By on December 26, 2011


It was a long day at the auction.  Over a thousand cars sold in a matter of three hours. Dealers were busy paying for their pre-tax season purchases and the size of the line seemed to just grow bigger at the understaffed counters. Everyone had ‘issues’. To make matters worse, along with the lines and chaos I had a headache. A crushing headache.

So instead of engaging in random conversations with friends I’ve known for forever and a day, I wandered off to the most remote corner of the sale.  The TRA lane. Also known as ‘crusher fodder’.  This is where banks, car dealers and charities get rid of cars that are usually worth more dead than alive. Bidding starts at $450 plus the auction fee and for that you can either help ‘export to China’ or find the parts needed to make a problem car good again.

In the very last space sat an old 1987 Volvo 240 wagon… a Bluebird… and she had one helluva story to tell.

When it comes to cars, nothing gives you more information than trying to find out the type of owner a car had beforehand.

This old brick had obviously been cared for by someone who was passionate about Volvos.  Open the hood… it stayed up! No need to prop it up with an old broom or stick. I chucked away an old broom handle and looked deeper into the crystal ball that was this red brick engine.

The engine was completely immaculate and ‘all Volvo’. Hoses, wires, even the battery, starter and alternator were given blue stickers with the Volvo insignia. It was as if I had stepped on some strange time warp where 1987 had finally met 2011. That along with the coolant reservoir’s perfect coolant level and a recent tune-up gave me an ear to ear grin.

But it got better. I opened the rear gate and… it rocketed right up. The rear door handle worked fine as well as all the door handles on the vehicle. That was a surprise since almost every old 240 I see at the auctions has at least one inoperable or broken door handle. As for liftgates, you’re just happy if the thing even opens.

Wow… someone was junking this?  After about seven minutes of looking through the car, the only issues I could see were that the driver’s seat had a few small rips (typical, 240 seats rip easily), and a couple of screws that held up the luggage rack were loose.

Paint job? Wonderful and original for the most part with no paint fade. There was evidence of an accident on the right rear quarter and the resulting substandard paint and bondo were cracking a bit.  But this was a car that was first sold when I was in junior high school.  The original paint job and pinstriping were still in great shape. I walked back to the auction and…

I bought it. The brunt of buyers had already left the sale so I ended up paying $400 and a $125 auction fee to bring it home. The Volvo wouldn’t start, yet. But I was confident I could figure it out given enough time and research at the Brickboard.

$65 brought it on a tow dolly straight to a nearby mechanic’s shop. The conversation with my mechanic went like this…

Steve: It may be the fuel pump.

Mechanic: It’s the distributor Steve.

Steve: The distributor? I’ve never replace one of those in… well… ever. Those things were engineered by Nordic Gods. You can’t kill em’.

I spoke to the guy who owned it last night. He said he left it on his driveway for about four months and got rid of it cause he didn’t drive it anymore. Never replaced the fuel pump according to him.

Mechanic: It’s the distributor Steve.

Steve: I sure as hell hope not. Distributors on these things run over $200 at Advance Auto Parts. I can’t even find em’ on Ebay. Pat at Salvage Hunter has one for $40 and that’s the only one I can find in all of Georgia.

Mechanic: Well, if you want to replace the fuel pump we can. But I am getting pressure down there. It’s the distributor Steve.

Sure enough, it was the distributor which was blown to pieces. Plus the blower motor was blown. I took a fuse for the fog lights and put it where the blower motor fuse had been. Nothing. Replacing the blower motor would be a ‘long’ six hour job assuming that there weren’t any electrical issues (another 240 weakness) that needed attention as well.

At this point I weighed three options…

1) Fix the blower motor. I would have about $1100 in it if I let my mechanic do it. Or $800 and change if I did it myself.  The bet here was that the electrics would hold up and I could make up for the repair cost and time with a higher retail price.

2) Sell it for $1500 as is. A brick enthusiast  wouldn’t need to get the blower motor replaced right away since it’s a mild winter here in Georgia. Plus a lot of em’ just drive the car with the windows down during the summer months. The 240’s A/C system is notoriously overmatched for the humid summers in Hotlanta.

3) Keep it as is. I had this strange dream where I drove the car up to the house of its one and only owner (who only lived a few miles from the shop). I would give him a spare key and tell him “You can drive it any time you like.” as a special thank you for keeping the car in great shape for so long.  The old wagon would be covered during the summer months and used for light hauling in the winter time.

After a week’s worth of playing Hamlet, I sold it.

The 240 was put on Craigslist for $1500. Within a day I had three calls from genuine brick enthusiasts. Had I lowballed the price? Perhaps. But I figured that the buyer would try to dicker me down to $1500 anyhow due to the blower motor and the cracking bondo on the rear quarter.

Why not just get a quick $700 profit and give the vehicle a good second life?

