1990 Volvo 740 Base 2.3 I4 from North America
An excellent driving, long-lived car that is easy to work on, but needs a real mechanic on occasion
Everything. The car is old and was very poorly maintained prior to my owning it. I have had to do (or have done for me) a huge amount of work. Each repair of part costs an arm, a leg, or at least a finger or two.
It has had troubles that required towing on two occasions. One was due to a radiator issue that I will describe below. One was for a battery with cracked cells.
Most of my repairs have come under the umbrella of "normal wear" or "maintenance" items utterly ignored by the previous owner.
One very annoying problem was when the Neutral Safety Switch started to die. Sometimes the car would start; sometimes the car would not start. I would park and switch off for a few minutes and then turn the key and … nothing. That was the worst problem I have had with it, as it caused me to be late for work a lot. I am a musician, and you cannot be late for a wedding ceremony or you go out of business. I had a hard time for a few months as this intermittent problem unfolded enough for me to diagnose and correct it. Major pain, easy fix.
First the bad.
I bought the thing in 1999 for about $4,000 with zero knowledge of Volvos, save for a vague understanding that they cost a lot to fix and that they were supposed to be very safe (the fact that my wife was nuts for them was a most important consideration as well). It had about 75,000 miles on the odometer at the time of purchase. The odometer was rolled back, however, and the dealer is now rotting in jail and his used Volvo lot is gone. (HA HA HA, scumbag!)
I easily spent another four grand in repairs in the first three years of ownership! This car looked really good, but had been seriously doctored up for sale. I fell for a lot of very common tricks and scams on this purchase, as it was my very first used car to purchase. Oh well. Live and learn.
(I have spent so much money and time on this "brick" that I ought to marry it!)
Now, to the good.
The car runs more reliably now than when I bought it. The B230F engine is a 114 HP, 2.3L inline 4 that does a miraculous job of shoving this VERY heavy car around the road. I have put 175,000 miles on my 740 in nine years of ownership. It has spent two periods of time sitting out, uncovered/unprotected in a non-running condition (once for nine months, and the more recent one for nearly two years with the cooling system open to the elements), yet it will not die!
The first time I gave up on it (allowing it become "yard art") was because it had so many costly things wrong with it and I was broke. Then it developed an intermittent battery drain that required me to jump it in the mornings far too often for me to want to deal with it any longer. So I bought my new Jeep and my old Volvo became a stationary target for the robins to bomb. (Yech … ) The wife and I were moving to a new rental place and were totally out of that one, save for the dang Volvo-Shaped-Object sitting out front. I very nearly paid a guy to haul it away as junk. But a friend coaxed me to try and jump start it. So I hooked up my Jeep to the 740 and waited a few minutes … et voila! She turned right over and drove like a champ to my new home!
WHAT AN AMAZING CAR! After nine months of sitting unused, with a tank of very old gas, she drove just fine!
I had forgotten just how much of a stress relief it is to own an extra car! My wife and I both love this car, and decided to fix her up as much as we could afford. I bought about $1,000 worth of parts from IPD ( http://www.ipdusa.com ) and started ripping stuff out wholesale and replacing with new parts. As I was reinstalling the fuel injectors, I learned a have lesson about the OEM Blackstone radiator's plastic side tanks, and how they become brittle and unsafe after about eight years of use (note that mine was 15 years old at this time!). I barely leaned on the upper radiator hose while snapping in the final fuel injector unit, and the entire outlet port on the radiator just broke off. Coolant was running everywhere and I started to swear like a sailor.
I went to the excellent "Brickboard" Volvo forum (http://www.brickboard.com) to read up on radiators, and learned about the plastic tanks and the brittleness issue that starts up at about the eighth year of use, thought about how little pressure it took to destroy my radiator, and thanked the Creator that I had not suffered a catastrophic fluid loss out on the road somewhere. That would have destroyed my engine!
So I called up IPD again and ordered a replacement radiator, which was a three row, all-metal unit made by Nissens (in the Netherlands or Belgium, I think). Problem solved!
