Home » Banged-Up Boxy Sedans: 1987 Toyota Camry vs 1990 Volvo 740

Banged-Up Boxy Sedans: 1987 Toyota Camry vs 1990 Volvo 740

Sbsd 5 15 2023
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Welcome back! I hope everyone had a good weekend. I spent most of Saturday becoming better acquainted with a Nissan VQ35DE engine. I came, I saw, I conquered the valve cover leaks. This morning, we’re going to take a look at a couple of dented-up sedans, but before we do, let’s see how Friday’s Subaru competiton went down:

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Another close race, but the old brown Brat squeaks by with a nineteen-vote win.

Before we continue, I want to give kudos to reader “OrigamiSensei” for coining a brilliant new term:

“Nastalgia (noun): Having fond feelings and memories for things that were not that great in reality.”

I think that’s a perfect descriptor for my feelings towards an awful lot of old cars, and maybe some movies and music as well, and I intend to start using it, so I want to be sure to give credit where credit is due. Well done, my friend. Well done indeed.

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Now then: Today we have two rather rectilinear sedans, with around half a million miles between them. Both still run fine, but both are a little worse for wear cosmetically. Which one is the better deal? Let’s take a look and find out.

1987 Toyota Camry – $1,495

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Gladstone, OR

Odometer reading: 289,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Yep!

Toyota’s first-generation Camry came out swinging, but it wasn’t until this second generation that it really came into its own. It was about the same size as its predecessor, but it felt bigger, fancier, more substantial. And car buyers loved it. These things were absolutely everywhere, and they continued to be so for a good fifteen or twenty years after the next generation took over. The old automotive nemesis, rust, took most of them off the road in the more wintry parts of the country, but here on the West Coast they stuck around, racking up miles.

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This pale yellow-beige Camry is closing in on 300,000 miles, and the seller says it still runs fine. It’s a five-speed manual, which was not all that uncommon back when this car was built, but of course it isn’t even available now. I still think that, a century from now, the beginning of the end of the automobile will be recognized not as the last production V8, nor the inevitable closing of the doors of Morgan Motor Company (you know it will happen one day), but 2011, when Toyota dropped the manual transmission option from the basic four-cylinder Camry.

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Inside, this car is showing its age. The driver’s seat is shot, and the carpet is stained and worn. And I can tell you, as a recent owner of a 270,000 mile Corolla, that while everything inside probably still works, it’s not anything you could call “nice.” The hard plastic is getting brittle, and the soft plastic will have a layer of grayish-brown grime on it that just won’t come off. The almost pristine back seat tells me that this car spent most of its life as a one-person commuter.

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Outside, it may not be rusty, but it has a pretty good wrinkle in one fender. It looks like it lost a fight with a parking lot bollard. Still, it looks more respectable than a lot of $1500 cars. This won’t be a pleasant vehicle to own, nor a fun one to drive, but it probably still has some miles to give.

1990 Volvo 740 GLE – $2,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.3 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, four-speed automatic, RWD

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Location: Tacoma, WA

Odometer reading: 205,000 miles (but may be more)

Runs/drives? Sure does

The Volvo 740 was meant to replace the 240, but the 240 wasn’t having it, and refused to go out of production. Instead, this somehow-even-boxier sedan and wagon moved upmarket, with fancier equipment and more power. Readers of automotive magazines back in the ’80s will remember Volvo’s wonderful ad campaign comparing the 740 Turbo Wagon to various sports cars.

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This one isn’t a wagon, or a turbo. Under the hood of this 740 is a twin-cam version of Volvo’s famous “redblock” engine, which still makes it more sprightly than your average 240. It sends power to a basic but sturdy solid rear axle through a four-speed automatic. It’s all good solid stuff, with a reputation for longevity.

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This old brick is not without its faults, however. The entire passenger side is banged up and scraped; it looks like the car side-swiped something. The seller also lists a number of electrical and mechanical items that need atttention, including the blower fan motor. I know this repair is notoriously difficult in the 240; I don’t know whether the 740 is any better. But I have heard Volvo devotees say that the blower motor is the first thing to check on a used 240; if it doesn’t work, they walk away. It’s that hard to get to.

