Essay
By Amos Kwon
on 3.3.14

As much as I’d love to press my garage door opener and find a wickedly fast Audi A6 Avant 3.0 TDI bi-turbo or Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG S 4Matic Wagon waiting within, the real wagon of my dreams might actually be even more difficult to come by and definitely moves at geologic speed compared to the aforementioned family rocket sleds. It may have the drag coefficient of a brick oven, but it’s so undeniable lustworthy among the station wagonistos that it borders on car divinity. An automotive Tasmanian Tiger, it’s been seen by few — but don’t make mistake its rarity for the true reason it’s coveted. It’s a true driver’s car that just happens to be an iconic station wagon, too. The Volvo 240 GLT Turbo Wagon takes the great, nearly bombproof bones and classic style of the 200 Series Volvos and adds performance and exclusivity. Granted, there are modern wagons that are faster, sleeker and far more technologically advanced that this turbo fridge, but they lack what the 240 GLT has in spades: attitude and a cool factor that cannot be duplicated.

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The original 200-Series Volvos were woefully underpowered but as tough as nails. I should know. My folks still own a near-pristine 1991 Volvo 240 GL with over 350,000 miles on it. It’s been from Chicago to Alaska and back. Twice. It’s survived decades in Chicago winters without batting a square headlight. The tractor-like 2.3-liter, 114 hp inline-four engine is a bastion of dependability despite its nearly non-existent acceleration. Some 240s have famously gone a million miles on a single engine, and their conservative, boxy look is still coveted today.

During the rare times when my family’s Atlantic Blue 240 GL has been in the shop for minor repairs other customers have asked if they could purchase it; my folks have even been stopped in supermarket parking lots by admirers offering to buy it for far more than it’s worth. Dad will never sell it, and I can see why. Whenever I drive it, I’m amazed by how well the steering responds. Despite body roll from the tall center of gravity, the stock 240 GL wagon is composed and predictable, and rear-wheel-drive makes it that much easier ot pilot. The driving position and visibility are excellent, and the seats are comfortable and supportive. Load in two weeks’ worth of vacation gear and the 240 will accept it without complaint. It may not be the even remotely quick, but it’s positively brilliant by virtue of its practicality, road manners and timeless looks.

Then there’s the GLT Turbo version of the 240, first built as a sedan for the race circuit and then created as a wagon so consumers could enjoy its added power. Volvo turned their best-selling vehicle into a performance car that could operate on the European Touring Car Championship, adding a Garrett AiResearch BT03 turbocharger to their 2.1-liter four-cylinder and bumping up the power by 50 horses to 127 and 150 lb-ft of torque. It marked Volvo’s first use of turbocharging since their inception in 1927.

But it wasn’t enough to just add horsepower: the car had to possess improved handling dynamics. Suspension was enhanced via added gas-pressurized front shock absorbers and a beefier anti-roll bar. The rear setup was improved with a Panhard rod, trailing links, De Carbon shocks and a thicker anti-roll bar. These upgrades helped the car manage curves, plus they made the GLT Turbo 240 more controllable under hard driving, something all wagon drivers crave. Brakes were also upgraded to larger vented front discs for improved stopping power, much needed for a heavy wagon. The excellent monocoque body went unchanged, and the reliable engine utilized the same iron block and alloy head with two valves per cylinder and a single overhead camshaft. The compression ratio had to be lowered from 9.3:1 to 7.5:1 in order to allow for the turbo boost.

There are modern wagons that are faster, sleeker and far more technologically advanced that this turbo fridge, but they lack what the 240 GLT has in spades: attitude and a cool factor that cannot be duplicated.

What resulted was a 0-60 time of 8.9 seconds, down considerably from the stock GL time of over 14 seconds. Though that doesn’t seem like a remarkably fast time, it was impressive for a 3,200-pound 4-cylinder family car. The lowered first gearing overshadows any turbo lag and the boost kicks in from a low 1,500 rpm and spools up aggressively at about 3,300 rpm.

The already stable base car was turned into a tossable Swedish sports sleeper and none of the flavor of the original 240 was lost: the simple and utilitarian interior was kept the same, with the exception of an added boost gauge; the big, easy-to-grip HVAC knobs (even with Nanook of the North style mittens), crisp analog instrumentation and boxy dash remained unchanged; the thick steel body with multi-layered paint, bank vault doors and black trimmed windows with unparalleled visibility also stayed identical to stock. Aesthetically, bold 5-spoke alloys were added to give the 240 GLT Turbo a slightly more aggressive look — like putting pinstripes on your 1980s Samsonite hardside briefcase.

All the resilience and practicality of the 240 still resided in the GLT Turbo Wagon, but this time with the benefit of enhanced performance and handling and just the right amount of sporty looks. There are still tens of thousands of the original 2.8 million cars sold between 1974 and 1993, but the GLT Turbo is a rarified version that you’d be fortunate to even catch a glimpse of. If you so happen to see one in a grocery store parking lot someday, be prepared to offer the owner something substantial for it. Even then, he likely won’t part with it.

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