Meet Project Swedish Rocket

If you were hoping my next project would be another autocross car, I am afraid you are about to be disappointed. Life, as it so often does, has taken me in a different direction.

With the CRX gone, I decided to focus all of my motorsports efforts on my other, less talked-about car. To do that, though, I needed a way to keep from putting miles on it while I saved the necessary funds. I needed a daily driver.

Since I work at a car dealer I see no shortage of cars that come on to our lot as trade-ins and lease returns. They range, as you might expect, from “one pothole short of the recycling heap” to near-perfect, “my owner got bored with me after two months” examples. As you might also expect, they sport price ranges to match. Clearly I would need to set myself some criteria. After much consideration, I decided the car must:

— Be $2000 or under
— Be cheap to insure
— Get good gas mileage
— Be in good physical and mechanical condition (with the understanding that the $2000 budget would limit just how good)
— Be interesting

Though they are not in any particular order, this last point was especially important to me since reliable, efficient cars also tend to be catastrophically dull. Just because I want to make my motorsports-focused car more exciting doesn’t mean I want to be bored to death the rest of the time. I guess I just like cars with character.

That combination of criteria, however, proved difficult to come by. A few cars came and went that might have sufficed, but none was interesting enough for me to drive every day.

The lone exception was a 1994 Honda Prelude that, despite looking a bit rough on the outside, seemed to need nothing more than a little TLC. At first glance it met all the criteria.

Upon closer inspection, though, it needed more than a little TLC. The engine and transmission were leaking oil at a rate that would make the Exxon-Valdez blush, there was shipwreck-level rust on the under-side and, to top it all off, the exhaust fell off while the car was on the lift for inspection.

Not, then, quite the peach I was hoping it would be. Needless to say, I passed on that opportunity and two weeks later my patience paid off.

I should preface by saying that I began my automotive career as a technician for a Volvo dealer before becoming a product specialist for Volvo Cars of North America. Since my parents bought one when I was growing up, Volvos have always fascinated me, for whatever reason. Though I have allowed my career to take me in a different direction, the Volvo brand has always been one I think favorably toward.

As I found it on the lot.

So when a 1997 850 sedan appeared on the trade-in lot, I was understandably intrigued.

To the casual observer, the car had some pretty concerning issues: the transmission wouldn’t come out of park, the headlights didn’t come on and it had ABS and traction control error lights. To someone who has spent any time with these cars, though, this is a familiar symptom list, since all of those systems run through the ignition switch. Simply replacing the electronic portion of that switch would remedy all of it.

Outside of that, the odometer didn’t work and the car needed a new driveshaft (the result of a torn CV boot), a new tire and an upper engine mount. All are common problems and all are both easy and inexpensive to fix.

Believe it or not, this car checked all of the above boxes for me, even the “interesting” one. Most people see Volvos (especially the older ones) as dull, boxy things. But I have always found the 850 to be a handsom car, if not ravishing, and from its odd door handles to the mad-cow-like sound the engine makes under load, it has plenty of quirky personality.

Given all of the supposed issues on this example, the dealership had given the owner next to nothing on his trade, so the price was right as well.

Finally home and all cleaned up.

So, this marks the beginning of a project I will refer to as Swedish Rocket. Since it is a non-turbo car with an automatic transmission, that is a charitable description of it, to say the least. But since it’s also 15 years old and (at best guess) over 110K miles, I do plan to take a more tongue-in-cheek approach to it as a project.

With the car home and cleaned up the next step is to make it roadworthy.


About Chris Nelson

Chris is a writer and communicator with backgrounds in public relations, communication, political science and automotive technology. He holds an M.A. from Rowan University and a B.A. from Susquehanna University in addition to a certificate in Auto Tech from Lincoln Technical Institute.

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