Mike Humble takes another sideways look at cars which once littered the streets up and down the land.
This one, on paper, had little going for it – it was heavy, painfully slow in 1.4-litre form, and considering its size and bulk, was none too space efficient. Yet sold in once colossal numbers in the UK. It’s Volvo’s 300-series!
A very British Swede
I’ve never owned a Volvo. Yet I have driven many, repaired loads and admired nearly all of them. The 700-series was not everyone’s cup of tea – yet I loved them. They were hulking great cars, with front seats similar in size and shape to a Drayon armchair, and with styling where the only curves were surrounded by wheelarch…
Solid as granite and possessing an uncanny knack of being able to destroy anything it comes into physical contact with, the big Volvo certainly have a charm all of its own. The 200 estate was the load-lugger of choice for antique dealers and caravan club members, while the oddly impressive 240 GLT saloon with it’s buttoned leather interior and switchable overdrive became an early ’80s Q-car. It was as sporting as Les Dawson and had the road manners of a drunk cyclist – yet this mattered not one iota, people bought them in droves.
‘Keep ’em peeled’, as Shaw Taylor one told us, and you will still spot 740s, 240s and the odd 760 here and there in daily use. Do a quick trawl on the ‘Trader, and you will spot many for sale – most now over 25 years old. The Volvo, which is now diminishing fast however, is the seemingly forgotten three- and five-door hatchback: the 340/360.
I will never forget my first experience with the 300 series many years back. It was a Djion mustard-coloured 345DL, which belonged to a friend of a friend – so to speak. I was asked to give it a service while he was away visiting relatives, and I was utterly impressed with its build quality, ease of repair and the fact that not one spot of rust was present. All this despite the fact it was well used, abused and covered in scrapes. The motor trade used to nick name them ‘bird cages’, owing to the strong passenger structure and side impact bars in doors.
At the time of the 300’s launch in 1976, most other volume makers offered front seat belts as the only form of safety kit. This little Volvo was somewhat different, and featured a vast padded fascia, collapsible steering column, headlight wipers, crumple zones and split circuit brakes. Initially it was known as the 343 (with the 345 arriving in 1979), and the last digit denoted the number of doors. The 300 was with belt driven CVT automatic (with the manual version following on again in 1979), based on the DAF Variomatic gearbox, but now – unusually housed in the rear as a transaxle.
But of course, the Volvo 300-series had been developed by an independent DAF as project P900, hence the use of the venerable 1.4-litre Renault Cléon engine. Volvo bought up the car division of DAF in 1973, and although the Dutch manufacturer had almost complete the car by this time, it would not wear its marque name.
The rear-wheel drive 300-series featured a transaxle gearbox, where the differential and gearbox were combined with the rear axle unit. This gave the car superb weight balance but robbed the rear passenger area of space, and meant that rear occupants strangely sat a good few inches higher than those in the front.
The three-door featured front seat which tipped forward at an angle giving the impression the seat frame was broken, while the CVT drove like a manual car with a slipping clutch – all very weird indeed. The high boot sill made loading big bulky items a nightmare, and the underpowered 1400cc model sprinted up to its maxima in a way akin to a road roller – slowly and with lots of noise.
But we are missing the point. Power and speed is not what the 300-series was all about. It was a solid sensible Volvo for sensible people (and not just dummies) – just shrunken down in size to fit your wallet and garage where a 240 or 260 maybe couldn’t. Regardless of all its faults (and there were many), it rapidly became the fastest selling model in the Volvo range. The UK became the 300’s top buyer after Sweden – no doubt spurred on by the marketeers’ relentless ‘safety sells’ mantra. Throughout its entire production run, not one major panel was restyled or changed – revisions came in the form of minor styling tweaks or light/bumper changes.
Popularity of the 300 range continued right through the 1980s, with the car often residing in the top 10 of the sales league. And despite it being slower, thirstier and blander than many rivals, used values remained strong. The simple yet proven engineering of it’s OHV Renault engine kept servicing costs minimal, and as the 80s progressed, the range was joined by a Renault powered 1.7-litre OHC.
Ultimately, the Volvo powered 2.0-litre model – known as the 360 – arrived in 1982, and tilted (gently) at hot hatchback superstardom in 115bhp GLT form. But for those who wanted less racy, the new four-door saloon body style was much more suitable to the Octogenarians attracted to these cars.
All the features of the bigger Volvo in a small hatchback bodyshell proved a winning sales formula. Hugely solid engineering and strong bodyshells were far from the 1970s and ’80s norm, and buyers really did go for this in a big way, despite wobbly dynamics, that lacklustre performance and poor fuel economy. And Volvo campaigned hard on the value for money front, too – crowing how a 340 was cheaper to buy than an Escort or Maestro. And so it should have been!
But that deep-seated build quality, did mean the 300 could go the distance too. Some 360s, especially, were more than capable racking up colossal mileages. In 1991, the 300 finally went out of production with over a million built – and putting it into perspective, when launched, its rival was the Ford Escort Mk2; and at the end, the Rover 214/216 was its principal rival. An impressive lifespan.
The recent (and some say damaging) scrappage scheme has had dealt a fatal blow to many old yet still usable Volvos – along with many other decent clunkers. But now, those that remain (in token numbers) are valued as idiosyncratic classic cars…