Since I sold the GTO last year, I’ve been without a car, using my 2015 Triumph Trophy SE to go everywhere, in all weather, except the occasional heavy rain, in which case I’ve been taking Uber to work. That worked out really well for the last year, right up until early last week, when I took the Trophy in for its 10,000 mile service. Then, it all went sideways.
I’d been noticing some trouble with the Trophy’s transmission, lately. It started to get clunky when shifting into second gear, with some gear grinding. Then, when accelerating, if you were in second gear, the drivetrain would momentarily lose power—just for a split second, then the power would come fully back. When it happened to me on a decreasing radius turn on a freeway on-ramp, it was scary. Since I was just at 10,000 miles, and service was due, I told the service guys at North County House of Motorcycles—my regular dealer and service garage for the last several years—to check out the transmission while they were doing the service.
The service tech took my bike on a little test ride that scared him white-faced. It turns out that the transmission was in the process of tearing itself apart, and needs a complete replacement. Now, you’d think that it’d be easy to replace a cassette transmission, right? Just swap out the cassette unit, and you’re off to the races. And, I suppose that’s true, except for the fact that it’s a British motorcycle, and the nearest replacement transmission is…in Britain. So, now, the factory has to crate up a transmission, and send it off by ship. A very slow ship. The transmission will be delivered in about two months, apparently after the ship makes scheduled ports of call in Oslo, the Bahamas, Shanghai, and Johannesburg.
Of course, that put me in a bit of a pickle. Losing my only vehicle for two months is…a burden. I rented a Hyundai Accent for a week, to tide me over, but I can’t afford $250 a week to rent a car for the next few months.
Now, for the last several months, I’ve been lurking around in Autotrader and Craigslist, looking for an old cheap car, finding interesting ones occasionally, but never actually pulling the trigger on one. Part of the problem is that I’m far too fancy a man to be seen driving around in a shitty little econobox. I wanted a car that was cheap, yet fun to drive, but that was also practical, and could haul large dogs and Costco loot around. But, my new transportation situation meant that my car search needed to go into high gear, and the type of car I wanted to find was, let’s face it, very rare at the prices I was looking at.
Then, in what I thought was a very fortuitous coincidence, I saw exactly the car I wanted. Carz, a used car dealership in San Diego, had a 1999 Volvo V70XC with 144,000 miles for sale at $3,990. So, last Thursday, Chris and I went down to look at it. Apart from the plastic cladding on the exterior being a bit faded, it was really in fantastic shape. The interior was immaculate. Just looking at it, it was impossible to tell that this was a 17 year-old car. I mean, except for the cassette player in the dash. Other than some wear on the driver’s seat, all of the leather seats are in pristine condition. It looks great on the inside. The outside has a little wear and tear, but the clear coat is still clear, and it’s in overall good shape.
Since it looked good, we took a test drive, and it just purred along like a kitten. Obviously, since it’s a pre-horsepower wars 90s car, it’s a bit underpowered by today’s standards, having only 190 HP and 200 lb-ft of torque—at least, that’s what it had 17 years ago—but it felt good to drive, with firm, communicative steering, and good handling. And, of course, it has over 70 cu. ft. of cargo space, so practicality wasn’t an issue.
The only real issue I could find was that the dealer only had one key, and no keyless entry fob, which, because it’s a Volvo, isn’t cheap to replace. I have to replace it though. What am I gonna do, get into the car every time by inserting a metal key onto a little door slot, like some kind of animal? No. I’m gonna replace the fob. Keyless entry is what separates us from the beasts. Or, at least, from the dirty, poor people.
But, no matter. I plopped my four grand on the table and drove off with it. In addition to the four grand, I also splurged on a 12-month service contract for $350, which provided for up to $1,500 in necessary repairs for 12 months. I figured that I could easily get $1,500 in repairs on a 17 year-old Volvo.
Since it was a weekday, I headed back to my office to finish the day’s work. On my way there, I rolled down the driver’s window for a little breeze, since it was a nice, cool day.
