A photo for Sunday: Volvo 340 DL

Last week we considered the AMC Pacer: a car that is not known for inviting admiration. This week I take a quick look at another not-much-loved vehicle.

1988 Volvo 340
1988 Volvo 340 DL

I could very well have served the two up together as a provocation. When I saw the 340 I wondered what it was doing at the gathering of classics and not parked outside. Yet not far away the 1976 AMC Pacer parked at the same event. That car gathered curious glances and much detailed inspection while the 340 didn’t at all. Yet both cars were there because they had loving owners for whom their vehicles were a source of pride and joy.

I have argued that the Pacer, for all its demerits, was deserving of affection. Someone has to preserve these interesting old cars and you can learn a lot from them, even if they might not live up to preconceived notions of desirability.

1988 Volvo 340 DL- verrily a terrible photo.
1988 Volvo 340 DL- verrily a terrible photo.

So why is the 340 not as worthy of affection as the Pacer? In many ways it’s a better car than the Pacer. It goes as fast, is more comfortable inside and better looking. The interior is a paragon of Swedish sensibility. The exterior might not be athletic but it is correct and neatly, soberly finished. The advantage the Pacer has over the 340 is that it is so outlandish, so spectacularly other. The 340 is merely ordinary: an ordinary, quite rectilinear shape and ordinary of engineering, ordinary of specification (DL). Grey tweed cloth, grey plastic trim. Cart springs. Something yet has driven the owner to lavish upon it considerable care and attention. This one gleamed. It’s also a three door and not the more common five door.

What’s fascinating about this car is that it’s absolutely mediocre. I would have talked to the owner about it if they had been around. I rather wish I did. I can see why one might enjoy the Pacer’s fun factor. What was it about the 340 that floated the owner’s boat? And if not a 340 then what else would they rather have had? Is there a car less special? A 1988 Mazda 323 or a Ford Escort GL?

As with the Pacer, I am glad someone is looking after these cars. The Pacer’s future is assured as it is so flamboyantly strange. The Volvo’s owner is swimming even harder against the tide since he must seldom be rewarded by admiring or even puzzled onlookers. It’s a car you’d walk past despite now being so rare they are even an unusual sight in Sweden.

The nomenclature: the 340 cost less than a 240 but had a bigger number to designate it. Then came the 700-series cars. In the 80s Volvo’s badges made no sense.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

19 thoughts on “A photo for Sunday: Volvo 340 DL”

  1. This Volvo might appear mediocre but one has to delve a little deeper to reveal its attributes. Back in its day I was attracted to the 340 as a ” progression up” from a DAF. This model was intended to be the next DAF which never happened since Volvo took over and needing a small car in their range was rebadged as the 340.

    I think it was quite an achievement for DAF to develope this larger model and with Volvo adding refinements
    Was the final touch. With their reputation for solid and safety oriented products the 340 was more desirable than lessor products from the competition.
    The 340 seemed larger, more comfortable with ergonomic seats, a hatchback and it had height for ease of entry exit. Add to this a de’dion rear suspension, variable ratio simple belt drive transmission mounted in the rear for 50/50 wt distribution and a ground footprint mimicking a formula one car, it was much more interesting than the competition.
    I have fond memories of running the original 3dr 340 but never progressed to the Volvo engined later versions even though they retained a rear manual transmission like some high performance Italian supercars.

  2. Anybody who drove on British roads in the ’80s and ’90s will remember these with no fondness whatever.

    They were the favoured transport of the senile and incompetent, mobile road blocks in their tens of thousands, impeding the spirited driver, or even those just wishing to make progress within the bounds of the law. They fitted the needs of the nearly-dead motorist so perfectly that nothing properly took their place until the 2001 Honda Jazz, a decade after the last 340 left the line.

    There are some admirable aspects to the engineering, all of them to DAF’s credit, and Coggiola did a very competent facelift. However the model development under Volvo was expedient rather than inspired. The big engines never got an automatic option, and the hefty 240 gearbox mounted at the rear should have had plenty of spare capacity, but didn’t, owing to the extra stress on the synchromesh from the front mounted clutch, and a propshaft running at engine speed as soon as drive was engaged.

