Should this be my summer project?
May 18, 2010 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Should I buy a 1972 Volvo that needs work? I'd be doing it as a DIY project, as well as to gain a new source of transporting myself. How feasible is a restoration project for someone with no experience working on cars?

I saw an old 1972 Volvo 144 on my street for sale for $400. It hasn't been run in a year, and 2 of the tires have gone flat since then. Before that, it was supposedly running fine. It needs significant restoration to make it rain-proof and shiny, but other than that, it seems to be in fairly good shape. It has had a single owner in its 38 year life, and it seems that she has taken relatively good care of it. It has ~180k miles on it.

Is this car worth the price? Does anyone have experience working on/restoring such a car? What obstacles might I encounter? What would be the first steps to getting this car in better condition?

posted by Candide to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
WHY are you buying it?

"Restoration" is never as cheap as just buying a good example and maintaining it. If you don't know cars, don't buy a '72 anything unless it's checked out by a pro first. $400 is probably a fair price, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to buy it. On any old car the cost of maintenance will be more than the purchase price very quickly. A 144 is about as simple as cars come, but finding parts is going to start to become non-trivial if it isn't already.

Is it the Volvo specifically that you're interested in? Would you be happier with a newer car? A 240 or 740?
posted by pjaust at 9:33 AM on May 18, 2010

I've done this, except it was a 69 saab, after not having a car for a decade.

You may want to clarify a few things.

Do you have a garage?
Do you have most of the required tools?
What does "rain proof" mean exactly?
The big one, how much are you willing to spend?

I had a 245 for years. I would think most of a 144 should be fixable by the average mechanically inclined person. An exception may be the carburetor. I think it has Strombergs.

Old cars are a lot of work, and require continual maintenance. Maybe think of it as an adoption while your trying to make this decision.
posted by -t at 9:38 AM on May 18, 2010

You're thinking of spending $400 to acquire a car that does not run and will cost you even more money to get running. Parts for just about any 1972 car will be difficult to find, as you will not be able to go down to your local Autozone and buy them, or get them from Volvo (I'm assuming they no longer make them.)

Right from the start you've got:
Title transfer fee
Towing fee to get it to your house
4 new tires (You'll have to replace them all if they have been sitting for a year)

And at the very least:
New battery
New engine oil
New coolant
Pumping out the gas tank and replacing the gas

Even after all of that, you still won't know why it doesn't run and you will have easily spent $1000. For $1000 you could get a car that runs.
posted by 517 at 9:42 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

My Volvo was not as old as that, but the one big thing that had issues was the wiring. My dad wound up replacing the wiring...harness? I think that's what it was. Anyway, most of the old Volvo things seemed tinkerable and restoration friendly, but if the wiring appears to be kaput, that would be a beast to work on.

If rain proof and shiny is the best goal you've worked up for this car, you had probably learn a little bit more about it before tackling the thing. A running 1972 Volvo might be a good project for someone who's never worked on cards, but a not-running one might be a bit much, at least until you can get a qualified friend or mechanic to figure out what's actually wrong.
posted by redsparkler at 9:44 AM on May 18, 2010

My Volvo was not as old as that, but the one big thing that had issues was the wiring. My dad wound up replacing the wiring...harness?

This is a common issue with Volvos. I have had two 1980 240s and both of them had wiring issues; the first was less serious, but the second had some doozies. Despite that, except for some alternator/battery issues caused by the wiring problems, it was fine.

Old Volvo parts aren't as hard to find as one might think, considering Volvos last longer than most other cars (this is partly comfirmation bias, but what other cars do you see on the road for THAT long after they were manufactured?) and can often be found in junkyards to be salvaged for whatever you're missing.

Often, you may be lucky enough to find a Volvo mechanic nearby who can help remedy the problems you're having a hard time with; usually, and especially if you live in a good climate that is kind to cars, these mechanics deal with the older models frequently and have a penchant for the "classics".

I had my second 1980 240 Volvo up until two years ago and I seriously miss it (to the point that I have been ogling other Volvos recently!) - this Ask is giving me pangs!
posted by urbanlenny at 9:58 AM on May 18, 2010

"Is this car worth the price?"

Pretty well any car in this condition is only worth a few hundred dollars at most. $400 might be a bit much; I'd talk the guy down probably.

"What would be the first steps to getting this car in better condition?"

517 pretty well summed up the costs. Though if it was me I'd take the tires off the car where it is (this is easy to do if the tires will hold air for even a few minutes1); take them down to your tire shops for new tires and then put them back on the car. This would allow you to push or flat tow the car to your house saving towing fees.

