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Volvo 300 Series

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The Volvo 340 has been characterised (not entirely unfairly) as a car for grannies with strong arms. The steering is not as heavy as early VW Passats, but power steering should have been standard.

It was, and still is, fashionable to sneer at the 340, but it consistently came at or near the top of owner satisfaction and reliability surveys. It's safe, well-mannered, comfortable, dependable and easy to maintain, and it was good enough to sell (steadily, if unremarkably) more than a million cars over a 15-year period. It remains a greatly underrated vehicle.


The Volvo 300 series was originally a DAF design, as was the Volvo 66 and the later 400 series. They were built in the DAF factories in the low countries rather than at Volvo's Swedish plants. It took some time for the Volvo standards of rust protection to make it to the 300 series, and even the late ones were more rust-prone than a traditional Volvo.

First conceived in 1970, the Volvo 300 series came into production in 1976, following Volvo's purchase of the car making side of DAF. Interestingly, the 340 was almost a BMW, and could also have been an Audi - these and other companies were all prospective partners during the development the DAF project P900, which became the 340. The car did poorly at first, partly due to its only being available with three doors and variomatic transmission, but Volvo's addition of more doors, different trim levels and a manual gearbox secured it a steady market.

When the 1,136,689th and last Volvo 340 rolled of the line at Born in the Netherlands on 13 March, 1991, it marked the end of an era; it was the last of over 1.1 million rubber belt drive cars manufactured at the plant. During that time around 80,000 Variomatic and 300,000 manual 340s had made their way onto Britain's roads.


The car had a fairly conventional monocoque1 steel body, available in three-, four- and five-door variants. The body was big, strong and fairly heavy, and there were steel side impact bars on all models. Traditional Volvo virtues such as collapsible energy-absorbing bumper mountings were standard.

Engines and Things

340s came with either a steel OHV 1.4 with alloy head, an all-alloy OHC 1.7, and the 360 had a businesslike steel 2.0 OHC with alloy head. All were de-tuned for long life. The 1.4 was Renault-sourced, and also fitted to the contemporary Renault 5. The 1.7 was also from the PSA2 stable and could be found in the Citroën BX and most Peugeots (and later in the Volvo 400 series). The 2.0 was a Volvo unit from a 240.

Engines were mounted longitudinally driving the rear wheels via a cable-operated dry-plate clutch in the manual version, and a servo-operated clutch in the automatic. 340 models and lower specification 360s had carburettors (mostly Weber or Solex twin-choke down-draught types), and the 360 GLT had Bosch LE Jetronic fuel injection. The 1.4 had a Renix electronic ignition system which was not particularly reliable.

The manual gearbox was from the 240 and was combined with the differential (in an arrangement sometimes known as a transaxle). Early models had a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox, and this was later upgraded to five-speed. The 360 series had a torque tube surrounding the propshaft which prevented the engine twisting in relation to the gearbox. This tightened gear changes and reduced the amount of lash in the transmission.

Automatics - Rubber Bands

Continuously variable transmission (CVT) is, in theory, better than fixed-ratio systems. It is more efficient than normal automatic boxes with their power-sapping torque converters, and allows the engine to run at the optimum speed for power delivery. The DAF system was highly developed and, with care, could give many years of reliable service. FIAT, Ford and Nissan have all sold small cars in the UK with CVT.

DAFs CVT (for which the car was designed) was branded 'variomatic'. It was a quirky arrangement of rubber belts and sliding cones also found on the DAF 33 and DAF/Volvo 66. The most notable features of this type of transmission are that the engine will often be slowing down when the car is speeding up, and vice-versa, which is somewhat unnerving at first, and secondly you can go as fast backwards as forwards, since reverse simply adds a reversing gear at the final drive. Reversing races have happened.

The Good Bits

Safety is a given. These cars are as tough as old boots. But we'll assume that you know that and go on to the bits which affect everyday use.

Top of the list is probably the seats. They are comfortable and supportive, with adjustable lumbar support and head restraints which are tall and beefy enough to protect taller drivers rather than focus the whiplash in precisely the worst place, as so many head restraints do.

Next is the engines. The 1.4 is surprisingly willing, and for some reason appears unusually resistant to wearing out. The 1.7 also lasted indefinitely and was slightly more powerful, although this manifested itself in more relaxed cruising rather than brisker acceleration. The two litre was a brute of a thing with torque to spare.

Handling was better than it had any right to be, although the front McPherson struts had a tendency to go soggy quite fast. But with new Monroe gas-filled dampers all round, the weight of the gearbox over the back axle offset the effects of body roll to make cornering pretty stable, and handling in general pretty predictable. Motoring journalists hated it and condemned it as stodgy, but then motoring journalists like cars which you can drive round bends at 120mph, tail out, tyres smoking. Most of us prefer the back end to stay tucked in, thank you, which the 300 series pretty much does.

Ride comfort was also above average, despite the cart-sprung rear axle. The axle was of the De Dion type, with the rear transaxle mounted to the car and telescopic driveshafts to the wheels.

Strong bodies and big energy-absorbing bumpers mean that crashes in Volvo 300s are typically less dramatic than for other cars, although body damage is bad news as panels come expensive (not least because of the number of layers of paint). Brakes were servo-assisted and up to the job.

The interior was well-built and didn't rattle or fall apart, and most things were bolted together rather than glued or welded, so you could get them apart if mending is required. The electrical fittings were mostly of a high standard and rarely gave trouble. The heater was efficient and the central vents blew cold air, making for adequate summer ventilation and providing the recommended 'cool head, warm feet' combination in the winter. The heater was thermostatically controlled.

