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Volvo Redblock: Aging Tortoise of the Automotive World

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If Aesop was right in saying, “slow and steady wins the race” then the “redblock” engines manufactured by Volvo, from the mid 70’s to the mid 90’s, can be considered champions. In their base configuration, they are slow and with more than 20 years on the road, they are still steadily lumbering across this nations highways. Long after Chevrolet Celebrities and Ford Probes have bitten the dust, our Volvo 240s, 740s, and 940s, still manage to keep clocking the miles.

Named for their fire-engine colored red and cast iron engines, Volvo first manufactured the single overhead cam (SOHC) redblocks for the 200 series, as the B21. The engines evolved over their two decade production life and were made in various configurations and displacements. These were to power the Volvo 200, 700, and 900 series, rear wheel drive automobiles. Power ranged from 90 hp, in the late 70’s, to 180 hp, in the European turbo.

The most common configuration on US roads today is the B230, manufactured by Volvo from 1985-1995. This engine put out 114 hp in its base setup. While that might seem reasonable for a compact car, the Volvo 244 model weighs in at over 3,100 pounds. Factor in a station wagon equipped with a third seat and stuffed with a family of five and you’ve got a significant amount of weight to push around with those 114 horses. But quickness off the line wasn’t really what drivers in this demographic were looking for, was it?

Legend has it that the lack of power in the 200 series was a safety feature, not a defect. After all, you’re much more likely to wrap your car around a tree when you’re playing around in a high power-to-weight ratio vehicle than if you’re chugging along in a lead slug. According to a 1995 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report, Volvo 240 models had the lowest death rate of any car in the US, from 1990-1994. Speed wasn’t what Volvo buyers were looking for; it was safe transportation for their family and longevity.

Most Volvo redblocks are non-interference engines, which means that if the timing belt breaks the piston heads won’t collide with the valves and cause internal damage. It’s understood that a properly maintained redblock Volvo will still be running after 200k, 300k, and possibly even one million miles. There’s just something about Swedish iron that makes it bulletproof.

Mars_symbolVolvo uses the ancient chemical symbol for iron as their logo, representing strength and resiliency. The cast-iron redblock engine formed Volvo’s heart and soul until the mid-1990s. I think if we ever had to endure a nuclear war the only things left standing will be the cockroaches and the redblocks.

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About the author: Jay Boucher

Jay Boucher is a weekend DIY mechanic who loves station wagons and redblock Volvos. When he’s not scraping his knuckles under his 1992 Volvo 245, he’s working as a freelance illustrator and interactive designer in northern NJ. Jay’s portfolio is at jayboucher.com and he blogs at myblackbrick.com.

 

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Jay Boucher View All

Illustration and interactive design, with a side of auto repair and scraped knuckles.

94 thoughts on “Volvo Redblock: Aging Tortoise of the Automotive World Leave a comment

  1. I have an 1986 Volvo 745 Turbo intercooler, that i have changed the engine to a B230FK with an m90 gearbox, angine was an ET and m46 gearbox from factory. and swapped the fuel injection to a newer volvo 940 one. The engine had 378.000 km on it’s back before i teared it down and swapped all the bearings and honed it and changed piston rings, all Mahle as thats what Volvo use from factory. Added an T3/T4 turbo, bigger fuel injectors and an alu intercooler, and 3″exhoust and 3″ pipes from turbo to the intake, The engine is delivering about 300HP and about 400-450nm of torque at the flywheel.. I must admit the car ain’t slow anymore. The engine is running smoother than ever before. I also had 1988 Volvo 740GLE before that had 504.000 km on it’s back before i sold it, and it’s still kicking on the same engine… Volvo did make great cars, and they’re engines has to be the best engines ever made. Simple and reliable. Must be a reason there is a Volvo P1800 still running after 5000000 Km.. Volvo for Life!

    Sorry for bad English I am Norwegian

    • Hey, Rene’, do not worry. I speak English a LOT better than I speak Norwegian 😉 ! I do, however, happen to have the BEST cat in the WHOLE world. A Norwegian Forest Cat, an absolutely wonderful animal (they are commonly called Weegies but, she prefers to be called Lola!).

  2. Hello all, I had to ask – does anyone here remember the PRV V-6 engine that was used in the 264s and 760s, and if you do, how is the durability when compared to the redblock motors? I’ve heard so many conflicting stories about PRVs over the years – some were very good from what I was told, but the majority of people have told me that it’s an engine to avoid at all costs.

  3. 204k on my 1994 940 Turbo and still going strong. Headlights as big as an aquarium, a grille that looks like it came off of a Peterbilt, and a Swedish tractor motor under the hood. What’s not to love?

    @Juan, The redblock wins by a landslide in durability on every possible level when compared to the PRV. However, the later PRV’s were significantly better than the earlier ones. The early motors, however, were unmitigated disasters and required constant oil changes to keep them from going down. The later PRV models (760’s, early 780’s, and the very first 960’s) have held up very well with regular fluid changes and routine maintenance. The improved reliability of the later motors notwithstanding, the PRV’s biggest weakness today is that it was sold in very low volume in comparison to the red block. The newest PRV’s in the USA are 24 years old at this stage and it wasn’t a great motor to begin with. The only other US market cars that had any PRV motor were the Eagle Premier, Dodge Monaco, and the DeLorean DMC-12…not exactly high volume vehicles nor were they known for their reliability. Even if they were great motors, which they weren’t, there just weren’t enough of them made to support sufficient parts availability to keep them running anymore from a business perspective. Combined with their awful reputation among Volvo mechanics, it’s hard to find any support for them at all. Sourcing parts is an odyssey in and of itself.

    Believe it or not, DeLorean Motor Company in Houston is probably the best source for PRV expertise and parts that I’m aware of. Their entire shop is dedicated to PRV and with good reason: there are probably more DeLoreans rolling around with PRV’s at this stage than there are Volvos, Premiers, or Monacos. You’ll occasionally see a running 264 come up on eBay or on the Volvo forums, but it’s a rarity. Quite a few 264 owners converted to red-blocks in the mid to late 80’s and very few PRV owners remain, even in the later 700 series with the improved engine.

    Note that my comments are from a USA perspective. The situation in Europe for the PRV is a lot better because they were produced there longer and were in more cars. There are still quite a few PRV cars over there running (Peugeots and Renaults as well as Volvos) and they are more plentiful over there.

    With that being said, the PRV is a dog and while every dog has his day, the PRV’s day is long gone.

    In our old Volvos, there’s simply nothing that can beat a red-block motors. It’s the heart of the system, if you will. If you need more power than what the red block offers, you’re wise to simply get a turbo red-block instead. I don’t know the numbers, but there are a whole lot of red-blocks running in the United States, more than some newer cars and that’s not counting the marinized version sold by Volvo Penta here as well.

  4. Redblocks, while being tough as nails, are also supremely capable without too much in the way of work to strengthen the blocks. They can be made to handle huge amounts of power with only a partial fill (with concrete) of the block. There are 8v and 16v headed redblocks making well north of 500hp with a couple in the 1k range. It was also this block (as a B23) that powered their GrpA 240 that kicked some a$$ for a bit.

    I love Redblocks! I have a built turbo B21F in an 82 245 and am working on an ’94 block build up with an automotive 531 that’s going into my ’88 744.

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