Home » How The Volvo 240 Went From Square To Cool

How The Volvo 240 Went From Square To Cool

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Accelerating up a hill along a glacial lake in rural Sweden, outside of Gothenberg, I downshift the four-speed manual transmission into second and peg the throttle. The 1979 silver-blue 1985 Volvo 244 D6 I’m driving is a basic sedan, with navy velour seats, hubcapless steelies, manual windows and door locks, and shaming blank plates where the radio and tachometer might have gone. But it is equipped with a 2.4-liter straight-six diesel, a motor the Swedish automaker purchased from VW to service the North American market, where Mercedes had made luxurious inroads in the era with oil burners. So as I floor it, it belches an unctuous blat of inky smut. A young family is picnicking on the shore of the lake, but instead of choking and flipping me off, they turn and cheer, throwing thumbs-ups as I clatter pass.

This particular D6 happens to be the first diesel 240 that rumbled off the local assembly line, and it belongs to Volvo’s extensive heritage collection. But that wouldn’t be something a bystander (bysitter?) could discern as my Arctic Ice sedan belched by, shrouded in NOXious effluent. They were applauding because, like many people, they loved the Volvo 240, a car that, despite having none of the characteristics that typically evince a vehicle’s collectability—speed, rarity, sensuousness, toplessness—has become a desirable classic. A couple years back, it even made Hagerty’s Bull Market List, an annual compendium of vintage vehicles projected to appreciate in the coming years.

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So, what is it about the 240—which appears to have been drawn with a T-square, upholstered by JC Penny, and powered by squirrel burrow—that makes it so alluring?

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“I think, in part, it is the anti-design that it really stands for,” says Hans Hedberg, a lifelong Volvo fanatic and veteran Swedish automotive journalist who now manages the brand’s heritage cars and activities. “It’s about functionality, or transport. It was never done to be fancy. And in that way, it’s very authentic, and people are attracted to that.” Hagerty echoes this, stating that “Square is now cool, and über-utility holds as much appeal to younger buyers as sexy lines and sporty handling had for Boomers.” Of course, I already knew this, having owned a battered manual Volvo 265 wagon back in the 90s.

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Volvo produced the 240 series for almost 20 years, manufacturing nearly 3 million units, so it had an extended lifespan in which to imprint on people, extending its desirability across generations. It was also a nameplate that incorporated all manner of distinct models and modalities—two-door, four-door, five-door, limousine, slammed coupe, ambulance, police car, hot rod—so there’s a something for everyone. And this doesn’t even take into account its specialty uses.

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“In 1985, we won the European touring car champion with a flying brick, a Volvo wagon race car,” Hedberg says. In 1980, Red Cloud, a standard Canadian 245 wagon driven by Garry Sowerby and Ken Langley, set the speed record for driving around the world. “We even had 4x4s in the 70s, in the 240, prototypes that never went into production,” Hedberg says.

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Moreover, its blank, tank-like, rectilinear design enunciated its intention: coupling innovatory versatility with Methuselahian longevity, obdurate durability, and unerring safety. This has made the 240 an exemplar of brand equities. “Everyone knows what a Volvo is: Boxy. But it’s not the ugly boxiness, it’s just the functional boxiness,” Hedberg says. “For me, it’s an icon.”

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Part of what provides icons with their status is their preternatural elasticity, their ability to be and become different things to different people. 240s can thus occupy a broad variety of contemporary identities, even broader than they did when first constructed.

“You can have the treatment of 240s go low and high,” Hedberg says. In Sweden, one end of this spectrum includes subsets of the “Raggare” Redneck/Rockabilly culture, which fetishizes vintage American vehicles, as well as reprehensible iconography like the Confederate flag, with common local lovers swapping an American V8 engine into their 240s. At the other, it compels lovers of the Veemer, which Hedberg describes as “a Volvo converted with a BMW drivetrain,” typically a Bavarian 3-liter inline-six and gearbox.

Other popular builds include utilization of the Volvo I-6 “White Block” engine, tuned versions of the indestructible Volvo I-4 “Red Block” engine, and even electrification. Also, increasingly, overlanding. “A lot of young people put a roof tent on 240 wagons, and use it for camping, or for going for festivals,” Hedberg says.

Hedberg knows this category, having built a soft-roader from his 240 wagon 15 years ago, featuring a 30 mm lift, a roof rack, and extra driving lamps, as well as graphics denoting it as a Cross-Country. Though this was Volvo’s own copyrighted moniker for its jacked and clad vehicle line, it did not sue for infringement. “I did a tour from the north to the south of Sweden in one day without stopping,” he says. “So that’s a true Cross-Country.”

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Other previously utilitarian vehicles—like the Land Rover Defender, Ford Bronco, and Chevrolet Blazer K/5—have recently become popular templates for six-figure luxury builds, coupled with upgrades in powertrains, suspensions, materials, and technology. We haven’t seen that approach with 240s, yet. Though Hedberg cites historical precedent for adoption.

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“Monsieur Dumas, the CEO of Hermes, converted a 240, and it’s still in their collection in Paris, in the dungeons of Hermes,” he says. The chairman of the exclusive French ultra-luxury fashion and leather-goods maison took a classic 245 Turbo Wagon, slathered it in alpine green metallic paint and outfitted it with a buttery Hermes cowhide interior. “He could have picked whatever car he wanted—he could have taken a Rolls-Royce—but he took a 245 wagon to drive on the streets of Paris,” Hedberg says. “I think that is a statement. It’s like the haute couture of Volvo.”

 

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Elhigh
Elhigh
28 days ago

I briefly had a 240 given to me by a coworker as he was changing cities. I made it the kids’ car, and they enjoyed it until my older boy was rear-ended by a distracted driver at a stop light. He drove the car around the corner into a parking lot and parked it. The trunk lid was jammed and one rear door wouldn’t open. The Tahoe that hit him was destroyed.

I still miss that car.

Hamish48
Hamish48
30 days ago

Starting in 1963 Volvos were assembled from knock-down kits in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada for the receptive Canadian market. The differences were slight, some adaptations for the Canadian standards for things such as lighting. One of the best selling was actually badged the Volvo Canadian.

Johnpmac
Johnpmac
30 days ago

I don’t think it’s been mentioned, but I learned how to drift on dirt roads in my 86 240. To this day, I’ve never known another car that was as controllable sliding around the dirt.

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
30 days ago

Brett – You had a 265 with a manual? That is a holy grail….

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
30 days ago

I had a 1988 240 wagon as a first car.

I actually emailed this in to the Autopian tip line a while back, but one of my favorite quirks about the 240 wagon (neé 245) is that the back doors are 100% interchangeable with the sedan.

This leaves a noticeable gap between the roof and the top of the door on the wagons, which is just… filled in by trim. For whatever reason, I love that little detail. It’s a nice little symbol of the boxy utilitarianism (or anti design!) that people love about the 240s.

86-GL
86-GL
30 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Martin

Yup. The weirdest thing is I’ve seen custom 240 wagons that actually ‘fixed’ that detail, and it doesn’t really look better. Something about having the passenger and cargo spaces ‘broken’ up keeps wagons from appearing overly linear- Like a hearse.

The 240 and all its design anachronisms are honestly fascinating, you could write entire Torch-style articles on its many lighting revisions.

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