The Cult of the Volvo 240 Station Wagon
The Swedish boat is long, slow, and as aerodynamic as a bag of bricks. But it's a family car that stands the test of time.
It is long, slow, and as aerodynamic as a bag of bricks. Some have compared it to a coffin-hauler; others a boat. Even its admirers don’t gush about its good looks. But in the 25 years since the last Volvo 240 station wagon rolled off the assembly line, the unassuming Swede has quietly enjoyed a productive retirement as a discerning buyer’s classic, appreciated now, as it was then, for its endearing combination of minimal frills and excessive dependability. It was the family workhorse — people want to save it.
“There is no question that when people talk about wagons, 240s come up as a staple of the genre,” says Dave Samuels, who runs Wagonmeister, a Palmdale, California-based company that repairs, restores, and resells 240 wagons and sedans for customers across the U.S. “And the 240 is certainly an honest car,” says Samuels. What he means by that is that you know exactly what you’re getting, no more and no less. And that’s always what appealed to 240 buyers.
The Volvo 240 debuted in 1974 as the American auto industry was beginning its steep decline. At a time when domestic cars were growing in size and diminishing in reliability, Volvo offered not only an understated import alternative but one that appealed to growing families in terms of safety and style. And it offered it, and offered it, and offered it, until two decades later when SUVs became all the rage and station wagons went into their long exile. The 240 ran for so long that it even outlasted Volvo’s own would-be successor, the 740, which debuted in 1985 and bowed out in 1992, a full year before the 240.
Volvo produced just shy of a million 240 wagons (and more than 2.5 million combined wagon and sedan models) during the car’s 20-year production run, and little changed during that time. The exterior enjoyed a few minor tweaks along the way, but the mechanical underpinnings remained virtually unchanged for two decades.
And that’s part of the appeal to today’s buyers, says Dave Barton, whose Dallas-area repair shop specializes in 240s: 20 years of virtually unchanged parts, inside and out, means that whatever you or your mechanic need to to keep yours running today is probably as close as the nearest junkyard.
“It stayed pretty much the same the entire run,” says Barton. “A lot of the parts are interchangeable.”
Good bones are great, but car ownership in America has always been a personal statement – and looks matter, says John Heitmann, a history professor at the University of Dayton who has written about the automobile’s role in American culture.
“The automobile is tied to status [and] well-being,” Heitmann says. “To some degree, it tells others about who you are.”
Buying a 240 wagon in its heyday was both an assertion of middle-class values and a quiet rejection of the excess offered by the behemoth, wood-paneled alternatives from Detroit’s big three. Today’s buyers are making a similar statement and sending an additional message by eschewing both new cars or sexier classics.
“It’s [a] statement about why this owner doesn’t buy into the consumer economy and the throwaway economy,” says Heitmann, himself the former owner of an’ 86 240 wagon.
“There’s no question [about] the counter-culture part of Volvotism — you know, being drawn magnetically to Volvos,” Samuels says.
Said another way, the Volvo 240 wagon has taken on a cool factor by being uncool.
“It is absolutely a hipster thing,” Samuels says with a laugh. “Absolutely. There’s absolutely some hipster swag going on there.”
All of which is why everyone from 20-something musicians to 60-something college professors (“I am constantly amazed by how many emails I get… with emails ending in .edu,” Samuels says) now scour the web eager to shell out upward of ten grand for a 30-year-old model with 200,000 original miles, and often far more.
“I sell ‘em as fast as I can get them ready,” says Steven, of Portland Metro Auto Sales, in Milwaukie, Oregon (Steven declined to give his last name). “The Volvo people love ‘em.”
Want to get your hands on a 25-year-old station wagon whose original engine offers 112 horsepower? Here’s what to consider:
Listings and Locations
Samuels and Barton suggest, anecdotally, that there is a higher concentration of 240s in the Pacific Northwest and Southern California, for reasons both cultural (see above) and meteorological. New England used to be a hotbed, but long winters have depleted its stock of 240s and left the few remaining with concerns about rust and general degradation. Samuels says the surefire best place to search are the suburban Craigslist pages of major cities in those areas, as well as other major cities like Dallas, Atlanta, Tampa — and any city with a university. You can also check enthusiast sites like Turbobricks and Swedish Bricks for additional private listings. The usual spots like CarGurus and AutoTrader are okay, but, per Samuels, nothing beats Craigslist.
Reliability and safety are the clear points here, and the 240 particularly helped establish Volvo as the leader in the latter category. Other specifics include the original ‘redblock’ engine, which is “bullet-proof,’” according to Barton, who also vouches for the long-term reliability of the transmissions. Samuels gives the original braking system high marks, not to mention the vast interior space, particularly when the rear seats are folded down. Samuels uses an old 240 wagon to haul around parts, instead of a pickup.
Potential Red Flags
- Wire Harness: the ’80-’87 model years were built with an electrical harness system under the hood that slowly disintegrated in high heat. If you’re looking at a model in that range, find out if that harness has ever been replaced, says Barton.
- Rust: Particularly along the cargo windows in the rear, in the rear wheel wells and along the roof-rack mounts.
- Electrical Systems: 240s were people haulers, not prized possessions that spent their nights in a garage, says Barton, so a lot of older models are prone to electrical issues from spending years outside in inclement weather – brake lights that stop working, windshield wipers that activate when you turn on the headlights, that kind of thing.
- A/C Units: Not so much a red flag as a general warning that the original air conditioning systems on all model years until the early ‘90s were pretty much a joke, according to Samuels. You can roll the windows down or find a replacement system if it hasn’t been upgraded already.
- Automatic Transmission: It’s reliable, but very boring, according to Samuels.
Price, Mile, and Model Ranges
The ’86-’93 models are more common not just because they’re newer, but because more of them were made, Barton says. Prices can go as high as $15,000 and as low as $500, dependent on mileage and condition. It is rare to find a model, even a ’93, with fewer than 100,000 miles on it. But because the engine is so reliable, buyers shouldn’t rule out models with upward of 500,000 miles on them, Samuels says. You can still find high-mileage models for $1,000 or less that will safely deliver you from Point A to Point B. They may need some work, but they’ll keep running until you get that work done. “Even finding one with 400,000 [miles] on it doesn’t mean it’s not a reliable runner,” Samuels says. “Because they usually are.” In other words, the 240 stands the test of time.