That’s what I did. The fellow who bought it came with a 1992 wagon and had two others at his home. One for the family and one as a parts vehicle. Bluebird should now have another five to seven years on the road. Hopefully she’ll make it all the way to the big 3 0 and beyond.



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29 Comments on “Hammer Time: Saving Bluebird…...”

  • avatar

    Had a similar situation with an ’87 740 GLE. 4cyl/5SPD, original owner, 138k on the clock, all books and records, all Volvo service, dark maroon color with black leather interior. Windows are finnicky, but every else works – manual sunroof, factory stereo w/graphic equilizer, ice-cold A/C, even the Laycock de Normanville overdrive button.

    Guy comes onto the lot looking to sell it for $2500.

    You’re nuts. I just bought a ’00 Ram Quad Cab for that much. Beat feet.

    How much would you pay for it?


    How about $2000?

    See ya. $500.

    How about $1500?

    No dice. $500.

    Eventually settled for $550 and a ride home. Quickly flipped it to a wholesaler friend who casts himself on Craigslist as an ‘independent internet broker’ or some such malarkey for $800. He sits on it for THREE MONTHS and finally dumps it $900.

    I figured 5SPD + 4cyl + RWD + Volvo records + kitchy 740 GLE lower chrome silhouette would make some Sweede freak go nuts. Guess not. All bricks are not created equal it seems.

    • 0 avatar

      That was YOU! I had a ’92 740 beater (turbo/auto) for a few months to save miles on my M3. It was awesome. Tons of space inside, rwd, and with 210k miles on it, it ran like it had…round 80k probably but thats damn good I’d say. Anyways, due to various inspection failings, no one on craigslist would bite for more than $500. I feel I broke even moneywise and had my life enriched immeasurably.

      • 0 avatar

        Your beater ’92 740T sure beats mine. Well, I paid $200 figuring I could always part it and stick the wheels (early-760 10-spokes) on my 244, but ended up appreciating it too much and slowly fixing it up… it’s become a proper car now. Great fun in the snow, and one of only two cars I’ve driven that can hold a twin mattress/box spring/frame with the tailgate closed and touch 20 MPG on the way home.

  • avatar


    If the 240 is a legend, then the 740 is the Tito of the family.

    Steve, you should have rolled it to Whole Foods with a $3,000 sticker. Or, better yet, Little Five Points. The hippies would have mobbed you.

  • avatar

    Great account as always, Steve. Wish I had the guts you do on cars, but I’m not in the business, either.

  • avatar

    There’s no way a blower motor for a 240 is $800. Maybe $80.

    But yeah, replacement is an all-day adventure that leaves your work area looking like a Volvo parts garage sale. Mine still works (1991) but makes some noise, and has made noise since I’ve had the car, so I guess it’s just noisy.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Nice story, nice car… given my weakness for wagons its a good thing I wasn’t there.

  • avatar

    I drive a 1987 and this engine looks better than mine.

  • avatar

    Me, too.

    by the way, I think my nephew is going to sell his dark blue ’95 940 wagon w/ 175k in LA. It apparently has issues of the nickel & dime sort. If any Brick lovers in that part of the country are interested, let me know. [email protected]

  • avatar

    I dunno why these command so much honestly, every 80’s Volvo that I’ve seen in person hardly ran and were frankly in junky shape, one was only $600 or something like that but unlike this one it did run, but barely.

  • avatar

    From what I know of these cars over the years, they were tough beasts but would go through exhaust systems quite frequently and, as mentioned, had horrible a/c.

  • avatar

    I have always loved 140 and 240 wagons and this was a great color. Always look at the ads but have never bought one. They are rugged but boring so maybe that’s why I’ve never pulled the trigger. I’ve also heard that exhaust systems and ac are weak points. Don’t know if true but that was the case with my parents’ 144 and 164 that were bought as new cars.

  • avatar

    That car’s in great shape, all things considered. I wouldn’t have bothered with it, but you’ve got the knack.

    Thanks for a nice story.

  • avatar

    I’ve done dozens of blower motors on 140/240s; it’s not that pleasant + every new motor only bears the slightest resemblance to the motor that came out. It always came to grinding & making things fit. I really like the 140/240 series, but have to wonder about this. My Volvo 544 had the heater box in the engine compartment with the blower motor screwed to the top of it. Oh- they didn’t go bad.

  • avatar

    What vintage 240s need more than anything else is time. If you’ve got the time and patience to tinker, you can extract a great deal of value. But, if you have to pay someone for their time, they can kill you.

    240 guts are as solid as they come. You don’t buy a red block motor, you rent it; unless abused, they will go 300K to 500K as a matter of routine. Transmissions and rear ends, same story.

