Pop quiz, hotshot: What is the most boring 2020 model car in existence? Probably a Corolla, right? But what was the most boring, yet competent and efficient car of the 1980s? Not the Accord or Camry, for they hadn’t nailed rustproofing down yet. Those suckers dissolved like Alka Seltzer in the salty Midwest.
For those of you who missed the ’80s or were too young at the time to remember them, may I present the 1984 Volvo DL. It’s not a hot rod, not fancy, not exciting. But by God, it was competent, had comfortable seats, and were actually rust resistant, unlike some other ’80s fan favorites. There was good reason why in the ’80s, Volvo was known as “the car for people who think.” Well, as long as you didn’t mind paying Delta 88 money for one of these, ha ha.
My parents were Volvo people. Starting with the ’73 1800ES sportwagon and later on with the ’77 245DL (I rode home from the hospital in that one), they were a practical choice for a young upper middle-class family with kids in the plan for the near future. Safe, reliable, well-built. European. But not flashy or faux-pretentious, like the anemic M-B 240Ds frequently seen in the Sunshine State…
This was nothing new to Volvo Car Corporation. The Swedish company made its bones in the North American market with sensible, roomy and reliable sedans and wagons, starting with the Amazon/121/122 and making even more inroads with the 1967 140 Series. Despite the no-nonsense design and sensible shoes marketing, Volvos were never cheap.
The 1975 240, itself a redesigned 140 with MacPherson front suspension and crumple zones, was about the same size as a Plymouth Valiant or Dodge Dart, but pricewise was closer to a larger Oldsmobile Cutlass or Eighty Eight. But for “Volvo people” like my folks, the extra money was worth it for the peace of mind such a car afforded.
The 240 itself was treated to a couple of facelifts between 1975 and 1982. In 1978 it received the domed hood and squared-off grille of the flossier 260 Series, albeit with quad round headlights instead of the rectangular units the ’78 and up 260 models had. In 1979 the rear deck was smoothed out and wraparound taillights were added.
Another minor facelift appeared on the 1981 models, which included smoother hubcaps, quad rectangular headlights on DLs, a new grille, and wraparound taillamps on wagons.
For some reason, 1978-80 242s did not receive the domed hood, quad headlights and square grille as the sedans and wagons did, but this was finally rectified in 1981.
1982 models received white reflectors below the headlights, as seen on our featured car – 1981s had black horizontal grille bars in the same space.
As has been documented in my 1984 Volvo GL writeup, my folks had several Volvo 240s. Before the GL (seen above) came along, my dad had a 1981 or 1982 242DL coupe, maroon with a beige cloth interior. It had been a demonstrator at Lundahl Volvo in Moline, and he just had to have it. At the time he was driving a root beer brown 1979 Bonneville sedan as his company car, with a beige vinyl roof. He recalled a while back that it was one of the last years you could get a two-door version. I was still quite young when he had this car, but I do remember riding in the back and playing with the pop-out rear quarter windows.
And so it was that the Bonneville, the source of my very first car memory, was traded off, and it marked the end of his American car ownership, at least until his 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee Orvis Edition. When he got that one I remember him saying, “Well, the Grand Cherokee screams Yuppie but I’ve had Volvos for years, so I guess it doesn’t matter!” Ha ha!
I liked this car, but I associate my most vivid memory of it with pain. When I was three or four years old, Dad and I were coming home from someplace or another. He parked in the driveway, got out, and locked the car just as I slammed my fingers in the door.
Naturally, I was freaked and yelling and panicked, flailing about. Dad rapidly unlocked the car so I could extricate my hand–which, amazingly, was OK. I was more freaked than actually hurt, it seemed. And if you’re wondering about the only pictures I could find of Dad’s 242: he was not sentimental about his earlier company cars. So the only shots of it were these damage photos when somebody bumped into it. I wish there were better pictures; it was a sharp car. Well, for a plain Jane DL, anyway!
