It’s a long way from Sweden’s icy mountain passes to California’s sun-bleached sandy deserts, where you’re far more likely to encounter home-built buggies and lifted pickups than you are European luxury sedans. And yet that hasn’t stopped San Diego’s Jesse Coss from building perhaps the most unique pre-runner you’re likely to ever run into on the dunes: a four-door 1993 Volvo 940.
“This is actually the second one I’ve built,” volunteers Coss. “I have a project truck, and I wanted something I could still drive out there while I was tearing the truck down for a rebuilt. I’ve always been a Volvo guy – I’ve probably got seven parked at my place at any given time – and when I looked at the package that the 940 had to offer, it just kind of clicked.”
Jesse isn’t kidding. Peel back the squared-off steel skin of many early-90s Volvos and you’ll find an appealing formula for rugged performance, including a solid rear drive axle with a factory locker, a four-link suspension setup at the back of the car, and 162 turbocharged horses under the hood. Still, for most builders it would be a bit of a leap from a Scandinavian suburb cruiser to a full-on trail runner. For someone already in the Volvo mind-set, however, it simply made sense – enough so that when Coss’ original 900-series off-roader wore itself out after a few too many hard knocks, he decided to put together this one using all of what he had learned the first go-round.
“I knew I wanted to go with a solid rear axle car this time, because the independent setup in my previous Volvo couldn’t take the beating I needed it to,” he explains. “It was great for comfort getting to and from the trail, and it would soak up rough stuff fairly well, but the bushings would quickly degrade to the point where I couldn’t really drive the thing on anything other than dirt, because it was like trying to steer a squid down asphalt.”
The current Volvo 940 is still using the stock suspension links at the back of the car with a reinforcement plate at the top, but the factory shocks and coils are long gone, having been replaced by a completely custom Fox coil-over setup that mount behind the axle and come up through the trunk (whose floor Jesse has completely removed). They feature adjustable reservoirs that allow for a full range of settings to be altered to affect the car’s handling at speed.
“A friend of mine works at Fox, and I actually learned how to build shocks through him,” says Coss. “We bought the parts together and had to re-valve them a couple of times to get the car to sit right and perform the way we wanted. Mounting them the way we did, through the trunk, well, I’ve always been more of a function-over-form type of person.”
At the front of the car are a few other lessons learned from hardcore Volvo abuse under the hot desert sun. The 940 has been given extensive strut tower bracing designed to prevent the front end from ‘folding over on itself,’ which Jesse mentioned as being a contributor to the older vehicle’s demise. The front struts themselves have been cut and extended, and use Bilstein touring shocks, which are frequently replaced due to the pounding they take through washes. Coss intends to build an A-arm setup for the car in the near future.
Jesse also took a step back in terms of straight-line performance with this second pre-runner.
“The first Volvo I built had too much power, and it would get real scary, real fast,” he laughs. “It was a stock bottom end B230, with a stainless steel header, a turbo upgrade, and a hood stack. There was a big aluminum intercooler, bigger injectors, pretty much pushing me up against the limits of what I could do with the stock ECU and automatic transmission.”
Version 2.0 features a 95 percent factory drivetrain that’s aided and abetted by a boost control, and which passes smog without any issues. The only other modification is a move to a non-turbo radiator, as the turbo cooler hangs down low enough past the front core support to snag deep into a dune – a flaw Jesse learned about the hard way when he broke the radiator at Pismo Beach.
“The ’93 models like mine have an upgraded intercooler and an electric fan, and although it’s running a smaller turbo than my older car I really like being able to access the torque when I need it without all of the drama. These engines produce a lot of torque for a four-cylinder (195 lb-ft – ed), and when I’m climbing something or rock crawling, it might take a second or two but I can get boost at lower RPM and just power through it. In the other Volvo, the turbo was so big that there wasn’t really anything happening until 3,500 RPM, and then it was suddenly game on!”
Did he say rock-crawling? That’s right – Jesse’s Volvo 940 has a foot of ground clearance up front, and just under that at the rear (where it also features 12 inches of suspension travel). Combine that with the 15-inch 235/75 Kenda Klever tires, and Coss frequently clears obstacles that a close friend in a modded Bronco II can’t, because the SUV’s diffs are so much bigger.
What kind of a reaction does the Volvo 940 pre-runner get from other off-road fanatics? As one might have predicted, it’s certainly not invisible when contrasted against the typical flock of desert fare, especially not riding tall with its HID light bar clamped on to what in other climates might have been labeled a ‘ski rack.’
“A lot of people grin, and it takes a few seconds for them to figure it out,” says Jesse. “I’ve taken it to the King of the Hammers twice now, and it’s a fun experience to be there with that crowd. Even in the Volvo community, there’s not really anyone else doing what I am doing. I was one of the first with a lifted 700 or 900 series car, but there are a few people now running simpler, more basic lifts to improve ground clearance.
“I also appreciate that it’s a very simple car to work on,” he relates. “I skipped a tooth on my timing belt earlier this year at KOH, and blew a head gasket. We replaced it right there on the sand.” He laughs again. “It’s also cool to be able to cruise around the desert with air conditioning and heated seats, and enough power to have a good time. It certainly beats a Baja Bug, hands down, for comfort, usability, and reliability.”
We’d have to add ‘originality’ to that list, too.