DTPC Cosmetic Fix-Up: Some Seats, Some Paint, Some Results

by CFlo

As I’m sure many of our readers are aware, the goal and scope of a vehicle project can change drastically after you’ve already dived in. Either money runs out, time gets short, priorities are rearranged or tastes change (thankfully someone told you to reconsider those chrome 24″ wheels that were slated for your MG Midget Donk build). Such is the case with the DTPC, our 1983 Volvo 242 DL; the scope changed midway through the project. Originally we planned on building a Trans-Am racing tribute resto-mod, but after receiving news that we did not in fact win $5k from the ipd $25,000 Build Off, we had to rethink our priorities based on harsh economic realities.

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After a 2-second calculation telling us that we could never recoup our losses if spending $5k ourselves on this car, the new name of the game became keeping the project simple and costs under control. The scope had to be narrowed considerably; earlier we were thinking of a ton of performance modifications, but now we were focused smoothing out the rough edges of a solid but somewhat run-down old car. We wanted a 242 that ran and drove well, passed smog without any issues, looked decent enough to not be ashamed of and was comfortable enough to drive every day. No suspension rebuild, no crazy graphics or wheel swap…the DTPC should become just a mostly stock survivor with a few upgrades in the name of drivability. The running/driving/smogging portion of the project is complete, so follow along as we address the cosmetic and comfort issues.

First up was the interior. The dash in this car is cracked in typical sunny-climate Volvo fashion; the Swedish cold weather spec plastic and foam apparently wasn’t qualified for 30 years of UV exposure at 70°F average temperatures. That’s a bummer aesthetically but it is quickly “fixed” with a cheap carpeted dash mat to hide the ugly truth underneath. I’ve done a full dash swap on a 240 previously and didn’t have a spare week this time to complete another (let alone a good replacement dash to swap in which are getting exceedingly hard to source). For a daily driver, throw a mat over it and don’t worry any further.

The seats were a different story; after decades of butts getting in and out, squiggling around and bouncing, the seat bottoms were DOA. The passenger’s side wasn’t terrible (as expected) but the driver’s side was worn all the way to the frame. When we bought the car, there was a quaint little throw pillow in the void where foam and springs should have been. Despite the “cheap racing seat” feel that the hollowed bottom gave when you sank down into the seat, after a few minutes of driving it was more like a torture seat. The sunkenness made us remember what it’s like to be kindergartners sitting at the grown-up table. (Note from Vince – This car owes me about 4 pairs of paints that were slashed by exposed springs and the sharp box-cutter like frame) Lucky for us, there are many self-service junkyards within 20 minutes’ driving distance…full of older Volvos, and which I scour on a regular basis.

So one day I happened upon this forlorn looking 1990 240 sedan. We see hundreds of these in the So-Cal junkyards these days; often a simple tune-up bill or minor repair will be enough for the owner to warrant scrapping a rust-free body shell that could have soldiered on for years to come. This one looked just about like every other neglected late-model 240 at first, but on closer inspection it had the same color of tan interior as our ’83 and the seats were almost perfect…if a bit dirty. Someone had already done me a solid and loosened all the mounting nuts for the front seats and left them in a perma-gangsta reclining state.

$43 later (that’s right…half-off day, bitches!) and I had a full set of un-ripped tan seats for our 242 with almost perfect foam. The later 240s got a few upgrades in the seat department, mostly in the shape of the foam and headrests, which makes them even more comfortable than ours would have been new, and great for a daily driver. The aforementioned dirt came right out with a Bissell “Little Green Machine” portable carpet steamer, or as I like to call it, the Lil’ Cleveland Steamer. These things work great at cleaning upholstery but the labor takes at least an hour or two and you don’t want to look too closely in the dirty water tank.

The one hitch in this plan was the seat flipping mechanisms; the 242 (2-door) cars came with buttons on the outside of each seatback which allowed them to flip forward for quick access to the back seat. A 4-door sedan doesn’t need this extra mechanism since the rear passengers have their own doors, thank you very much. So I decided to be content with some inconvenient rear seat access in exchange for a 100% improvement in driver and front passenger comfort. The backs will still come forward, but only by turning the big knob at the bottom about 300 times. Adding the flipper mechanisms is possible but requires tearing down the seat backs; that can wait for another day (or another owner).

With a thorough carpet vacuuming while the seats were out, and a wipe down of the perfectly decent door cards, our interior was back to looking presentable. It is a much nicer place to be now and the total cost was less than $50…there’s even a partial refund if you count the dozens of inevitable coins sprinkled under the seats. Next up was making the original 14″ steel wheels look more original, less “rat rod patina.”

The picture above shows the car on the day we bought it and drove it home smiling had it towed to our workshop; from a distance, the main thing letting down the car’s appearance was the dingy condition of the wheels. These are classic steelies in the vein of American cars from the ’30s on up…stamped steel centers welded to rolled steel rims, slotted for brake cooling & lightness addition, and designed to run chrome trim rings and dogdish hubcaps. In Volvo’s case, the rings and caps were stainless steel to stay bright and shiny through many Norse winters.

