We were at Pukekohe recently watching the Leisuretime-Tracer classic series, and to our amazement saw a Volvo saloon thrashing around in the Classic Trial, and not looking at all bad out on the circuit
The sight of the Volvo brought to mind the ‘Flying Brick’ or ‘Swedish Taxi’ successes of the early ’80s in the Wellington Street Race and the Australian Touring Car Championship. I decided I wanted to learn why something that looked like it did could travel with such ease amongst the BMWs in the Classic Trial. Volvos are somewhat of an enigma to those who lean towards the sporting aspect of motoring. In a ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ competition history, Volvos have usually excelled and surprised their critics, only to disappear again for long periods.
Volvos have always been very ‘sensible’ designs, very rugged and, of course, very safe.
It has been said that in order to fully appreciate a Volvo you have to wrap it around a tree, however, the peace of mind that Volvo owners have from all the anecdotal evidence that exists in this respect is enough for them to continue buying the Swedish product. Volvos sell to pragmatic people who were mostly Volvo owners before, but there is a limit to which even pragmatism can go.
Volvo set itself a real challenge by creating some truly ugly cars in the’ 80s, something which marginalised their obvious attributes and stretched brand loyalty to its limits.
There was a time when it was the firm belief of motor manufacturers that safety did not sell. Most manufacturers felt it was like an airline advertising its safety record. The fact that Volvo for many years bucked this trend gave it a huge point of difference, and allowed it to sell cars to intelligent people who cared about self preservation. When every other manufacturer marched onto Volvo’s marketing turf, the Swedish company would simply not by survive selling ugly, heavy-looking cars in the name of safety. Volvo had to move with the times and give people other reasons to feel proud about buying a Volvo.
Volvos were already incredibly durable, very sensible and very comfortable, but they became less reliable in the ’80s and ’90s, which once again marginalised Volvo’s stout reputation. The 850 with its Porsche-designed five-cylinder engine was the point at which Volvo’s design philosophy was seen to visibly soften. With the 850, Volvo entered motor sport during the ’90s with Tom Walkinshaw, and had a great run of success; initially with racing estate car versions of the 850! Jim Richards had some success in ex TWR 850 cars in Australia during the time that 2.0-litre Super Tourers were competing with V8s for Aussie TV time.
Bricks with Mortar
This style care and competition success changed the Volvo brand image substantially, and though today Volvos are still considered to be safer than ordinary cars, they are also fleet of foot, stylish and above all, intelligent designs.
We drove a new S40 all-wheel-drive down to the home of the ‘Flying Brick’ in Ramarama, and found it to be rapid, quiet and with truly excellent handling. What really stood out though was the excellent ergonomics. The amount of thought that has gone into the shape and position of everything, and the sensible, simple way controls and instruments are labelled and lit makes the S40 a truly excellent driver’s car. The peripheral things that generally take the driver’s attention away from the road are made sophistication-simple — the way it should be. The car has made interior design an art form, and the exterior is fairly individual too, if a modern car can be. I was impressed.
Europeans would always have seen Volvos as heavy cars, but in places like the USA, Australia and New Zealand the Volvo was smaller than the average car during the ‘60s when they first began to emerge in those markets; as such Volvo was seen as a comparatively light car that could easily be mistaken for something sporty. This was all well and good, because the 120 series Amazon (what a perfect name) handled deceptively well and showed a good turn of speed. The Volvo 120 series was ideal for the Australasian markets because of its rugged design and it won many long-term friends, among them Peter McKay, an influential journalist. The 140 series introduced in 1967 was a little bulkier, but at the time of introduction had an attractive body and durable mechanicals.
The 140 series did very well in Australasia, keeping friends of the 120 and gaining many more. The 240 series kept the same general body shape but was considerably updated, most notably with huge bumpers (the front was 130mm longer) and very boxy styling. Volvo Australia became worried that Volvo was synonymous with crash protection and dependability, but little else. If the others moved in on this territory, the company would lose it. It introduced a two-door GT version in 1979. The 242GT had a 104kW (140bhp) version of the B23E engine (with 10:1 compression ratio and an ‘H’ camshaft), a front air dam, stiffened suspension and accent striping on the sides and boot lid. The 242GT was the first sports-oriented Volvo down under since the P1800 shape finished.