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They also say this car needs a new gauge cluster, which means the listed miles are suspect. Volvo odometers are not known for their reliability anyway; most of the time you can just assume the car’s mileage is “a hell of a lot” and leave it at that.

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That’s what I’ve got for you on this fine mid-May Monday morning: two dinged-up old sedans with a ton of miles, but some life left in them, for nice reasonable prices. So you tell me – is your next beater coming from Japan, or Sweden?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
9 months ago

I feel like the boxy Volvo is Peak PNW Car. Just the single most northwest car that you could accumulate green slime on.

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
9 months ago

OBoxRocket
BoxRocket
right now
Oh dang, I missed this one yesterday. Talk about hitting close to home! My third car was an ’89 Camry wagon “Deluxe” (4 cylinder, cloth interior) and it was replaced with a naturally-aspirated ’89 Volvo 740 Wagon (745 in Volvo-speak).

The Camry got sidelined (permanently as it turned out) because it had a wiring harness issue that would make the car die if given more than a feather of throttle while in gear. Also had a failing exhaust flex pipe and a few other issues. Good car, but would have cost more to fix it than it was worth. But I let it sit at home while I contemplated learning how to fix it myself or selling it on and shopping for a potential replacement.

Meanwhile I found the Volvo listed on local (early) Craigslist. Advertised as a mechanic’s special (before I learned that means they’re probably throwing in the towel on a personal vehicle or one they bought hoping to flip). It was allegedly his family vehicle since new, and it got passed down to his daughter who used it for college, and put more effort into putting dumb political stickers on the back than maintaining the poor thing, to the point that when I bought it – unbeknownst to me or her dad, who worked at a reputable shop nearby – it was about 40,000 miles past due for its second timing belt. Also had a bad O2 sensor. Sadly those contributed to it not even lasting long enough to get a new title for it.

Going from the Toyota to the Volvo meant having my first vehicle with sealed-beam headlamps (yikes), but thankfully didn’t have the motorized shoulder belts up front as the Camry (and it’s predecessor) had been equipped with. My first RWD car (so much room to work in that engine bay!), a smidge more power, cool interior door release pulls inside the handle, blink-light error code reading on the Bosch LH Jetronic fuel injection system (still a cool feature, even if you had to have a Haynes, Chilton, and/or factory manual to decode them; I had all three). The rear-facing third-row seat was cool (and arguably I should have kept it to sell before getting rid of it), and the idea of removing the tail lights and having the bulbs come with was a pleasant innovation (not necessarily Volvo-specific, just the first vehicle I’d encountered with that) that I still think may be a better implementation than having to reach one’s hand into the mysterious and usually sharp depths of a lamp assembly to blindly replace a bulb.

Both got sold to the local pick and pull yard, and I used the money from the sales to get a 1990 Volvo 765 Turbo Wagon which I kept for almost 9 years. I’m on my second XC90, so I guess the Volvo bug bit and stayed.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
9 months ago

Camry for me. While the Volvo is reliable for a Euro car, the Camry is a rock-solid design by any standard. Plus gas isn’t cheap and the Camry will use less of it.

Steven Radovanovich
Steven Radovanovich
9 months ago

Oh you bet I’d pick the Camry. When I was a kid there was 3 Camry’s in our family. Grandpa bought one of the first 1983 Camry’s off the boat that made it stateside. Kept it for 15 years without a lick of trouble and bought an Accord.

Uncle had an “early build” (built in late ’89) 1990 DX 5spd 4 cyl, white with a brown interior. 264k on it on the original clutch before it failed NJ inspection for too much rust. Uncle sold it for parts and bought an Accord.

Mom had a “late build” 1990.5 (built 7/90) red automatic DX 4cyl bought brand new. This was our family car until 2002 when my mom bought a new Odyssey and she still used it as a commuter until I got my license in 2004.

I absolutely LOVED that car and teenager me killed the transmission being…well…a teenager.

