Feb 062014

To anyone that knows me, this was inevitable. For all the great things the 850 does — its quirky personality, its stubborn reliability and its Swedish comfort — there are three key things that it is not:

1. Nimble
2. A stick
3. Even remotely quick

Now, I admit that I knew all this coming in and chose this project anyway. I chose it for all the things it was not and accepted it as such. I also admit that I enjoyed it, and continue to do so, for all of those reasons. But as I said, anyone who knows me knows that this car couldn’t be my only automotive love for long and they are correct. I need something a little more from my cars and the 850 could never fill that role.

Don’t think that this is another sad farewell, though. No, this was a labor of love for me and I had so much invested that it only made sense that I treat it as such. As of this month it is my wife’s daily driver and she loves it for many of the same reasons I do, especially the seats. I am a little sad that it never got to see the challenge I had planned for it, but I am pleased that all my work won’t go to waste and it will live a long and healthy life with us.

Speaking of the work, this is probably the closest I have ever come to being “done” with a project. I know I didn’t get to chronicle it all, but I will leave you with a list of everything I did to it, including all the parts I installed. Some of it will be familiar, some was completed since my last update. If you have any questions, feel free to ask away in the comments.

Project Volvo 850 base sedan — list of work completed

IPD odometer repair kit
IPD dash light repair kit
Alpine head unit
Integrated Sirius radio
Driver side window regulator
Volvo electronic ignition switch
Volvo keyless entry remote

IPD black egg-crate grille
Junkyard power antenna module
Custom rear trunk
Lamin-x yellow fog light treatment

Driver front caliper
Front pads & rotors
Rear pads, rotors and mounting hardware
Complete front coil assembly (IPD third party springs, Monroe struts, Volvo genuine XC90 spring seats, all hardware)
Heavy duty front sway bar links
Third party front lower control arms
IPD rear overload springs
KYB rear shocks
Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires

IPD upper engine torque mount bushing
Third party lower transmission torque mount
Transmission fluid drain/fill
Rebuilt passenger side driveshaft
Replaced driver side driveshaft
Volvo spark plugs, distributor cap, rotor and wires
Volvo fuel filter
IPD PCV breather repair kit
IPD 90-degree thermostat
Coolant drain/fill

And, just for old time’s sake, at the time of this writing I have just been informed that the “Check Engine” light is on. Guess she just wants my hands on her. The best projects never really do end, do they?

Apr 112013

There really is quite a lot going on in my life right now, from both an automotive and personal perspective. Some of it is good, some of it is frustrating and, just your luck, some of it involves my trusty Volvo. Before we get in to the meat of this particular update, though, we have to cover some familiar ground: fixing crap that broke.

Tuning it up and making it (more) civilized

As I mentioned previously, a general tune-up was definitely on the menu and, with tax return season in full swing, I found myself with the ability to buy it all in one convenient chunk. I am pleased to say that the 850 now sports new ignition cap, rotor, spark plug wires and spark plugs. It also has a shiny new fuel filter underneath. Though there were some adventures installing that last bit, everything is now back in one piece and running as intended.

At least, it should be. For some reason, however, I seem to have actually lost fuel mileage. Since this thing was never a fuel-sipper to begin with that concerns me. Hopefully it will be resolved by the next update.

In any case, I also decided that I would take a trip to my local scrap yard and pick the carcass of another, less-fortunate ’97 850 sedan so that I might resolve some of my car’s more irritating quirks. I didn’t score any rare finds, but I did come away with some goodies. Long story short: the passenger side visor no longer reminds the person next to me of its presence by tapping them on the head, the power antenna now goes both up and down (all the way!) and I was even able to get the fuel line bypass valve that was the source of the fuel filter “adventure” I mentioned earlier. Best of all, though, I came away with an OEM Volvo 15″ wheel that I can use as a full-size spare. This last item will make sense shortly.

The door checks are still crap, the front struts are still noisy and the passenger rear window appears to be off its track, but at least some stuff got fixed, right?

Finally, I had the car aligned. At first I tried doing it myself, but the alignment machine at my job doesn’t even work right on the Hondas it’s used for half the time. My 16-year-old Swede befuddled it to no end and, after several failed attempts to make the steering wheel level, I gave up and took it to someone with a bit more experience and better equipment.

Completing the look

Volvo 850 fog light

Before the Lamin-X film.