Volvo began appearing at endurance events and giving exceptional results. In 1979 Repco held a reliability trial over a seemingly impossible route of 20,000km, to be covered in 14 days and nights at an average of 60kph around Australia. The average speed meant you needed to be flat out most of the way to take account of stoppages. Six Volvos, two of them new 242GTs (one driven by the colourful Australian rally champion Ross Dunkerton) were entered. It is not well known that from the early ’70s many Volvo cars were actually assembled in Australia at the Nissan plant in Clayton, Victoria — Volvo assembly there ended in 1988. Dunkerton normally drove for Nissan at the time, but was released to drive for Volvo.
Trials and Tribulations
At one stage they were third outright, then unfortunately fell to the back of the field with axle and kangaroo damage. But after 14 days and nights Dunkerton/McKay had grabbed fourth place outright, behind the Holden one-two-three, giving Volvo first spot in the 2.0-litre to 3.0-litre division, and the honour of being the first four-cylinder car home. Volvo also scored first in the Ladies’ Class, with 19th place outright. There were four Volvos in the first 30 finishers. Not bad considering there were 170 starters!
“I retired around 55 times,” Dunkerton said, “but the Volvo was a very strong car, and if we had it prepared with what we know now and a little more power I reckon we could have won the event, no worries!”
In 1979 David McKay and former open-wheeler champion Spencer Martin ran at Bathurst in a stock 242GT. McKay, who drove solo in the legendary Phase III GTHO Falcon in 1971, when he finished third, was quoted as saying, “The Volvo image has always been of a conservative motor car. At Bathurst we might just change that a little when people realise just how hard the car can go, and in completely standard trim, too.” It was against purpose-built racing sedans running on slick tyres that the 242GT finished fifth in the under 3.0-litre class, but unlike the other competitors McKay drove his car home after the event. Co-driver Martin said that 1000km was just not enough. The Volvo needed a fortnight-long race to show its true colours.
After 1982, however, when Group A was introduced in Europe, Volvo surprised the racing fraternity by taking on the factory-backed Rover Vitesses, Jaguar XJSs, Alfa GTVs and BMW coupes in the European Touring Car Championship arena with the already dumpy and dated-looking 240 series. In 1984, at the Zolder circuit in Belgium, Volvo became the first manufacturer to win a round of the ETCC with a turbocharged engine. Its weapon was a two-door 240 with an estimated 224kW (300bhp). In 1985, the Eggenberger racing team gained the European Touring Car Championship for Volvo.
New Zealand businessman Mark Petch had spotted the potential of the Volvo when Australasia took to the Group A Formula. He bought the actual car which had won Volvo’s first Group A victory at Zolder. His intention to run it at Australasia’s first Group A race in the streets of Wellington almost failed, as the Volvo was being collected from Auckland airport and flown down to Wellington on a Hercules whilst the rest of the field practiced. It was reputedly towed to the circuit behind a Morris 1100, to start at the back of the grid.
Tom Walkinshaw in a works Rover SD1, Peter Brock in a Commodore and two new BMW 635s were entered for the race in January 1985. Petch had enrolled talented Belgian driver Michel Delcour and multiple Kiwi saloon champion Robbie Francevic to do the driving, and they blitzed the field. A truly memorable and impressive feat against all the odds, and part of Kiwi motor racing folklore (typically there was confusion over the timekeeping, and BMW also claimed the victory!).
Petch took the Volvo to Australia and gained overall victories but not the championship, however, when the team entered the following year it was so successful that Volvo dealers formed a team to support it. Fortunately by this time the Petch team had accrued enough points that it would be difficult to catch — because the Volvo team self-destructed from that point. You can see what Robbie Francevic thought of the situation in our special on Robbie’s career elsewhere in this magazine.