By 1982-84 the DL was still the value Volvo, but was a bit better equipped than it’s mid-’70s predecessors. The tried-and-true B21F four-cylinder remained as standard equipment in DL, GL and non-Turbo GLT models (said GLT disappeared in ’83). The overhead cam design featured a cross-flow head with 98 hp @ 5000 rpm, and 112 lb-ft of torque. A 4-speed manual with overdrive was standard, but 3-speed and 4-speed overdrive automatics were available at extra cost.
Inside, central locking was standard on DL models, along with cloth seating, a quartz crystal clock and child-proof locks on the rear doors of sedans and wagons. Plenty of options were available, such as air conditioning, a manual-crank steel sunroof, cruise control and power windows. In addition to the four-cylinder B21F, DLs could be equipped with a 78 hp D24 six-cylinder diesel. Of course, the very comfortable, orthopedically designed seats with adjustable lumbar support remained.
Another major boon was the wonderful glass area. A tall roof and thin pillars were great for passing and merging, and the ample room inside meant Ovlov owners and three or four of their best friends could drive to dinner in comfort.
As some of you RG regulars may know, Dad’s 242DL was traded for an ’84 244GL, most likely precipitated by my little brother’s arrival in late ’83 and the pressing need for two car seats.
By the way, the featured “Smurf Blue” ’84 DL was spotted by yours truly on the electronic bay back in December 2016. Looked to be a remarkably clean survivor. No idea what it sold for. And while I love these cars, thanks to fond childhood memories, they don’t really compare well to the 740s and 940s of later years. Back in about 1999, I test drove an emerald green 1986 240GL wagon. It was high mileage, but clean, with saddle tan leather.
But compared to the 1991 940SE I was driving back then, it was like a Massey-Ferguson tractor in comparison. No wonder Dad traded the GL for a fire engine red ’88 740 Turbo, and Mom for a metallic burgundy 740GL station wagon! Like night and day. The seats were still comfy though.
As for the two-door 240, it lasted to 1984 in DL and Turbo versions, but disappeared from the 1985 Volvo roster, never to return. I guess all those practical-minded 1980s Volvo buyers thought the sedan and wagon more in line with sensible transportation. Pity; I rather liked the two door.
But never again would Dad have a two-door 240. Though recently, he decided he needed this: A 1967 1800S coupe. Way cooler than a 240, haha! And one I need to write up!
The 240 series – a car built entirely around the interior ventilation fan, which required dismantling almost the entire car when it inevitably died and left you without heat/defroster – something like 10-12 hours labor at the Volvo dealer book rate. My parents had a 1974 245DL that left more family members stranded on the side of the road than all the other cars they have owned put together, plus the vent fan died twice and the steering rack failed twice, and the A/C broke multiple times (and wasn’t very strong even when working), but my mother loved those seats and the great visibility and refused to buy anything other brand until an S60 proved to have disappointing seats that she blamed on the Chinese buyout.
My brother bought a 1982 240DL two door, it was an O.K. car , kinda stodgy as Volvos are wont to be .
My folks seriously considered a 240 for all the reasons you stated. Ultimately, they bought another Cutlass Supreme…the AC did a better job of combating those gulf coast summers!
My to be wife had an 82 240 when I met her, than a 90 240. Both were bought from her parents neighbor, $500. Both were good cars, solid and slow. I guess it’s why she chose a GX for her latest vehicle. An SUV built with solid bones and also slow… a bit flashy for me.
Favorite car of college professors with tweed jackets: the Volvo 240. These used to roam the streets of Eugene, Oregon in huge herds. Then, the Prius arrived as the new status symbol of the chi chi liberal elite, and all the old Volvos are sadly rusting in back yards. But we knew the end was near, when the “Volvos Only” car repair shop turned into a Honda/Import/Toyota repair shop. Goodnight, sweet prince.
