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The History of the Volvo 240

Ask a random person to describe the Volvo 240. Words like boring, boxy, plain and minimalist will probably make the better part of the description. But ask an owner or car enthusiast their opinion and you’ll get thoughts on a car that’s loved by regular people and petrolheads alike, 46 years after it went into production. You might hear the term unkillable.

The start of an era

It was the autumn of 1974 when Volvo introduced its 200-series models. Alongside the 260, Volvo 240 came in no less than seven iterations (242L, 242DL, 242GT, 244DL, 244GL, 245L and 245DL). Available in both two-door and four-door variants, the Volvo 240 drew heavy design cues from its 140 predecessor. After all, the two generations were sharing the same platform and the design was basically the same on the rear end.

Volvo 244 DL
Volvo 244 DL

However, Volvo 240 was anything but a copycat. Unlike its older relative, the 240 came along with multiple safety elements, initially introduced in the VESC ESV concept two years earlier, in 1972. The large frontal crumple zones would pioneer the way towards passive safety in the automotive industry.

“My first Volvo. Little Turbo coupe…Freaking drunk driver t-boned my 7 1/2 months pregnant wife and I and pushed us into a telephone pole. That boy just turned 30 last week! Go Volvo!” — Steve J
“My first Volvo. Little Turbo coupe…Freaking drunk driver t-boned my 7 1/2 months pregnant wife and I and pushed us into a telephone pole. That boy just turned 30 last week! Go Volvo!” — Steve J

In 1976, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration purchased 24 Volvo 240s to use as the safety ideal for any future car sold on US soil. Even 10 years later the Volvo 240 was still rated as the safest car in its class by the Highway Loss Data Institute, having the lowest death rate of any vehicle on the US continent.

Red block engines

In its early days, the Volvo 240 came with either a 2-liter or a 2.3-liter Volvo “Red block” 4-pot engine, either running an overhead valve or overhead cams. The B20 engine variant was used selectively at the beginning of production and was later replaced by the B19 – a derivation of the actual B21 “red block” power unit. The B21A variant was able to push out 97HP while the fuel injected B21E went into 123HP territory.

The main advantages of the “Red Block” engines – nicknamed after the paint coating on the engine block, were the replacement of pushrod with a Single Overhead Cam (standard as of 1976) and an aluminum crossflow cylinder head replacing the older, heavier cast iron head of the B20.

Diesel engines for the 240 were acquired from Volkswagen while the GLE and GLT versions of the 240 received “PRV” V6 engines developed in a joint operation between Volvo, Peugeot and Renault.

As the Volvo 240 reached the US market, it was first equipped with the older B20F that was still using pushrods instead of overhead cams. However, it took two years and the upgraded, more powerful B21F engine was introduced onto the market. Americans were only able to buy the Volvo 240 as fuel injected version, with the B21A carbureted engine only being sold in Canada.

B21FT redblock engine
B21FT redblock engine

Between 1981 and 1985 a turbocharged engine (B21FT) was introduced to the market, boasting 127HP with a limited-run Turbo Evolution model pushing the power just over 160HP.

Motorsports success that no one expected

Volvos were no stranger of the racing track, even 4 decades ago. The Amazons and P1800s had their fair share of tarmac time and put up a tremendous fight in the global rally and racing events. It wasn’t until the Volvo 240 Turbo reached the checkered flag that the Swedish automaker had its most recognizable wins in motorsport.

Volvo 240 Turbo in the European Touring Car Championship, 1985
Volvo 240 Turbo in the European Touring Car Championship, 1985

You wouldn’t expect a box-like chassis to help at all on a high-speed circuit. That’s how its “Flying Brick” nickname was assigned. However, the turbocharged 240 won both the European Touring Car Championship and the German DTM circuit in 1985. It is worth mentioning that both aforementioned competitions were considered the ultimate test for production vehicles, as they were also hosting open-wheel and prototype racing.

In order to compete in these competitions, Volvo 240 had to register and fit the spec for Group A, where production vehicles were taken right off the assembly line and modified for track. These could also be sold in limited runs. Furthermore, Group A required that each competitor vehicle to be able to seat 4 people and was weighed using a formula that considered the engine displacement as main factor.

