Hammer Time: Saving Bluebird…

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
hammer time saving bluebird 8230

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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8 of 29 comments
  • Jimal Jimal on Dec 26, 2011

    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.

    • See 3 previous
    • ToplessFC3Sman ToplessFC3Sman on Dec 27, 2011

      @redmondjp 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

  • Golden2husky Golden2husky on Dec 27, 2011

    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...

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    • Durailer Durailer on Dec 27, 2011

      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.

  • Dukeisduke I still think the name Bzzzzzzzzzzt! would have been better.
  • Dukeisduke I subscribed to both Road & Track and Car and Driver for over 25 years, but it's been close to 20 years since I dropped both. I tried their digital versions with their reader software (can't remember the name now), but it wasn't the same. I let it lapse after a year.From what I've seen of R&T's print version, it's turned into more of a lifestyle thing like The Robb Report. I haven't seen an issue of C/D in a while.I enjoyed both magazines a lot when I was subscribing. R&T for the road tests (especially the April Fools road tests), used car reviews, historical articles, and columns like Peter Egan's Side Glances and Dennis Simanitis's Technical Correspondence. And C/D for the road tests and pithy commentary, and columns like Gordon Baxter's, and Jean Shepherd's (that goes way back to the early '70s).
  • Steve Biro It takes very clever or amusing content for me to sit through a video vehicle review. And most do not include that.Tim, you wrote :"Niche titles aren't dying because of a lack of interest from enthusiasts, but because of broader changes in the economics of media, at least in this author's opinion."You're right about the broader changes in economics. But the truth is that there IS a lack of interest from enthusiasts. Part of it is demographics. Young people coming up are generally not car and truck fans. That doesn't mean there are no young enthusiasts but the numbers are much smaller. And even those who consider themselves enthusiasts seem to have mixed feelings. Just take a look at Jalopnik.And then we come to the real problem: The vast majority of new vehicles coming out today are not interesting to enthusiasts, are not fun to drive and/or are just not affordable.You can argue that EVs are technically interesting and should create enthusiasm. But the truth is they are not fun to drive, don't work well enough yet for most people and are very expensive.EVs on the race track? Have you ever been to a Formula E race? Please.And even if we set EVs aside, the electronic nannies that are being forced on us pretty much preclude a satisfying driving experience in any brand-new vehicle, regardless of propulsion system. Sure, many consumers who view cars as transportation appliances may welcome this technology. But they are not enthusiasts. I don't know about you, but I and most car fans I know don't want smart phones on wheels.There is simply not that much of interest to write about. Car and Driver and Road & Track are dipping deeper into nostalgia and their archives as a result. R&T is big on sponsoring road trips for enthusiasts - which is a great idea. But only people with money to burn need apply.And then there is the problem of quality in automotive writing. As more experienced people are let go and more money is cut from publications, the quality and length of pieces keeps going down, leading to the inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy.Even the output on this site is sharply reduced from its peak. And the number of responses to posts seems a small fraction of what it used to be. This is my first comment since the site was recently relaunched. I don't expect to be making many in the future.Frankly Tim - and it gives me no pleasure to write this - but your post makes me feel as though the people running this site have run out of ideas and TTAC's days may be numbered.Cutbacks in automotive journalism are upsetting. But, until there is something exciting and fun to write about, they are going to continue. Perhaps automotive enthusiasm really was a 20th century phenomenon..
  • THX1136 I think that the good ole interwebs is at least partially to blame. When folks can get content for free, what is the motivation to pay to read? I'm guilty of this big time. Gotta pay to read!? Forget it! I'll go somewhere else or do without. And since a majority of folks have that portable PC disguised as a phone in their pocket, no need for print. The amount of info easily available is the other factor the web brings to bear. It's perhaps harder now to stand out. Standing out is necessary to continued success.In an industry I've been interested (and participated) in, the one magazine (Mix) I subscribed to has become a shadow of it's former self (200 pgs now down to 75). I like print for the reasons mentioned by another earlier. I can 'access' it in a non-linear fashion and it's easily portable for me. (Don't own a smarty pants phone and don't plan to at the moment.)I would agree with others: useful comparison reviews, unique content not easily available other places, occasional ringers (Baruth, Sajeev, et al) - it would be attractive to me anyway. I enjoy Corey, Matt and Murilee and hope they continue to contribute here.
  • Daniel J I wish auto journos would do more comparisons. They do some but many are just from notes from a previous review compared to a new review. I see where journos go out to a location and test drive and review a vehicle on location but that does absolutely nothing for me without any comparison to similar cars. I also wish more journos spent more time on seat comfort. I guess that doesn't matter much when many journos seem to be smaller folks where comfort isn't as important. Ergonomics are usually just glossed over unless there is something very specific about the ergonomics that tick the journo off. I honestly get more from most youtube reviews than I ever do about reviews written on a page.