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Beaters, Part 4
They Shoot Volvos, Don't They?
Evan Reisner

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As I have written time and again throughout this series, a great deal of your interaction with your beater is dependent upon your level of mechanical inclination. Therefore, your decision of when your beater has reached the end of its useful (to you) life is largely related to your skills as well. The more you have to pay someone else to fix your car, the less cost-efficient beater ownership becomes.

That having been said, following this simple rule can prove very useful to the owner:

Never spend more per year on necessary repairs than your initial purchase price for the car.

That sounds like a pretty firm rule, doesn't it? Well, like all rules, it was meant to be broken, so don't take it too seriously! Let's look at some real-world examples and how they can be applied to a specific situation.

Body / Frame:
First, let's talk about rust. Rust kills cars, but it's a slow death. As the unibody of a Volvo is designed with extreme structural integrity, it can withstand a lot of rust before it becomes worrisome, but when it does, nothing can be done to save the car. I'd like to note here that Volvos are designed with crumple zones. These are intentionally weak spots in the design so that the car can absorb impact in a predictable manner. Some people may say that when the structure becomes weak in other areas, those crumple zones become less predictable. I disagree.

Some years ago, my wife was involved in a high-speed freeway accident in which she took impact front and rear. The 1983 244DL she was driving was within six months of the end of its useful life due to severe rust. Nonetheless, the car still absorbed the impacts in a manner consistent with the designed crumple zones, and was driveable, although not truly roadworthy.

This brings us to accident damage. This should be fairly obvious. If the structure of the car is severely damaged in an accident, junk it, and go find another beater. Cosmetic damage is easily repairable, however, especially on the front end. You can replace the entire front end of a 200-series car with just a few hand tools. I know, I've done it. I recently bought another 1983 244DL that had taken a nice front-end hit for $150. After about 10 hours of my labor (I already had the parts on hand), a very nice man offered me $500 for the car. Other than a drill, the repair used no power tools. It's just that easy.

Engine / Drivetrain:
Given a modicum of decency and respect, most Volvo engines last virtually forever. Irv Gordon has not had the engine in his 1800 rebuilt in the last 1,200,000 miles! Nonetheless, engines can and do sometimes fail. With the rear wheel drive configuration and roomy engine bay, swapping in a replacement engine is usually more cost-effective than rebuilding the existing engine. Again, the mechanical skills of the owner come into play, but the swap can be completed with simple hand tools and a rented engine hoist.

Manual transmissions rarely fail. That's why I prefer them over automatics. Of course, clutches can wear out, but even a professionally replaced clutch shouldn't cost over $300. Automatics are another story entirely. As with engines, it is usually cheaper to swap in a junkyard unit than to rebuild the existing unit. Find a trusty supplier, though; that used tranny might be almost as bad as the one you currently have!

As for the differential... I suppose, like any mechanical system, the differential can fail. Then again, I've never seen one fail, nor have I heard of such a thing, at least under normal use. Don't worry about it.

Steering / Suspension / Tires / Brakes:
Steering and suspension problems can lead to safety concerns. Please keep them in decent condition. On the other hand, a worn suspension can still have a lot of life in it before it becomes a failed suspension system. Usually, a worn system is still safe, but it can often lead to increased tire wear.

Tires are cheap. That is, cheap tires are cheap. Then again, you are driving a beater, so you don't need Pirellis or Michelins. If you keep the tires rotated, even cheap tires will last two years. Two tires, mounted and balanced, should cost you under $100. That is always cheaper than fixing the suspension so that tires don't wear out as fast.

Brakes stop the car. Nothing is more important than the brakes. Fix them. Period. The parts are not that expensive, and brake work is not as difficult as the big brake chains would have you believe. On most Volvos, you can change brake pads with nothing more than a lug wrench, a jack and stands, and a screwdriver. Please fix your brakes.

Heating and Air Conditioning:
If the heater blower fails, junk the car. Really, it is that much of a pain to fix. Okay, if you have spent a lot of time and effort making the car decent, give it a shot. I warn you, though, the Flat Rate repair book lists this at five hours (!) labor, and you've never done one before. Figure on spending the better part of the weekend on this job, and I'm not kidding. Replacing a heater core is all that and then some, so the same applies. Heater cores on Volvos are fairly robust and rarely fail, though.

Air conditioning... What, your $500 Volvo came with working air conditioning? And now it's broken? Roll down the windows. Deal with it.

Electrical repairs are almost always easy to fix, but often disproportionally difficult to diagnose. They are the bane of every Volvo owner. Get a good manual, and learn good diagnostic techniques. With a few relatively inexpensive tools and a little knowledge, an electrical nightmare can become an easy (and cheap!) fix.

Everything else:
Aside from the items listed above, nothing else is important. Remember the three needs of a beater: goes, stops, turns. Everything else is just cosmetic. Fix it when you can. Learn that the Internet can lead you to many sources of little parts that may be bugging you.

Finally, if too many things fail at once, you will start to hate your car. Emotion plays a big part of the decision to part with your car. If you hate it, sell it. If you love it, you will put up with a little more trouble. Please don't hate your car.

Wrapping up the series...
I truly hope you have enjoyed reading the "Beaters" series. I have really enjoyed writing it, and have cherished the feedback received from you, the reader. Feel free to keep the e-mails coming; I enjoy reading them and sharing my knowledge.

One last note: Have fun with your beater. There's no need to worry about resale value, so make it as individual as you are. If you are an artiste or even an extrovert, have fun with a couple of spray paint cans! Glue amusing items to it! Put bumper stickers in unexpected places! Do something useful and fun with the time and energy you save by not having to wax your car!


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

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