Opinion : Anything we can do… they can do worse? – Volvo 300 Series

Keith Adams ruminates about some of the not-so-great cars sold by British Leyland’s competitors – and wonders why it’s still so fashionable to knock our once-great nationalised carmaker even though its mistakes were echoed across the wider industry.

Here, in the fifth article of this occasional series, we look at the Volvo 300 Series and compare its fortunes with the Austin Maestro. Were we really that bad?


Volvo 340/360: The ultimate Indian summer

Sit back and think for a moment… Can you name a car that enjoyed as much success in the latter half of its life as the Volvo 300 Series did? It doesn’t happen often but, when it does, a long and glorious production run often follows. Cars such as the Jaguar XJ-S, Range Rover and Ford Capri spring to mind, but they were glamorous – not something you can accuse the Volvo 340/360 of being by any stretch of the imagination.

It might not have been sexy, but the Volvo 300 Series was successful. Launched in 1976, the 343 with its funny CVT Variomatic transmission followed the mighty Volvo 200 Series for majoring on safety – so it sported a padded fascia, collapsible steering column, crumple zones and and that all-important seatbelt warning buzzer. Initially, it didn’t set the world on fire in terms of sales, but the arrival of the five-door 345 and standard fit manual transmission rapidly turned around the 300’s fortunes.

Sales accelerated further with the 1982 MY facelift and the addition of the 2.0-litre 360 GLS and GT models, which finally put rest to the 340’s main Achilles’ heel – its glacial performance, thanks to its heavy body and under-endowed Renault Cléon engine. This might have been enough for most manufacturers, but Volvo continued developing the 300 to its end in 1991, facelifting it again, and adding a saloon variant, as well as a 1.7-litre gap-plugging model. It was enough to carry this unassuming, slightly premium, rear-wheel-drive hatchback along in the UK Top Ten bestsellers list, well into the late 1980s.

Volvo 300 advert

Why was the 300 such a success in the UK? Put it down to marketing. The advertising was often simply brilliant, playing big on its obvious passive safety features and scooping up all of those buyers who might – a decade earlier – have plumped for a Triumph Dolomite. In other words, a small car that had all the trappings of a larger one.

This probably would never have happened had the plan for this car not been sidetracked. Initially developed by DAF as the P900 from 1970 (and likely to be launched as the DAF 77), it was picked up by Volvo when the Swedes took a stake in the company in 1973. The transformation was complete by 1975 when DAF morphed into Volvo BV, and the 66 grew safety bumpers and crammed in all that safety kit to rival anything you’d find bolted to the larger 200.

Considering this was the mid-1970s, this was brave stuff. It could be argued that the transformation was only completed by 1982, when those 2.0-litre Volvo power units found their way under the bonnet. Either way, it was a very, very effective development programme – and one that proved to be a solid foundation for Volvo to continue with to this day with its XC40 entry-level family SUV.

So, Volvo 300 Series or Austin Maestro?

Being brutally honest, history has answered this one for us. Volvo prospers to this day building an increasingly premium model range, while Austin is rapidly fading from the public’s memory. That’s not really what we’re here to do, though – after all, the Volvo 240 outsold the Rover SD1, but we know which we’d rather have today…

However, while there would be many who’d question why we’re not comparing the 300 Series with the Austin Allegro (launched in 1973, with the Volvo following just three years later), the hardy Dutch-Swede did its best in the Maestro years. And it’s here that you’d have to say that the Maestro’s more modern package and engineering makes it a better all-rounder. Dynamically, the 300 Series was especially outclassed, feeling slow and unwieldy – and, thanks to those leaf springs at the back (just like a Morris Marina), the ride was nowhere near settled enough.

So, the Maestro handles and rides better, has more room, is more economical and, thanks to a lighter kerbweight, feels a lot livelier on the road, engine for engine. The star of the 300 Series range these days is the 360 GLT, which almost makes it into the ranks of the 1980’s hot hatches on account of its 115bhp power output, but its weight and lack of agility play against it – in short, an MG Maestro EFI blows this Volvo into the weeds.

The question remains, then: was the Volvo 300 Series worse than the Austin Maestro? I’d say in rational, quantifiable terms, the British car was the better bet then, and certainly offers more for the first-time classic car owner today. The Volvo was truly a car that sold well beyond its limited abilities, driving with all the finesse of a drunken tightrope walker, while it rusted with a ferocity that even the Italians envied.

I didn’t like them then, and that view remains intact today. So, a victory for the Maestro, even if it didn’t manage a distinguished 15-year production run.

