1979 Volvo 242GT

Volvo 242GT

"She doesn't owe you anything; let her go"
- Dave the local Volvo mechanic, at her last service stop in April 2000AD.

Driving this car was a real challenge. After all the rubber in the air system disintegrated around '98, the mechanics got almost everything working except the idle. It just wouldn't idle, unless you adjusted it to absurdly high RPMs. Consequently, the slightest load on the idling engine (such as turning the steering wheel) would stall it. Thus one learned to take corners three-footed: one foot on the brake, another on the clutch, and the third on the accelerator to keep it from stalling. Oh yeah, and the right arm on the shifter. Never a dull moment.

It would take 15 minutes of prep time to get this car started. The ritual was to start it, jam a stick inside to hold the accelerator down because she wouldn't idle, connect a pump to pump up the various leaky tires, and while that was going on one would top up the power steering fluid. An occasional punch on the fuse panel was sometimes called for to keep the air pump running.

Miraculously it didn't leak oil. Perhaps this was because it'd burn it faster than it could leak out, but it used to go through a litre a week before I finally replaced the rocker gasket. After that it was surprisingly easy on the oil, despite its 21 year age. Certainly better than cars half her age.

Its only other semi-major leak was coolant, from a busted main gasket. Fixing a main gasket involves a pretty serious engine rebuild, but cheap bastard that I am I found that I could stem the leak enough by putting lots of epoxy around the leaking gasket and covering the whole show with aluminum duct tape. The car ran like this for the last four years of its life.

The brakes stopped working effectively around '98. Slam on the brakes as hard as you could and the car would gracefully come to a halt right in the middle of the intersection.

Slamming on brakes was never actually good idea, because the calipers were frozen on one side, making the car always dive to the right when you brake. One learned to compensate for this in advance.

Parking brake? Hah. I honestly don't remember when it packed it in. Probably sometime in the 1980s.

The blower stopped working around '93. The motor would stay locked up and start to burn; when you'd hit a bump it'd jar loose and start to run, instantly filling the cab with blue acrid smoke. One learned to leave it off, no matter how cold it was outside, and instead jiggle the fan control from zero to full every few minutes until it unseized. It'd be a bit of a mixed blessing when it unseized because it would then run with an deafening shrieking sound.

The Volvo AM/FM radio with ~2W output, along with most other things electric like the turn signals, worked mostly intermittently. The fuses for these sat in corroded sprung holders that have long ago ceased to spring, resulting in strobelight effects for most all electrics in the vehicle. You got used to it. The fusepanel sat conveniently to the left of your left leg, so it was just a matter of pulling the fusepanel cover off and massaging the fuses with the left hand while driving with the right. I always felt like Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon while doing that.

The turn signal relay caught fire once. Very exciting. I bought the cheap replacement from Canadian Tire which wasn't compatible, resulting in a fuse exploding in my face. Rather than admitting defeat I rewired the car to accept the $5 turn signal relay and went on my merry way with one of those inaudibly ticking turn signals like you'd find in a 1980s Buick, when people still thought it was a Feature that you couldn't hear the turn signals.

Failed wiring was a constant companion with that car. Rather than replace the rotting wire harnesses I'd typically add my own bypass wiring. It's not that the real wiring harnesses were overly pricey, it's just that it felt like a copout to use them. Some people fought in Vietnam, youngsters like me worked in TV repair shops over rotting wiring harnesses; that's just how it is.

Around '95 the rad began to leak quite a bit. Deciding that there was nothing to lose, I bought a $3 can of rad-leak-stop gunk at Canadian Tire and poured it in. The first clue that something wasn't right was when I got to work and heard hissing sounds from the engine compartment and saw a puddle forming on the floor. I daringly filled a 1-gallon jug with water and set on my way and got almost 3 km before having to pull into a gas station for a refill. After that I went a good 5 km before having to pull off again, this time with a toothy-grinned towtruck driver hungrily eyeing me. I explained to him that I just had a small rad leak and would soon be on my way as soon, all while I refilled my rad.

As I emptied my jug into the rad, a puddle formed just as quickly under the car and his toothy grin never once changed. They're vultures, they are.

The power steering rack leaked constantly. I had it rebuilt once around '90, but it started leaking again within three years and I decided that for the price of one rebuild I could feed it power steering fluid for the next 20 years, so that's what I did. And so a small reddish oily trail followed that car to the end of its days.

The tires leaked air like crazy, due to the alloy rims being corroded. I'd had them cleaned many times to no avail, so I just got used to pumping up the tires every five days or so. I got so used to this rate of leakage that once when I finally decided that one tire leaked so much it should be looked at, the Canadian Tire tiremonkey who fixed it went out of his way to inform me that that tire had no fewer than five (5) nails perforating it.

I remember that service stop in particular (it was at Canadian Tire) because that was when a particularly large group of grease monkeys gathered around the car to gawk at the macramé of wires and hoses I'd made to keep the car running. I felt a bit hurt because nobody walked over to shake my hand and compliment me on my paramedic skills.

The timing belt broke once. This was actually an anticlimax as cars go, because when the timing belt breaks the pistons are supposed to pound the valve heads into pulp and turn the whole engine into a quarter ton paperweight. However, the B21F Volvo engine design meant that all that happens is that it sighs to a halt. I was a little bit disappointed to lose such a perfect excuse for buying a new car. Volvo 240 series cling to life like limpets.

