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Life of a Volvo salesman wasn't all bad

For a young car salesman back in the 1970s, Volvos were "old folks" cars. But there were plenty of things to like about the late'70s Volvos, too.

Many years ago, I was a Volvo salesman, and I like to think I was a pretty good one, too. The store I worked at in Milford, Conn., was one of the biggest Volvo dealers in America and, in fact, it was the largest-selling Volvo dealer in the world for a while. We had a reputation as a place that really specialized in Volvos, a dealership that kept a good supply of cars in stock, had factory-trained mechanics and a huge parts department. It really was a very good dealership.

However, as a young single guy, I didn’t care all that much for the Volvo. Let’s face it — back then, a Volvo wasn’t made for car enthusiasts. It was for people who read Consumer Reports, listened to public radio and ate at vegetarian restaurants. Some people say that the Volvos of today are a lot sportier than they used to be, but that’s really a matter of degrees. Even now when I see a Volvo, I think “safe, but boring, family sedan.” So, when it came time to choose a demonstrator car for myself, I usually picked some other brand. We also had Oldsmobile and Mazda franchises, and I usually chose one of those.

It may be hard to believe today, but back in the 1970s, Oldsmobile was one of the hottest-selling, most-profitable lines of cars in the world. Olds had a solid reputation as a stylish car for people on their way up, and the guy who managed the dealership where I worked liked to have us young guys driving Cutlass coupes. However, for a short while, I did have a rotary-engine Mazda as a demonstrator, but I soon figured out that the car was a little too quick for my own good. I discovered that having a really fast car is neat, but spending a night in a jail cell isn’t, so after a few unpleasant incidents, I decided to go back to driving an Olds.

Although, to my thinking, Volvo was a car for older people, I also knew they were excellent cars, so selling them was a pleasure. They were built in Sweden, and their quality was top-notch — unlike the defect-riddled Oldsmobiles) — and customers rarely reported any major troubles. I learned that I didn’t have to worry when a Volvo customer would call me a few days after delivery; usually, the call would be some small question about the car, hardly ever about a problem.

Volvo began exporting cars from Sweden to the United States in 1956. The first was the PV444, a two-door sedan whose profile resembles a 1946-’48 Ford, though the Volvo is quite a bit smaller in size than the Ford. The PV544 was added in 1959 and proved very popular with U.S. motorists. Then, in the 1960s, came the Volvo 122, a compact sedan with styling that was almost a copy of the 1958-’60 Rambler American. In 1968, the 140 series debuted with square-cut styling that at last wasn’t a copy of somebody else’s car. Sales began to climb, partly on the good looks of the new series, but mainly because of Volvo’s reputation for safety and long life.

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The 140 series was eventually replaced in 1975 by the similar-looking, but greatly improved, 240 series. It was in mid-1977 that I joined the sales force at our local Volvo dealership, so today, so I quickly got to know a lot about the 1978 lineup.

The Volvo line of cars for 1978 consisted of two series: the 240 line and the 260 line. The lower-priced 240 models featured the usual Volvo upright styling, and that year the car received new grille treatments. All models were based on a 104-in. wheelbase. Two-door versions had black horizontal grille bars and dual, round headlamps, while four-door and station wagon grilles featured black vertical bars and four round headlamps. Back then, a Volvo’s model number represented the series and body styles. Under this system, the 240-series two-door was dubbed a 242, the four-door was a 244 and the station number was, naturally, a 245. There was also a 242 GT, which was a sporty version of the two-door sedan. My friend, Joe Fritz, whose father was the dealership’s general manager, took one as his demo car.

All the 240-series cars were powered by a 2.1-liter inline four-cylinder engine with an overhead camshaft, cross-flow cylinder head and continuous-flow fuel injection. With this, the buyer had a choice of a standard four-speed transmission, a four-speed with electric overdrive or a three-speed, fully automatic transmission. With overdrive, the 240 models had a good EPA rating of 20 city and up to 31 highway for a combined rating of 24 mpg — pretty good for the time.

Four-wheel power disc brakes were standard across the board — an unusual practice for a family car back then — along with rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel coil-spring suspension; these were premium items not always seen in family cars of that era. Many, though not all, of the 240s also featured some pretty special technology to reduce emissions, including the Lamda-sond system with the world’s first three-way catalyst with oxygen feedback control.

For a number of years, Volvo had gradually been moving upscale, and this was very evident in the upper-priced 260 series. These were offered in four-door sedan (model 264) and station wagon (model 265) body styles, along with a limited-production 262C coupe, which was highlighted in this column some time ago. As you might guess, the 260 models used the basic 240-series body, but were equipped with a larger 2,664cc/162.6-cid V-6 engine good for 125 hp. Even with this engine, the combined EPA rating was a respectable 19 mpg.

To set them apart from their lower-priced brethren, the 260 series cars came with new dual rectangular headlamps flanking a bright, vertical-bar grille. Naturally, the Volvo 260s were equipped with finer upholstery (leather or velour), along with the highest level of standard equipment in Volvo history to that point. These included power rack-and-pinion steering, powered four-wheel disc brakes, power windows, air conditioning, heated driver’s seat (yes, back then, Volvo offered heated seats), power side mirrors, Michelin steel-belted radials and much more.

Volvo wasn’t a big-volume make back then, and it still isn’t, but the company had a solid base of loyal customers and always did a comfortable business. Volvo of America’s annual sales volume was more than $350 million, and that ain’t hay. Besides automobiles, which accounted for about 85 percent of Volvo’s U.S. business, the company also sold marine engines and a line of heavy-duty Volvo over-the-road trucks. As a matter of fact, these are still very popular in the United States.

Volvo car prices for 1978 were quite a bit higher than similar-sized U.S. automobiles, but apparently low enough to attract buyers. The lowest-priced 242 two-door sedan started at $6,645, while a similar-sized Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon fastback two-door was $4,408. We sold both makes at our store, where Oldsmobile probably outsold Volvo 10-to-1.

Those were fun days. But as much as I enjoyed working at the Olds/Volvo/Mazda store, I was really into AMC cars, so when a position opened at a local AMC/Jeep/Renault store, I decided to move there. But to leave an Olds/Volvo store to sell AMCs was something nobody did. I’m sure my coworkers thought I’d lost my mind. But we all have to follow our hearts, and I’ve never regretted the path I chose.

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