The Volvo 245 wagon owned by Natasha Adams demonstrates that a budget build doesn’t have to be ugly or underperforming, but it does require a little elbow grease.
Natasha Adams was more of a car girl than a Barbie girl, but it was all her own efforts. “I have always loved cars since I was a child,” she recalls, “Instead of playing with dolls, I had Hot Wheels or airplane models. My father, unfortunately, does not share the same passion for cars as I do, I developed it on my own.” Her starter vehicle of choice (after learning how to drive in a 1995 Chevrolet Suburban) was a Volvo—one of six she’s had since then.
It may seem odd, as we’ve stated before, Volvos aren’t well-known for being performance-minded. However, the 200-series like her 1988 245 wagon, has a cult-like following when it comes to performance. It all comes down to these cars being cheap to buy, plentiful, and inexpensive to maintain. Even if you go the performance route, many parts can be had for far less money than you’ll see for an equivalent BMW or even a Volkswagen. However, finding that performance isn’t always a bolt-on affair.
Before we proceed on to performance, let’s touch on the story of this 245. This car sat in a garage since 2003, the person who owned it at the time was the brother of the original owner. Unfortunately, the original owner passed away, and his brother kept the car but never had the heart to really work on it. In 2018, Natasha and her boyfriend, Cal, found the car on Facebook when he finally decided it was time to let it go.
The car was listed for free to anyone willing to pick it up. It could have gone to someone looking to scrap it, but Natasha and Cal were looking for a new Volvo to work with. When they had arrived, the brother told the pair that he had other offers but saved the car for them. He looked at Natasha’s social media posts and saw that our pair of vehicular heroes shared a bond with his departed sibling: their love of Volvos.
It was a mess, though. The engine would turn over but not start, and the tires were so dry rotted, the steel wheels it was originally on were touching the ground. So, in order to tow it to its new home, they had to grab a set of wheels and install them. Then there was the problem of a lack of a key to start the car along with a broken window. Fortunately, being an older car, there are ways around a key and being in California, worrying about rain is a luxury instead of a problem. The interior was in immaculate condition from being stored in a garage for over 15 years.
They pumped out the old gas that was in the tank and discovered there was no coolant in the radiator. Before putting fresh fuel into the car, they decided just to see if the motor would turn over and it did. So, an engine might not have been in order yet, and when fuel was added and found its way to the injectors, it fired up.
At first, they didn’t know where the coolant was going but decided to come back in the morning after an already long day. That’s when they discovered a puddle on the ground that was a mix of transmission fluid and engine coolant. The automatic transmission cooler is integrated into the radiator – like many automatic-equipped cars are – and that internal cooler was broken, thus allowing coolant and trans fluid to mix in the transmission as well as leak both fluids on the ground.
Through a good friend who is also a Volvo nut, they were able to get a rebuilt automatic from a Volvo 262C Bertone – which uses the Borg-Warner BW55 behind its B280 V6 – and works by swapping the bellhousings between the Bertone and the 245’s AW70. With a working transmission, Natasha and Cal took it for a drive but found that there was white smoke coming out of the tailpipe.
Tearing the engine down, they discovered that not only was the head gasket blown, but the water pump was trashed and packed full of a grey, gritty material. This same material was all in the head of the B230 engine and meant that someone tried to use “head gasket in a can” to fix it. The way it’s claimed to work, but never really does, is that gritty mess finds its way around the engine until it reaches where the coolant is leaking out. Once it hits air, it solidifies and blocks up the leak.
Anyone who’s tried this knows it doesn’t work and on top of that, that gritty material never fully removes itself. That’s if the person doing it bothers to drain the radiator fluid after the procedure. They usually don’t, and it's left to circulate until you finally change the head gasket of that “mechanic’s special.” In this case, it also ruined the head as that grit basically became concrete. No amount of hot tanking was going to remove it. Fortunately, the block was cleared of the grit by pressure washing the coolant passages and several flushes. A set of new rings and OEM sized pistons were all that were added to the rotating assembly.