    A neat DAF touch is the eccentrically pivoted front seat folding mechanism on three door cars – copied from the 1954 Borgward Isabella…

  3. Guess I must not fit your image of a 340 owner since I also owned a Citroen SM at the same time. I do agree at one point the 340 was a favoured choice for the more mature motorist but also accept driving on public roads to be a privilege shared with all types with varying levels of competence to be tolerated.

  4. I’ll step in here and suggest the 340 had many merits and perhaps Volvo could have done more to cultivate a wider demographic. This gets at a problem to do with “sensible” design. It’s not enough as there are alternatives with a little extra romance dialled in and these siphon off the majority leaving cars like the 340 with a reputation that derives from perceptions of the owners. Volvo/Daf didn’t expressly design that in, it emerged as a default.
    I think Robertas’ robust critique should be taken with a pinch of salt as I am sure he’s not really being entirely serious.
    Dgatewood must be unique in having two cars that are at such extremes. It’s not unlike the chap we heard about who had a Pacer and a Jaguar.

  5. One occasionally chances upon such time capsule cars when browsing Autotrader. Even the most mundane machinery can take on an aura of exoticism with the accumulation of age, provided they have been well looked after. Indeed, the more weirdly immaculate, the more alluring they are.

    Spotting the un-classics of the future on Autotrader is something of a fun (turd) parlour fun game of mine. I have seen a factory condition P-plate mark 1 Citroen Xantia with only 25,000 miles on the clock, owned from new by an old boy and boasting a freshly serviced set of Tupperware pots under the bonnet, for £500. 25 year old Sierras (probably on their fourth cylinder head gasket, but otherwise pampered and over-polished) often swim up for less than a grand, if you fish about. Immaculate Saab 900s of all vintages often appear; I once found a £2k B-reg Turbo very tempting.

    Also relevant is my experience chatting to the owner of a pristine MG Maestro that I saw at an MG Club meeting. The fella confessed that for a long time he only kept the car purely because nobody ever offered more than a pittance for it. I suspect many people are in the same boat; perhaps they inherited a mundane yet weirdly immaculate Renault 19 from a relative, and never received a cash offer commensurate to both the car’s condition or their emotional attachment to it. In that way any car could become an oddly affecting millstone.

  6. I’ll agree to the senile and incompetent old driver-demographic for this car. It seems it was the natural successor to cars like the Morris Minor and Marina. But why is that so? What made the Volvo 340 appeal so much to the Minor-crowd? And how did it end up on the top ten cars sold charts in the UK for most of the 80’s? It’s mindboggling to see how many were sold in the UK…

    1. And mindboggling how few remain too. The 340 might have been popular as a safe alternative to the Cavalier and Sierra or a little more car than an Escort or Jetta. The Swedish safety aspect must have appealed to very cautious people and, likely, it was a private purchase. A short look shows them costing from 500 UK pounds to 2000 UK pounds. I don´t know why one would buy one of these when a 240 or 740 can be had for the same money.

    2. Apparently 340s are becoming popular with the yoof tuner crowd, what with their cheapness, ubiquity of parts, avuncular looks and RWD.

  7. Regarding old/slow drivers, didn’t Volvo (try to) correct this with the addition of turbo versions in later iterations (i.e. 360)? I wonder if they could really turn around the car’s image. If I read here, I guess they couldn’t.

  8. In an earlier life I worked at a Volvo dealer in Ireland. During the late-1980s Volvo had become the default choice for the upwardly mobile who couldn’t quite stretch to Bavarian or Swabian fare. We sold and leased a lot of 240 and 740 models.

    The 300-series – (as it was known by then) – was something of a minority interest. Too old fashioned and cramped for families and not sexy enough for the aspirational types, it tended to appeal to retirees and the old at heart. All Volvos of this vintage actively encouraged a sedate driving style and being something of a press-on chap at the time, I was amazed by how relaxed I would become behind the wheel of a Volvo – any Volvo. Deadline? What deadline?

    In the 340’s case however, one had little choice. I recall delivering a brand new example to a client. The car heaved and pitched alarmingly under acceleration and braking and more disconcerting still, the rear wheels would lose traction over potholes – all at the sort of low speeds the car literally forced you to travel at. It genuinely felt like something from another age. The only thing I could say in its favour was that it was nicely finished, felt like it would last for decades and had a quite decent gearchange for a transaxle arrangement.

