From Sweden, With Swap?
Early in the morning on the cruise day before the Roadkill Zip-Tie Drags, a group of us were discussing the cars we’d seen.
“Did you see the Volvo with the Ford motor in it?”
“You crazy, that was an LS.”
“What? No! It was a turbo-charged 4-cylinder.”
“The blue one on snow tires?”
“No, the white one on snow tires!”
Eventually we stopped shaking donuts at each other in rage and realized there were a lot of modded Volvos at the event. We corralled three for a photo shoot at Tucson Dragway, and grabbed snaps of a few others during the drive and racing. With the 240 body style plentiful even in the coveted $1500 car range, we’re guessing we’ll see a bunch more engine-swapped Volvo action in the future because it feels like there are really only three kinds of people who still buy older Swedish wagons: arts professors at small, but distinguished colleges nestled in the bucolic countryside, automotive journalists, and Roadkill fans determined to shirk the stodgy image of their brick-like rides by swapping an engine or two where they simply don’t belong.
The latter were out in full force at the Zip Tip Drags at Tucson Dragway in Tucson, Arizona this past January, where a sprinkling of Swedish Clark Kents gave little hint to the superhero status sitting under their hoods. Sleepers are a time honored tradition of the discrete hot rodder, and the brand’s classic right-angle styling, reputation for putting safety above everything else (especially performance), and tank-like reliability have proven time and again that the cabin of Volvo 245 (that’s a five-door Volvo 240 wagon for the non-initiated) is the perfect place to count some (fast) sheep.
That image was definitely a big part of what swayed Oregon City, Oregon’s Jeremy Taplin away from his past dalliances with the Volkswagen crowd and tempted him to dive deep into the welcoming arms of his 1990 Volvo 245. After owning an R32 Golf, and briefly sampling a swapped turbodiesel Volvo that ran to 60-mph in roughly the same time it takes to complete a college education, he was reasonably certain that the anemic four-cylinder that came stock with his new wagon wasn’t going to cut it out on the street. That’s why he only drove it in stock form long enough to certify the rest of the car was in decent shape before it went under the knife.
The donor was a 2004 Chevy Silverado pickup, one of the unsung heroes of the LS swap world, and, given that hundreds of thousands of these trucks sitting in auction and wrecking yards with tantalizing 5.3-liter V8s to spare, one of the most affordable starting points for any eight-cylinder seeker. With 295 horsepower on tap (and a generous 335 lb-ft of twist), the Chevrolet LM7 offers nearly three times the output of the 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder unit found in most 240-series Volvo of the era, and comes matched with a 4L60-E four-speed automatic gearbox.
“I’d always wanted to put a 5.3-liter LS in a Suzuki Samurai,” admits Taplin, “but when that didn’t work out I decided a Volvo would be the perfect substitute. I’d see a few similar swaps, and was craving something different after so many years in the Volkswagen world.”
As it turns out, the transplant was more straightforward than Jeremy expected. Working at a fabrication shop certainly helped, as he was able to build his own motor mounts once he figured out how to get the truck intake to fit under the hood (the trick is to notch the crossmember underneath the motor). As is, the car sits relatively stock – aside from a big brake upgrade kit at the front of the car to better handle the weight and power of the V8 – and two years later still serves as his daily driver in addition to being his trouble-free chariot on the 3,200 mile round-trip trek down to the Zip Ties. ‘I’m pretty sure the open diff is saving my rear end from blowing up,’ he admits, and but plans to potentially add a supercharger to the setup in the near future might call for another round of drivetrain and chassis upgrades. Jeremy and co-driver, Josh Taplin drove through the snow from Oregon to get to the Zip-Tie Drags, but they weren’t the only swappy Volvo to do so from that state. Must be something in the water.
Scott Becker’s ’88 Volvo 245 took a somewhat more circuitous route to LS-hood by way of the much less-common 4.8-liter V8. Plucked from the confines of a wrecked Chevrolet Tahoe – “I originally thought I was snagging a 5.3, but, well, it wasn’t,” Scott told me. Once he got it home he realized that no one else he could find had ever done an LR4 swap into a one of these cars before.