The block was then removed from the car, and its water passages cleaned out, but the bores weren’t touched. Even with the blown head gasket, the bores were in perfect shape and even retained the original cross hatches. This was when the Volvo community showed why it’s a special one; for a set of Volvo wheels Natasha had laying around, a friend of Cal’s traded a short block with a ported head that had a valve job also done to it.
What makes Volvos great is how inexpensive it is to maintain them. Many parts can be found from other European cars since much of them use similar Bosch electronics. Add to that the B230 was based off a tractor engine, designed for long life and low-cost maintenance, sourcing new OEM-style parts with equal quality to Volvo is open to the budget builder. So long as you’re willing to work on it yourself – even Cal and Natasha did using only a jack, a set of jack stands, and cheap tools from Harbor Freight in their front driveway – keeping these older Volvos running isn’t going to break the bank.
While the car was engineless, Natasha and Cal replaced the suspension with OEM-style replacement pieces besides a set of lowering springs and a set of iPd sway bars (25mm front and 22mm rear). The struts, tie rods, strut mounts, ball joints, and bushings were all replaced with OE-style parts. Again, they did all of this in their own driveway.
Behind those BBS Style 5 wheels are a set of slotted and drilled rotors and the fronts have a 5mm spacer to clear the brake calipers. The BBS wheels measure 17x8 with a +20 offset front and rear and the fenders clear without rolling using 215/45R17 tires. Considering the original 245 used a 7-inch wide wheel with a +25 offset (giving it roughly a five-inch backspacing and a front spacing of three-inches stock), this eight-inch wide set up with an effective offset of +15 is still not overly aggressive. “It now handles like a go-kart,” says Natasha.
Cal added a bit of advice for those looking to purchase their own 245. “These older Volvos are going to be sought after by nerdy engineers or soccer moms,” he says, “so there isn’t much competition in buying a cheap one.”
“The key is to try and work on it yourself,” both Natasha and Cal agreed on, “since most mechanics are going to charge $100 or more per hour to work on it since they are more used to newer cars. This helps make these older Volvos less expensive to buy since they aren’t as valued as much as new Volvos. So, chances of finding one that’s cheap is pretty good.”
If you see an ad that says the engine isn’t running or needs a fuel pump, it might not be that. “There are two things to check that many mechanics might miss when diagnosing an older Volvo that won’t start,” says Cal, “First is the relay but if that works, there is a 15-amp fuse by the battery that blows. If you see that, you know what actually needs to be fixed and you can get a cheap or free car with only the need to replace a part that costs less than a $1 to drive it away.”
“Our original plan for this build was the take a car that was destined for the junkyard and turn it around into a classy daily driver,” said Natasha as we closed out our conversation. “A car that was dead in the last owner’s eyes was now a super dependable, cross-country ready machine. We do not have a shop or a lift, and the whole rebuild was done DIY in our front driveway. We like to save these cars from junkyards or being crushed; they are great, simple, four-cylinder, RWD, rad little machines.”
The Volvo 245 wagon might not be as popular as a Mercedes or BMW, but the strong community behind the brand’s legacy machinery is a testament that it should be just as sought after. We certainly like seeing the DIY attitude of owners like Cal and Natasha and look forward to their next Volvo.
Story by Justin Banner
Photos by Antonio Alvendia
If you enjoyed Natasha and Cal's Volvo 245 Wagon, you can find additional Volvo-related content at volvo.fcpeuro.com, as well as more build features like this one, here. If there's anything specific you would like to see, or if you have any questions/comments, leave them in the comments section below.
Antonio Alvendia is an aficionado of cameras, rare wheels, hip hop, and obscure aftermarket car accessories. He bought his first E39 Touring after seeing M5 Estates on photo trips to Europe, and now has sights set on restoring a classic Mercedes. Antonio was a principal photographer on the limited edition hardcover book on Singer Vehicle Design's Porsche 911 builds, entitled One More Than Ten. Future goals include returning to the Nurburgring to shoot the N24 race and driving the Nordschleife again. ••• Instagram : @MOTORMAVENS