Keith Adams

36 Comments

  1. The 300 series sold once the 2.0 arrived, to the caravan in set as it was an excellent car. Missed the BL connection Keith, as this was a Michelotti design. They were not as screwed together as well as the 200 series, but they were still more reliable and better built that a Maestro. You say about the handling was awful, but today that are favourite entry cars to the drifting scene, normally with a set of deep dishes on!

  2. Three out of four of my teachers (including the Headmaster) had these in the late 80’s when I was at primary school. It seemed to sum up these ever so sensible cars up quite well! A step above the Astras and Escorts, very much like the Rover 200’s of the time, but like the 240, seemed dated even then. If it wasn’t for the scrappage scheme a few years ago, I would think a lot of these would still be on the road.

  3. Possible proof that punters prefer passive safety, eg strong metal around them, compared to lots of expensive and fancy dynamic and/or electronic active devices that may take control out of their hands.

  4. It’s all down to reputation. In 1980 how does “I’ve got a Volvo” sound compared to “I’ve got an Austin”? Also, it’s foreign. Foreign cars were upmarket then; pure snobbery, not helped by “The Austin” being on the news every night and never for a good reason. Then Leyland dealers barely waking up long enough to show interest in your order and having inaptly named service departments spoiling your car and your day every time you build up courage to seek their attention. Compared to small provincial Volvo dealers who never had it so good, and dealt thoroughly with up market customers for their bread and butter So without getting as far as the subtlety of ride, handling and performance. BL products didn’t stand a chance, and it wasn’t because the designers got it wrong

    • You are spot on, I traded in a 12 month old Metro studio 2 which ended up needing a new engine… the local dealer fited a gold seal one under manufacturers warranty and when I complained I was as good as told to get lost. Going directly to Rover as it then was they basically backed up the dealer! So because my Dad had had several faultless big Volvos I went to the local Volvo agent in Morecambe and bought a 2 year old 6,000 mile 340GL, what a revelation… faultless motoring and a garage that could not do enough to help. Needless to say a string of Volvos followed.

  5. Having owned a 340 and a 360, a Maestro and a Montego, as well as a Volvo 240 and four Rover SD1’s…. I know which I’d prefer today.
    The little Volvos were durable and reliable, dealer service was faultless. The Austins were neither durable nor reliable and the dealers?….. I don’t have time to write!
    The 240 was also superb, I loved my Rovers, but know why the 240 outsold the range.
    What would I have today? A Rover 3500 of course, and a 240 for when the Rover would be out of action.
    A 340 or a 360 too, but no Maestro.

  6. The kind of car people bought as it was safe, had a badge that meant you were buying a durable product, and which was good value for the price. Probably what a lot of people wanted when they bought a 340 and for all the 1.4 version was slow and not very economical, it was acceptable for most buyers. Also those heated seats would come in useful during the harsh winter of 1981/82.

    • The Volvo 300 series were marketed as a high quality product for the purchase price of an inferior Escort ( or perhaps less than the price of the Escort). Did Volvo make money or lose money on sales of the 300?

  7. I think the first section of the article answers the question really. They listened to their customers and constantly updated it and facelifted it throughout it’s life span something that B.L didn’t really do with their “not invented here” mentality. Also when the Volvo was launched it was well put together reliable and safe. Things that your average motorist was more concerned about than the 0- 60 time. Being a second slower than the next car over. Yeah it got dated but they facelifted it. The Maestro was about seven years old when they launched it. Effectively a 1970 car design launched in the early eighties so it was already old before it began.

  8. Hypothetical question. If Michelotti had been asked to provide a design for the Allegro, would we have had this as the Austin?

    • Hello daveh, we would not as the original Volvo 343 was not designed by Michelotti, but by DAF-designer John de Vries (dixit Wikipedia amongst others).

      • I was wrong. I read that the designer was Michelotti in a Classic Car article many years ago. When I saw your response, I looked beyond Wikipedia (I am a Wikipedia so I know it’s not always accurate- just look into the electric toaster story!) And found on the official volvo site that there was four designs, which John de vries design one on grounds of aerodynamic tests. However, plastered on many websites is the claim that Michelotti was behind the design (he did do one of the original designs), including a BMW website which discusses BMW part in the design process to replace the 2002 with a joint DAF, and that Michelottis team added the bustle on the back at BMWs request! There us also claims on the net that Trevor Fiore (aka Frost) was behind it!

  9. A few people hit on the fundamental difference between all companies that succeed and almost all that fail; one cares what customers want and the other doesn’t. Throughout the history of the miserable BMC and it’s many dysfunctional children the volume business consistently treated their customers with contempt, turning out ugly and undesirable cars, ill developed, and left in that state on the market for too long.