That didn’t phase Scott, a lifetime Volvo fan who’s owned at least 50 of the Swedish stockers. “I’m probably down to eight or nine right now,” he says. Like his friend Jeremy, Becker is a talented fabricator who spent a full year working out the precise geometry needed to shoehorn the hefty engine (with aftermarket Hooker headers) around the 245’s steering shaft without having to cut into the stock crossmember. “I wanted to put together a motor mount kit for the 4.8,” he explained, “and I didn’t want anyone to have to hack up the car to use it.” He ended up trading the GM oil pan for a slimmer Holley unit that finally gave the engine the profile it needed to slide into place.
Sporting the same open diff as Taplin’s 5.3-liter wagon, Becker ran a 15 second pass at 95-mph, a decent time considering the 200 pounds of extra weight brought on by the LS / 4L60-E and the stock gearing. The square LR4 puts down 285 horses and 285 lb-ft of torque, and Scott is considering a cam to push the numbers up past the 300 mark. “People like to rag on me about the 4.8, like it’s the consolation prize of the LS world,” he said, “but I’m really happy with the build, and am considering a turbo as the next step.”
The final car in our Zip Tie Drags Volvo round-up might stretch the definition of the word “sleeper,” but manages to be the most traditional of the trio in terms of staying close to its European roots. Ken Ohanion’s fully-wrapped, Satin Blue Mystique 1993 Volvo 940 certainly doesn’t have the same under-the-radar personality of the stock-appearing 245s profiled above, especially with the Mad Max-style LED light bars replacing both headlights and dazzling the road from under the front bumper, too.
“I’ve run a bunch of different light setups,” Ken told us. “I’ve had nine-inch round Baja lights, I’ve slapped HIDs in there, but these cheap imported LEDS throw down lots of light, and I’m really happy with them so far.”
Ken’s also proud of the wrap, which he did himself through his Scottsdale-based Signature Graphics shop. “It looked a bit like a Rubik’s Cube hooptie originally, because I had wrapped each and every body panel in a different color,” he said. Now “the Bomber,” as he’s named his wagon, looks much sleeker, in a fitting tribute to the Euro muscle that rests between its front fenders.
“I’m running a built redblock turbocharged to about 300 horsepower,” he told us, referring to the common name given to the B21 through B230 slant-four engines that represented Volvo’s switch to a single-overhead camshaft design at the end of the 1970s. The 940 was the last of the rear-wheel drive Volvo wagons, and was produced until 1998 using several different turbocharged engine variants. Ohanion’s 2.4-liter mill has been fully built, bored out from its original 2.3-litre displacement, and matched with a unique T3/T4 Garret turbo setup that Ken acquired from a veteran Volvo race car mechanic. It’s a drivetrain-destroying tune – the car has gone through three transmissions so far, with the rear end the last remaining original component from front to rear – but there’s a modified and strengthened gearbox waiting to slide in and save the day once the current setup gives up the ghost.
After years of using the 940 wagon as his daily driver, Ken’s most recent engine swap has pushed the vehicle to weekend status. Ohanion has also paid attention to the suspension (lowering coils, stiffer struts) and exhaust (dumps behind the passenger seat). The brick features perhaps the most unique interior we’ve ever seen in a Volvo: partially gutted aside from a set of Dodge Grand Caravan folding seats up front. “You should see the looks I get from people with both buckets tilted forward,” Ken said, alluding to its “ghost ride the whip” status when empty.
Each of these Volvo wagons saw its mechanical guts stripped out, slapped in a blender, and then replaced with something significantly mightier than what originally left the factory, and as we mentioned earlier, we didn’t even catch all the transplanted Volvos in attendance. Paul Gerstenberger and Simeon Story brought a ’98 Volvo V90 with a Ford Explorer V8 under the hood. Although all the owners took a different route to better performance,seeing so many in Tucson was a reminder that the Roadkill crowd is a little bit different than your typical gathering of gearheads.
“The best part of Zip Ties, for me, was how laid back everyone was, and how willing they were to talk about their cars,” said Taplin, referring to the incredibly diverse range of vehicles that showed up for the desert drags. “I loved seeing all the different stuff parked at the event, and how friendly people were.”
Ohanion agreed. “My favorite aspect of the drags was discovering just how passionate everyone was about their hot rods. Seeing all of these unusual cars together and then meeting their owners was an amazing experience.”