As to whether it is worth it: Realize you are unlikely to ever be able to sell this vehicle for more than you spent on it. If you end up spending less than a new(er) vehicle for this transportation then it may be worth it to you personally. The question I'd be asking myself is "Why do I want this particular car?". If it is because I always wanted a 144 then this may be a good deal depending on how common these cars are in your area (though note you'd probably be able to find on in running condition for not much more money. If it's because the car is close and you just want something old then I'd pass; it's nice to be able to drive a car while you are working on it.
posted by Mitheral at 10:10 AM on May 18, 2010

How to restore a car, in several easy steps, if you have no prior mechanical experience:

1. Buy a very cheap, very reliable, very ugly old japanese subcompact (early 80s, say) for which parts are readily available, and which you don't have a particular attraction to. Perform the typical maintenance items on it, which don't seem too bad, so you start driving it a few times a week.

2. Have something actually break on the very reliable old japanese subcompact, do the research to find out what it'll take to fix it, and go out and buy the parts and tools necessary. If you don't succeed in getting past this point, count yourself lucky and abandon your plans. Otherwise, proceed.

3. Start visiting enthusiast boards for the car you have, realize how much you need to fix or replace (inside and out, mechanically and cosmetically) to make your 80s subcompact beautiful again. Make a checklist, and have at it, one check at a time (literally and figuratively) until it is beautiful. If you don't succeed in getting past this point, sell the car to the enthusiast board and abandon your plans. Otherwise, proceed.

4. Total up the actual costs of the work you've done to your cheap 80s subcompact, and see if you can sell it to break even. You WILL fail at this, but proceed anyway.

Now, take a good hard look at your 80s subcompact and consider how you feel:
  1. "It runs, so I might as well keep driving it."
  2. "I'm gonna keep it; damned if I don't love the thing now that I've done so much to it."
  3. "I'm gonna sell it at a loss, but I'll sell it to [some guy] on the forum, because he's always wanted one and I know he'll give it a good home."
  4. "I'm gonna sell it at a loss to get it out of here, I'm sick of looking at it."
  5. "I'm gonna sell it at a loss to get it out of here, so I have room for that 144."
If you picked 1 or 2, congratulations -- you didn't spend the kind of money you would have spent on the 144, or dealt with the frustration of finding parts for it, but you've got a good solid daily driver restoration, you've learned a lot, and maybe you have some affection for the results of your work. You win!

If you picked 3 or 4, congratulations -- you found out this isn't the hobby for you, without going bankrupt or shooting yourself. You're still ahead of the game.

If you picked 5, congratulations -- you have more money or time or optimism than anyone could have predicted, and you may also be a masochist. Which is wonderful, because people like you keep the world populated with interesting cars. Buy that 144, and when you pay through the nose for a hard-to-find part, or discover that a clutch change will require pulling the entire engine out, you'll be able to say things like "Goddamn, this is a pain in the ass compared to my old 80s subcompact, but it's worth it for a Volvo!" and this will sustain you for the long haul.*

*Alternative ending: you won't complete the 144 yourself, but will pay through the nose to have a pro shop finish it, but you won't mind because you'll realize the true value of their labor.
posted by davejay at 10:41 AM on May 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

Oh, and if you're thinking for even a moment about whether $400 is too much, you don't have enough money to restore a car, and you shouldn't even try. You may not even have enough money to make it run properly again as a beater.
posted by davejay at 10:43 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

also: if it is truly a single-owner car, and all the chrome is in place, and all the interior pieces are there, and you didn't write a check on the spot, you may not be insane enough to do this.
posted by davejay at 10:44 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've found a slightly less traumatic project than restoring an old car is either an abusive relationship or putting pets to sleep. If you are lacking a significant other or a pet, a Volvo will probably be an adequate substitute.

That said, working on old cars can be incredibly spiritually rewarding. Here are the basics of what you will want to do:

Check the car for rust. Check to make sure the bottom of the doors aren't rusted out; I think Volvo had solved that problem by 1972. Rust is your enemy. Rust, for you, is essentially a death sentence for your car.

Look for parts online. Find out what is available, how much they cost, and what they will take to rebuild.

Look for a Volvo car club in your area. A group of Volvo fanatics in one place can be a huge help. Get involved with them, help them with their cars, ride the bus with them to the junkyard, etc. You will need a support group.

If you get the car, here's some things you will want to do first:

As 517 said, drain the tank of gasoline. Removing the tank and having it blasted and coated is always a good choice but it can be a real bear to remove.

Find out where the fuel pump is. If the gas has sat too long in the car, it has turned to something like varnish and might be gumming up the pump. You will need to clean or replace the pump, or more likely, attempt to clean the pump several times and then end up replacing it anyways. Maybe, maybe not.

Drain the oil, replace the oil filter. Flush and refill the radiator, and replace the fuel filter. Blow the leaves out of the air filter and call it good for now. Replace the sparkplugs or at least knock the junk off of them. Inspect your ignition system wires, replace if they look nasty.

