By the time I had reached the dizzy heights of Primary 2 and my wee sister was getting bigger, it was time for my family to move on from the Fiats and acquire a proper, safe family car. Something like, say, a Volvo. Sadly, though, my folks’ budget couldn’t stretch to a real Volvo, so instead they bought the fake Volvo. The one that was originally supposed to be a BMW, and was built in Holland with a French engine. Yes, the Fiat Regata got traded in for a Volvo 340 DL.
In the days leading up to the Volvo/DAF being picked up, my Dad thought it would be fun to tell me a little fact about the car each morning while I was having breakfast. These ‘fun facts’ included finding out that there was a red sign that came on if you didn’t buckle up your seatbelt before driving off, hearing about the tiny wipers that kept the headlamps clean and learning there were mythical knobs on the sides of the seats that made them more or less comfy. Given the last car we’d had was, well, a Fiat, this sounded like unimaginable luxury.
My sister and I were loaded into the Regata, which had had the usual pre-sale sweep with a bin bag, and primed for the hour-long drive north to Kildary where we’d pick the Volvo up from – inexpicably – a Peugeot dealership. As we waited for the salesman to fetch the keys from inside, a Talbot Samba that appeared to have been strafed with machine gun fire drew in to fill up with petrol. On closer inspection, I was able to deduce that this car (a) had once been red and (b) was now rusting like a 1970s French car, which in fairness it was. This Samba also happened to be my Mum and Dad’s old car from before I was born, and at ten years of age it looked months if not weeks away from the end of its life.
The Volvo rolled round into the setting sun, revealing a vehicle made up of at least ten different shades of blue. Outside, the body was painted a dull, mid-blue colour that Quentin Wilson’s used car guides at the time described as ‘Varicose Vein Blue’. The bumpers might once have been black, but the five years of the car’s life before it came into our ownership had diluted their colour, leaving the plastic with a washed-out bluey grey hue. The main features of the interior trim had been constructed out of black-painted petrified rhino’s backside, with deep blue vinyl linings, a battleship-coloured carpet and a headlining of similar shade and consistency to off stilton. Oh, and the seats featured a blue-grey tweedy weave with velvet backs. You can work out the colour of them for yourself.
Regardless of colour, though, the seats in the Volvo were damn comfy, probably the comfiest thrones I’ve ever sat on in a car. And just as with a good sofa, as the 340 got older the pews got comfier and comfier. Even an attempt to make the knobs on the sides of the seats work while I waited in the car as my mother posted a letter – which resulted in a loud boinging sound and a dull thump from inside the driver’s seat – didn’t diminish the pleasantness of the seats. With the DL being the lowest of the low in the 300 series pecking order, most of the buttons were blanked off, but there was still a sheath of fake leather surrounding the gear lever to create the impression of Swedish quality.
One of the things I can remember most clearly about this 1987 vintage car was its engine sound, a strange wobbling whine that rose and fell as the 340 chugged its way up through the gears. When I heard this weak drone coming along the road as I walked home from school, I knew that one of the three 340s in the village was about to pass. Either that or it was the District Nurse’s Renault 11, which had exactly the same powerplant in it. See, platform sharing is nothing new.
It might not have been a ‘real’ Volvo, but D159HVF worked away with the same levels of dependability one would expect from any other car with a big ‘V’ on the front. Whitby, the Isle of Mull and Galloway were all notched up as part of the 126,000 miles the flat-featured, overweight 1400cc hatch would cover before we sent it on to pastures new. Over time, the flannel blue paintwork became duskier and duskier, dirt got ingrained, and the inscription ‘12345’ was indelibly inscribed across the bonnet by a newly-numerate pupil at one of the schools my Mum worked at.
More than anything else, the Volvo 340 was a tough old motor that outlasted many of the other cars my parents owned. It served us very well, but its increasing unreliability, encroaching rust and scary handling characteristics in slippery conditions (my Dad still harps on about spinning through a full three hundred and sixty degrees at a staggering 20mph in the ice) meant it was eventually time to shift it on. Within the following three months, it had been abandoned four times by its subsequent keepers, each time getting further and further away from Inverness before it presumably stopped for once and for all. And you know what? I bet the metal bits are still standing strong in a field somewhere, scaring birds away from crops or dispensing food to sheep. It would be a fitting end for an uninspiring but utterly faithful machine that, despite its horrendous gestation period, kept one family moving by doing all the things a car was supposed to do in the first place.