When I see these, I wonder why Studebaker couldn’t succeed with their Larks. A little pricey and stodgy but enough extra quality built in to show why the customer should pay a little extra for a smaller but sensible car. Maybe if they moved the plant out of the USA they could get past that generation’s import or bust political sensibilities. Oh wait, they tried that but still no cigar. Perhaps their most important contribution was not in providing cars to people who will only consider imports. It was rather in providing dealer networks. First Studebaker’s Packard dealers became Mercedes and then most of the Studebaker dealers themselves became Toyota. If you can’t beat them, try to make your best deal as you sell out.
Studebaker’s problem was they needed to sell 200-300K per year to break-even, in large part because they had antiqued plants and the highest cost UAW contract in the industry (the union knew Studebaker couldn’t survive a strike, so management always caved to their exorbitant demands). The Lark itself was antiquated under the skin, with a flathead six that dated back to 1939, so it was a tough sell against the Nash Rambler and the Big 3 once they introduced their compacts. Volvo still has never sold 200K in the US market, and were probably selling fewer than 20K units when the Lark was for sale. Volvo always sold more units than Studebaker outside the US, but I suspect they never hit 200K globally until the 1970s or later (they went over 600K for the first time in 2018). Volvo also got some economies of scale because their durable car motors were also used in their profitable lines of Volvo tractors and heavy trucks, which was something Studebaker was not able to establish, and Swedish labor costs were also much lower than Studebaker’s back in the day, so they no doubt had lower build costs. Thus there just wasn’t a market in the US for 200K+ units of compact cars back in the day with non-flashy styling, durable but dull motors, sparse equipment (comfortable seats excepted), and priced at the same level as the full-size cars of the Big 3, which is what Studebaker needed (and Volvo didn’t) to make money and survive.
And Studebaker kept sending ridiculous money to the shareholders as dividends even though it meant starving all their development.
I had a 90 model 240 and I enjoyed it very much. Not a lot of acceleration, but it would go all day at 90 and it felt like 45. Heavy and solid. Finally traded it in because all the interior plastics were disintegrating after 20 years in the Texas sun.
Think Volvo wasn’t engaging in a big spend on the 140/240 that went a quarter century not including their afterlife in Thailand.
Studebaker’s break even once in Canada was more like 30,000 units and they had given up the pickups/ personal luxury coupes/ Avantis that didn’t appeal to the Volvo demo in the move to Canada. They made a very Volvo 240 like point at the end that their style would remain consistent and they had switched to the more reliable GM drivetrains. They also kept around the electric overdrive that seems Volvoesque to me. Still the good professors weren’t swayed. Were not they always themselves threatening a Canada move.
The problem for Studebaker is that you can only operate at break-even for a short while, otherwise you will never have enough profit to invest in product and plant updates and expansion. Canadian break-even was far lower than South Bend, but they had no foundry to make drivetrains, and they were still running on a kingpin front suspension and floppy chassis from 1948. To be competitive they would have needed to go to unit body, and start building their own drivetrains, they also invest to meet increasing safety and emission standards (that the Lark would never hit), and they just didn’t have the volume or pricing power to earn enough money to pay for those things. Volvo ran into the same problem in the 1990s and were saved by Ford, and Tesla is likely going to hit the same problem since they have never consistently earned a profit and hence haven’t refreshed the Model S in 8 years.
I don’t think Tesla is in so bad a shape. True they have left the s improvements to battery and software, but think of how far they have extended their model line. Their license to issue unlimited stock allowed it and gosh knows that worked for Amazon. Worse case for them is they turn into some sort of Intel, Oracle, or Microsoft with lots of cash left over from the glory days, no net debt and a generous dividend on a gradually falling stock as they did electric better than the ICE guys but have run out of new ideas as Musk either died, shot his wad or moved to something else.
I recall reading that even at the end, the car making division wasn’t that big of a loser for Studebaker Corp and that the board was mixed on getting out of the car business, it was something like 8 pro and 10 against keeping the car division around.
The decision to end car production was weighed with the future costs of updating the mid 1950’s components hiding under the Larks fairly contemporary looking body, the last 66 Larks aren’t bad looking cars. There were a few cobled up Lark prototypes with Avanti-esque styling that survived.
Sorry for the double posting of the same material. Not sure how I did it.