The great estate - Volvo 240 estate

There’s no more appropriate way to haul antique furniture around than in a trusty old Volvo 240 estate. So where have they all gone…?

Words Dan Bevis Pictures Neil Fraser

W

e owe a lot to cubes. From Pythagorean mathematics to 1960s Detroit’s obsession with the ‘ain’t no substitute for cubes’ ethos, through the 1980s fondness for the Rubik’s Cube and beyond, we’ve been in thrall to the sphere’s sharp-cornered nemesis. The Volvo 240 estate, that most cuboid of automotive designs, arrived way back in the Three-Day-Week era of 1974 and strode through to the dawn of Britpop in 1993. It emerged into a world of station-wagon functionality: such cars were for taking hedge clippings to the tip or carting a Labrador about. Then cool estate cars happened. That huge spaceship the Citroën CX Safari arrived and Mercedes-Benz threw 2.8-litre straight-sixes into its W123 wagons. People were buying estate cars because they wanted to, and the 240 became the poster-boy of the genre. Over 526,000 240 estates were sold worldwide. It became the go-to load-lugger for Britain’s antique dealer fraternity, with Lovejoy doing much to sex up the genre. The 240 was ubiquitous and chic.

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Volvo 240 GLT

Engine: 2316cc, 4-cyl, SOHC Transmission: RWD, 4-speed auto Power: 129bhp@5400rpm Torque: 40lb-ft@3600rpm Weight: 1465kg

Performance

0-60mph: 14.5sec Top speed: 115mp Economy: 23mpg


Today, however, there are just 1995 left on UK roads, 340 of which are GLT models like the one we have here. So what happened?

Ubiquity and complacency are the two things that kill popular cars. When there’s a lot of something about, it becomes throwaway and disposable. Just look how many MkI Mondeos or MkII Cavaliers you see on the road these days. At one time they were everywhere, but when they broke and became economically unviable to fix, they got slung to the scrappie.

So we find ourselves in a weird position with the Volvo 240: we’ve sleepwalked into a world where such things are now scarce. We need to save these motors, before the situation becomes irretrievable.

Why is this such an important car, though? Well, the functional rectanguloid-on-wheels you see spread alluringly across these pages owes much to the VESC, or Volvo Experimental Safety Car. This was a 1972 concept that pioneered ideas such as crumple zones, rollover safety, ABS, airbags, pop-up head restraints and reversing cameras. Some of this carried straight over to the Volvo 240 and 260 launched in 1974; the other more fanciful bits ultimately made it to production too, but much later, highlighting just what a pivotal concept this was.

The 240 enjoyed a fresh new engine, the B21, whose 2.1-litres offered 97bhp in carburetted guise and a racy 123bhp once fuel injection was applied. The bigger-brother 260 had a bruising V6 motor jointly developed with Peugeot and Renault, and the range provided a staggering array of variants – there was a 200-series Volvo for pretty much everyone.

MacPherson struts and strong disc brakes helped them feel planted and dependable, and modern developments like fuel injection, electric windows and power steering kept Volvo in line with the most tech-savvy contemporary rivals.

Delving into the history of the 200-series through the 1970s can be a bewildering endeavour, but by 1983 Volvo decided to trim down the range and stop deliberately confusing everyone – everything was badged simply as ‘240’. You could choose from a petrol B21 (2.1-litre) engine or a B23 (2.3-litre), or there was the option of the torquey but uninspiring D24 diesel. The GLT we have today rocks the B23 motor; ‘Grand Luxe Touring’ trim also gives you uprated suspension, shadowlined trim and rakish 15in alloy wheels.

The key lure of the 240 is, and always has been, its reliability. It’s a pretty safe bet that a huge number of those that have been crushed over the years were junked because their values had sunk so low they weren’t worth pouring maintenance money into, rather than because they’d catastrophically broken. C’mon, Volvos don’t break, do they?

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These are cars that will happily sail beyond the 200,000-mile mark if properly maintained, and they’ll do it all in exemplary comfort. It’s like driving around in your living room – perhaps not quite Rolls-Royce levels of waft, but certainly in the cheap seats of the same ballpark. And, of course, there’s their raison d’être: they’re flippin’ enormous inside.

As soon as the 240 estate hit the market, there was no reason for anyone to buy a VW camper van – you just needed a Volvo and a mattress. Need to shift a distressed sofa or a vintage wardrobe? Yeah, that’ll fit in there, no problem. And the bluff rear end is a Kamm tail, of course, making the thing fast and frugal. The positives just keep stacking up. We’ve seen these cars pass from functional family wagons to builders’ runabouts, and into the unexpected realm of desirable modern classic. And we honestly didn’t see that coming.

