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How I learned to love the Volvo (and my Dad)

I CHANCED UPON an amusing story online this week, about a Swiss guy who installed a wood stove in his Volvo, to counteract Europe’s recent freezing temperatures. It brought back a flood of memories about growing up with Volvo wagons.

You see, my dad was a Volvo lover, buying the company’s first 145 station wagon in 1968, when I was 10. Before that, we had a Rambler American, but Dad immediately fell for the design of the new generation of Volvos that arrived in the late ’60s.

“Why is it called a 145?” I asked him.

He claimed that stood for “1 car, 4 cylinders, 5 doors,” although his explanation fell apart when the next wagon model was called the 240. Dad loved cars in general (his father owned one of Toronto’s original car dealerships), and could identify antique vehicles from the ’30s and ’40s by the shape of a taillight or the taper of a fender.

As a child he used to quiz me about car makes and models until I finally replied in exasperation one day, “Dad, don’t you know, I’m not that interested in cars?” My mother told me she’d never seen him look so disappointed, perhaps a worse blow than when my older sister came home drunk from her first high school dance.

It seems hard to believe in this era of mini-vans, SUVs and cross-overs, but station wagons were once the ultimate in mobility for a large family. We traversed the continent in our wagons several times – two parents, four kids, a dog, and a heap of camping equipment, some of it lashed to the roof, or pulled behind in a U-Haul trailer.

My initial driving lessons, long before I was 16, consisted of sitting on Dad’s lap to steer the car (we grew up in a quiet suburb), or operating the 4-speed manual transmission, which was on a long stick easily shifted with your left hand from the passenger seat.

Dad drove the Volvo 145 well into its second decade, a quarter million miles, and instead of trading it in, he offered it to me. But by then I was university age, living far away, and still not interested in cars, for practical, as well as environmental reasons.

Even if I’d desired and could afford to run an old car, his Volvo would have been my last choice. It seemed to epitomize middle-class self-satisfaction, as well as being built for another generation – not mine. It was as old-fashioned as the rubbers he pulled over his dress shoes when he went to work on a rainy Vancouver day, or before he went curling with the other church ministers on his day off, Monday.

Over the next decade I did buy a few used cars of my own ­­– a Toyota, an Eagle Summit (sort of a wagon) and a Honda Civic – all the while turning down a succession of Volvo offers from Dad. Maybe our Volvo disagreement represented a larger power struggle between us – him wanting me to find a profession and a lifestyle that he approved of, and me feeling it might somehow compromise my ideals of independence.

In his 60s and 70s, Dad was slowed down and forced into retirement by a series of small strokes and cardiac problems. After separating from my mother he lived alone, then with a series of live-in caregivers who drove him to shopping and appointments in his Volvo wagon.

To my surprise, he decided to buy a third Volvo wagon at the age of 75. At this point, he needed a walker to navigate the small world of his townhouse. “Why a wagon?” I asked him, knowing he had nothing large to haul around.

“It’s the last of Volvo’s rear-wheel drives,” he answered, as if that was the only explanation required. Naturally, I declined the offer of his old 740 Turbo. He almost never drove his new V90 himself, and because of its leather seats, it took on the distinctive perfume smell of his caregiver Darlene. The first time I drove it, during a wet December snowfall, it got stuck in the slush outside his garage. I cursed the car, and its useless, old-fashioned rear wheel drive.

A funny thing happened over the next year. Dad got weaker, his mind went a little foggy, and we ran into a series of problems with his caregivers. We had to fire Darlene, and the next guy too. I flew from my home in Ontario to Vancouver several times in a matter of months, staying with Dad, running errands in the Volvo, taking him swimming and shopping. We got closer, and seeing him so vulnerable and weak, my old resentments and firmly-held convictions seemed less and less relevant.

By the fall, we finally convinced Dad to move to a nursing home. He had a lovely room, with some favoured possessions and furniture, but no need of a car. So we shipped his legacy east to me by train, and before long I was piling it high with family and luggage.

Soon after moving to the nursing home, Dad had an irreversible stroke that left him unable to swallow. He chose to die slowly and naturally over two weeks, rather than be transferred to the hospital to have his life extended by a feeding tube, but forever helpless in a bed. It was the bravest thing I’d ever seen him do. Driving my family home from the airport in his Volvo after the funeral felt comforting and safe; I thanked him silently for his final gift to me.

The V90 turned out to be a great winter car once I’d bought snow tires – and a wonderfully large box for transporting people and gear. It helped that I would always think about Dad when I drove it. As I looked at my hand on the wheel I saw his hand, since my skin seemed to be aging just like his, with small blue veins running between the tendons.

He was right: those Volvo seats were really comfortable. And the car was reliable – even if you occasionally had to shell out a ridiculous sum of money to fix the brakes or replace a cracked headlight. I made friends with the ancient pair of guys who sell used Volvo parts in the south end of Guelph, and I made peace with my Dad’s car.

We could never quite get rid of the Darlene smell, until one day we spilled some sort of noxious garbage in the luggage area, followed by several months of strong car fresheners. After nearly five years, the Volvo was truly ours. In the winter I would fill it with skis and kids, then drive to the nearby hill in Kitchener. In the summer we would stack it with Rubbermaid containers and coolers, bound for Killbear Park on Georgian Bay, and then our own cottage even further north.

But eventually, high gas prices and a diminishing need to ferry kids led us to put the wagon up for sale. There was no response for a week to my ad in the Auto Trader, then suddenly a call from North Bay, a good five hour’s drive away.

“Is it a rear-wheel drive?” the caller asked, even before inquiring how many kilometres it had been driven. This guy knew his Volvos, just like my Dad, and nothing would stop him from getting his hands on my rarity.

As I drove north to meet him, I happened to tune in a classical music station, the kind that Dad listened to (and I detested) when I was a captive passenger in his car as kid. Although I’d only driven his Volvo for a decade, it felt like I was selling a piece of my childhood on that Saturday morning. I shed a few tears, for my Dad, for my stubbornness, and for the way things come around when you finally face the same problems your parents did, and suddenly they don’t seem so old and silly after all.

I emailed the story of the Swiss Volvo guy with his woodstove heater to my family this week, asking if Dad would have approved of the contraption. One of my sons replied quickly, “At least it would have taken care of the Darlene smell!”

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