Replace all the tires. They're shot.

New battery.

Check the braking system. The brakes are the only thing that actually need to work on the car.

Looking up that year of Volvo, it looks like they offered it with either carbeurated or fuel injected engines. If it's a carb, here is how to rebuild it:

Buy a rebuild kit for it, which is probably available. Get a large, white, clean fluffy towel and spread it out on your kitchen table. Have a basin of warm, mildly soapy water. Take the carb apart and wash the parts, taking care to watch the Jesus Springs or Clips. (These are little springs that might be inside your carb and when you take it apart they shoot across the room and you yell 'JESUS!' and go search for it with a flashlight for an hour). After everything is apart and clean, put it back together and follow the procedure for calibration.

If the engine is fuel injected and you have problems, you are about to enter a world of pain the likes of which your wallet has never seen. It uses Bosch D-Jet injection which was used on the Porsche 914 and a bunch of other cars of that era. It is so old it is basically made out of stone, but when it works, it works very well. When it doesn't work, you will comb swap meets and car shows and craigslist and ebay to find one last matching injector or MPS unit or whatever you think is wrong with it. Eventually you might just convert it over to a carb in frustration.

Find a cheap tool store that you can walk to or take public transportation to. Harbor Freight is a good choice. People will tell you to buy expensive tools. Ignore them for now. Buy cheap ones, because the quality has gotten better and you are going to need the money you'd spend on nice ones for all the obscure parts you will need.

Don't get a creeper. Throw down old flat cardboard boxes underneath the car and slide around on that, it's nicer.

Get a floorjack and some jackstands. Never, ever get under a car that is only supported by a jack - put it on stands.

Get a dead-blow rubber mallet. It has lead shot in the head. You do not want to know how useful this will be.

Get a parts grabber, a magnet on a stick, and a mirror on a stick. Here and some examples.

Get a good LED shoplight. Don't get one that uses an old fashioned bulb, you will burn all the hair off your arms.

Get some orange cleaner for your hands, or nitrile gloves.

Make sure the neighbors understand that if they hear you swearing it's not an emergency.

Good luck. This could be one of the most amazing times of your life.
posted by Skrubly at 10:44 AM on May 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

I want to second the warning about the wiring harness. I've owned Volvos for years (all 240-series, however), and before 1985 the insulation on the wiring harness tended to...not insulate all the time, at least once it reached a certain age. I'm not sure if this was also a problem with the 140s, but consider that you may have to replace the wiring harness, that is, pretty much rewire the car.
posted by pullayup at 10:51 AM on May 18, 2010

From my own prior experience, I would not undertake this if you're going to depend on it as a daily driver right away, nor if you do not have a garage in which to work on it, a real budget for tools and parts, and lots of free time you're willing to devote to it.

I once had a 1966 Mustang that I loved, but I lacked the space and resources to work on it properly. I hadn't done anything more involved than an oil change when I got it, but armed with a Chilton manual and the encouragement of my hotrodding brother in law I did the brakes, installed a new fan shroud, and replaced an alternator... older cars' systems are so much easier to understand! But the thing was always kind of a downer, because it needed so much more than I could give it.
posted by usonian at 10:58 AM on May 18, 2010

[...] but other than that, it seems to be in fairly good shape.

I did something kind of similar as a summer project, so I'd have a car to get myself to and from college. In my case it was only a 10 year old car which, nevertheless, did not run. I paid $0 for it, but did have to pay for it to be towed to my house. I spent quite a bit of time doing a lot of engine work on it (ignition repairs, followed by camshaft and lifter replacement, followed by carb overhaul), and actually had a lot of fun and gained some useful experience.

The reason I quoted that one line from your question, though, was because that's where I ran into much more trouble than expected. A car that appears to run fine and appears to be in decent shape may actually have a lot of small stuff wrong with it. Depending on where you live, this might not have prevented the previous owner from driving it legally, but might prevent you from doing so.

Where I live (Ontario) you have to get the car inspected and certified either before or after you buy it. All sorts of little problems came up during the inspection that I just didn't have the time, the tools, or the knowledge to fix. So I ended up paying out a fair bit of money to have a bunch of other stuff fixed before I could actually drive the car. It would have been cheaper to just go out and buy an already-certified car of similar age.

I would imagine the situation to be far worse with a 38 year old car.
posted by FishBike at 11:02 AM on May 18, 2010

I'm in the middle of a car project pretty similar to this. I bought a 77 Celica, had it towed to my house and have been working on it bit by bit to get it running. This is not "fix and flip" project; it's something that gets me off of my ass and doing something tangible instead of sitting on the computer.

If you're a starving student, I would HIGHLY recommend against it.
If this is your daily commuter I would HIGHLY recommend against it.
If you're married and your wife isn't on board I would HIGHLY recommend against it.

