on Craigslist for what you paid for them.
    I recall putting my 245 on Craigslist around 10PM and getting four calls within the next hour offering cash-in-hand, no haggling. “This is exactly the car I was looking for.”
    I ended up selling it to my father-in-law, who daily drives it. How’s that for reliability?

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “despite the brick’s drunken-sailor-grade thirst for fuel”
    Say what? Our 240 wagon delivered 22-23 mpg over the long period of time we had it. Not a Prius, but hardly a drunken sailor.

    • 0 avatar

      Say what? indeed.  Our ’91 245 (same as the silver one in Murilee’s photos) gets 20-22 city and 26-28 hwy.  That’s hardly drunken-sailor-grade thirst.  This car didn’t even qualify for Cash for Clunkers, thankfully, which means more used parts availability for me.

  • avatar
    Jordan Tenenbaum

    The later 240s didn’t have the harness issues; I believe the cutoff year is `86? I have had mine for the past four years — in the snow belt mind you — with no electrical problems. 277k and still going strong.

  • avatar

    Reading this article really hurt.
    However, as Murilee mentions, the upside to this is plenty of old Volvo parts for those who continue to push old 240’s around. In fact, I saw a very nicely preserved wagon in San Francisco the other day, selling for $1,000. I think it was an ’89 or ’90. It had 160k miles, but that isn’t terribly high for a Volvo, especially considering the fact that it looked as though it had been garage kept and well taken care of.

  • avatar

    Hmm anybody else experience the joys of the 164’s D-jetronic fuel injection? Stopped us from going on with Volvo. Volvo – durable but not reliable

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Hate to break it to you. But Volvo odometer clusters break with stunning regularity.
    You an always extrapolate how many miles a Volvo does have by looking at the Carfax/Autocheck and seeing where the mileage seemed to taper off. That beauty of a brick may have stripped gears from 10+ years back and the mileage may be closer to twice that amount.

    • 0 avatar

      And it won’t make a bit of difference. 200K is just nicely broken in.

    • 0 avatar

      Sort of a European car problem, no? My family’s had a couple of E30s, a 240 wagon, and a Benz wagon, like the one in my picture, that had broken odometers.

    • 0 avatar

      That they do, also they seem to slow down if they don’t outright break. In my ’67 122 I compensate with smaller tires ;) But the other neat thing is that the cars take a long time to break-in. The odometer rolls over every 100K, I can’t wait to go anther 10K miles or so to get a brand new car ;) Who knows how many miles are on Astrid now, close to 290K or closer to 90K? But who knows/cares at this point, and a lady never tells anyway.

  • avatar

    We still see quite a few 240s here in Olympia WA (home to many an old hippy). I got to drive a friends the other day and it was quite a satisfactory experience! Here are some of this weeks street finds from Oly… 

  • avatar
    Sam P

    The 240 was okay. My parents owned a couple before they went to a W126 Benz and a succession of Jeeps. They were really safe cars for their time; a couple relatives also owned them and survived awful accidents with only minor injuries (an uncle ran a 244 GLT off the highway at 60 mph after hitting ice and cartwheeled a couple times, and an aunt got T-boned in her 244 GL sedan by some idiot who ran a red light).
    Overdrive relays failed all the freakin’ time in both manual or automatics. I liked the ’87 744 Turbo I drove in high school far better than the 240s. The interior was higher quality and not as prone to self-destructing as the 240s, and besides the overdrive relay problems, the 700-series seemed like a higher quality car overall. It also handled far better than the 200-series in stock form.

  • avatar

    Well, I have to say that I’m going to be the outlyer here.  I had three 240s (well, the first one was a 144, but close enough) and I’m happy to see them go to the great scrapyard in the sky, or least the middle kingdom.  Steve missed some of the more infamous negatives, like the heater blower motors (one in each of the 240s) that required hours and hours of taking the car apart to repair.  I would have just done without the heater, but winters in Vermont and upstate NY get a bit too chilly to drive without some form of heat and a functional defroster.  Then there is the biodegradable plastics, weird, perpetually wonky and very, very expensive overdrive units.  Also, I never found the parts to be cheap unless you patronized the all the good junkyards in a fifty mile radius to keep the car on the road.
    Perhaps the biggest kicker is that the brick’s reputation rides on safety work done in the 1970s that is wildly out of date.  Check this out: 

  • avatar

    I worked with a fellow who had a fairly nice 240 sedan.  Until it broke a piston and put some related parts through the side of the engine block.
    He parked it on the street outside his house for a few months while he pondered what to do about it.  A week before the insurance expired, someone lost control of their car on his street and slammed into the trunk of the Volvo.
    The insurance company, unaware of the dead engine, totalled it and gave him a nice payout.