Although the HID lights and IPD grille look great, the car still didn’t seem complete to me when I looked at it. It took me a while, but I finally put my finger on the last piece of the puzzle: the fog lamps. One of the other guys at work had just picked up a Mitsubishi and put yellow Lamin-X film over his fog light lenses. As soon as I saw it, I knew what I was missing. Fortunately, he was in a sharing mood and, since the lamps are tiny on the Volvo, he didn’t even have to share much.

The difference is subtle, but, to me at least, dramatic. It finally looks exactly like I think it should.

Volvo 850 fog light laminex

With the Lamin-X applied

On to the challenge

Oh, bloody hell; despite my best intentions, I still managed to spend nearly 600 words talking about fixing broken stuff and making upgrades. I promise the rest of the article will be about something more interesting.

As you may recall, when I got back in to this car, I decided to give it (and me) a goal. The challenge I have in mind is, like many of my automotive endeavors, Top Gear-inspired.

Back in season 16 Jeremy raced a Jaguar XJ from the easternmost point in England to the westernmost point, on the shortest night of the year, against God himself. In the end, Clarkson beat the sun, but it was close. I found it to be one of their best mini races, both in concept and execution. I decided I would have to do something similar.

Since I live in New Jersey, though, it will have to be different in several ways. First, even at its widest points, I can easily cross the state in a couple of hours and, second, with an extensive and efficient highway system, covering all 170 miles north to south would be embarrassingly easy as well. I believe I have a solution to both problems.

Like Clarkson’s, my challenge will take place on the shortest night of the year (June 21). My goal will be to start, at sunset, from the northernmost point in the state and, over the course of the night travel first to the easternmost point, then the westernmost point before ending at the southernmost point before the sun rises again. The catch? I won’t be able to use any interstate or toll roads (now you can probably see why I wanted a full-size spare).

Volvo 850I have lined up a navigator and taken the time off from work. The Volvo is (in theory, anyway) tuned and ready. The plans are being laid out as we speak. This should be interesting.

Jan 292013

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. Continue reading »

Jan 152013

As you may recall, in the last installment (the introduction to this car) I stated outright that I chose a 1997 Volvo 850 non-turbo sedan as my next daily driver because it has character. It has been quite a while since I wrote anything — on this site or otherwise — so I assume that most of you came to the conclusion that I was so embarrassed by this assertion that I gave up on auto writing altogether, leaving Gearheads Anonymous to go the way of Google Buzz (remember that? Yeah, didn’t think so) or the Chrysler Crossfire.

What actually happened was that I got my finger caught in a rather unpleasant situation involving a timing gear that resulted in several fractures. I have since recovered, but found it difficult to find the motivation to get back to writing. The reasons varied, of course: I couldn’t think of a good topic, I was too tired after work, things needed doing around the house, etc. The result, however, was inevitable. Without care and attention the site stalled and even my contributors lost interest. It has been just about three months since the front page of this site has seen any new material and more than three and a half since I did an update on this project. Continue reading »

Aug 292012

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.


Mar 052012

Note: This review was originally published on August 14, 2010.

I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for a sporty wagon. A lot of people turn their noses up at the stodgy reputation of the family station wagon, and there are certainly plenty of cars deserving of that rebuke. But I love a car that can haul a lot of stuff just as well as it hauls ass. Volvo’s 850 Turbo Sportswagon and the BMW 5-series wagon were, to my mind anyway, the pinnacle of the genre, which, sadly, peaked in the ‘90s. They were fast, handled exceptionally, and could take your Siberian husky to the vet without a second thought.

The rise in popularity of the SUV, though, signaled a death knell for the family station wagon. Sure, some examples persisted (Volvo and BMW both continued to offer exceptional wagons), but popularity waned considerably and most of the major manufacturers scratched them from their lineups in favor of the lumbering, fuel-sucking four-wheel drive behemoths the American public had become obsessed with.

Fast forward the better part of a decade, however, and we find that most Americans have realized that bingeing on SUVs wasn’t really such a good idea. The reasons for this (running through several prehistoric era’s-worth of fossilized remains in less than ten years, for instance) have been aired ad nauseum in the automotive press, so there’s no need to rehash them here. The result, though, has been a surprising renaissance for the station wagon. Albeit one with a twist. Continue reading »