Project Swedish Rocket: Expect The Unexpected


If there is one thing that the CRX project taught me, it would be: when dealing with an older car, expect the unexpected. The 850, though mostly reliable, has proven to be no different.

The Brakes

Even though it passed its first road test, I still had some concerns. Most notable was the annoying shrieking sound the brakes made for the first ten minutes of every drive. Although both the front and rear pads still had plenty of meat, all four rotors were gouged and the pedal vibrated whenever I pressed it. Any of them could easily have been the cause of the noise, but I my discerning ear said the fronts were the primary culprit. I decided to go with the best inexpensive pads and rotors I could find. With those procured, I pulled the car in to my service bay and, almost immediately, things started to go badly. When compressing the driver’s side caliper, I noticed fluid coming from the piston seal.

I should note here that I have done dozens of brake jobs over the last couple of years and never had a single problem with a piston seal. When my personal car is in my bay, though? Naturally, that would be the first. Since calipers for a 15-year-old Volvo aren’t exactly falling off the shelves at 6:00 on a Friday evening, the 850 sat for the entire weekend. Come Monday, though, it was back on the road and, to my agreement, quiet.

For the first day, anyway.

After that it became clear that my well-trained ear is full of crap, and the shrieking was emanating from the rear.

Long story short, to the detriment of my wallet, the 850 now sports new pads (complete with “special” shims) and rotors at all four corners and a new caliper in the left front.

The Stereo

Since this particular 850 came equipped with a premium sound system, I assumed that meant I had one less thing to worry about.

And again, I was proven wrong.

Alpine head unit with Sirius radio unit fully integrated

Alpine head unit with Sirius radio unit fully integrated

About a week after I resolved the brake problems, the radio cut out on me, playing nothing but static through the high-fi speakers. Though static was a remarkable improvement over the lousy sports radio stations I normally listen to, I found the lack of variety to be irritating.

I took this as an opportunity to plan a way to integrate my Sirius radio unit in to the car as well, which was something I had been casually trying to figure out for a while anyway. I waited for an appropriate sale at Best Buy, purchased the requisite harness adapters and cargo pocket and, after a little cutting, fitting and fiddling, I had a solution I am pretty pleased with.

With the audio system back in business, the car was humming along nicely again. That is, until…

The PCV System

One day, while fiddling with something or other under the hood, I noticed wisps of vapor coming up from low in the engine bay. Alarmed, I attempted to locate them. When I was unable to do so, a thought occurred to me. I pulled the oil dipstick and, sure enough, there was positive pressure coming up through the dipstick tube. I was hoping to avoid this eventuality, but the PCV box would have to be replaced.

Much like the gauge cluster in the last installment, this is another job not to be tackled by the feint of heart. Most manufacturers use a simple valve clamped to a hose to handle evacuation of the positive crank pressure. Not Volvo. No, they engineered a complicated system centered around a breather box, which is attached to the front of the engine block. To reach it, the entire airbox assembly must come out and the intake manifold must be unbolted and moved out of the way. It is time-consuming and, without a good set of tools and a little experience, very difficult.

Though it was a pain to set aside a large block of time (it took me 3 hours, but I could probably do it in 2 now) and actually do the work, I actually found the whole procedure very rewarding. The car came apart without issue and went back together just as smoothly. I was equally pleased to find that it runs a little smoother now, too. The parts, again, came from IPD, who provide a comprehensive kit that includes every hose, gasket and clamp one could possibly need to complete the job.

Fun Stuff

By now you must be thinking, “I thought you said you liked this car. All you’ve written about is the list of crap that’s gone wrong.”

Well, the truth is, I actually like finding and fixing all of these little issues. They are a big component of the car’s character and part of what makes having a cheap car like this fun and rewarding for a guy like me. I expected to be giving the 850 some TLC over the first few months and I have gotten a lot out of it.

Overall, though, you would be right. I don’t want to spend all my time fixing diddly-shit when this is supposed to be a car that allows me to spend time and money on my actual project car. At some point I need to see some return on the stuff that I am doing, right? Here are two areas where a return was immediately, literally, visible.

The 850 at night

The 850 at night
Click to enlarge

First, I happened upon a set of HID lights at work. They were the correct bulb size (9006, a common size, shared with many cars, including the Civic), so I threw them in. I think they give the car a little more aggressive look and they definitely improve the light output. When they (inevitably) cease to function properly, will I spend money to replace them? I’m not sure, but I will have to consider it.

Finally, around Christmas time, my fiancé was looking for gift ideas. I casually suggested that a bad-ass grille might suit the Volvo quite nicely. She took the not-so-subtle hint and, to make a long story short, the car does, in fact, look pretty slick with a blacked out grille.

Coming Up

So now that the 850 is running better and looking meaner, what is the next step?

Well, there are still a few minor items on my list to take care of. I would like to give it a proper tune-up and the noise from the front struts is really starting to irk me.

Primarily, though, from here on out I will be prepping it for its major challenge. But more on that next time.


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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