    My current daily driver 245 started out as a $300 Craigslist special. The freeze plugs were blown out of the motor because some schmuck didn’t put antifreeze in it. But, the body was straight and solid, no rust. I cleaned it up, put in $12 worth of freeze plugs (dealer special order), put another $700 into parts and gave it a fresh set of Michelins. I’ve been driving it every day for three years now; dead dog reliable, doesn’t burn oil, passes emissions tests and gets 26 MPG. I love it and will drive it indefinitely. Not bad for $1,400. But, if I would have had to pay someone else for all of the labor involved, it would have been at least another $2,000 and the value wouldn’t have been there.

    Long story short, a realistically-priced 240 is a gold bar lying on the sidewalk for a DIY’er, but rarely a paying proposition for a dealer and not recommended for those looking for a toaster (which is most people these days, it seems).

    My only quandary now is, what can I get in the future when the 240s all dry up and wear out?

    And, what of “Bluebird”? I’ve heard that term used a few times for old Volvos, is just because of the color, or is there more to that story?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      “Long story short, a realistically-priced 240 is a gold bar lying on the sidewalk for a DIY’er, but rarely a paying proposition for a dealer and not recommended for those looking for a toaster (which is most people these days, it seems).”

      This definitely merits the unofficial TTAC comment of the week award. These cars are the quintessential value proposition for the tinkerer. If I had time and left the profession entirely, it would have been a perfect long-term ‘keeper’. But I would have to upgrade the HVAC system a bit.

      “My only quandary now is, what can I get in the future when the 240s all dry up and wear out?”

      This will take another 20 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if they outlast the old Camrys and Accords from the 90’s. Both those models had strong export demand.

      “And, what of “Bluebird”? I’ve heard that term used a few times for old Volvos, is just because of the color, or is there more to that story?”

      I named it in honor of a lady who drove her own ‘Bluebird’. A blue Volvo 240 wagon. Like mine but an automatic she kept for 20 years. The owner of ‘Bluebird’ bought a 1998 Volvo S70 from me a few years ago and worked as a woman’s prison chaplain. Her car is a red wagon that she now calls ‘Redbird’.

      Having owned at least six or seven of the 240’s and S70’s, I strongly prefer Bluebirds over Redbirds. They last longer and are far easier to maintain.

    • 0 avatar

      “My only quandary now is, what can I get in the future when the 240s all dry up and wear out?”

      Among Volvos, the later first-generation S60 (think 2007-2009) and last few years of the second-generation S40/V50 seem to be the most reliable thanks to their “proven” designs (i.e. engines dating back to the early 1990s). They may be a little harder to work on than a 240, though.

    • 0 avatar

      When all the 240s are gone, we will drive 740s and 940s. Same bulletproof mechanicals, but with the stupid evolved out of them. And since they are not the classic 240 shape, nobody wants them and they are even cheaper. And about 500X better as actual transportation.

      940s even have factory R134 A/C and will freeze your u-know-whats off in a Southern summer. And you can change the heater fan in 10 minutes. Cheap wheels don’t come any better.

  • avatar

    I briefly owned a very similar 240 wagon a few years back. Same color combination, manual transmission, just a couple years older. Mine had some floorboard rust which I was going to have fixed. I enjoyed driving a RWD wagon with a stick for a winter with just a set of snow tires on it. The problem was the car left me stranded twice in a two month period. The first time was when the oil seal blew out of the back of the head, dousing the engine in oil. The second time? I never figured out the problem. Both times it died at about the same mid point of my commute and both times I had to rely on a generous friend, his understanding wife and their trailer to get the car home.

    I was so disgusted with the car after being stranded the second time I gave the car away after doing things like the tach upgrade, replacing all the broken lenses around the car, busting my nuckles to replace the EGR valve, etc. The word “Volvo” will never be uttered in my house again.

    • 0 avatar

      I wonder if you suffered from the infamous disintegrating engine harness that many Volvos had. That’s what finally did in my friend’s 1980 242GT. He bought it used with 189K on the non-functioning odometer (which he fixed eventually) and then put another 150K or so on it. The engine still ran great, but something would kill the battery after a few days and he didn’t feel like tracking the problem down.

      On that same car I replaced the alternator harness (bare wires right underneath the front of the engine), in an apartment parking lot, when it was about 20 degrees F. outside. I was younger then (today, I would demand it get towed to a heated garage with a lift before attempting that repair!).

      In my 30 years of auto experience, I have never seen an engine that lasts as long as the old Volvo ones – something about the iron alloy that they used in the block. Amazing stuff. Too bad we’ll never see it again . . . I don’t think that any of today’s car will be practical to even keep on the road in 30 years, as it’s unlikely that the electronic component parts support will be there except for certain popular models (Corvettes, Mustangs, etc).

