Significance of the Volvo 140 Series

In many way, the Volvo 140 Series were very pedestrian cars.  Yet at the same time, they sported industry-leading safety features, and were a transformative car for Volvo, especially in North America.

In 1967, the introductory year of the 140 series, Volvo had been in the US since 1956, and was nothing more than a boutique manufacturer.  Then came the 140 Series.

The car itself was revolutionary, and made the Volvo name synonymous with "Safety".  Standard features, previously unheard of in family cars, included:
  • Three point safety belts in the front and rear seats
  • Crumple zones designed into the car body
  • Door safety locks
  • All-wheel disk brakes
  • Roof strength capable of supporting the car in a roll-over
  • Cross-over brake circuits for redundancy

Stacked Volvo 140s demonstrating roof strength

These features propelled Volvo to new levels as a car manufacturer, especially in North America.  Over the 140 Series' eight years of production (1967-1974), 1.2 million cars were produced.  That number is greater than the sum total of all cars previously built by Volvo, of all models, over their entire existence.  It's the car that made Volvo.

But the 140 remains unknown and unrecognized by most people.  One reason is that it transformed into the 240 Series in 1975, and continued in production until 1993, with a total of 2.7 million cars built.  Everyone recognizes a 240, and I think most people just assume that's what a 140 is.

Ironically, the great attributes that made the 140 Series such a success, are the same attributes that led to it's near extinction today.  You never see one on the road.  And even at car shows focused on Volvos, it's rare to see more than 2-3 per million sold.  In contrast, the sexier P1800 appears at a rate of 200-400 per million sold.  That's a huge difference.  So how has the 140's greatness, and not just rust, led to it's extinction?

Practicality:  The 140 was a practical car, owned by practical people.  At some point in a car's life, it faces a repair that costs more than the car is worth.  That's the point where a practical owner buys a new car, and one of two things happened to the 140; it either went to the scrap yard, or got handed down to the kid next door and was never the same again. 

Volvo 145 in junk yard
Volvo 145 in junk yard

Robustness and Reliability:  140s were know for their robustness, reliability, and longevity.  My car is a good example.  Other than a few years in storage, it has been in service it's whole life and has amassed about 375,000 miles.  And other than replacement of mechanical wear parts, it's all original and running like the day it drove off the dealer's lot.  Relating to the Practicality theorem above, this meant that when a car became impractical, it was really done, worn out, and finished.  But it had another effects as well.  Lots of people converted 140s into rally cars for off road racing.  It was a real testament to the car's robustness, but such cars were never the same again.

Volvo 142 rally car

Exuberance of Youth:  Looking back at the cars that were given to the kid next door, guess what happened to them?  They got butchered.  The bumpers came off, air scoops were added, suspension was lowered, aftermarket wheels were installed, fuel injection was ripped out, Weber carbs were installed, exhaust was modified, engines were swapped, transmissions were swapped, instruments were bolted to the dash top, new instruments and stereos were cut into the dash, etc.   The new owner had fun, but the resulting car is of no value in preserving a marque.  Nearly every surviving 140 has been down this path and no longer represents the car's original vision or implementation.

Volvo 140 modified interior
Volvo 140 modified exterior

To correctly reflect the car's original spirit and intent, everything needs to reflect and be consistent with the car's serial number.  This is the basis for serious classic car judging in shows, and for the value commanded by the best examples.  All parts should be model-correct, and model-year correct, and free from after-market add-ons.   Most of today's surviving examples are hybrids, aka Frankensteins, of some sort, e.g. a '68 car made to look like a '71, engine swaps, retrofitted overdrives, incorrect interiors, etc, etc.

Interestingly, the least molested examples of 140s that I see invariably have automatic transmission.  I think they have survived intact because nobody wanted to pimp it out, so they were left alone.  Unfortunately, these are also the least desirable examples.  Of course you could convert it, and many people do, but then you are left with a car who's serial number describes a different car from what's in front of you.  For many this doesn't matter, but as cars become more rare, values go up, and originality and correctness starts to REALLY matters.

The Volvo 140 Series, and Volvos in general, are making the transition from hobby collecting to more serious car collecting.  I have seen this with other brands, starting with Jaguar E types back in the 80s when there was a huge jump in the value, with correct cars commanding 5x the value of incorrect cars.  More recently, the same thing has happened with Mercedes Pagodas.  5 years ago nobody really cared if a car had a swapped engine, the wrong engine for the model, etc., and it had little impact on value.  But that has changed completely now with correctly sorted examples again commanding 5x the value of an incorrect example.  Volvos are approaching the same transition, so if you have an unaltered car, preserve it.  You will be glad you did.  Otherwise, enjoy your car.  They are great fun either way.

1 comment:

George said...

Nice write-up and website dedicated to the 1971 Volvo 142E. I hope you never take this site down.