    I drove 2 litre versions as well. Not quite as inept, but still woefully behind the curve. All 300’s regardless of engine capacity or chassis set up felt top heavy and under-tracked. They never inspired confidence in the driver as a consequence. Their appeal? They had light and positive controls and a good turning circle. The seating position was commanding and very supportive. They were well engineered within their dynamic limits and offered a durable, respectably middle-class ownership experience. I recall a lady of my acquaintance trading in a low-mileage Alfasud for a 340 and being delighted with it. She found it so much easier to drive – not to mention to own.

    I respect people’s choices and if you choose to keep one of these I won’t mock you but to be frank, I don’t think it was a brilliant car and while the 240 also remained in production for far too long, it was a surprisingly nice car to drive. Couldn’t say that about a 340. Sorry.

    1. I drove a 340 once. It had no power assistance and felt very heavy indeed. It also consumed quite a lot of petrol. Memorably bad, I have to say.

  9. I would buy a Volvo 340, given the opportunity. But my requirements are probably fairly unique–I’m looking for an oddball gray-market vintage car that could be practical enough to drive to work and unremarkable enough that I wouldn’t fee bad parking it on the street. (Note that I live in the USA, where these were never sold; otherwise it probably wouldn’t be weird enough for me to consider owning one.)

    1. What other cars are you considering in this category? I presume the 25 year (or 20 year rule is a requirement here). Aren´t there less awful cars than the 340? And if you have to have a 300 series then at least consider the 360 variants which had 4 doors, a proper boot and some even had leather. The downside is that they had Renault engines (to the best of my, without looking at Wikipedia. You might consider a Lancia Thema which is better rustproofed than the Volvo. Or a Ford Sierra which is less clunky. If you want very oddball, go for a Citroen BX. Or is that simply too far out? The Lancia would not be noticed. The Sierra would be mistaken for a Topaz and the BX would look like a moon rocket.

  10. I cannot say why, but one of my earliest memories is that the house just down the street had a 360 GLT in the driveway. (Clearly, by age 4, I was already a lost cause as far as an unhealthy interest in cars went.) I suspect this was because I was already aware that Volvo meant big, blocky, and expensive. A cheap(er), small, hatchback Volvo… what sorcery was this? Of course, this was all before my mind was infected by such déclassé considerations as marketing or segment positioning, let alone anything as vulgar as profitability. The 360 was not exactly the spot of a lifetime in Australia, but then, neither did it have the degree of commonality there that it had in the UK. I still find it quite interesting that the 340/360 was, for a time, a regular Top 10 seller in Blighty.

    1. Volvos had a lot of cachet in Ireland in the 80s. I can still remember being rather jealous when one of my school classmates was collected by a parent in a 360 GLE. It had leather. At the time I think our household was running a Renault 5. The car before it had been a Rover 2600 and the next one was a Volvo 240 GLE. It was a strange interregnum.

  11. I remember a Volvo advertisement from the period with a 340 taken off the assembly line (I assume then submerged)? and being frozen in a huge shipping container sized block of ice, photographed and then defrosted. Once thawed an attempt by Volvo PR to start the engine was made whereupon the humble 340 started first time.

    It seems crackers to be fair. Was it true?

    Almost as insane as seeing a period SAAB advertisement with a massive building crane holding a 900 Turbo 100ft aloft by just it’s door handle?

    I always told people that’s how strong my 1989 SAAB 900i was.

    Surely I was being deluded by Swedish marketing nonsense in both cases.

    1. I´d imagine the lawyers were over both of those ads to make sure they weren´t lies. They were not so careful with “Above all, it´s a Rover” though.

    2. Volvo produced some odd adverts. I recall the press version of the block of ice advertisement, which had a caption along the lines of, “If it’ll start here, it’ll start in Guildford”. There appears to be a Volvo version of the ‘hanging by its door’ ad, too. They will have been accurate.

      Here’s a collection of some of their ads, with jokey captions. If anyone can explain why the Pope, some people in 17th century dress and a giant chess board feature in an advert for the 740 Turbo, I’d be very grateful and I promise to cut down on the absinthe.


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