In a closeup it becomes apparent just how mangy and rusty these things looked. We toyed with the idea of painting them black with Rustoleum “Hammered” hammertone (a fantastic, cheap, hard wearing spray paint) but ultimately put away the parachute pants and decided that Hammer Time had passed. It seemed logical that the original silver would be best for a stock-ish refurb.

Step 1 was to remove the hubcaps (trim rings were already bouncing around in the trunk), pull the wheels from the car and get to cleaning. Purple Power degreaser is my weapon of choice for this type of work as it cuts quickly through ancient stubborn brake dust or any type of caked-on grime. With a lot of elbow grease and a scrub brush I had all four wheels looking better…as above. The center sections (under the hubcap) looked as new and the outer rims would be covered by the trim rings, so I decided to conserve the custom-mixed Volvo silver spraypaint and only respray the visible spoked section. And no fancy pants sandblasting or powdercoating for this car; it just simply wasn’t necessary.

Step 2 was masking and painting, Step 3 was polishing the stainless hubcaps and trim rings first with fine-gauge steel wool, then with some blue German metal polish in a toothpaste tube. For Step 4 I reinstalled everything on the car…then came Step 5: crack open a beer and admire handiwork. With an afternoon of easy labor and a few bucks for supplies, it’s amazing how well a freshened set of steelies can sharpen up a seemingly shabby car. A lot of how a car looks and feels is down to the details like this and it shows with pride of ownership; you don’t need to throw megabucks at a modern classic to get big results.

Case in point: the original license plates, which many average drivers and enthusiasts wouldn’t give a second thought to. License plates? Boring. But if your car’s body is straight and shiny but the plates are bashed, dented and chalky…they will put a damper on the appearance for sure. I didn’t want the DTPC to look like every other neglected 240 out there.

The original rear plate was just a bit chalky and needed a quick waxing, but the front plate was seriously effed. This car had been in a minor front end fender-bender at some point while driven by the original owner; I deduced this from the receipts for new front lenses and headlamps, and the fact that the grille is cracked in the center, the front trim piece is dented, and the plate was folded under the bumper. These old bricks are built like tanks so most of the impact was absorbed and no serious damage was caused, but that plate and front trim still looked pretty poor.

Pulling the plate off and turning it over we can see what the damage really was here…two horizontal creases in the lower half of the plate, with many smaller bends, a tear in the lower left corner (over the first 1), and two dimples where the plate bracket bolts punched their way into the thin soft aluminum. By using some simple principles of metal working as found in the ancient but excellent handbook, The Key to Metal Bumping by Frank T. Sargent (Martin Tool & Forge, 3rd edition, 1953) I was able to successfully “unlock” the major damage by leaving the elastically deformed sections alone (the larger, smoother bends) and concentrating on the small sharply bent areas of plastic deformation. I won’t go into further detail here because I’m by no means a metalworking expert…suffice it to say you should pick up this book for a few bucks if you have any desire to bump sheetmetal around.

With my cheap hammer & dolly set in hand, and the aid of a set of flange-bending vice grip pliers and a crescent wrench for straightening the edges, I got the plate into respectable shape…respectably straight, anyways. The chalky paint was dealt with by hand, vigorously with some old school rubbing compound, then followed by simple carnauba wax. The broken KPBS (San Diego public broadcasting station) plate frame got binned; it was beyond the hope of what even a Jerry Lewis Telethon could hope to accomplish. Glaayven.

Being that these are original blue and yellow CA plates that the car has worn since new, I wanted to avoid repainting the front plate and see how good it could look. It was impressed with the results; chips remain, but chalkiness is gone and it looks almost new from a few feet away. Swedish flag colors are just a bonus!

A thorough car wash for the original white paint, a standard wax job and some quick detail cleaning with a microfiber cloth had the rest of the bodywork looking damn decent too. I don’t have any sage detailing tips other than: do it in the shade, don’t use dish soap, and microfiber is your friend.

Taken individually, any of these jobs is pretty trivial and has a relatively minor effect on the look, feel, and value of a car. But taken together, the entire 242 gets a “lift” without resorting to a new paint job, custom interior, blingy wheels, hipster accessory roofrack (which never gets used) or novelty bosozoku exhaust.

So how about that project cost running tally? Well, let’s take a look…

Total From Last Time

$2100

Tan seats (front & rear) from junkyard 1990 Volvo 240 sedan      

$46

Volvo silver wheel paint from ipd

$18

Miscellaneous polish, compound, wax, etc.

$20

Used tan dash mat from a guy on the Turbobricks forums

$1

Total so far

$2185

I haven’t included “other” costs of ownership like fuel, registration, title transfer fees, or the insurance premium, but these costs are highly dependent on your miles driven, your specific location, driving record, and your state government’s current level of greed and brokeness. Even so, taking the driver out of the equation these types of costs should be pretty similar for any Volvo 240 series car and should be anywhere between $500 to $1000 per year.

Overall, grand total, that’s less than $3k for a dependable, comfortable, decent looking, modern classic…with RWD, manual transmission and blocky Swedish styling to boot. Not bad, and it even gets close to 30 highway mpg; respectable for a 30 year old midsize car. Why aren’t more of you guys out there in reader land driving 240s? Oh right, because they’re blocky and slow. Back to the Volvo cave for me.

Find all of the previous Daily Turismo Project Car posts here: DTPC Central