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Beaters, Part 3
Now That It's Yours
Evan Reisner

Congratulations! Now that you've followed the first two parts of this Beaters series, you are now the proud owner of your "new" Volvo. In our sub-$1000 price range, you probably do have a few things to take care of. By the time the car is in your driveway, you have done a pre-purchase inspection, a test drive, and have driven the car home. You should have a fairly solid "mental list" of things that need to be done in order to make the car meet your transportation needs. As the car sits in your driveway, get out a piece of paper and turn this mental list into a written one; it is much easier to prioritize needs once they are on paper.

BUT -- before you go spending a lot of money, you need to be a lot more familar with the car. Obviously, if there are problems which directly affect safety, you need to address them before driving the care even one more mile.

Otherwise, drive the car around town for a week or so. What you are trying to determine is the potential useful life of the car -- two months, one year, or longer. Obviously, if you feel that the car only has six useful months of life left in it, your priorities are different than if the car feels like a "long-termer."

During this familiarization week, there are several low- or no-dollar projects you can perform. Several of these will be listed later. More importantly, crawling in, around, and under the car will be an important aid in familiarizing yourself with your new friend.

In order of priorities, here is a list of things to do:

Each driver has his or her own needs to feel secure and safe in a given vehicle. Good brakes are always a priority, but other items are more up to individual discretion. As an example, some drivers might feel that a car without a windshield washer is a safety hazard, while others might simply find it an inconvenience.

Brakes: Does the car stop? If it does, that is good enough to get us through this trial period. If they pulsate (probably warped rotors) or pull (but not in a frightening way), the brakes are probably safe enough to get through the week. Be sure to keep your list handy, and try to isolate any brake problems so you know where to look for the trouble.

Tires: Exceptionally worn front tires are usually the sign of a suspension or steering problem. If you think the car will only last a year or so, a pair of $30 tires are a lot cheaper than front end work -- so long as the car acts in a predictable fashion. Again, tires on a beater are a matter of your personal comfort level.

Engine: Does the car start and run reliably? This is most definitely a safety issue. A car that stalls without warning is a danger to the driver as well as those with whom he shares the road. Find and fix the problem. However, an erratic, low, or high idle is only another item to add to the list, and most likely not a safety hazard.

Exhaust: Your beater is most likely rusty. This makes the exhaust system a safety item. Leaky exhausts, combined with floor pan rot, will lead to headaches, nausea, and sleepiness for the driver. If there is a minor exahust leak, feel free to try any of the generic fixes available at the chain auto parts stores. Volvo exhausts lean towards the expensive side, so a quick fix is probably in order before spending several hundred dollars on exhaust work.

Lighting: Please make sure all of the exterior lights work. Non-working lights are an accident waiting to happen. Bulbs are cheap. Replace them as necessary.

As part of the emissions control system, Volvos use what is called a Flame Trap for cleaning blowby emissions from the oil sump. It is a variation on the more common PCV valve. A clogged flame trap can lead to very expensive blown engine seals. On earlier 240s, the flame trap is located in a short, fat hose off the valve cover. Later cars have the flame trap housing buried under the intake manifold. Look for a small cylinder, about 1" diameter by 2" long, with one thick and one thin hose coming from the top. Once you have the flame trap extracted, clean it -- any solvent will do, and carbueretor cleaner is as good as any other. If the flame trap is really gunked up and a thorough cleaning doesn't help, get a replacement. Even at the dealer, the price is less than $3.

Volvos of the proper vintage to fit into our price range are known to host a horde of electrical gremlins. Fortunately, most are due to wiring problems, and are therefore inexpensive (but time-consuming) to fix. A few inexpensive electrical tools are an important asset to a beater owner's toolbox. At the very least, a wire stripper, crimping tool, and test light should be on hand. For less than $30, a digital multimeter can be quite handy for hunting down gremlins.

Your first efforts should be at the fusebox. Volvo used European-style ceramic fuses. Unfortunately, the ends of these fuses tend to corrode. Remove all the fuses. If the sticker on the fuse door indicating the amperage and circuits for the fuses is gone or unreadable, write down what fuse went where. For the truly low-budget mechanic, an emery board will work to clean the fuses and contacts. A small brass wire brush is a step up from this, and a wire wheel in a Dremel-type tool is my pick. If you want to spend a few wise dollars, replace the ceramic fuses with the lower-maintenance glass fuses, type GBC. These can be difficult to find in stores, but when you do, you will spend less than $5 to replace all of the fuses, and you will need to clean the fusebox far less frequently.

The next place to look is under the hood. If your Volvo has LH-Jetronic fuel injection (some 1982 models and all non-turbo '83+), there is a blade-type fuse on the driver's side inner fender in an inline holder. Give this fuse a good look; if it is marginal, your car will run erratically -- replace the fuse and its holder.

The engine wiring on the Volvo 240 series is infamous for insulation rot. As noted in an earlier installment, you should have looked for this during your pre-purchase inspection. Look again, very closely this time. If you see any wires whose insulation is deteriorated or missing, splice in new sections of wire. Be sure to use wire of the same gauge as the factory harness. It is also helpful if you can use wire with the same color insulation as that you are replacing. This will be useful for tracing wiring at a later time for troubleshooting.

Another common failure point, if your "new" Volvo is a wagon, is in the tailgate wiring harness. In what I believe is the worst single design flaw, Volvo ran the wiring for the license plate lamps, rear wiper, rear defroster, and central locking through the tailgate hinges. Being as this is a very small radius, the opening and closing of the tailgate will often cause these wires to break. If any of the tailgate accessories do not work, look closely at the wires; they are probably broken. I fix these wires by bypassing the hinge wiring completely with a small loop of wire. If you need details about this, feel free to e-mail me for the low-buck solution.

If your Volvo is equipped with power windows, chances are good that one (or more) of them does not work. If a window operates from its own door switch, but not the master panel on the driver door (or vice-versa), chances are fairly good that you have a failed switch. These switches are not difficult to remove, disassemble, and clean, and that usually fixes the problem. Be careful, however, as there are several small parts just waiting to be lost!

Cleaning your "new" car, both inside and out, is a great (and cheap!) way to become intimately familiar with the vehicle. As an added benefit (and depending how thoroughly you clean the interior of the car), you can often find several dollars worth of loose change! Think of it as the beater buyer's version of that new-car rebate! Keep an eye open for broken, loose or missing trim pieces; add them to your list.

By the end of this "shakedown week," your priority list should be reasonably solid. Start attending to each item in order. If there is anything major on the list that you feel is beyond your mechanical abilities, start shopping your city or town for a mechanic who is well-versed in things Volvo. You should also invest in a service manual for your car. For starters, I recommend the Haynes Manuals. While not as comprehensive as those by Robert Bentley, they are significantly less expensive, and cover more models and years.

After the first week of ownership has passed and repairs as necessary are underway, follow the 10-50-100 rule. Drive the car on 10 mile trips until you are confident that these short jaunts are trouble-free. Proceed to 50 mile trips until these can be completed reliably. Finally, move up to 100 mile trips. Once you are confident that your car will make these, your "new" car will take you anywhere.

Finally, enjoy. Drive your car around, smug in your knowledge that you are getting to your destination just as well as the driver in the next lane with the $300 per month car payment!

In the next issue, I will tackle one of the most difficult issues in beater ownership -- when to give up and move on. Stay tuned for: They Shoot Volvos, Don't They?

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

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

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