The standard 240 Turbo was already known as a sleeper, with the 2.1 liter engine making 155HP. It could reach 62mph in 9 seconds, which matched the likes of Chevrolet Camaro Z28 and Porsche 944.

However, by 1985 the Turbo Evolution brought the pinnacle of performance and endurance on the Volvo 240. By that time, the engine would roar away with 300HP and could top the speed limiter at 260 km/h. The result? Six wins out of 14 races in the European Touring Car Championship and another five podiums in DTM. It also took a win in the Scotland rally championship as well as multiple podiums in New Zealand, Portugal and Finland. Another important milestone for the Volvo 240 Turbo were the 24 Hours of Zolder wins in 1987 and 1990.

Volvo 240 Turbo in the European Touring Car Championship, 1985
Volvo 242 Turbo in the European Touring Car Championship, 1985

The racing success Volvo found with the 240 would eventually become the Polestar racing program two decades later.

Limited runs and concept models

Apart from the standard units sold in Europe, US and Australia, Volvo also released several limited-run models to suit various demands across the world. Some of the most known include the Volvo 245 T (Transfer) with its extended wheelbase and additional seat rows to be used in taxi, hearse, and bus business for rural areas.

Volvo 245 Transfer
Volvo 245 Transfer picking up VIPs at an airport

242 GT

The 242 GT was sold in US between 1978 and 1980 and featured sportier elements including a tuned suspension and 123HP, 2.1 liter redblock. For 1979 and 1980 models, power rose to 138HP from the 2.3 redblock. 242 GTs are easily spotted thanks to the black and red racing stripes traveling the length of the car. The interior also featured black corduroy and red striping.

Brett Borders’ (Denver) 1979 242 GT
Brett Borders’ (Denver) 1979 242 GT
Brett Borders’ (Denver) 1979 242 GT
Brett Borders’ (Denver) 1979 242 GT

Starting in 1981, the 242 GT was replaced by the GLT Turbo, featuring a turbocharged unit and intercooler. Initially sold as a 2-door vehicle, Volvo decided to include the 4-door sedan version later that year and station wagon designs were available for sale since early 1982.

The least known model is the 240 Short, the last Volvo 240 ever built. It was designed as a concept to illustrate the short lead times for a car that was on the market for the past 20 years.

The end of a dynasty

As of May 5th, 1993, Volvo stopped producing the 240 model. After twenty years and 2.8 million units, the dynasty of the Volvo 240 came to an end. The model managed to outlive its successor, the 700 series.
The Volvo 240 is essentially the most reliable car ever built; the statement is supported by 2.8 million units built, a large chunk of which are still on the roads today. It appears that many of the currently existing 240s are still running the original drivetrain, even 500,000 miles into their lifespan.

While far from being a perfect car, the amount of love gathered by car enthusiasts and regular car owners alike have created a legend around the Volvo 240.

Even today, 40+ years since its debut, it is still very well known in the industry – it seems that everyone has their own Volvo 240 story to tell.

The 240 was superseded — albeit with quite a bit of overlap in both production era and features — by the Volvo 740 and 900-series cars. One could argue with greater accuracy that all three lines were superseded by the 850.

1993 Volvo 240 Wagon, red, side view
1993 Volvo 240 Wagon, red, side view

240 Technical Specifications

  • Produced: 1974 – 1993
  • Volume Produced
    • 1,483,399 4-door
    • 959,151 5-door
    • 242,621 2-door
  • Engine: 4-cylinder, in-line OHV, 4-cylinder, in-line OHC, 4-cylinder, in-line OHC with turbocharging. V6 OHC and 5- or 6-cylinder, in-line OHC diesel engines
  • Transmission: 4-speed manual, 4-speed manual with electrical overdrive, 5-speed manual or 3-speed or 4-speed automatic
  • Brakes: Hydraulic, disc brakes on all four wheels
  • Driven wheels: rear
  • Dimensions, all variants: Overall length 490 cm,wheelbase 264 cm

240 Photo Gallery

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