Servicing outside the franchised dealer network is cheap, as the engines are common. Do buy Volvo oil filters, though, as they have non-return valves which prolong engine life by stopping the oil draining down to the sump overnight.

And, of course, they went on and on and on. Any mechanical failure before 100,000 miles was rare, and the clutch would often last well past that. These cars were tough old workhorses which would stand abuse well.

The Bad Bits

Performance was a weak spot. The heavy body meant that it took a while to wind up to speed (although the two litre 360 series were much quicker), and attempting decent round town acceleration came at a price in fuel economy.

The boot sill on the hatchback was quite high so although the car was capacious it was hard work to load. The back seat folded, but not in a split as is now common. There was ample room for two on the back seat, but a third would be uncomfortable due to the large tunnel carrying the propshaft, and would only have a lap belt.

The body was not as rust-resistant as most Volvos, and although the metal was thick it could fail MOTs due to corrosion of the sills. Happily this was simple and cheap to patch, and in any case the rust problem was massively less than on most competitors, notably the Ford Escort. The places to watch were behind the back number plate and just inboard of the rear light clusters, door bottoms, rear wings just in front of the wheels, and sills at the B pillar (behind the driver's door).

When open, the boot was supported by gas struts (as with most cars). These tended to wear out, leaving you holding up a very heavy hatchback. Unless you had the four-door, in which case you had to put up instead with a really hideous boot which looked like an afterthought (it was).

The propshaft running at engine speed and the gearbox being at the back meant that you had to be careful with gear changing, and not rush the box. Double de-clutching made for an easier life. This was less serious on the 360 due to the torque tube. The gears were from a 240, and felt like it. Agricultural would be a good description. The synchromesh always seemed to ease up a bit after 100,000 miles, making the car an easier drive.

On 1.4 litre engines the crankcase breather tube had an annoying habit of becoming blocked. Cleaning it out is a simple job, but failure to do so resulted in crankcase pressure leading to oil leaks and blue smoke.

And the steering was incredibly heavy. Few had power assisted steering, although the later models (with wrap-around plastic bumpers) were a bit lighter.

Maintaining a 300 series

The 300 series is ideal for the DIY mechanic for two reasons: first, it's mechanically very simple, and secondly, nothing much goes wrong anyway.

The Haynes manual covers all the necessary points, and most jobs are well within the competence of the amateur mechanic. The two most common routine jobs are cleaning the crankcase breather and cleaning the inside of the distributor cap.

Gapping the points on the 1.4 is a bit of a challenge, as the distributor is right against the firewall, and changing the No.1 plug, half-hidden behind the alternator mounting, demands care or a crossed thread could result. All jobs on the 1.7 are a doddle except changing the distributor cap (again, hard up against the firewall). Even changing the shocks in the front McPherson struts is surprisingly easy, and there are pattern parts for almost everything.

Why Would I Want One?

Though they are getting a bit long in the tooth, 340s are good for two things - safe family transport on a budget, and new drivers. They provide comfort and safety; if you crash you'll probably live. They are cheap to buy and run, and there are plenty of non-franchised Volvo specialists to keep the cost lower still. There is no known way of wearing one of these out.

The alternative might be an old Golf, which is nearly as safe (though lacking side-impact beams), but these command higher prices for the same age and condition, and it can be hard to find one that's not ratty and mechanically slack.

The 360GLT is quite amusing. The two litre engine is thirsty, but fast (0-60 under 10s) and the engine makes a grin-inducing growl. Above 4000rpm, though, there is more noise than power, so use the torque and keep the revs moderate.

Buying a 300 Series

Step one is to get the newest one you can. Paint quality and rust resistance improved year by year, so newer is better. Avoid metallics (hard to match if touch-ups are needed, and the early metallic paint was not good), and don't go near anything with a ratty interior as the inside is the best bit. Look out for blue smoke, which usually indicates lack of servicing rather than bad driving - and make sure the service book is stamped up. Most 340s have been in private hands from new, so should be well looked after.

The best of the crop is the five door, 1.4 or 1.7, with five-speed box. The four door is ugly and less practical, and the three door presents the usual challenge for rear seat passengers. The 2.0 (360 models) is thirsty. All have heated rear windows and if you choose well you will also get heated seats (brilliant), electric windows, central locking, an adequate radio/cassette, head lamp wash/wipe and maybe even air conditioning. If it also has power steering, get your money out.

The engine should idle cleanly at 600rpm or so with no juddering or misfires. Some noise from the propshaft bearings is normal at idle. It should remain when you rest your foot on the clutch and go when you push the clutch in. If not it may be the clutch bearing (which is not too bad but not a five minute job). When driving there should be no flat spots; the engine should power cleanly and quietly (if not excitingly) up to about 4,000 rpm. Check the brakes, if the nose dives deeply the front shocks need replacing. They can pass the MOT however bad they get, but when they go soggy as with any car the braking is compromised in wet weather. Actually all 340s are likely to have soggy front shocks, so budget for replacing them if funds permit, it's not that expensive and you'll save the money in reduced tyre wear. This holds true for any car. Monroe gas-filled dampers seem to work best.

A grand will buy you a really tidy little number with at least three or four good years in it, and for five hundred you can buy one which should give at least two further MOT passes before being consigned to the scrap heap. Don't be scared by mileage as long as the history is there.

For more advice see the Volvo Owners Club website, which is packed with handy hints (and has a for-sale section).

1'An aircraft or vehicle structure in which the chassis is integral with the body.' - Concise Oxford Dictionary.2A joint venture for engine production between Peugeot and Renault, with Volvo as a minor partner.

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