1989 Volvo 740GL: Volvo Vexation

Remember the Volvo 740 and 760? Remember when Volvos were boxy? And still made in Sweden? Well, OK, I guess a couple of current Ovlovs are still made in their home country, but far few for my taste. Sure, the new ones are swoopy and fresh, with lots of new gadgets and smartphone-influenced distractions (oops, I mean ‘features’), but I still miss those rectilinear 740s and 240s of the 80s. I grew up with them.

The Volvo 740GL was a new model for U.S. customers in 1989. In the pre-sport utility vehicle, pre-crossover days (THOSE were the days!) Volvos were, believe it or not, cars. Yes, passenger vehicles. Sedans. Wagons. And the 780 coupe. That was it. No pickups, trucks, SUVs or ‘sports activity’ rolling stock to be seen. And in the go-go ’80s, the Volvo wagon was a sign of success.

The 740GL sedan and wagon were lower-cost alternatives to the 740GLE (until then, the ‘cheapest’ 700 Series, not that any Volvo was strictly cheap, at least in the U.S.) and upper crust Turbo Sedan and Turbo Wagon. It was a bit of a contrary model name-wise though. The ‘GL’ trim had for years been the nicest 240 model, with leather, crank-open sunroof and power windows.

Identified primarily by its 114-hp version of the classic “red block” 2.3-liter inline four, it was readily identifiable as the entry-level 740 with its plastic wheel covers in lieu of the higher-trim 740s alloy wheels.

Nonetheless, it was quite well equipped with power windows, power brakes, power steering, A/C, manual tilt/slide steel sunroof, heated seats and an AM/FM ETR stereo cassette system with 20-watt amplifier.

Of course, many were equipped with leather interior and automatic transmission, but if you preferred being shiftless, a 5-speed was the standard fare. Along with cloth seats. And we had one.

Dad’s 740 Turbo, the day he brought it home from Lundahl Volvo.

We had one. It was just one among many Volvos my parents owned between the early 1970s and the present day. Dad already had traded in his silver 240GL sedan for a fire engine red over tan ’88 740 Turbo Sedan. A 700 Series wagon was due in the Klockau driveway.

One day, Mom picked us up from Immanuel Lutheran School in a brand new 740GL wagon. I was shocked, because in the Klockau household a new car purchase was generally planned well in advance. And I wouldn’t have been me if I didn’t eavesdrop when the potential of ordering a new car came up between Mom and Dad. Back then my parents always ordered their cars.

Our actual wagon, seen decades later in downtown Rock Island.

But Mom had taken her pastel yellow ’86 240DL wagon in for regular service that morning. While killing time in the showroom, she had seen this 740GL wagon in the showroom. She liked it, particularly the color. It was wine red with a tan leather interior, automatic transmission, crank-open sun roof, and a luggage rack. She decided she had to have it. Since the owners of Lundahl Volvo were friends of my parents, everything was accomplished in short order.

There was one thing she didn’t like about her new 740GL: Its rather plain, silver-plastic wheel covers. The week after delivery my parents went down to Lundahl’s and perused the Volvo Accessories catalog, and new alloys were ordered.

Our 1990 Volvo 740GL wagon, spotted at Lundahl’s when it was traded in by a later owner in 1999.

They were the lacy-spoke alloys, very similar to the contemporary BBS wheels seen on so many European cars in the ’80s. Our 1990 740GL, which replaced the burgundy one, had the same wheels swapped over. Yes, the car was traded in less than a year later. About that…

The wagon was purchased shortly right around Thanksgiving of 1988. It wasn’t long before my parents started having issues with it. They’d never had trouble with any of their previous Volvos, even those they’d had for several years. So it was particularly glaring to have it happen with a brand-new car.

My most vivid memory is of my mom and my sister taking the new car to the day-after-Thanksgiving sales. About halfway to her destination, the car just quit, and Mom could not get it started. Brand new car, full tank of gas. Nothing to explain why there was a problem. This was before cell phones (or at least before they were common), so she simply walked back home and informed my father that it would be in his best interest to retrieve it. To say that Mom was ticked at that car would be a major understatement.

That wasn’t the only time it decided to take a non-authorized coffee break, but it certainly was the most memorable. It set the tone for the rest of its short time in our driveway. Frankly, after its first mishap, it was on my mother’s list! Weird stuff just happened to it, or around it. None of it fun. Our house had a meandering flagstone walkway to the front door. Towards the street, two small trees flanked the walk, then a couple of steps, and then the final few feet of walkway. Surrounding the curb and going around the corner was a bed of decorative stones and small shrubs that ran about 25 feet, with perhaps three, four or five huge lava rocks situated along its length. Somehow, Mom managed to hit one of those big-ass lava rocks with the GL early the following year. I still remember the scrape along the side of the front spoiler,  but it actually didn’t hurt the car too badly. Good thing lava rocks are light!

