5 breakdowns, 58 hours, and 2764 miles in a $500 Volvo 240
For me, cruising Instagram usually results in some chuckles and a wasted quarter-hour. This time, I ended up buying (another) car.
While waiting for some friends to join me for burritos, I was mindlessly scrolling in the parking lot. Did I need a ninth immobile crapcan blocking my driveway? No… But a guy called CFlo was selling a very straight, rust-free 1982 Volvo in a funky green hue for only five bills via Paypal.
Before I could say “non-existent impulse control,” this aquamarine-on-Teddy-Ruxpin-colored brick was mine. There was only one minor issue: It was in L.A. and I was in South Carolina. Plagued with a grand of back taxes and a Cali smog inspection failure, this Volvo 240 was an out-of-state buyer’s dream.
Before even getting the full news out of my tortilla-filled mouth, my friend Al popped up his hand. “Do you need a passenger?” I can’t turn that down. Operation: Extradition was moving forward.
Fearing lockup in any one of the nine states we’d traverse, the legal side of it came first. The familiar faces at my local DMV transmogrified a California title into a South Carolina deed and plate. The new tag was shipped back to L.A. and affixed to the 240 for some vetting prior to departure.
Then catastrophe struck—of the milkshakey kind. While CFlo was piloting the Swede around town, the head gasket decided to pack it up. Splat.
I got a call from the disappointed custodian. Luckily, all parties were understanding and reckoned it was better that it occur in Compton than Amarillo. We worked a deal in which I’d pay labor and donate some goodies from my shop and the labor would be covered in L.A. After a few days, the Volvo got a new set of gaskets and replacements for a gaggle of other failure-prone items.
Jump forward a couple of weeks and I’m in an Uber pulling up to a parking lot full of Swedish iron in Compton Industrial Park.
CFlo had a phenomenal shop for me to make my temporary home, complete with a lift and a TR7. I had spent the last couple of days compiling checklists and exploiting my air miles Blood Diamond status to pack two free bags full of spare parts and tools. Job One was to get the A/C converted over to R134a and blowing just cool enough for us not to die.
Luckily (or perhaps not) all of the old R12 had already leaked out over the past decade, so we didn’t have a hazmat situation in the shop. I applied new fittings were applied along with a new receiver drier and O-rings on junctions that were low-risk to replace. The system was sucked down and didn’t leak a bit. Score. In went a whopping four cans of R134 and a fifth can of PAG 100 oil.
Even with the factory charge in place, the system wouldn’t stay running on its own. Later, over a cup of coffee overlooking the ocean in Hermosa Beach, installing a bypass switch would prove the proper solution. Prior to departure, we installed a new set of alternator bushings, rolled the right rear fender to clear the wide 215 Michelins, and jammed all matter of spare parts in the cavernous trunk.
After being awake for about 24 hours, I went and crashed at my Airbnb in Redondo Beach.
Friday morning brought the aforementioned beachside toggle-switch install and a beer, water, and snack run to Target. Al arrived at LAX, and my big square thingy and I picked him up at the baggage claim. “The patina is incredible,” Al said as he marveled at the oxidized-yet-rot-free body of our ride. You’d never see this back East!
Guessing that perhaps we didn’t look ridiculous enough already, his wife and young daughter gifted us a set of red fuzzy dice. Perfect.
As we escaped the 80-degree-and-cloudy June Gloom of the California coast, the temperature and wind rose rapidly. By the time we reached Palm Springs, the fields of turbines were facing gusts of 100-degree air at over 40 mph. Some whirligigs were happily producing Watts, while others had, at some point, caught fire and stopped or lost speed control and launched their pieces into this vast junkyard of green energy. The car, however, was performing flawlessly.
We were cruising over 80 mph with the windows up and the conversation flowing. Just as Al had finished telling a story about an ignition failure in a ’68 Bay Window Volkswagen in the middle of the desert, our own V-car started misfiring and sputtered to a conveniently placed rest area… in the middle of the desert.
