A barn full of Volvos is the perfect way to catch up with an old friend
Last spring, I got a Facebook message from my old friend Tracy.
Hey Stefan. Do you know anyone interested in Volvos? There are 2.25 1800 models here on the farm that need new homes. Two that would run again and one with no motor. Also random Volvo engines and parts everywhere (as you may recall!). My dad passed away about three years ago and my mom is ready to clean out the barn.
It so happens that I am interested in Volvos, but with two in the driveway already, I didn’t have the space—or marital capital—to lay claim to Tracy’s cars, especially sight unseen. But I did want to see them—and her, for that matter, because it had been decades. We were both busy, but there was no rush, Tracy said, so we agreed to get together at the end of the summer.
Tracy and I first met long ago as silly young vagabonds on a silly old GMC bus that was headed into the Mayan heart of Mexico’s jungles. Each of us shirking the responsibilities of adulthood, we ended up traveling together for nearly two months, all over Central America, across the Caribbean to Cuba, and then—upon our repatriation—over the Cascade spine of Oregon to Bend in her old VW Vanagon.
This was pre-Internet, pre-cellphone, and after Bend we just kind of went our separate ways. We reconnected virtually for a few minutes in about 2005, when I joined Facebook and had that initial “OMG can you believe this?” moment that everyone goes through when they Facebook-discover all the people they knew way back when. Then we resumed our radio silence. Right up until that message showed up, anyway.
In August, two days before the total solar eclipse began its eerie dark path across Oregon and then the rest of America beyond, I left Portland and drove my blue Volvo 242 down I-5 into the Willamette Valley to visit Tracy on her family’s farm and see the barn crammed with Volvo ephemera.
Tracy spent nearly a decade working on cruise ships—to Alaska in the summers and Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama in the winters. But in the years since her dad’s death she has returned to live on the farm, which was never a family farm in the sense that thousand-acre Midwest farms are. Her dad was a chemist, her mom a teacher, and their 20-acre parcel was a hobby, a place for—at various times—horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, and bees. The only constant, it seems, was a herd of Swedish cars.
Outside the barn, up against a cyclone fence, the shells of a Volvo 1800 and Fiat 124 sit uncovered, rotting in place for who knows how long. As Tracy slides back the barn’s giant door, dust from the dirt floor swirls into the air, visible as the midday sunlight floods the space. Straight ahead is an enormous boat, owned by some relative who stores it here. To the right sit four cars under filthy tarps. The barn leaks light through its old wood siding, and barn swallows tweet and sing all around us as we enter. Scatological evidence of their longtime homesteading in the rafters above is everywhere, including on the tarps.
We start at the far end and I help her uncover a 1967 1800 four-speed coupe. “We restored this one on the farm,” she says. Its red paint still has a shine, and there’s no rust to be found. It doesn’t run though; her sister tinkered with it for half a day and suspects a bad condenser.
We move up the line—a white ’71 1800 with an automatic and rust in the usual 1800 places, particularly the trunk. Also not running. Then a 1972 Fiat 124 that has been off the road since 1994. Beneath the dust, this one’s brown paint shines, too, as does the chrome. I open the door and am surprised by the interior, which looks excellent. “This one comes with a parts car,” Tracy says. She nods toward the wall, in the direction of outside, where the sad Fiat heap sits. “Can’t go wrong with a parts car!” These two 1800s and the Fiats will soon be up for sale.
The last car in the line, however—a rare 1968 Volvo 123GT—is a keeper. “This was my first car,” she tells me. “My dad bought it for $150. I fixed it up and this is what I drove in high school.” I mention that I like the two-tone paint job—red over white. “I saw it on TV once and I had to have it,” she says. Originally these cars came with a 1.8-liter “B18” engine, though somewhere in the process Tracy’s got fitted with a two-liter B20. Such a change likely hurts its value, but she doesn’t care. Her only goal is to get it running and drive it again.
With all the cars uncovered, I start snapping photos. “I love old crappy cars,” I say.
“Well they’ve got a lot more character,” Tracy says. “A lot more curves and rust. I mean, you can get the shine off a new one, but it’s not the same.”
This motley quartet is just the start, however. The wall behind the cars has several doors into several rooms, and I can see they are all stacked with parts. Soon we wander into those rooms, for more photos, more talk about where we’ve been, what we’ve been up to, and it’s all so easy. It doesn’t feel like it’s been 18 years since we’ve seen each other. We agree there’s a familiarity that comes with traveling with someone—particularly in a foreign country and especially when you’re young—when you share hostel bunks, translate for one another, and sneak into places you really shouldn’t be. “You know each other on such a different level,” she says. And it’s true.
Much of our time in the barn is spent catching up, reminiscing about those days wandering through Central America and trying to remember where our fellow travelers ended up. We draw many blanks (Facebook is only so powerful, it seems), though we share a good laugh at the memory of a guy named Adam, who held his hand out to an ocelot to let it sniff him, with predictable, painful results.
At some point, snapping away at the fantastic piles of Volvo parts and pieces, I comment on the sheer amount of stuff her dad managed to accumulate, for 1800s, 544s, 122s, 140s, 240s. Engines and transmissions, pedal sets, rear axles, front suspensions, grilles, glass, fenders, brightwork, seats, you name it. Two guys from Portland had already hauled off a bunch of it, to sell at the IPD swap-meet in the spring. It seems they hardly made a dent.
“I get it,” she says. “It’s overwhelming how much stuff is here.” She’s silent for a moment as the weight of the barn and the cars and all these old parts—a lifetime spent around Volvos with her dad—really does overwhelm her. “That’s the hardest part. This is what I did as a kid.”
Indeed, her childhood is rooted in a world of Volvos. Later, she’ll point out a large oak tree at the edge of the property. At age 10, it was her destination the first time she ever got be behind the wheel, her dad at her side. When she was 12, she and her sister and some friends used an entire tank of gas driving the family 145 wagon around one of the fields. They gave each other the routes to follow and imagined intersections to stop at, and just drove and drove and drove until the car ran out of fuel. “When we opened the hood at the end of the day,” she says, “it was full of straw. We were seriously lucky we didn’t catch on fire.”
Toward the end of the day, the end of our brief coming together after so much time apart, we walk through her immense garden, filling bags with fresh veggies and discussing our plans for viewing the upcoming eclipse. I’ll be driving my family 30 minutes south of Portland to get in the path of totality (we will end up in a Safeway parking lot with a thousand other people); Tracy already lives in the path and will be at a day-long party with a dozen or so close friends.
She gives me an alternative route for getting north, a way to avoid the freeway and enjoy some curves through the lovely Willamette Valley. And as we hug and say goodbye, neither of us is sure when our own orbits will intersect again. But we do know this: It will still be comfortable, for now we’ve not only traveled together in our youth, we’ve bonded over old cars, those hunks of metal and rubber with emotional connections that sometimes bring you to your knees.
Selfishly, I hope it’s not another 18 years. I really want to ride in that 123GT.