One morning as we were backing out of the garage, Mom scraped the side of the bumper against the right side of the garage. Then, as she pulled forward again, she bumped into the rear bumper of Dad’s 740 Turbo, parked in the left side of the garage. Dad saw it happen, and we all got out to look at his newly pushed-in bumper. Big cartoon-style dent, right in the middle. He stared at it a minute and kicked it, and it popped back into shape. With no damage! Being nine years old at the time, I thought it was hilarious. Mom did not.

Another time, Mom and I were backing out of a parking lot in that car when she hit a telephone pole dead-center. It should be noted that my mother was, and always has been, a good driver. Not one given to clumsiness when behind the wheel. This car changed all that. Was it this particular car, or simply her ever-growing frustration with it, responsible for the sudden mishaps?

Whatever was going on, Mom took to calling it “The Jinx.” The way she always said it, you could hear the capitalization in her voice! It wasn’t the Volvo, the 740, or even the wagon; it was “The Jinx.” Finally, she had enough of that car. She talked to Dad, Dad talked to Mike Lundahl, and Mike Lundahl realized he was going to have to do something about it. As previously mentioned, the Lundahls were not just the local dealer, they were also close friends with my folks (Mike and Dad graduated from high school together), and they all had many friends in common. He knew he had to take care of it!

I don’t know whether Volvo bought back that car or Mike just gave Dad a really good deal on its replacement, but the Friday before Easter of 1990, Dad picked us up from school in a beautiful navy blue 740GL wagon with a saddle tan interior. It was a surprise for Mom, and us kids thought it was pretty cool.

Our 1990 740GL

All of Mom’s previous Volvo wagons had been as reliable as the sun, and the 740 Jinx had been a real thorn in her side. We never had a single issue with the navy blue 740GL. She kept that one until us kids got too big for a wagon, and it was traded in on a Grand Caravan ES a couple of years later. And once “The Jinx” had departed, Mom’s driving went back to normal too. There were no further motoring mishaps.

I was reminded of all this several years ago when I spotted this burgundy GL wagon in Moline. At first I thought it could have been our car. The front seats were cloth, but the back seat was leather, suggesting the original leather buckets were swapped at some point. But fter showing her these photos, Mom reminded me that hers had the roof rack, meaning that the car in Moline wasn’t ours. The blue 5-speed GL was seen in Cedarville, IL this past March.

Over the years, my immediate family has owned sixteen Volvos (and counting). That ’89 was the only trouble-prone one. I have no idea why.

5 Replies to “1989 Volvo 740GL: Volvo Vexation”

  1. Chris Tonn

    I drove a poorly-maintained ’88 740 GL wagon for about six months, when I realized that I couldn’t fit an infant in a rear-facing seat behind me in a Sentra SE-R.

    That thing…ugh. Yeah, I paid $300 so I got my money’s worth, but it left me on the side of the road more often than any other car I’d ever owned. Fuel gauge was erratic, so I ran out twice. And the rings were so badly worn, it used roughly a quart of oil per day.

    Eventually, it met it’s end when a rod went through that legendary red block on the interstate. Tried to rope-tow it home, but the wife was erratic on the tow vehicle, causing me to drag the brakes too much, to which point the rapidly-disintegrating brake calipers caught fire.

    Scrapper gave me $300 for it, when I finally decided I didn’t have the time or shop space to swap in a five-liter Ford.

  2. John C.

    I wonder about putting the NA 2.3 in the 740. The output was right on top of the concurrent iron duke in the 200 pound lighter A body wagon and not many of the higher end of those came with the four. So many of upper middle Euros got by with some seriously overmatched engines in the 80/90s. I know, faster than the diesel.

    In 1998, my wife and I got the last year of the body V90 with the 2.9 inline 6. It drove great with that engine though I do remember it being a little temperamental starting and fairly frequent AC woes. Ours was Nautic blue which I think is a match for your second one.

  3. DirtRoads

    I actually started to like Volvos when Bertone got involved in the styling. Not that I ever owned one, but I had a friend whose father in law loved em, the older the better. Never cared much for them, but they all had great turning radii. The 600 series came out and being 6’6″ I couldn’t get my knees past the center console to drive one, which didn’t help their popularity with me. 🙂

  4. hank chinaski

    Your mom’s ‘mishaps’ following that first failure may have been not quite subconscious messages to Dad to remove the offending vehicle.
    I’ve seen this in nature with both vehicles and major appliances and on occasion, the Dad himself.

  5. Shortest Circuit

    I still have my 960, but Volvo sure didn’t make this mistake again to build cars that are extremely reliable in the long run. With the first S80 came the all-integrated CAN-bus electronics where the DBW throttle body is not a simple servo with 5 wires, but a Marelli manufactured monstrosity where you have to address the throttle blade via CAN commands, and it is coded to the ECU, cars not starting when the TCM fuse blew (what does that have to do with the ECU?), culminating in the Ford-era S60 where they said f-it, let’s just transfer the ECU out of the passenger compartment and put it into the driver side wheelwell.


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