1980s / Road test / Swedish / Volvo

Road Test: 1981 Volvo DL


The venerable Volvo 200 series lived on for what seemed like forever. Even today they are not uncommon to see on the road, over 30 years after its introduction. This particular example is a 1981 model year “DL“. At that time, Volvo was not using the “200” series nomenclature on their cars and following this time period is when the 244, 245, 242, 264, and so-on all turned into 240s. The 200 series Volvos shared the same basic body as the 100 series which dated back to 1966. Despite being updated continuously and significantly, the design was getting a bit dated even by the 1980s. Be that as it may, the 240s and their relatives were a force to be reckoned with due to their rock-solid reliability, safety, and practicality. And so, let us take a closer look at this stalwart Swede: Our test subject is a very original 1981 DL with under 130,000 miles on it, owned by a friend and fellow motoring enthusiast.
The 240 was never really known for being a ‘performance’ car (save for maybe the turbo versions), and the relatively low-spec “DL” was certainly no exception. This DL is powered by the “red block” B21 four cylinder engine, which is fuel injected and produces an honest 107 hp with a decent amount of torque. These powerplants are unlikely to win over the hearts of motorheads the way a DOHC Alfa-Romeo engine would, or even be admired for their uniqueness such as an air-cooled VW, however they will likely outlast just about anything else, except for perhaps a diesel Mercedes.
The engine drives the rear wheels with a 4-speed manual with (get ready) electronic overdrive! – which was still somewhat of a novel idea in 1980. Pulling away in first gear with the typically heavy Volvo clutch is a rather unexciting affair. The revs build quickly, and when it seems like enough (there is no tachometer in the DL), you can shift to 2nd. This is when the car actually shows some real acceleration. Through the gears to 4th, the Volvo is actually fairly swift, and once a comfortable cruising speed is reached, the overdrive button can be pushed and the engine settles down to a nice low rumble. Gear changes are easy and fairly precise though sometimes a tad notchy.
Riding on the highway at around 50mph, the Volvo cruises along with traffic comfortably, though any burst of acceleration involves disengaging overdrive. The ride is a tad ‘floaty’ compared to some European sedans, but the handling is actually rather crisp and the steering nicely responsive. The brakes are quite good for a car of this vintage, having discs on all four wheels. There is some noticeable body roll, but not enough to be all that scary around a brisk turn once you’ve gotten used to it. What is most unexpected is how much you can actually find yourself enjoying driving this car.
Inside, the car is rather narrow, but still roomy and quite enough for four adults to be comfortable. On this DL spec car, amenities are limited though. Windows are manual, air conditioning is non-existent, and the heating/ventilation system is best described as basic – tough perfectly effective. As is common with the 240 Volvos, there are ample amounts of hard plastic and vinyl. Gauges and controls are basic, easy to read, and get the job done without much fuss.
The truck building heritage of Volvo is evident in this car. It’s basic, solid, and reliable. It’s a no frills transportation machine, though quite enjoyable to drive. As a mechanic, I’ve always appreciated the construction and ease of maintenance on these old Swedish bricks, and now, having spent some real time behind the wheel of this one, I genuinely appreciate driving them. To quote the movie Crazy People, “Buy Volvos…they’re boxy, but they’re good.”

One thought on “Road Test: 1981 Volvo DL

  1. >Nice timing – I just picked up an '87 240 DL yesterday, yet another of these sturdy mules in a long succession that I've had. 166K on this one, and a near-mint exterior, very good interior. Very little changed year to year, although the one you're picturing has possibly the worst radio placement of them all.Goofy Swedes 😉

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