Note that if you have bought a 740 with the OEM Blackstone aluminum/plastic radiator (there is a date code on the driver's side tank) and it is about 7 years old or older (which it would have to be, since they have been out of production for ten years at this writing) you need to replace it right away. Also, please spend the filthy lucre to replace the following parts at the same time: coolant expansion tank, heater control valve, large radiator hoses and smaller heater core hoses, thermostat, thermostat housing studs, and ditch the gray expansion tank cap and replace it with a lower pressure black cap. It is an old car, and would be far better to blow off the cap than to build up higher pressures and blow the radiator or a hose. The expansion tank and the heater control valve are made out of the same plastics as the by-now-fragile radiator side tanks, are not all that expensive, and would make you feel that much more confident in your car. Spend the $$$ on genuine Volvo parts from a dealership. Trust me on this.
Whatever you do, do not buy one of those crummy Nissens "heavy duty" units. They frequently do not fit right and will possibly leak right out of the box. The price of one with shipping is about the same as if you had gone to the dealership and ordered a Blackstone OEM one, since you do not pay for shipping to the dealer. It is a better radiator by far, and how many years do you intend to keep your old brick running? Worry about the plastics issue in eight more years IF your car is still on the road at that time. Trust me, you will be much happier with the OEM unit. And hey, in eight years if it is still running, just treat yourself to another new OEM radiator!
Anyway, that crummy, malformed radiator took the air out of my repairman sails for a while, and the repairs just sort of stopped. Winter set in. Summer was very busy and very hot (I am in Mississippi) and I had no covered place to work. I am pretty fat (yeah, I know, I know) and had a hard time working in the very high humidity and heat we have down here. With very limited time, I just sort of let the nice weather slip past me and then it was Winter again. Then another year passed as my Jeep started to have very expensive problems that sucked up all of my spare time and money. Once again, my 740 had become an immobile Volvo-Shaped-Object for the birds to decorate.
So two years pass and I finally have enough $$$ saved up to BUY my first house; no more rentals. We are very excited about this. We get things ready and we move, and then start cleaning up the rental unit so we can get our deposit back. And we realize that the Volvo is sitting in the back yard, in parts, with the cooling system open to the elements. It is now a dead car as far as we are concerned. What a shame; I still have a big box of new parts to put on her, too.
So I decide to give up and sell her as a parts car to whomever will just tow her off the property before the last day on our lease. And no one answers my CraigsList ad. Our lease was to run out in two days, and we had fully vacated the premises, yet the dang 740 wad still just sitting there like old playground equipment.
Not knowing what to do, I call a local Volvo specialty shop to see if they might buy her and come haul her off to their yard. When the mechanic asked me all about what was going on and why the 740 had been sitting for so long, I explained it to him. He said that I needed to call a friend of his to flatbed it down to him, and for me to come along in another car.
He looked over the messed up radiator and looked at my box of parts. He said that they could bend the feet properly, and that if a leak was opened up, that they could easily re-solder it. He also told me that it should not be too difficult to get running again. So we came to an agreement for him to get it running first, and then to install my box of parts one at a time, so that I could decide when I had spent enough, and in an order that would leave me things that I could do myself.
He had it for seven weeks, and it cost me about $1,000 in labor (and a few parts that it needed that I did not have in my big box-o-parts) and it now runs very, very well. I have had it for nearly a month now and have been cleaning it back up. I have put about 1,200 miles on it already, testing it out on my daily commute to my college teaching studio and to rehearsals. The only problem it had was one that was "normal" after a cooling system change out. The lower radiator hose needed to be tightened up after about two weeks of use. I did this, and it has now "set" in that shape, and will not be coming off again for a long time.
I am so excited to have this car up and running once again! It is such a nice cruiser. In years past I have driven it from Jackson to DC and NYC several times over the last nine years, and to San Antonio about five times. It is a VERY well behaved car on a long trip. Now that I have shaken her down pretty hard, I am going to drive her to Dallas in a few days.
These old Volvos are not to be dismissed. They will NOT die. You probably would have to shoot one to kill it. I cannot see why an odometer reading of 500,000 miles would not easily be within the life of this car, in all honesty.
But remember, if you buy one of these "bricks" (as they are called), you need to view the car with some circumspection.
