by Sam Skelton
26 September 2016 3 min read
The Steaming Volvo 960

I love a good car caper. Helping a mate to collect another piece of old tat – or collecting one of my own – is one of the best ways of spending an evening. You get a good journey with a mate, there’s the jeopardy of whether the new one will make it, the long and rambling conversations en route, and you see something new every time. This is why I do a lot of them – and it’s how I crossed paths with a knackered old Volvo.

My old mucker and fellow Festival of the Unexceptional judge Jon Burgess needed an estate car, and managed to net a Volvo 960 24v on eBay for just £180. We weren’t expecting much, so when we arrived to find the front bumper hanging off and an entire builders merchant’s worth of rubble in the back we weren’t surprised. But then, we weren’t surprised when it fired up and transported Jon back from Maidstone to Peterborough without incident – because despite its 247,000 miles it’s still a Volvo 900-series, and is thus hewn from granite.

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Except that the following day, this one decided that its coolant would be far better on the ground and in the bores than it would in the cooling system. Having voided itself all over a fuel forecourt, we decided to run it home with the pressure cap off; the safest way back. Until 100 yards from my place, when for the first time the temperature gauge moved above the midway point. It was bent over the top of the gauge like an arthritic finger, and we were in trouble.

Despite the fact it’s running perfectly happily still, it keeps rejecting any offer of coolant and therefore it’s not left my driveway since that fatal moment.

Over a pint that evening, we mulled over the options. We both know the head gasket has gone and that realistically it’s game over for a quarter million mile Volvo with dinged panels and worn trim. We’re not the first people to have experienced this, judging by the amount of Radweld in the old coolant. So a radiator flush is necessary, possibly a new thermostat, and some new hoses. We then need to sort the head gasket – either by replacing it or using Steel Seal if need be. Alternatively, we could stick some form of ludicrous V8 into it – small block Ford, Bentley unit, Lexus LS400 engine – you name it, as the beers flowed our ideas became more ridiculous. Jon’s not convinced a BMW V12 would work, but hey – his loss.

But there was one idea which didn’t cross our minds once – and it’s only now, a week later, that it’s occurred to me to question it. We didn’t once consider the idea of cutting our losses, giving up on the old dowager and calling the local scrap metal merchants. Despite the fact that it was a sub £200 car with interstellar mileage and despite the fact it had broken big-time during the first day in our care, it never occurred to us that it might be game over.

I’ve spoken to a few friends about this now, and they all agree – we all find it hard to condemn even the lost causes. We will keep fighting, keep throwing our time and money at cars which realistically should have been scrapped long ago. I can’t blame Jon for wanting to save the Volvo, because I was exactly the same with my SAAB 9000. And when I finally gave up with that car, I sold it to a mate who has been battling it since.

Why do we do it – why do we refuse to look facts in the face and acknowledge that a faithful old car has given us enough? Is it pity? Does Jon feel sorry for the poor old Swedish shoebox; having made it to a quarter of a million miles only to be cast aside because it’s got the automotive equivalent of the sniffles? Maybe it’s bloody-mindedness, a refusal to accept we’ve been beaten by something so simple as a head gasket. Or maybe it’s simpler even than that. Old cars tug on our heartstrings in a way that a machine really shouldn’t. We feel an affinity for them, we work with them, enjoy them, and care about their wellbeing. We don’t have them because they’re competent – if we did, we’d all drive Audi A3s and other homogenised hatchbacks. Old cars aren’t transport. They’re big metal pets.

And you wouldn’t shoot Fido for dribbling on the rug, would you?

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  • Stirling, Ontario, Canada says:

    I agree totally with Sam's article. Old cars have a spirit that new cars can't match. Now my head tells me that new cars are safer, faster, more efficient and generally need less maintenance…but they do nothing for me. An older car has history. You can actually learn about things like timing, differentials, coils, distributors, cooling, camber, grease, oil viscosities, etc. etc. But the biggest reason why I love older cars is because of the fun factor. I am a British car nut and have owned a 1976 Triumph Spitfire for 6 years. One mechanic said I should just park it and give up…nonsense! I have been driving it every chance I get from April to the end of Oct and sometimes even into Nov. I have learned so much from this car and have met so many great people . It is one of the best investments I have ever made. To date I probably have about 7000 dollars put into the car and it has around 70 000 miles on it so it is making the clunks and sounds expected, but I think it knows that I love it and will always take car of it. It never lets me down. It had a quick body and paint job and it still gets all kinds of positive comments. I always wanted a British sports car as a young kid and this will be my car until I die….One more thing…once you get one fun little British car you want another so my ultimate list would include: my Spitfire (never forget your first), a Stag, a Herald estate, a GT6 and a Dolomite Sprint and throw in a Standard 8 or 10 for good measure. (Keep those lottery tickets coming!!) Thanks for a great article!

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