    I think it’s quite telling that British manufacturers consistently managed to make desirable cars for middle class to wealthy people but patronised and condescended to their “blue collar” mainstream customers with ugly crap like the Issigonis cars, the Allegro, right up to the M car Mongrels in the 80s. Good looking cars aren’t for the likes of you.

  10. Our company accountant had a 300 series for a while (I never drove it though). My favourite Volvo was a 240DL Estate I had as a company car in 1991. It was the most sturdy/solid car I ever had.

  11. How could you – I had almost recovered from the trauma of having one of these in the family in the late 80s but you have brought back the memories of pain and suffering.

    The one we had was a 1.7 and was terrible despite being brand new – think of the worst that BL could manage for shoddy build and then multiply it by the worst the Italians could do. It was not redeemed by looks, performance, handling or anything really. The preceding Montego and following Cavalier were leagues ahead.

    Then there was the worst feature of the car – its dumpy looks. I know Volvo have always made some terrible looking cars and still do (with some notable exceptions P1800 is gorgeous) but this thing was the worst.

    Probably the reason why I would not buy a Volvo to this day

  12. At eighties Finnish car magazine tested Volvo 340 CVT, how fast it will go backwards using CVT reverse gear. In 1980 Volvo max. speed was around 145km/h and backwards max. speed was 135km/h. At the same test magazine also drive non-stop backwards trip, totally 1770km and average speed was 90km/h. Both listed in Guinness World Record -book.

  13. My father traded a 1985 1.6 HLS Maestro for a new 340 1.4 in 1988. The Volvo felt old fashioned after the Maestro but very well built. The Maestro had few problems in 3 years other than a terrible gear change and vicious clutch and damp starting problems. Near 5 years and 60k miles, the 340 suffered head gasket failure and carburettor problems but showed fewer signs of wear and tear than the Maestro. I drove both regularly and they both seemed great after a knackered Talbot Sunbeam and an Austin A40 Farina

  14. The 340 was the poor man’s Volvo, yes it had the legendary Volvo safety features and cost the same as a Vauxhall Astra, but what Volvo didn’t tell you was the car was an ageing Dutch design using uninspiring and not very reliable Renault engines and was often mated to a four speed transmission that hampered economy and refinement at high speed. Also being rwd when most of its rivals had moved over to fwd meant less interior space and worse handling in the wet and snow, and the heavy non PAS steering making the hefty 340 a chore to drive. I’d sooner do without the Volvo safety features for something that was pleasanter and more modern to drive, or save up and buy a late model used 240, which was a far better car.

    • RWD is great in the rain and snow actually, people just don’t know how to drive and don’t think they need snow tires on snow.

  15. The 300 series seemed to be a car in a comfortable niche, mostly owned in the UK by pensioners & caravan owners.

    Originally it was going to be the DAF 77 before Volvo bought them up & reworked it as the Volvo 300 series.

    Even late in the 1980s they had some good TV ads with a dummy driving one off a high building with minimal damage.

    The rare saloons seemed to be a solution searching for a problem.

  16. I had a 360GLT as my second car. Great solid vehicle. Not bad looking in comparison to the rest of the rubbish back in that period. Gearbox felt like it would last forever. Comfortable with a bit of grunt. Great in the winter too.

    • I had a notion for one of those after reading a road test in CAR magazine. It wasn’t a “Giant Test”, but one of those column and a half jobs where they’d round up a few of the latest releases. I can’t remember the details of what was written now, but it must been largely positive, and it was accompanied by a photo of a 360 in black, and on tough looking alloys. It really made an impression but for some reason I never acted on my enthusiasm.

  17. I had a 340 as my first car & a 360GLT as my second.
    I really liked them as they felt solid & more like a ‘proper’ car than the flimsy hatches my mates ran about in.
    I also think the post 1981 facelift cars are handsome.
    Most importantly I learned how to handle rear drive cars & survived quite a big smash in my 360.

  18. It sold to people who wanted a Volvo on the cheap and wanted to feel safe, rather than anything else, unless you bought the far superior 360 models with Volvo, rather than Renault, drivetrains. The 340 was a sluggish, thirsty bore of a car that wasn’t very reliable and earlier ones looked like bricks on wheels.

  19. The 300 was an outstanding car. The stuff it brought to the party in the 1979s far outweighed the offer from other manufacturers. We had Marinas, a Horizon and a string of Volvo 360s growing up, so I feel qualified to comment.

    I suppose passive safety, the badge and the hatch back were the big sellers. Much as I am fond of them, a Volvo was head shoulders and waist above 1970s Marinas, Maxis and Allegros. They were well made by 1970s standards and unlike the Horizon and it’s ilk, they didn’t rust away as quickly. And into the 1980s although not as modern as a Maestro or an Astra, it was, especially in 2 Litre form a compelling offer.