1. You will spend at least a grand a year on repairs and/or maintenance. That is a bit less than $100 per month. If you keep very good records and follow the schedules for replacement of what you have had done, AND start spending money and time swapping out old stuff for new according to the very excellent "700/900 FAQ" at http://www.brickboard.com, you will keep your brick going and will improve her over time. A well maintained 740 will run forever and will even do so in very bad mechanical condition. (Look at mine for example, heh, heh, heh … ) If you can locate such a nice driving, comfortable and SAFE car that will last you for so many years for about $100 per month, then you ought to buy it.
2. You will need to buy tools and learn to do at least simple maintenance yourself, as hourly labor for a Volvo specialist is high and parts are ridiculous. Period. I have discovered that even though there is the foreign car stigma attached to working on these things, the B230F engine is one of the easiest blocks to work on at home. I would swear that Detroit purposely convolutes the designs of their engines so that basic user maintenance is difficult and serious home-done jobs are next to impossible. If those Volvo engineers were a little naive about not forcing the buyers of their products to only have their work done at the dealership like US brands, Volvo owners LOVE them for it. I am a mechanical idiot, yet I have done some very serious stuff to my car over the years. Sometimes I pay to have it done; mostly I do it myself. When I do the work, I save a pile of money and feel good about myself afterwards. So buy tools and learn to use them.
3. These era cars have rather fragile interior plastics; they were fine when new, but the formulations do not seem to age well. You could call them junk. Costly junk. Because of this, you will probably have to replace some of them at some point. Spend the money and get real Volvo stuff from the dealership. There are dealers who have a reputation for low prices and who will ship to you via the Internet. If you get junkyard interior body panels, they will just end up cracking on you. Get new parts when you can. And avoid Scantech light lenses. Scantech is a very common aftermarket Volvo parts maker. Most of their stuff is quite decent, but their replacement light fixtures all pretty much stink at this time. The Volvo 740 dashpads all eventually crack and crumble. They are large and complex shapes, and an OEM one will cost a couple hundred bucks easily. There are a few options out there, however.
4. IPD (http://www.ipdusa.com) is the best source for Volvo stuff. There are some much cheaper online places to get parts, but NO ONE can touch IPD for giving WONDERFUL help over the phone. They are cheaper than any dealer, even on genuine Volvo parts. They have a lot of nice upgrades for your suspension. They all come to the telephone with a LOT of experience to share with you. I replaced my headliner by myself. This is a hard job for two people, but I was alone. I called them, and spoke with a guy who stayed on the phone with me for nearly an hour while I worked to get the very fragile, very expensive headliner backing board out of my sedan through the passenger front door. My car looks so much better with the new headliner. Thanks to the IPD guys who helped me over the course of a weekend with this VERY rewarding project!
Another time I was having problems with a broken thermostat housing stud stuck in my aluminum engine head. I could not drive the car because of this darn broken screw! An IPD guy stayed on the phone with me and helped me get the thing out with instant feedback. I did not have to call forty times. I did not have to bug my mechanic. I did not have to go online and search and read for hours. I just had to call and ask for help. They have made me unhappy once or twice with order errors and my having to return some stuff. But they have a very loyal customer in me. They have bent over backwards to help me get my car running as cheaply as possible. They did not HAVE to do this. They are a successful company because they ENJOY doing this. They are all Volvo drivers and Volvo nuts, who have decades of combined hands-on mechanical experience with these cars.
5. Read the whole (very long) 700/900 FAQ at brickboard.com to see what to avoid when shopping for an older 700 or 900 series car. There is a period of time in the 740's history where the main wiring harness had bad insulation that will crumble and come off. You need to know which exact years this is a problem on, so that you can totally avoid these cars. There is a "high mileage" repair list specifically for 700/900 series cars that will walk you through what needs to be done to make your old, beat up purchase run very reliably and strong for another 100,000+ miles.
These solid, safe, comfortable cars, that despite their need for work (and the cost of that work), are VERY long lived and solid. I would not recommend them if you are not willing to get dirty on occasion, or to skin a few knuckles and get a few bruises, unless you love them and have a pot of money to sink into a Volvo-trained mechanic. But again, the B230F engine is quite simple to learn how to service and eventually do major work to at home.