Rolling the window up, however, was a problem. The switchgear for the windows has a short in it, and it took me fiddling with it nearly all of my half-hour drive back to the office to get the switch to connect, and roll up the window. “That,” I thought, “will need to be fixed.” But, no big deal. You don’t buy a car this old without knowing you’re gonna have to put some money into it.
After work, I got in the Volvo to go home, and…it took a while to start. The starter cranked for a good 10 second before the engine started. “Hmm. This will need to be checked into,” I though to myself. But, once started, I got onto the freeway and headed home. Everything hummed along fine until I was nearly home, stopped at a red light, when my 5-cylinder engine suddenly became a 4-cylinder engine, and the Check Engine light came on—rather redundantly, I thought. I hadn’t even gotten my new (to me) Volvo home, and it was already hors de combat.
As I was nursing it the last few blocks home, the Check Engine light started blinking periodically. Now, a Check Engine light is never a good thing, but a blinking Check Engine light is a Very Bad Thing indeed, because it means that something is damaging the catalytic converter. In the case of a misfiring cylinder, it probably means that the fuel from the misfiring cylinder is igniting in the exhaust system. The last thing you want to do is replace a catalytic converter, because, thanks to the pound of platinum it contains, a replacement can run around $2,000.
Frankly, that seems like some kind of a scam. “Oh, yeah, you need to have platinum in your exhaust system.” That sounds like, “Oh, you need Frankincense and Myrrh in your seat cushions for odor protection.” It’s 2016. We have something called “materials science”. I’m pretty sure we could come up with something cheaper than platinum. Also, platinum doesn’t even sound like a real thing. It sounds like some sort of super-metal from a comic book.
Anyway, since I only need to go a few blocks, and the blinking was intermittent, I got the Volvo home on prayers and TLC. As soon as I got home, I called Carz, and explained that I was a bit concerned that my new (to me) car hadn’t even made it home before it went tits up. Since it was almost 6:30PM everyone with any decision-making power was already gone for the day, but they assured me that my call would be given the highest attention the next morning.
Usually, at this point, I would be a tower of flaming rage at the dealership, and threatening to call in air strikes and indirect fire support on everyone whose ever worked at the place, but, in fact, was fairly calm and philosophical about the whole thing. I knew what I was getting into buying an older Volvo, especially one I paid less than four grand for. And, frankly, I was lucky to even find one. IT’s really difficult to find a decent used car in Southern California for less than $10,000. The problem is, we just live too close to Mexico. It’s far easier for dealers to send a car to Mexico via auction than it is to pay to put them through safety and smog checks and make practically no money on the resale. So there’s really a very narrow range of available cars between the “total piece of shit” private party sales cars, and the “decent ten grand” dealership cars.
I took the next day, Friday, off. I honestly had no idea what the management at Carz would do for me, if anything, but I wasn’t going to wait until 10AM, when they opened, to find out. Happily, two blocks from my house, is a tiny strip mall, which contains one of the best little automotive repair shops in San Diego, Cardenas Auto Repair. I called them at 8AM, explained the problem, and by 8:15, the Volvo was at the shop. Pablo, the manager, told me they’d look at it that day.
Let me sidetrack a minute to talk a little about Cardenas Auto Repair. Chris first started going there a few years ago, and she raves about them. My experience confirms that. They are really good guys, they can fix pretty much everything, and their prices are way better than fair. I can’t say enough good things about them. If you’re in Escondido, or anywhere close to Escondido, Cardenas Auto Repair should be your go-to guys for automotive issues. They’re at 2121 E. Valley Pkwy in Escondido. It’s a small shop, but a very good—and very busy—one.
By the way, I felt a more confidence in their ability to fix Volvos by noting that, when I dropped my Volvo off, there was an old Volvo 240 sedan and another V70XC also waiting for service.
It turns out that, as I hoped, I only needed to have an ignition coil replaced. Pablo also mentioned that the starter cable, being so old, had built up a lot of resistance, so maybe replacing it would help the slow start situation. All in, it cost $479 to fix. Also, he said it was time for a new timing belt, which, since it’s a regular maintenance item, is another $500 that will have to come put of my pocket.