If you've got a little disposable income and some free time and want to learn some skills and get a strong sense of accomplishment once you get it running then by all means go for it.

If you don't go with the Volvo don't go with anything newer than about 1980, working on all the electronic systems on a mid-80's car is going to be very frustrating. And probably out of your league if your just getting started on this type of work.

Either way good luck!
posted by Scientifik at 11:11 AM on May 18, 2010

I owned a '72 142 (the two door version) and it was a most awesome car. I bought it in Washington State, and drove it back and forth across the country to New York three times, and back and forth from New York to Maine countless times. When it finally died it had over 325k on the dial.

I'd buy it if it has no major problems - the B20 engine in these is pretty bombproof and pretty simple to work on. I never had any trouble with wiring.

I had great luck buying parts and whatnot from IPD in Oregon - they have the secret Volvo knowledge (or they did back in 1999 when I last ordered from them)

Deal Breakers, though -

1) if it has fuel injection instead of carbs, get the fuel system checked out by a volvo shop (not a dealer, but your local volvo wizard - every town has one). The fuel system is fairly high pressure and after 30 years the delivery hoses can loosen/crack/etc. The injectors are a little primitive, and the ignition runs off of a modified distributor that is seriously pricey if it goes.

2) if it has the overdrive, have it either checked out or give it a test drive to see that it engages easily. Fixing that overdrive unit will cost 2k at the bare minimum, so if there is a problem with it (i.e. it doesn't engage after a reasonable pause), steer clear - without it you're stuck to about 50 mph.
posted by gyusan at 12:18 PM on May 18, 2010

If you are buying this car to solve a problem, ie lack of transportation, don't. You'll be buying a bigger problem. If you are buying this car to have a hobby, a long term project, and somewhere to throw money you don't need, then it sounds delightful.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:03 PM on May 18, 2010

When you write "gain a new source of transportation" I hope you mean "alternate transportation" and not "newer, more reliable transportation."

I can't offer much more to the discussion, except to echo pretty much all of the comments above. I had a '71 145 (the wagon version) with about the same mileage back in the 1980s. It was an amazingly simple car, and easy to work on, but I did have to work on it a lot. Nothing major ever went wrong with it (though I did have to replace the clutch), and I was able to fix everything that went wrong with it.

I let it go a couple of years later to get a much newer VW, but even now I do miss the old girl from time to time.

How familiar are you with the salvage yards in your area? Are there any Volvo-specific ones? (I was lucky enough to meet a Volvo mechanic who also had a collection of parts Volvos to find those otherwise unobtainable parts.)
posted by fogovonslack at 2:53 PM on May 18, 2010

"can often be found in junkyards to be salvaged for whatever you're missing"

This is, unfortunately, no longer the case, at least in most of the junkyards in the East and Midwest. Volvos are often one of the first cars to be scrapped in the yard, because the price of scrap metal went up. Unlike some other makes of car, Volvos (at least through the 90s) were pretty substantial hunks of metal.

So, you can still find stuff, but not as easily.

I say this as the owner of a '91 240 sedan and a '93 240 wagon.
posted by HopperFan at 4:30 PM on May 18, 2010

Agree with the statement above re: rust; that's a deal-breaker. Especially in one area: the floor. Once rust is established there you'll have more welding work than is justifiable for most budgets.

Those early '70s Volvos are built like tanks. I once got rear-ended by a large pickup while driving a 240 sedan - my rear bumper was in half an inch; his front end was half-totalled. The only thing that eventually did it in was rust under the seat.

Lovely cars, but have the floor metal checked.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:50 PM on May 18, 2010

These are some great answers. Thanks, guys!

I've got the manual now that I'm looking over while I sleep on this. The old lady lent it to me. She told me where the "volvo wizard" in my town is. There certainly is one; actually I think there may be more than a few. Also, there is apparently a Volvo-only junkyard not too far away.

Myself, I'm a grad student who has no problems getting around solely by bicycle. But I wouldn't have trouble borrowing a car now and again to go get parts.

I still haven't decided if I am crazy enough to do this.

"also: if it is truly a single-owner car, and all the chrome is in place, and all the interior pieces are there, and you didn't write a check on the spot, you may not be insane enough to do this."

This is the case, but because I'm not a car person, I did not write a check on the spot. I never considered buying such a car until I saw it, though.
posted by Candide at 10:27 AM on May 19, 2010

This is the case, but because I'm not a car person, I did not write a check on the spot. I never considered buying such a car until I saw it, though.

YOu could make a new friend by joining a Volvo enthusiast forum and giving them a heads-up on this car being available, if you decide you're not crazy enough.
posted by davejay at 3:05 PM on May 26, 2010

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