Volvo 240

Lance Cole tells the story of the cars with a reputation for being solidly safe
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Volvo has been re-born with curves and better handling, so today's Volvos have a wider audience. But the old Volvo traits are still there - the best seats, a body style with "shoulders", fat doors, and a fluted bonnet. Safety is as good as ever, although the rest of the industry has moved on. Ford now owns the marque and the latest Volvos share its underpinnings with the blue oval giant. Some think it shows...

Volvo has been re-born with curves and better handling, so today's Volvos have a wider audience. But the old Volvo traits are still there - the best seats, a body style with "shoulders", fat doors, and a fluted bonnet. Safety is as good as ever, although the rest of the industry has moved on. Ford now owns the marque and the latest Volvos share its underpinnings with the blue oval giant. Some think it shows...

But the roots of our perceptions of Volvo are in its quintessential 100 and 200 series from the 1960s and 1970s. These cars were dubbed "tanks", and tanks they were, possibly the safest cars made - so safe that when car safety took off in the US, the authorities used the 240 as its crash-test benchmark.

The 140 saloon and its estate model - the 145, which sold more in Britain than anywhere else - made Volvo. Farmers, horsey types and the middle-class suburban set took to these cars in their millions. Jerry and Margot in The Good Life had a Volvo estate.

The 140s had a heavy old 2.0-litre engine - the B range, a lump that reflected Volvo's truck, boat and aviation engine work. A "posh" version of the 140, with a 1950s-style upright radiator grille and a six-cylinder engine, came out: the 164 - 6 for six cylinders (with 175bhp) and 4 for four doors. There were even rare 165 estates.

The Volvos had, in the opinion of many, the best car seats ever made - huge orthopaedic armchairs with an adjustable lumbar support, almost unheard of in the 1970s. The estates had acres of space. The entire range was made from thick, top-quality British steel - in fact, the car had a high percentage of British-sourced components, including the wonder- fully named Laycock de Normanville overdrive unit, a 1950s device last used by Humber.

The Volvo body design stood the test of time. The cars had thick door bars that linked into the overall structure rather than just "floating" in the door, waiting to hurt the occupants. The roof steel was so strong that car repairers used to use the roofs from wrecked Volvos to patch up the floors of other cars. In the 1970s, these cars passed the now fashionable offset frontal crash test - which is far harder to engineer for than the slam-dunk, head-on-into-a-wall test.

In the US, Volvo's boast was that, for years, the fatality rate in its 240 models was the lowest of any car. Volvo's safety reflected the work of engineer Nils Bohlin at the advanced Volvo Safety Centre. Bohlin invented the three-point safety belt and pioneered padded cabins.

When the 240 came along in 1975, Volvo made the nose and tail softer to absorb crash forces better; the roof was still a roll-over-proof cage, though. The doors were still armour-plated, bank-vault jobs. When you compared them to the thin, single-skinned door panels on other cars, you knew where the money had gone.

All this passive safety was great, but it was active safety that let the cars down. Rear-wheel drive, long overhangs and slow steering meant that the Volvos were not agile; they had less chance of avoiding or steering around danger.

New suspension and steering improved things on the 240 range, through which Volvo went for the big-bumper look - hanging acres of what most thought was angle iron (actually aluminium) off the car. So was born the most obvious aspect of the "tank" or "Swedish brick" image. A Peugeot-Renault-Volvo six-cylinder engine found its way into a 260-badged range-topper. The Volvo brigade lapped it up, but the customer base was becoming isolated.

In the end, the 700 series cars replaced the old chariots. But they refused to die. They rarely rusted; the engines, especially the four-cylinder version, were indestructible. Only time thinned the ranks. In America, thousands of 140s and 240s survive as everyday transport, cheap fuel hiding the fact these heavy cars gulped petrol. A 145 model with 500,000 miles on the clock is registered at the owners club.

Volvo 140s and 240s are also cheap to buy in Britain, and the GLT models with leather, alloys, and more power, can be bought for £1,000. With Abba on the stereo, Ikea furniture in the boot, scuffed leather on the seats, and a cloud of aerodynamic "barn door" drag behind them, the old Swedish tanks just keep on rolling.

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