I bought an ’88 LE years later but that one was a basket case only have 40k on it, but had a leaky sunroof and other weird stuff.

To say the 1st and 2nd gen Camry got me into cars is an understatement lol

Camry, hands down.

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
9 months ago

I really like 740s, and the 16v is nice, but I’d dread replacing the blower motor. The Camry may be boring, but it’s reliable and a manual so it gets my vote.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
9 months ago

We had a 1987 Camry as a family car when I was a kid, so I’ll take the Volvo for the interior alone.

I used to sneak that Camry out at night, push it down the driveway, start it in the street and we were off.

It sure managed to teach me about understeer on a few occasions.
My older brother was so confused when he took it to a tire shop and found out it was riding on three different types of rims and tires.
Probably just as confused as the strangers who came out to their driveways in the morning to discover a bent rim and flat tire on their Camry’s.
Those cars were everywhere.

Yes, I was an asshole.
Don’t worry, karma and I are square now. But I wouldn’t want to tempt fate by driving one of these ever again.
Lessons learned.

Last edited 9 months ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
9 months ago

Toyota makes the best cars, so a Camry beats a Volvo

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
9 months ago
Reply to  Dogisbadob

Maybe in reliability, but not in a crash or comfort.

I’d take a new Mazda over a new Toyota right now, though, as reliability goes.

Cyko9
Cyko9
9 months ago

I wanted to vote for the Volvo because it’s got so much more character. As a kid, I thought they were ugly enough to be cheap (I was so wrong). But it’s a money pit, and the Camry will drive until it just falls apart (avoiding the pit and going straight for the dump). Toyota today.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
9 months ago

I would 500 miles then walk 500 more just to be the man driving, the man driving a Toyota, yes a Toyota filled with farts, farts of a quarter million miles. Yes farts of a quarter million miles before i fixed a volvo, a volvo with electrical systems full of gremlins.

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
9 months ago

Camry. I had a 1989 Camry with the 4 cylinder engine and the manual transmission handed down from my father and it was indestructible. When the A/C clutch seized and I was a broke college student, I replaced the belt with one from a non A/C model and went on my merry way. The 89 Camry was the most stolen car in America for many years running for 2 reasons – once the key cylinders and keys wore down anything vaguely key shaped would open the door and start the car, and it was worth more in parts than as a runner. My car was recovered in front of a chop shop 18 months after it was stolen, and I daily drove it after I swapped in a new battery. The thieves had left the original AM/FM radio in the trunk for me to reinstall (they stole the CD player).

The 1999 Volvo V70 wagon I had was a basket case. It had an inescapable hunger for thousands of dollars in shop time and imported Swedish parts each year I owned it. The heater core exploded, the wiring harness and ECU went bad, and the ECU wouldn’t reset to let the engine pass smog – so I had to go to the smog judge to register it. It was safe for my kids, comfortable like a sofa, great highway cruiser, and it looked pretty, but it was the most unreliable car I have ever driven.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
9 months ago

I’m a Volvo 740 stan, so I can’t vote for the car that will serve you best right now. The Camry gives much more if you need good transportation right now.

However, one of these cars is already becoming a collectable enthusiast’s car, and the other is a Camry.

I’d take the 740 without a moment’s thought. I rarely see them in any condition for under $3000 unless I’m shopping west coast or desert southwest markets.

Bobfish
Bobfish
9 months ago

That Camry is just getting good, like a great cast-iron frying pan. I have mentioned it before here, but my first car was a 1987 Camry Wagon, in this exact “tan” over brown interior. It handled all the abuse my teenaged self could deal out, and taught me a few lessons about maintenance and part replacement (though not too much, because Toyota). When I met my now wife, it was rocking a large handlebar moustache sticker on the front bumper and some pretty sick American Racing 5-spokes (scrapyard bolt pattern hunting is fun!). Miss it everyday.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
9 months ago

Camry! Was my 1st car! (Light blue) Ran perfect and was fun (Only time I’ve gone 120mph) Also, Big Trouble In Little China is an awesome classic and so is Fallen Angel by Poison!

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