I’m not good at writing serious. Thus, I’m out of my element here. This write-up is at times disjointed and sentimental, but I tried to keep that to a minimum. It’s a little rambly and not all of the opinions and views are correct, so don’t tell me that, I already know. I hate my opinions, too.
In any case, I’ve wanted to write about the family wagon for a long time and I’ve also wanted a shot at dissecting how Volvo is viewed in the enthusiast community, and I had a chance to do both here.
This car is a 1987 Volvo 240 DL station wagon. It is a faded beige, with a slant straight-four cylinder engine, bench seats in the back and a fold down third row, a 4-speed automatic transmission, four wheels, etc. My parents bought it new in 1987 after my sister was born, (she’s the reason for the automatic transmission; they thought it would be safer. How the mind can be twisted by the wiles of a newborn!) and it has functioned, on and off, until about half a year ago. It’s never actually been my car, just the family car, but it would have been bequeathed to me eventually. Today, it was towed away.
I want to start out by dispelling any myths you have heard about the Volvo wagon. There is nothing special about the way this vehicle operates. It is heavy. It is slow. Its transmission is what God intended when He invented the slushbox. This 4-speed has heard of a thing called a gear change, and it doesn’t like the idea. You could fit a Louisa May Allcot novel between second and third.
The engine, the famed “red block”, isn’t special. It’s a somewhat economical motor, and yes, it will get you where you need to go, unless the car breaks down.
And that will happen a lot.
Again, my views are a reflection of my experience. I am certain there are people out there who keep their Volvo in good working order without much difficulty. But from what I’ve seen, the whole Volvo reliability thing is largely bullshit. The car is sturdy, it is not more reliable than most other cars . People who say otherwise are equating heaviness with reliability. The Volvo is reliable in the same way a brick is reliable.
So why the Volvo 240?
Why is this car in this color, and none other, the pinnacle of the Jalop way? Why do people worship this car?
And that, far and away, is what shocked me most when I started reading Jalopnik and Oppo. The fact that there was a following, no, a subculture, for this car. It was like owning a bible for years and then walking into a church, or finding a NES and then reading Nintendo Power. (Same thing, right?)
People love this car. I know why I love this car. I grew up in this car. I heard The Rolling Stones for the first time in the back seat of this car. Hearing Jumpin’ Jack Flash while watching the world backwards will make an impression on you.
I think the reason for the legend of the 240 is because there’s something special about the love that Volvo owners have for their Volvo’s. There is something intrinsically endearing about these things, and that’s why Volvo owners will keep getting Volvo’s. It’s like a family getting a Labrador every time they buy a dog. They aren’t getting it because it’s the smartest, or the fastest, or the best at being a dog (however that is measured) but because the Lab is the most endearing dog they can get. You will never say “Fuck you” to your Volvo, not even as it’s 11:00 at night and it’s starting to rain and you’re trying to help your brother jump the engine with the FatMax that you carry in the back because after about 25 years, this car will never not need a jump.
Everyone should have that experience. Everyone should know what it’s like to be genuinely overjoyed just to hear your car start without assistance. And cars built in the 80’s and 90’s and even the early 2000’s just feel different to ride in. It all feels open and you get the sensation that you’re almost touching the road with your body at all times.
Volvo is just a funny, likable brand. Their name is funny. Vol-vo. Try it. (Or don’t, it’s your life.) How many words are funny and two letters away from being a part of the female anatomy? Sweden is a funny country. It’s a part of Europe’s dick, and the Swedes say bork bork and all have blond hair. Hipsters who own Volvo’s do not own them ironically, at least not deep down, because there is no ironically loving Volvo, not once you have one.
Everything about Volvo is likable. That’s why I spent a half hour today sitting in the driver seat, and playing with the indicator stalk, and pushing all those great little buttons and toggle switches, and feeling the window hand crank that gave me what little upper body strength I have today, and turning the key and for a second truly expecting the car to start even though I know it has no gas and a dead battery and a dead powertrain.
Like I said, the idea that old Volvo’s are in some way unrecognized performance cars is mostly bullshit. Yes, people do rally these cars, but people rally everything. But even though it’s bullshit, the way you get to the bullshit is not really bullshit in itself, if that makes any sense. People do honestly love these cars, and some owners really want them to live up to the expectations that have been thrust upon these tiny Scandinavian boxes.
And I hate to use this argument because I don’t want to be condescending towards other car owners by suggesting there is some higher love that can only be attained through a Volvo. Any car lover can deeply love almost any car if they own it, and if you’ve watched Mr. Regular’s eulogy for his Echo, you agree with me.
And I wouldn’t use this argument except for that I just don’t have anything else. I don’t. I can’t tell you why people love this car, and that drives me crazy. Even as someone on the inside who grew up with one and drove it and rode in it, I can’t give a real reason. But this whole legend, this whole mythos surrounding this car, just demands explanation.
Why is the mascot of Jalop not an Avant or a Tercel wagon? They’re loved too, but not to the same degree.
Maybe it’s because, as Hunter S. Thompson would say, the 240 wagon is the moment when the wave broke and began to roll back. This car was built in 1987. Reagan was in office. The Ford Explorer was three years away. America wanted cars even more American than the definition of American motoring. So the 240 and its competitors, the Taurus wagon and the Country Squire and all the rest, they were the culmination of the station wagon, the last vanguards of a body type that had reigned as king of the family vehicles for decades. But among the old guard, the Volvo looks the most old fashioned, the most like what we think wagons should look like.
Maybe this car is special because people believe the fallacy that the Volvo 240 is the motoring Messiah, an on-the-surface shitty car that has performance, and power, and handling, and simplicity, and reliability, and accidentally quirky styling. You can’t get rid of an idea like that, that the most normal looking car is a secret ultimate warrior. Not when it exists in a weird little Swedish car. Everyone wants to put their faith in it. And at that point, the reality isn’t important anymore. Because, to quote another great philosopher of our time-