If you must have one and deplore working on cars, then you will have a hard time and will be broke. Do NOT make the mistake of taking one of these cars to just any mechanic. These cars have all sorts of oddities that require you to use a real Volvo guy, and not just some mechanic that you trust. I have heard horror stories about the JiffyLube kid ruining a VERY expensive oil pan by stripping out the pan bolt. You cannot fix this on a Volvo without a lot of trouble and expense. It is not a Honda, where the fix is fairly easy and the pan is not that expensive. The pan will have to be replaced, and it is a lot of money. Take your Volvo to a Volvo guy, or learn how to do what needs to be done on your own.
If you are able to do these things, then I would very much recommend these cars. They are easy and rewarding to work on, and will last forever if you keep swapping out stuff at the right times.
The B230F engine will last 500,000 miles if maintained properly, never needing the head off in that time most likely. The body is very well designed and built. The comfort and safety features in my 1990 car are very comparable to cars of today. I only lack side airbags and ABS to match most of the stuff on the new lots as I write this review. And my car is 18 years old! No rust, no blow back, and nearly factory specification compression at a quarter of a million miles! I just wish the interior plastic bits and many of the relays and sensors were as good. Oh well, you can't have everything.
I love my old Volvo, warts and all.
Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Yes
Review Date: 17th March, 2008
Original Poster here again...
I have had to have new front wheel bearings installed and did a ton of work to this car to get it ready for a 2,500 mile roundtrip adventure from Jackson, Mississippi to Buffalo, New York.
I have a very fun 2003 Jeep Wrangler SE (the little 2.4 cylinder engine - read my review of that here also). It gets lame mileage at best, laughable at worst.
When the US experienced a doubling of gas prices over this past year I had to let the Jeep sit. I commute nearly 1,000 miles per week to my various jobs and I was nearing the point of being unable to afford to go to work each day!
The Volvo was just sort of sitting there in the carport, forlorn and in need of some attention. So I got off my butt to make her road-worthy again. And again, she runs like a champ. I have a very minor fuel leak where the filler tube clamps onto the gas tank, it is not bad enough for me to fear going off like a bomb on the highway. The mechanic said that I probably just need to tighten the little screw. I will have to replace the filler tube hose pretty soon, but not just yet.
With this minor fuel leak this 18 year old car (with over 300,000 miles on this engine) STILL gets 28 to 29 mpg on long trips if I drive between 65 and 70 mph. This baffles and amazes me, as this car had been maintained by a monkey prior to my purchasing it, and for years I could not afford to keep up with things any better!
Now that my indie Volvo guy says that she is nearing the point of being fully caught up on very overdue scheduled maintenance she is my only road car. The Jeep tag expired two months ago and I have not had the $200 to get a new one. That will come next month. So I am putting 1K miles on this old 740 each week and took that long trip to NY recently.
Zero problems. Nada. Zip.
This car does indeed cost a lot to maintain and service, but in lieu of a monthly car note this very plush and great-driving vehicle still costs a lot less per year to operate, even if I pay up to $2,500 per year in repairs that is a grand less than what I pay for my Jeep. And the Volvo was paid for with cash in 1999!
My indie Volvo guy says that my car ought to easily make 500,000 miles or more now that I have her in pretty decent shape.
Next project - Replace that leaking AC line so my car is cool inside in the hot months! Cruising with the windows down is just fine in most cases. But we are musicians and have to do a lot of traveling in formal wear, and my wife's hair just gets so... well... weird looking after riding for an hour with the windows down. Poor thing. I have to get that AC fixed!
Great to hear that the Volvo is working better! I'm in Year One (of hopefully many) of Volvo ownership (1988 Volvo 740 GLE wagon, aka "Heidi") and I'll swear by these cars (although I've sworn at the crappy plastics). Anyway, hope you make it to 500K, keep the shiny side up and the rubber on the road!
I have to agree with everything that has been posted here. I am the proud owner of a 1990 740 turbo wagon that I have had a love affair with since the first time I sat eyes on it. Previous to my purchase, my dad had owned a 1987 740 turbo sedan, so I had a good idea about what the trouble signs were, and purchased my darling two years ago now, with 291 thousand kms on it.
Since then, she has been nothing but good to me, and has required only minor repairs (mostly quirky electrical problems).
We use her in the summer to tow a tent trailer, and the rest of the year she is my workhorse for renovations to our house. She has just passed the 320 thousand mark, and is still going strong with loads of power and excellent fuel consumption, getting around 28 mpg on the highway.