VCI logo Archive Index | Current Issue
Beaters, Part 1
Evan Reisner

As some of you may remember from an earlier article, I drive Volvos commonly known as "beaters." In this series of articles, I will share more of the philosophy of ownership and repair of the beater.

First, we must answer the question, "What is a beater?" I suppose that is open to many definitions. If you have just plunked down $40,000 for a 1999 C70 Convertible, a $5000 740 might strike you as a beater. But my definition is simpler: a beater is a car purchased for a three-digit figure (or less! A recently acquired '77 244DL cost $45!). It's simple. $999 or less should easily get you a perfectly serviceable 240. Remember that a new-car buyer barely gets a decent down payment for that amount. Personally, I have owned eight 240 series cars, and have never paid more than $750.

So why a do you need a beater? I can think of four reasons:

  1. It's all you can afford.
  2. You have a very nice car (hopefully it's a Volvo!), and the roads are salted in winter where you live.
  3. You own a nice vehicle, but you have a need for a second car.
  4. (And my personal philosophy) You just need a car that runs, you don't want to spend a lot of money on depreciation, and as long as it starts, runs, and stops, it's fine by you.

So you want to buy a beater...

...what kind of Volvo should you look for? This series will concentrate on the 200 series Volvos, although some 700 series are getting cheap enough to qualify. Older models, such as 14[X]s and 544s are starting to climb back up the price scale, at least where I live.

First is the engine. Most strongly recommended are the B21/B23 engines, installed in '76 to '84 models. It is Volvo engineering at its most robust. If the engine seems in decent shape, 350,000 miles is not uncommon before a rebuild. A note on this engine family: most of the B21F engines have K-Jetronic fuel injection, while all of the B23F engines and a small handful of late '82 B21F engines are equipped with LH-Jetronic injection. As the K-Jetronic is a mechanical injection system, it has proven to be a little less trouble-prone and is certainly less costly to repair and easier to troubleshoot. Of course, if you happen to live in a country where the carburetor-equipped B2[X]A series of engines were sold, you might want to find one. You can not beat the simplicity of a carburetor and a mechanical fuel pump!

Next on the list are the B230F engines of 1985-88. In an attempt to reduce friction (and therefore increase fuel economy), Volvo went to smaller bearings on the crankshaft and connecting rods on this derivative. While less bearing area would suggest slightly shorter engine life, I wouldn't worry too much in a well-maintained engine. I currently drive an '85 245DL with 262,XXX miles, and I'm none too worried about the bearings. Note that sometime in mid-1988, the B230F was redesigned with larger bearings, but it's unusual to find a car this new in our price range.

Another choice in the 240 series is the B20F OHV engine installed in the 1975 models. I confess that I'm not too familiar with this engine, and I feel that the installation in a 200 series car strikes me as somewhat of a bastardization. A few parts are getting difficult to come by. However, if you are getting a beater so that you can park your 1800 for the winter, this might just be the car for you. Since some enthusiasts avoid this car, they can often be found for less money than the later models.

These days, a few turbocharged Volvos might be dropping into the sub-$1000 price range. Unless you find a car with a recently rebuilt turbo, or the owner can show evidence of frequent oil changes, you might want to skip the turbo cars. After all, who wants to put a $800 part on a $1000 car?

Perhaps you are considering a Diesel-powered 244 or 245 for your beater. I strongly believe this to be a horrid idea. These engines are not known for their longevity, mostly due to poor oiling design. These cars are also dreadfully slow. Unless you stumble across one with either meticulous maintenance records or a Diesel that has recently been rebuilt, these cars are best avoided.

Finally, there is the option of the B27F/B28F PRV V-6 engine. Most Volvo lovers generally accept it as a bad design. This can be used to your benefit, however, as these cars can usually be found priced well below the equivalent four-cylinder cars. If it's cheap enough, and it runs decently today, chances are fairly good that it will run for the next six months, at least. If you can find a $200 car that will run for six months, why not buy it? Two hundred dollars is less than many people pay on a monthly loan installment or lease payment for their car. Don't necessarily run away from these cars, but do consider them disposable. If you find one with a nice body, you can also use it as a recipient for that spare B21/B23 you have laying around!

The transmission can be a topic of great debate. I am a firm believer in the manual transmission for durability and simplicity. Among the stickshifts, the M40 (on B20 cars) and the M45 four-speed transmissions are the simplest and therefore least trouble-prone. But don't buy one unless you plan on rarely, if ever, driving one on the highway. At today's highway speeds, you will see your engine wound up to annoyingly high RPMs. The M41 (1975) and M46 transmissions solve this problem with the addition of an electrically actuated overdrive. While the electrical aspect of the overdrive becomes prone to failure after a few years, it's usually easy to fix. Finally, some later cars come with the M47, a true five-speed. There is some anecdotal evidence that this unit may be weaker than the M46, but it is probably just fine for everyday driving. Most M47-equipped cars fall outside of our price range, however.

If you must have an automatic, you will come across three possibilities. The 1975-only BW35 should probably be avoided. It is a very old design, and not too many transmission shops even remember how to properly service one. Also, the 1975 B20F is quite underpowered, and the BW35 will sap a great deal of power from the already anemic drivetrain. From 1976 to the early '80s, Volvos came with the three-speed BW55 or AW55 automatic. While this design is fairly simple and rugged, the absence of an overdrive will cause a very buzzy experience on the highway. Starting in the early '80s, Volvo began installing the AW70/AW71 overdrive automatics. While these can suffer from some of the same electrical maladies as the overdrive-equipped stickshift transmissions, they are the best all-around choice for automatic driving.

Whatever you choose from among the automatic transmission roster, please make certain that the fluid has been changed regularly. I see a great many serviceable-looking cars with failed automatics in the junkyards. I imagine that when the owners found that they needed a new $1200-$1500 transmission, it was a simple decision for them to junk the car.

Finally, you want to find a car with as few options as possible. For example, power windows can be somewhat troublesome, while crank-down windows rarely fail.

Assuming you have read this far, you are now ready to begin your quest. Stay tuned for the next installment, "Finding Your 'New' Beater, Inspecting Your Potential Purchase, and Closing The Deal."

Recommendations in this article represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the VClassics editors.

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Back to the Top