  • avatar

    Not entirely true. My 1991 240 5-speed gets 24-27. There are plenty of cars that get worse and non-turbo models did not qualify for C4C because their fuel mileage was too high.
    While I had to fix a lot of issues in the first year that I owned it, mostly due to neglect from the prior owner, I haven’t put a dime into it for over a year aside from fuel and oil changes. Sure there’s little fiddly things that need attention but everything works and that old bitch starts up in the morning more reliably than I do. There is a little rust here and there which is obviously a result of it being in the Boston area since it was new. If someone would care to retrieve a pair of white rear doors with black interior trim from a rust-free Cali car, let me know ;) mine are rusted at the bottom seam but it doesn’t show.
    Keep up the oil  changes, esp. the transmission (the M47 manual isn’t the most robust box on the planet; the synchros in mine are going but it’s still perfectly driveable), avoid pre-1986 models with their crap wiring, look for late-model cars with LH3.1 fuel injection which is totally bulletproof. You know going in that some repairs are very time-consuming e.g. replacing the blower motor. That’s how life works, cookie. In general it is a very easy car to service and repair, and parts are still readily available and inexpensive aside from a few rarities like the original brass heater control valve and new seat foam. I found a guy who repro’s the latter. Aside from non-mech parts like seat foam avoid “Scantech” etc. reproduction parts when possible, OE Volvo parts are still pretty easy to get and many can be bought at a dealer. My AC was professionally converted to R134 and works fine, dunno where that comment came from.
    Despite the challenges of the climate here I almost always see 2-3-4 of them a day. I just spent two weeks in Winnipeg and saw at least one a day there, and talk about a harsh climate for cars!

  • avatar

    My wife drives a 1985 240 Wagon with 330K on the clock.  We paid $1100 for it 4 years ago, and have since put that much into it – changed timing belt, water pump, recharged A/C, belts, hoses, plugs, and fluids.  It has no rust, no dings, no tears in the interior, and originial paint.  It’s a 4-speed with OD, and will regularly get around 30mpg on the highway if you keep it at 70mph and don’t run the A/C.

    In the past few years, we have driven this car from Oregon to Texas to Montana and home.  The only thing that broke was the light switch (replaced in 5mins. with a $10 part.  The parts are relatively cheap and much of the work we have done ourselves.  It is built like a tank from durable materials.  We have had no electircal issues – other than some corrosion on the computer board in the passenger footwell (fixed with a bit of steel wool).

    We installed an Alpine stereo and some aftermarket speakers (in original locations) with an ipod connector in the glove box for long road trip entertainment.  Decent sound and fairly stealthy.
    It costs nothing to insure.

    Greatest car we have ever owned, and not likely to be replaced any time soon.

    “in order to kill a Volvo, you must first destroy the entire universe.”

  • avatar

    These pictures really depress me. The 240 is one of my favorite cars, and growing up my family had 4 different ones. I survived a serious T-bone accident in one of them with only minor injuries, which endears them to me even more. That said, times change and no car will be around forever :/

  • avatar

    Never cared for Volvos. I always used to scratch my head at how every TV movie from the 80’s had one in it when everyone in TX at the time was in a Ford LTD or a GM B-body. Makes sense though, they were popular in CA.

  • avatar

    I have two Volvo 240’s. They both get 32.5mpg on the highway. I an anxiously awaiting the back ordered LRR Michelin tires which I hope will give me 34 mpg. Both are 5 speeds, a blast to drive, are invisible to cops. When they see me the worst I get is a warning. Driving fast, I think they can’t believe I’m able to exceed the speed limit. The wagon is long enough to sleep in, and I’m 6’4″–a huge asset on a long trip as I like to drive until I have to stop and sleep.

    Also, while I now live in Connecticut, when stationed in Sacramento serving in the US Air Force, there was a guy making a living rebuilding these car in Antelope. He was selling one every 1-2 weeks in the Bay area. I am surprised they are being crushed because they are still very popular cars. The values on these are actually going up from what I’ve seen. Many are well maintained. I just spotted one for $4000 near me, and if I had the money, I’d jump on it, just for a spare car.

    I am putting power corvette seats in it next for more comfort on longer trips.

    If I keep mine long enough I won’t be putting a V-8 in it, instead a TDI with a six speed–I think I can my mpg up to about 44 with that combo. I would restart production of these cars if I could with a few modern conveniences. That is a bit hard to justify since the gas engine will go 1 million miles.

  • avatar
    Distorted Humor

    We where the “Volvo” family – ’86 240 wagon, ’89 and ’90 Sedans, Great cars, the ’86 ended up getting old around 1999 and the engine was getting hot after 260k, my dad wore out the ’90 seat by 2000, and the ’89 ended up with a Window-wiper motor failure, and when i could not source that part for less then 300, and the car was worth around 500 at most, i traded it in for a new car, That and they where getting thirsty for gas so i wanted something with better mileage. All of them got 250k+ miles.

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