Volvo 240: bulletproof brick of the suburbs

Cars Culture

Now this is what you call a cult classic...

Before it became a maker of cool premium cars and SUVs with ‘Thor’s Hammer’ headlights, Swedish flag bonnet tags and crystal gear levers, Volvo produced a number of now-cult machines. The angular 240 is one, and alongside the 480 ES, it exudes modern classic cool.

Arriving in 1974, the 240 is arguably the car most people remember when asked to recall the Swedish car maker. Square-edged, robust, and so incredibly safe authorities in the US used it as a crash test benchmark, the 240 is Volvo typified. And just like ABBA which won the Eurovision Song Contest that year, early 240s are so 1970s. 

Replacing the 140 Series, the 200 Series of cars wore clothes similar to its predecessors, but inspired by the Volvo Experimental Safety Car (VESC) of 1972. Slightly less pointy-chinned than the concept, the range of two and four-door saloons and five-door estates (prefixed ‘24X’, the ‘X’ being a ‘2’, ‘4’ and ‘5’ suffix, denoting two, four or five doors) featured massive safety crumple zones front and rear, with a mid-section that was more or less identical to their 140 ancestors. And though the 245 and 265’s load-lugging body was very, very square, they made utilitarian straight-line style sensational.

As well as safety – of course, long a Volvo traditional trademark – technology took a step up, too. Overhead-cam engines became standard, while MacPherson strut front suspension was less intrusive under the bonnet, while new rack-and-pinion steering offered a sharper drive (though not by much, this is a 1970s Volvo don’t forget). Posher models even boasted a power-assisted system for extra ease, and to make the Swedish car drive less like the ‘tank’ it was so often nicknamed after.

While four-cylinder carburettor-fed and fuel-injected engines powered the lower rungs of 240 ownership, top-spec 260 models gained luxurious six-cylinder ‘PRV’ units – so-called because they were designed in a Peugeot, Renault and Volvo partnership. As well as 260 models (note the ‘6’ referring to the six-pot unit), the 140bhp, 2,664cc, 90-degree V6 ‘Douvrin’ also later found its way into plush 240 GLE and GLTs, and an enlarged 2.8-litre version even powered the DeLorean Motor Company’s DMC-12. Volkswagen-sourced six-cylinder diesels provided oil-burning alternatives.

Not previously known for its performance image, unbelievably, the 240 helped trailblaze the way for hotter Volvos. The 155bhp four-cylinder force-fed 240 Turbo kicked things off in 1981, with the Turbo Evolution of 1983 really turning up the wick. Created to fulfil homologation regulations for the Group A class of the FIA European Touring Car Championship (ETC), 500 Turbo Evos are rumoured to have been made, but sources state that as few as 23 actually made it out of the factory doors in all-out quasi-racing spec. The road cars had a somewhat denuded 155bhp, while the full-fat boxy racers had as much as 380. Think about that: 380bhp in a Volvo 240!

And, just like the BTCC 850 Estate terror of the mid-1990s, the 240 was such an unlikely touring car hero, its cult appeal grew because of it. Seeing images of the 240 Turbo ETC Group A racer now, the car appears so out of place, its ‘Flying Brick’ nickname well-earned. The sharp-creased body with the minimalist-and-so-discreet front and rear spoilers looked like it could cleave the air which as much grace as a sledgehammer, let alone one swung by Thor. The racer secured its biggest title in 1985’s ETC with Thomas Lindström and Gianfranco Brancatelli behind the wheel, and when the force-fed engine was dropped into the production 240 Estate, with a 0 to 62 time of 9 seconds and a top whack of 121mph, the 245 Turbo became the world’s fastest estate car!

As if touring car success isn’t marvellous enough, TV and film appearances often help cement a car as a cult classic. And the 240 scores here, too. In the late 1990s, crime novelist Maddie Magellan ferries paranormal sleuth Jonathan Creek around in a red 1985 Volvo 240 DL 2.0 Estate (245) in the TV series of the same name. 1980s antique dealer Lovejoy fared better, his yellow 265 GLE load-lugger starring in the first season of the eponymous BBC drama comedy. The Beeb had previous form, though: a 1972 Volvo 145 DL appeared in 1975’s ‘The Good Life’ driven by Gerry and Margot – the curtain-twitching arrival of a Volvo Estate signified to your neighbours you’d really made it.

And if that’s still not cool for school, Italian coach-builder Bertone built the 262C between 1977 and 1981: a V6-powered, mostly vinyl-roofed two-door ‘coupé’ rival to the Cadillac Eldorado and Mercedes-Benz 280CE. Groovy! If you can find one, there was also the 244 DL-based ‘244 Anniversary’, built to celebrate Volvo’s 50th birthday in 1977. Resplendent in metallic silver with black and gold decorative exterior trim, it featured blue upholstery, and a special ‘Volvo 1927-77, Anniversary Car’ plaque. On its death-bed, another exclusive, the back-to-basics ‘Polar’ 245 enjoyed cult status in Europe.

In the current electrified car age, the 200 Series has a happy relevance, too. Volvo has declared plans to electrify all of its range by 2019, but the 200 Series was an environmental pioneer over four decades ago. The autumn of 1976 saw the arrival of three-way catalytic convertor and Lamda sensor-equipped cars for the US, and the following year Volvo picked up the American National Environmental Industry prize. There was more: in 1978 the 240 was heralded the US’ cleanest car by the California Air Resources Board.

The 200 Series still remains Volvo’s most popular car. By the time the curtain – IKEA-sourced no doubt – came down on production 25 years ago on 5 May 1993, 2,862,573 240s and 260s had rolled out of the Swedish firm’s factories. Not all chunky bumpers and slab sides, the reliable 200 Series gave Volvo populist and practical, if slightly premium, appeal, and is now more nifty than naff. The 240 has shot bang on target when it comes to the modern classic market, and values of the ‘brick’ really are flying now…