Since the failure involved chugging, we suspected fuel. We needlessly replaced the fuel filter and set off on a parking lot test ride. The car idled for several minutes, and made it only feet in reverse before dying.
Scratching heads, we replaced the fuel pump relay and the brick started again. We set off on a second test loop, all digits crossed. We deemed everything OK before backing into a spot. Again, we halted. This time with multimeter out, we probed nearly every connection in the engine bay.
What did this tell us? Somewhere along the line, the coil and Hall effect sensor in the distributor had been wired to the backup light circuit. When the engine torqued over with the reverse lights on, some disintegrating wires were grounding in the tunnel, and the Hall effect sensor stopped doing its sensing thing. After hot-wiring our own car, we were off.
After being grounded for a couple of hours, we now tried to make decent time and pushed hard for Flagstaff as misfires continued at higher loads. The draw of a good sleep and a local brewery being too great to resist after baking in the sun all day, we stopped to drink about our combustion problems.
As we looked for a place to deplete our hotel rewards points balances, the brick was bucking and chugging in protest. We put it off until first light. And it came quickly—minutes after 5 a.m.
After some dirty diagnostics involving a pair of needle nose pliers and the fuse box, the issue proved to be the in-tank lift pump. With all the chugging at high loads, it made sense. After some beating and tugging, the pump was in our hands as we rode in an Uber (in which I left my phone, but that’s another story) on the way to the parts store.
I must say, my desire to wrestle the mouse away and get behind the CRT monitor myself is standard parts store protocol, but this experience was a different animal. In a good way, too. The staff cross-referenced a part and the manager of the store drove to another branch to get it for our pathetic, immobile, cell-phone-losing selves.
And who says chivalry is dead?
By 9 a.m., we were buttoned up, cleaned up, and idling. I went and snagged us a couple more complimentary coffees as quickly as possible to avoid further scrutiny from the breakfast staff.
With buckles clicked into the center console, we started off… and with another big miss. Friends started sending us screenshots of directions to the airport and flight cost estimates. Screw it and screw them, we proclaimed. We would lay miles of Arizona mountains and New Mexico desert under our tires until we could proceed no further.
Conveniently, this point of arrested progress would be at a gas station West of Albuquerque. In our frustration, spare parts flew from the trunk onto the motor. A new-to-us mass air flow sensor failed to fix the problem. So did sealing off some obvious vacuum leaks with zip ties and tape.
Remembering my days from messing with Toyota 4A-GE motors and their fickle throttle position sensors, I pulled the TPS, the idle perked up, and the throttle crisply cracked upon actuation. This was nothing short of a revelation. Back in we went to a significantly improved B21.
Now positively flying at 80 mph, stopping only to fill the car and drain ourselves, we killed the miles. It was slow going through Oklahoma as tornados and hydroplaning limited our speed to a white-knuckled 50 mph; but we swapped drivers every tank, and, once clear of wind- and water-works, the Volvo skipped along. The early-2000’s slow-paced EDM music and steady stream of coffee, almonds, and cheese sandwiches (made melty by the 150-degree air from the heater) kept us going through the Sooner state, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
By Nashville, our A/C bypass switch had failed and the hotwire had to be hotwired to keep us cool and the windshield clear. By about 8:30 p.m, Al called his wife and informed her we were minutes away. As we rolled up to his driveway, the family came out to greet us and view the car, truly wondering why we even bothered when there were plenty of 240s right here in town. No oxidized minty green ones, of course—not to mention any we’d been through hell to rescue.
Nonetheless, I shoved off with a hug, a hot cup of coffee, and a new garden planter. After a total of 58 hours and 2764 miles, I landed in bed in Charleston around 1 a.m. I cracked a beer to junior-speedball the coffee and went to bed within minutes.
Now two days post-arrival, the Volvo is a champion of the daily commute. Its hotwired A/C and ignition are still in place, as is the disconnected TPS. I’ll get around to all of that this weekend. As it stands, I’m $1394 into this heap.
I’ve got a reliable, peculiar car with cold air for the summer, and a kick-ass story. A risk well calculated, I say.