In terms of driving, it’s best to appreciate that the 240 is more Enid Blyton than Irvine Welsh. Dial down the adrenaline, relax, and let good ol’ Swedish sturdiness envelop you.

If you’ve ever seen one of those documentaries about companies who build colossal-scale Lego models for shops, fayres and corporate events, the act of entering a Volvo 240’s cabin may seem familiar to you. Much like the ordered logic of those little Danish plastic bricks, so the tidy nature of this Swedish car’s appointments slots Tetris-like into your sensibilities like… well, like a bunch of Lego bricks.

The dials are housed in a severe rectangle, flanked by rectangular air vents, rectangular buttons, a rectangular glovebox and a rectangular cubbyhole. You get the feeling they’d have made the steering wheel rectangular had it not collided with the knees during parallel parking.

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There’s a pleasing simplicity to how everything’s screwed together; the door cards are an exercise in neatly-finished hobbycraft, taking a textured board and affixing a bunch of useful pieces of plastic to it, while the studded leather seats place you exactly where you’d expect them to, with a commanding view and plenty of space to manoeuvre yourself. They offer no lateral support whatsoever, but just how quickly are you planning to corner with an Edwardian writing desk in the back and a footwell full of Edison phonograph cylinders?

Bearing in mind the car’s role as a means for the geographic redistribution of nostalgia and trinketry, we shove a Chesterfield in the back (no drama) and head off into the countryside. It’s very no-nonsense – the dials have big numbers, the temperature gauge needle remains steadfastly in the right place as if glued, and the vast glasshouse with its slim pillars gives you a widescreen view of nature, passing motorbikes and potential opportunities for adventure.

Sofa duly jettisoned, the key is twisted once more and that rumbling four-pot barks into life, keen and perky as an enthused Labrador. It’s a torquey old lump, that much is obvious from the off. Thunking the T-bar shifter into ‘D’ elicits an amusing little lurch before shoving you up the road with aplomb – it’s not quick, but the slushbox is far from lazy. Keep your foot buried it seems to enjoy hanging on to the revs, amplifying the bassy rumble and allowing you to surf on a tide of foot-pounds.

Steering is jarringly precise and feelsome, given the relaxed and sedate nature of the interior appointments, and the firm brake pedal and chunky pad/disc interface inspire genuine confidence. This allows you to throw the boxy estate into corners with increasing levels of smirk and cheekiness, until it begins to resemble a listing car ferry. The damping cossets you throughout the experience, happily absorbing bumps with almost Citroën-like grace. Taking liberties doesn’t faze the Volvo; it’s not an out-and-out driver’s car, but it knows how to plaster a grin across your face.

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Solid – that’s a good word for it. Predictable is another. There’s an inherent correctness to it all. The 240 feels like it’s rolled up its sleeves and is ready to take on the tasks of the day in a grown-up and thoughtful manner.

While the rate of acceleration shows the 240’s not especially eager to get you anywhere with any sense of urgency, the dependable feel of the car as a whole just feels right. This vehicle exists to get the job done properly, rather than quickly.

There are certain ‘givens’ in this world. Your dropped toast will land Nutella-side-down. Tax bills will outweigh tax rebates. More people will vote on the X Factor final than in the general election. But the sun will always rise, and Volvo estates will always casually haul furniture around rural England without complaint.

The fate of the 240 estate is in the hands of two key clichés: that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that any given object’s value is what the person looking at it is willing to pay.

It’s telling that Ben’s silver example here is currently insured at a value of £5500 – we in the MC office can clearly recall combing through the local free ads papers in the early-2000s and seeing these things changing hands for a few hundred quid, so it’s obvious what’s happened.

The principal drivers of any segment of the classic car market are making themselves apparent – the my-dad-had-one-of-those, where-have-they-all-gone? Nostalgia factor. It also helps that the 240 estate’s inclusion in the Gran Turismo video game franchise introduced them to a fresh new audience.

But underpinning all of these elements is the simple fact that the 240 was built to last. You just can’t kill the damn things. The reason antique dealers bought them in droves for decades is that they were useful and dependable, and that’s still true today. So if you can’t kill them, why have they largely disappeared? Because they were so common, they felt replaceable. This is no longer the case, and values can only go one way.

The idea of buying a 240 estate for £5500 may require a serious brain recalibration, but they’re never going to be this cheap (comparatively speaking) again. Clean, low-mileage examples can already be found in the small ads for five-figure prices. If you want to cart your dogs or bric-a-brac around in the most appropriate manner possible, your window of opportunity is shrinking by the day.

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