The curse of the Volvo 240

@FortuneMagazine May 14, 2012: 11:44 AM ET
The Volvo 240

Things just haven't been the same since you left.

FORTUNE -- It became huge news recently when Volvo Cars signed an endorsement deal with Knicks basketball sensation Jeremy Lin to cash in on the booming market for upscale cars in China.

Days later, Lin suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the Knicks were blown out of the playoffs in the first round.

Coincidence? I don't think so. Lin's accident is just one of several mishaps suffered by Volvo since it was bought by China's Geely in 2010 -- and a continuation of the disappointments it has endured since its most popular and long-lived model went out of production 20 years ago.

I call it the Curse of the Volvo 240. The simple, homely car was an enormous success, but Volvo has spent years trying to forget it.

Introduced in 1973, the 240 was the ur-Volvo, with the front grille of a Peterbilt and the rear compartment of a Mayflower van that ingested enormous amounts of cargo. Huge front and rear crumple zones headed its list of innovative safety features.

The 240 came in several model variations, but station wagons accounted for a third of its sales. Its funky functionality made it amazingly popular. More than 2.8 million 240s and related models were sold during its production run.

People developed attachments to the 240 back in the day -- and they still do today.

When you hear that Volvos last nearly 20 years, the reference is probably to the 240. Owners keep them forever and roll up astounding amounts of miles, extolling their homely virtues and ignoring their obvious drawbacks, like a pokey four-cylinder engine.

Driving a 240 has become an anti-status symbol, a conspicuous sign of inconspicuous consumption. Web sites overflow with testimonials from ecstatic owners, as this sample from Edmunds.com indicates:

"My 1993 240 Wagon has 330,000 miles on it and has been a great car. No plans of replacement with a newer one."

"[I] have a 1982 Volvo 245DL wagon with 298,968 miles on it. The car runs great when I can get it started."

"I live in NYC (Manhattan) where the subway is a favorite mode of transportation. About 13 yrs ago, I bought a 1993 Volvo 240 sedan. I hardly ever use my car BUT I hate to give it up. It's a work of art. I love the boxy lines and aesthetics. I'll never sell this car. It's a welcome addition to my family. "

"Just purchased an 86 DL 240 wagon. 214000 mileage on her now. Seems to be tiptop but it doesn't like starting below half tank o' gas."

"I'm looking to buy a 240 Volvo wagon. I'm willing to pay top dollar for a car in good condition. If I plan to keep the car for 10 years or more what kind of mileage is recommended?"

The 240 was replaced in 1992 by the 850 and eventually discontinued. As with the 240, Volvo made the boxy wagon its core 850 model, and the sedan was styled like a wagon with the rear end cut off. During its five-year production run, Volvo produced 1.4 million 850s, but the car never achieved the cult status of the 240.

The 850 and succeeding models marked the beginning of a two-decade long effort by Volvo to move away from its image for longevity and safety and elevate its name into a full-fledged luxury brand. With Volvo's small volume and a production base in high-cost Sweden, the move was dictated by economics and never really succeeded. The cars couldn't approach the level and features of their European competitors.

More: 10 cars in bad need of a design overhaul

At the end of the 1990s, Volvo, still profitable, was sold. Ford, having already purchased Jaguar and Land Rover decided to add it to its Premier Automotive Group. Hoping to rebuild the company by spreading Volvo's engineering costs over its vast economies of scale, Ford paid $6.45 billion in 1999.

Ford (F, Fortune 500) pushed Volvo further up-market. The effort produced Volvo's first crossover, the XC60, a late but successful addition to the product line, and the S80, an undistinguished aspirant to luxury sedan status.

Ford also tried to adapt Volvo engineering to its own cars like the Ford 500 but found the results expensive and overweight.

The global financial crisis at the end of the '00s produced big losses at Volvo, which no longer fit CEO Alan Mulally's One Ford strategy. With deep-pocketed buyers in short supply, Ford sold Volvo in 2010 to Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, the parent of Chinese manufacturer Geely Automotive, for $1.8 billion -- less than one-third of the price it had paid a decade earlier.

Geely immediately poached VW's hard-charging executive Stefan Jacoby and instructed him to turn Volvo into a BMW competitor. Jacoby announced plans for a big investment in new models and promised to double worldwide sales to 800,000 by 2020.

Since then, Volvo has run into nothing but more bad luck. The Chinese government ruled that Volvo is still a foreign company since it is still incorporated in Sweden. That means Volvo is shut out of the $15 billion market for government cars.

Then Volvo discovered that it couldn't build cars in China on its own -- a necessity to avoid stiff import duties. Instead it would have to form a joint venture with Geely to operate the plant, plus create a separate Chinese brand for the partnership to build and sell.

Although there are reports that Volvo will position the brand at a lower price point and supply it with older technology, it is essentially setting up a company to compete with itself. To add to its pain, top designer Peter Horbury left Volvo and moved over to the partnership, where he will put his distinctive mark on the new brand.

Whether Volvo can ever shake off its jinx is in question. In the U.S., once its biggest market, it sold just 67,240 cars last year -- half its total in 2004. So far this year, it is running slightly below that rate, leaving it behind traditional laggards like Mitsubishi. Meanwhile, BMW enjoys four times the volume.

At the Geneva auto show in March, Volvo showed its first model designed under its new owner. Named the V40, it is a five-door hatchback with the world's first pedestrian air bag that ejects from the hood. Neither the hatchback design nor the airbag is likely to appeal to American buyers.

As for the 240, it seems likely to only grow in reputation and appeal. Volvo has withdrawn its wagon from the U.S. market and now sells only crossovers. To top of page

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