The exhaust system was replaced three or four times. I recall one time in particular around '97 because the kid couldn't figure out where the catalytic converter was. I tried to explain to him that 1979 cars didn't have such a concept, but he didn't believe me. The last exhaust line replacement involved using some kind of cheap flexi-hose, sort of like dryer vent hose but made of steel. It looked cheesy as hell, but I must admit it worked.

I had a run-in later with that same ignorant kid. Some months later, the gas tank began to leak. Rather than replacing it, I had the whole thing epoxy-dipped. This is exactly as it sounds; your awful rusty piece of crap gets dipped into a vat of epoxy and returns as a sorta-new tank.

Happily I paid and drove off. Happiness did not last. As I filled up the gas at some random station, I heard splashing under the car. Gasoline was pouring down, dribbling madly all over the hot exhaust pipe causing puffs of smoke. The bastard hadn't sealed the hose from the fill to the tank.

I calmly went to pay for the gas. First things first, after all; if an entire gas station is going to explode in a fireball I at least want to be paid up. However, my car didn't explode. Stupidity is a male virtue, and so I decided to drive that car back based on the fact that it would be mostly downhill and so I wouldn't have to run the engine much. And so I mostly rolled downhill to the Danforth and Jones garage where the cretins worked.

A beautiful thing happened when I got there. The kid, who was shaking in fear since I'd swore to kill him, jacked the car up and set about siphoning the gas from the tank. He mistimed and got a geyser of gasoline in his face and eyes. He was in agony, gagging, spluttering and washing his face frantically while I helpfully added "are you okay?" while privately thinking "I hope you go blind you sonofabitch". Unfortunately he recovered completely and is presumably busy setting deathtraps elsewhere in Toronto.

The whole body was redone around '98, because panels were threatening to fall off. "Should take 3 days", they said. It actually took 3 weeks. "Well, um, there's no steel at all left around the wheel wells" they'd whine. Wimps. Correct, but still wimps.

The front driver seat belt socket busted in '98. Not to worry; the passenger side still worked so it was just a matter of plugging in there. If there was a passenger, their belt could be looped inside the drivers side in a sort of a hugging embrace, with one belt socket holding both belts. I found it endearing; my passengers never did.

The rear windshield exploded once. That was rather fun. Too many of the defogging lines had broken and so I decided to fix them with some conductive paint goop from Canadian Tire. Turns out that slopping silvery goop isn't very conductive, and so it made for a rather hot spot at the joint, causing the windshield to explode instead. It was covered by insurance, and explained as "Struck By Object". I suppose a small bottle of Canadian Tire conductive paint is an object.

There was this vent hose on top of the engine coming off the manifold. It'd come loose because the power steering pump had been replaced with one from a completely different vehicle, which was a bit too big. I solved this by making an intricate macrame weave of twine between it and the ignition cables. A small victory, with the only downside being that every time the gar was in a garage, the mechanics would start to laugh and call everybody around to look at the mess.

Another interesting event was the horn. I hardly ever used it, but once when I did need it all I got was something like a weak squawking like a sick duck. When I removed the front grill to check it later, I was amazed to see how it actually fell apart in my hands. It was nothing but rust. Once again, Canadian Tire came to my rescue with an anaemic horn that would have been underpowered on a scooter.

I mounted the new horn with plastic ties, of course. This had become a tradition; the headlights of the car were already being aimed by twigs and bits of plastic bags at this time because their mounts had dissolved. They'd bob every time the car ran over a bump; I'm sure you've all seen cars like this.

Then the door handle broke. It was a typical -15C winter day (that's "near zero", my American friends), and pulling on it somehow broke the whole insides of the thing. I disassembled the guts of it inside the door, drilled a hole in the handle socket, and ran the spindle right to the outside with a nut on it to pull to open the door. I know this doesn't make sense, but the end result was a small nut in the doorhandle which opened the door. Eventually a merciful mechanic replaced the whole handle for me. Without my asking, oddly enough.

The alternator had been replaced twice. Once it died from old age. The next time it died because the waterpump had failed and leaked all over it. This waterpump had been fixed by the same guys who replaced the alternator to begin with, but I couldn't convince them that it was their fault that this leak was the the cause of the alternator failure to begin with. Nine months later that garage was out of business. So it goes.

The side mirrors corroded hopelessly. Their end came was when I went to a carwash and the sidewashing brushes ripped one of them up off the car, into a beautiful high arc, and dropped it onto the hood of the car. It left two nice loooong scratches as it slid down the hood. I found reasonable replacements at Canadian Tire.

Once, while driving from Bloor and Islington on the Gardiner, a large chunk of the exhaust system fell off the car. It was left spinning madly behind the car leading many people into near death crashes trying to avoid it. I couldn't help but feel a little bit guilty about that one, but it sure looked cool.

When I finally traded the car in for a new Honda CRV EX, the dealer agreed not to charge me anything for taking my old car. It was worth it just to see him try to drive it off the lot. He couldn't do it. The three-footed driving method required due to its idle problem ensured that he never got it further than around 2 metres. He had to give up and eventually call a towtruck to get it off the lot.


To be fair, this car was driven year around for all 21 years of its life in Toronto, the salted-road capital of the world. I have never heard of another passenger car lasting that long under constant usage in Toronto, and please keep in mind that it was only because of the dangerously rotted frame that I had to her go: The Volvo 240 series road-tank was without a doubt one of the most solid cars ever built.

PPS: In case you're wonder what her finishing mileage was, I don't know. The odometer broke down around '92. I'd guess it was around 700,000km or so.