    There was the snob value. It was a Volvo. It played to the British sense of Keeping up with the Jones or indeed Keeping up Appearances where the Rover 200 was brilliantly cast. A Honda Ballade with a Viking Longship clagged to the bonnet and boot, or a Dutch built DAF with a diagonal bar across the grille? Both were accomplished marketing exercises.

    My Dad was tempted by the VDP trim level on the Maestro, but saw the upmarket interior of a 360 GLT as an authentic Volvo. He’d owned a VDP Princess in the late 1960s, real wood real leather etc, and that mini-Rolls style reeled him in then, just as the mini-Volvo 200 did in the 1980s. By then, the 1980s VDP offer was just a badge. Austin’s Ghia.

    The 300 was a gateway car. It got him into Volvos for the next 30 years until his death. 300, 400, 700, 900, V40. There was the odd R8 thrown into the mix too. The 300, especially in its 1980s base form was for many the perfect second car. A roomy hatchback, but with way more kerb appeal than an Escort or Maestro parked next to the bigger, posher Volvo on the drive, it may be sexist, but how many were bought by Hubby for his wife to use on shopping and school runs safe in the knowledge that if the worst happened, the wife and kids were strapped into a Volvo.

    The 300 was also perfect empty nester retired downsize car. When Gerald retired from the senior exec role and the company car went back, a 360 GLE with all the trimmings made more sense than a Vauxhall Belmont or Austin Montego.

    Also remember that Volvos just like Austin’s, Morrises etc weren’t bought by car people. The average buyer didn’t know a Wishbone from a leaf spring or an O-Series from a B200-K. It was talking dashboards, rear headrests, wood trim and nice paint colours that sold cars. Add to that, the famous Volvo passive safety and masterful marketing (Who remember the TV Ad when the 340 drove out of an upper floor window and landed on its nose?) and the Volvo 300 was a real winner.

    • Well said, I remember the same advert, though I had thought it was off the top of a building, but that’s just my memory slipping up!

      I’m sure it’s on You Tube.

  20. A mate of mine had a 340 that kept breaking its rear window – can’t remember why. I had a 144 auto saloon with LPG gas – lovely interior, quiet ride, utterly reliable, quite nice looking, unexciting but pleasant to drive. Pretty faultless really. It didn’t squeak and rattle – unlike our SD1!

  21. One of my freelance Film/TV colleagues had a 144 saloon in the early 70s. Even though it was not the Estate version, it still had enough boot space for all his camera/sound kit. Also, it was really comfortable and solid inside. No wonder I was happy to drive a company 240 Estate in late 80s.

  22. The 360 was closer to a true Volvo, using Volvo engines rather than underpowered Renault engines on the 340, and in saloon form was like a smaller version of a 740. It’s the 340 I’m no fan of, being underpowered and thirsty.

    • I agree with the old 1.4L, the newer 1.7 was much better in both performance and economy, with 5 speed. It was a lot more economical than the B20 carbs, less nose-heavy and quite a power improvement over the old cléon, torquewise it helped in-gear perf. and is for me, the ideal middle of the range. My neighbours had 245d and 340d, noisy beasts!

      • @didierz65, the switch to five speed transmissions certainly helped refinement and economy in the eighties, and made smaller cars less frantic at high speed. By the end of the decade only entry level cars( and the Austin Metro) came with a four speed transmission as most buyers demanded five speeds.

  23. It had a magical self-replacing windscreen if you see the tv advert – a dummy driving the car out of an upstairs window.

  24. As noted in other comments here the Volvo was everything the Maestro wasn’t – well made, reliable, beautifully finished for a car from this era, well priced and with a decent dealer network that actually looked after its customers. It also had a strong middle class image and rock solid residuals. OK the Maestro may have handled better and had a bit more room inside but for most customers parting with their hard earned that was little consolation if the car had an airfix interior, fell to bits, had a shoulder shrugging dealer network and depreciation like a falling girder.

  25. The dealer experience is important, probably more so in the eighties, when some cars could be totally unreliable. No one expects to have a car with a recurring problem and be told they all do that, sir, as occurred in some Austin Rover dealers, or have salesmen who were only interested in selling cars to fleet buyers, which was often the case at bigger Ford dealers. Volvo always set very high standards for their dealers and expected them to treat their customets with respect, possibly the reason why my local Volvo dealer has held the franchise since the seventies. When someone is spending a large amount of their my money on a car, they should receive excellent service.

    • Very true, the Volvo franchise in Stockport was owned for many years by Dean Smith, later on Evans Halshaw took it over.

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