Suffice it to say that at the final round Fred Gibson’s Nissan driver, George Fury, had to win and Francevic’s Volvo finish no higher than tenth for Volvo to lose the championship. Fury blew the doors off everyone. Francevic, however, managed sixth and secured the title for himself and Volvo. Volvo’s two years of competition in Australia ended on a sour note.
The Volvo that I saw Des Redgewell running at Pukekohe in 2006 is an Australian limited edition called 242GT, like the one that Pete McKay ran at Bathurst, not the turbo version. Production ran from 1978 to 1981, well before the Turbo episode, and you could get it in any colour as long as it was silver with orange highlighting. I felt I had seen this car before, and it turned out I had.
Mike Westall was an identity in the ’90s in the Jaguar world, and also owned the unfortunately short-lived Gasoline Alley pub-come-car showroom in Parnell. He had used this Volvo to trog up and down from Auckland to Wellington — it had covered many thousands of kilometres and served him exceptionally well.
It was brought into New Zealand from Singapore in 1984 by Volcar Auto Centre boss, Dave Youngson, who carried out several modifications to the 242GT during his three-year ownership. Chief of these was the acquisition (from the Eggenberger Volvo race team) of a complete race suspension set-up. As such, our test car 64mm lower than standard at the front and 51mm lower at the rear.
The front suspension featured Bilstein shocks and, at the rear, fully adjustable Konis. In addition Dave also completely rebuilt the car’s engine, replacing the standard camshaft with a Volvo 760 cam — which gives the 242GT more mid-range wallop.
It went from Mike to Volvo fan Ray Clarke from Drury. Des took me round to Ray’s place, where there is a substantial collection of Volvos, information and memorabilia, not to mention an encyclopaedic Volvo databank on Ray’s shoulders.The 242GT was quite a surprise on the way out there, particularly in the engine department. I felt that this long-stroker would be strained at high rpm, but instead it begged for more — the engine is super strong, which bears out Marcos’s decision to use it in its sports cars.
The ride is still very civilised despite Reg lowering it 25mm further for circuit work. The handling is more sophisticated than you might expect, although the large steering wheel does tend to scramble the signals between driver and contact patch.
Reg and I drove out to Ray’s place in the old 242GT, along with the latest Volvo S40 Turbo AWD for Ray’s opinion. Ray seemed quite satisfied with his 300,939km Amazon wagon!
For me the S40 is a demonstration that Volvo knows how to build a competent sporty sedan, and the 242GT an indication that it realised it needed to. It would be true to say that other than a name and place of birth the cars had little in common. Both have exceptional build quality and a feeling of reasonable comfort and integrity, but the S40 was stylish, accomplished and sophisticated, whereas the 242GT was amazingly competent despite its unsophisticated bearing. One thing is for sure, though, both Volvos really have something to offer. Don’t mock it till you’ve tried it!
1979 Volvo 242GT & 2006 Volvo S40 Turbo AWD
1979 Volvo 242GT
Engine: Iron in-line four B23, fuel-injected ohc
Fuel system: Fuel-injection
Max power: 104kW (140bhp) at 5750rpm
Max torque: 191Nm at 4500rpm
Transmission: four speed with overdrive
Steering: rack and pinion
Suspension: Front MacPherson struts, Rear trailing Brakes Disc/disc
- Width: 2830mm
- Length: 4898mm
- Wheelbase: 2650mm
Performance: Top speed 180kph
NZ new price: n/a
2006 Volvo S40 Turbo AWD
Engine: Five-cylinder, in-line
Capacity: 2.5-litre, turbocharged
Fuel System: Fuel injection
Max power: 162kW at 5000rpm
Max torque: 320Nm at 1500-4800rpm
Transmission: five-speed Geartronic
Steering: rack and pinion. PA
Suspension: Front MacPherson struts, Rear multi-link
Brakes: Disc/disc. DSTC anti-skid system, ABS with EBA
- Width: 1770mm
- Height: 1452mm
- Length: 4468mm
Performance: 0-100km/h 7.2secs
Top Speed: 235kph
NZ new price: $69,990