      • 0 avatar

        I think that is what ultimately happened. The kid I gave it to mentioned rebuilding that harness. The engines are stout, but some of the ancillaries (that wiring harness, the EGR, the cam plug) were less than. I also had a melted headlight harness and several of the other “idiosyncrasies” of the Volvo. Up to the point that it died the second time I loved the car. Unbeknownst to me or the the P.O., the car had IPD sway bars and springs, so someone loved the car earlier in its life. In hindsight I probably should have fixed the car, but it was winter, I had a long commute and didn’t want to get stuck somewhere without a cellphone signal.

      • 0 avatar

        my brother had a 760 from 1988 that definitely suffered from disintegrating wiring harness syndrome. I re-wired the engine harness and the wires to the headlights since they were all bare, but it still would only run if it were not in closed-loop. So it’d start, warm up & idle fantastically, as well as run properly at full throttle, but anything in between it just sputtered, backfired and didn’t do a thing. Made the trip from MI back to NJ in the middle of a snowy night very interesting anyway.

        Even so, that was a fantastic car, and I’d love to get another, but a 4-cyl, manual wagon, or maybe a later 960 or V90 and do an engine/trans swap.

        My brother bought it for $700, got 2 years of service out of it, and then it was cash-for-clunkered for $4500 off of a new civic; definitely the best car investment my family’s made

    • 0 avatar

      Here’s a free tip on 240s- the “flame trap”. The vent tube/hose between the crankcase & the intake manifold has a screen, originals were brass-colored & looked like a larger version of the vents on ther Vietnam-era “Boonie hats”, or, if more familiar, as seen in the bottom of certain smoking utensils.
      Anyway, depending on conditions, some day the last little hole in the screen will plug with sludge. When this happens, crankcase pressure will blow out whatever seal(s) it can.
      The flame trap was hidden in various places during the era of the 240s, you’ll have to find it yourself on your own model.
      Someone could get a goodl deal on a 240 that spews oil out of the engine &, depending on where the trap is hidden, not an expensive or difficult fix. Dealing with blown seals is another matter.

  • avatar

    Makes you wonder how we survived going on long trips without cell phones…the give and take of progress. Sometimes a lifesaver, other times a cross to bear.

    Engine block material: Did Volvo really use something special? All blocks are not created equal, that’s for sure. Those who build classic muscle cars and the like always seem to go for early blocks due to wall thickness or nickle content. Later year the beancounters looked everywhere to pinch. Good save on the brick though. I fully agree that with the complexity of today’s cars, long term ownership for people like me will be difficult. I suspect that mechanical items will still be repairable, but once wiring degrades and countless modules fail, the car’s dash will be lit up like a Christmas tree. Some people actually drive like that; I couldn’t, though I have had very few MIL issues over the years to complain about. No, cars of today and tomorrow will be more like fax machines. Throw them out instead of fixing them when they get old. I wonder if you can even get troublehsooting manuals for equipment like fax machines anymore…

    • 0 avatar

      Maybe Volvo used the same trick Ford did on their medium-truck versions of the FE big block. The medium-truck engines had extra silicon and manganese cast into the block to improve wear resistance, plus the main bearing caps and saddles were thicker tp resist flexing and “cap walking”. Rumor has it that a bare medium-truck block weighs 20 lbs more than regular car block due to the extra material and composition.

      From what I understand, this was done due to the propensity of FE big blocks to develop tapered bore wear at relatively low mileage (by the standards of commercial users) on the light duty applications – certainly not acceptable considering what an F-600 is expected to do.

      I was fortunate enough to have one of these medium-duty blocks in a 1976 F-150. Evidently this was an occasional occurence towards the end of the run for the FE in consumer vehicles and when there was a shoratge of “light-duty” blocks on the line, they would grab a medium-duty block before it was machined for a governor and transfer it for final machining over to the light-duty line.

      What I found when I had the heads off of this engine due to a couple of burned exhaust valves at 178,000 miles was nothing short of astounding…there was no ridge whatsoever at the top of the cylinders, and the cross-hatch was clearly visible in each cylinder. Upon buttoning it up, I was pleasantly surprised to find each cylinder within 3 psi of each other, anywhere from a low of 149 psi to a high of 151 psi. I have no doubt that with proper care (which it unfortunately didn’t recieve from the kid I sold it to) that engine would have lasted 500,000 miles or more.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t know about the metallurgy, but the 5 big-end bearings would certainly help.

      With regard to the blower motor, it’s not the parts, it’s the labour. There’s an expression that Volvo took a blower motor and built the 240 around it.

      My family retired our last 240 in 2001. Up in Canada, rust will get to the bodywork before the mechanicals quit. We’ve had a mix of 740s and S70s since then. I particularly like the S70, nice boxy shape and as tough as an old 240, even though it’s a FWD chassis. I do miss oversteering in the snow, though.

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