Meanwhile, back at home, after dropping off the Volvo, the owner of Carz called me at 10:10AM. “Mr. Franks,” he said, “I have a tow truck driver ready to come up to Escondido. We will take the car back to our shop and fix it.” I told them that the car was already in the shop, and that I expected the service contract would cover it. But I thanked him for the effort. At the end of the day, the Carz dealership owner was a stand-up guy. That counts for a lot in my book. He could’ve said, “Hey, you bought a used car, as-is. Go screw.” But he didn’t. So, if I ever buy a used car again, Carz is the dealer I’ll check first.
Actually, I probably should’ve waited on Carz to take care of it. I had hoped that my shiny new service contract would cover the cost, but when Pablo called the service contract company, they hadn’t even received the paperwork on it yet, since I had bought the car less than 24 hours previously. So, the $479 came out of my pocket. On the other hand, the Carz service guys were unknowns to me, and they were the ones who’d cleared the car for sale in the first place, after which, it crapped out after 40 miles of driving. I trust the guys at Cardenas auto repair. Money well spent, I’d say.
Anyway, I picked up the Volvo at the end of the day, and I had a running car, once more. I drove the car every day last week and all seemed well.
Then, on Wednesday, the Check Engine light came on again. “Oh, no,” I thought. “Please, please, please don’t tell me that I damaged the cat when I was driving it last week on the misfiring cylinder.” With a sense of dread, I called Cardenas Auto Repair on Thursday, and set up a service appointment for Saturday.
Yesterday, I mentioned my new problem to a co-worker. “Hey,” he said, “I have a bluetooth ODB-II reader that connects to my phone. You want me to hook it up and see what’s wrong?” Of course, I did!
We went out to the Volvo, and I hooked the device up to the ODB-II port in the Volvo, which is conveniently located, by the way, in the storage compartment in the center console. Kris, my co-worker, ran the diagnostic on his phone, and the trouble code came up as, “Evaporative fuel leak. Check your gas cap.” I shut off the Volvo, opened the fuel cover, and took off the gas cap, which came apart in two pieces in my hand. The cap had come unsnapped from the part that technicians refer to as the screw-in bit. So, I snapped the two pieces back together and screwed it back in. When I restarted the car, Kris cleared the error code from the ECU, and the Check Engine light switched off. Problem solved. It’s been off since.
Kris also showed me how the ECU reader app on his phone would display performance data while the engine as running with turbo boost pressure, exhaust pressure, RPMs, Horsepower…the whole nine yards. I could get a little window mount for my phone, and hook up the ODB-II reader, and I would have a cool little performance instrument cluster. Because that’s what you need on a 17-year old Volvo station wagon: a performance screen.
I also immediately went onto Amazon and bought a BlueDriver Bluetooth Professional OBDII Scan Tool for $100. I figure that it might be damn well a necessity when owning an older European car. Honestly, I never even thought that such a technological miracle might be possible. We live in an age of wonders. In fact, I even found a Bluetooth iPhone adapter that plays my music and lets me do hands-free calling…by inserting it into my cassette deck. Yes. That’s what I said. The cassette deck.
I didn’t cancel my service appointment at Cardenas Auto Repair, though. I figured I might as well have them look at that starter problem, and besides, since it’s been a week now, I figure that, this time, my service contract will pick up the tab. I also have a little list of other things that I need to get fixed. The window switches. The transmission lock is a bit sticky. The hinges on the rear lift gate are a bit weak. The timing belt, obviously. Replacement keys and fob. It’s mainly little things that need to be given a bit of TLC until the Volvo is just right.
Even though my Volvo ownership began with a rocky start, I still enjoy driving it. Besides, I like the name, Volvo”. Back when I was kid, my Grandfather, in his Texas accent, would always pronounce Volvo as “Vulva”, as in, “I thought I might look at one of those Vulvas”. In his honor, that’s what I call my V70XC. The Vulva.
I like being in the Vulva.
Now, how do I get 300HP out of it?