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Elderly Volvo on life support -- pull the plug or keep her alive indefinitely?

My beloved 1990 Volvo 740 Turbo wagon has (only) 230K miles on it. Here is the problem: The last mechanic to look at it told me the head gasket was cracked. (He deduced this by showing me there was oil in the coolant reservoir. I think it was that StopLeak gunk I poured in to plug the holes, but he insisted it was oil.) I have continued to drive the car for eight months since that diagnosis. Suddenly, the check engine light has come on and remains on continually. And suddenly, my baby doesn’t sound too good.

Other stuff that’s broken: Radiator leaks like a sieve. Engine consumes two(?) quarts of oil every 2-4 weeks; maybe more than that, actually. The struts and/or shocks (I get them mixed up) are shot. The brakes need pads and probably rotors. The heat and AC don’t work. You can’t raise the hatch from the outside. (You have to crawl inside the car and shove it open with your foot. Then you leave your shoe in the crack to keep it open. Then you go back outside and pull it up. No problem.) There is no seatbelt latch on the driver’s side, so I pull my belt over and use the passenger’s latch. (Passenger = doomed.)

On the plus side, the radio works despite the broken antenna motor. And the seat warmers are so powerful, I always think I’ve wet my pants.

I am out of work (thanks, Bear Stearns, you freaking a-holes) and I really, really, really cannot afford another vehicle. Plus, I am guessing you do NOT think I should invest the three grand it would take to get this baby road-worthy again. Correct? Okay, then. I have to keep driving her until she commits hari kari. So here’s my question (finally!). How long will this car run with a leaking radiator, burning oil, and this cracked gasket deal? Does she have days, weeks, months, or (vain hope) years?

Toss it, if you have the option. I’d put $3000 into the best used car you can find, it’ll be way better. Your Volvo could croak at any time.

Keep putting oil and coolant in it and drive on. How long will it last, no clue. As long as the plugs aren’t fouling it may just last a few months to a few years like this. You can forget long trips on the interstate, one of these might just finish her off. For short jaunts in and around your local town(s) I think you have some time.

In that time you need to come up with a plan for what to do when the Volvo just finally quits, or something too expensive to fix pops up.

I think it’d be pretty hard for anyone out here to give you a life estimate based on not knowing for sure if you even have a bad head gasket. I can tell you that I had a 1962 Falcon (some years ago), that had a leaking radiator, leaking front and rear main bearings, worn out piston rings, multiple other leaks, lots of blow by coming out the crankcase breather, etc. Oh and by the way, the body of the car was pretty well rusted out as well. Shocks? I think they all leaked all their fluid out years before I got the car. I was young, broke, and couldn’t afford to pay attention. I kept filling the radiator, kept the oil topped off, didn’t take any long trips, and didn’t drive recklessly. If it runs and drives ok, and there is no indication you’re pumping antifreeze into the oil, then maybe you don’t have a head gasket leak. The reason your heater doesn’t work? Probably because you plugged the heater core with the stop leak. I vote you keep it, buy the cheapest oil you can find, park it over a piece of cardboard or something so you don’t foul the environment any more with leaking oil, keep the radiator filled, and you might be surprised how long it will last you. BTW, I kept my falcon for over a year, without investing any money into it, except for the oil and radiator juice. I bought the car for $200. And sold it for $200. This was over a year period and through a harsh South Dakota winter.
One more thing: If you are required to get a state or county emissions test and/or safety inspection, then all bets are off. It probably won’t pass the emissions test if you do have a bad head gasket.

Walk away. Any money is bad money at this point. Go find an old 740 and pay $75.00 for a mechanic to check it out before buying. Then you still have the babe’s cousin to enjoy while you think about what car you might like next.

I would not even consider investing 1500 bucks much less 3 grand in this car as there is always the possibility of spending four figures on this head gasket job and still leaving you with a worn out engine.

You know what I would do? I’d do some footwork and peruse the want ads, Craigslist, or whatever and find an older 90s era Buick Century or something similar. You can often find a pretty decent deal on these cars, many have been driven by elderly people, and they’re not only reliable but easy to find parts and service for if needed.
Another option is a Crown Vic/Grand Marquis and the same comments apply.

Servicing these cars are not for the faint of heart, but I have a bit of an infatuation with the Lincoln Mark VIIIs. This is the one I recently bought for 1800 bucks. Slick in and out, runs like a new Swiss watch, gets about 27 MPG with a 300 HP engine, and has new tires to boot.

The point here being a comparison of what can be had for 1800 bucks, or less, when weighed against the 3 grand you mention spending on a shaky Volvo.
I say keep the fluids up and drive the Volvo until it croaks and use the time before it croaks to find a decent used vehicle. JMO anyway.

Well, it’s been a couple of months, so maybe you don’t need this advice anymore? I have a '92 740 Turbo, which I believe (tee, hee!) was the best car ever made. Bullet-proof, reliable, easy to work on (even for a newbie like me!), and the parts are not that costly either.

You know, your “head gasket problem” may be just a radiator that is leaking transmission fluid into the coolant. (The transmission fluid is cooled via lines that run through the side tanks of the radiator. So, for a couple of hundred dollars, you could install a new radiator yourself. Nissens is a direct fit.

Get it checked out by a good, Volvo independent mechanic. It may not be as much as you think…
Also, online forums: Swedish Bricks ( is a WONDERFUL online community of rear-wheel-drive Volvo enthusiasts, many gifted amateur mechanics, some professionals, too. You don’t say where you are, but there may be someone near you who could take a look at your Brick for you. (We HATE to see a perfectly good, young Brick like yours be given up on!)

Also, for some background reading, check the 700/900 series FAQ at the Brickboard (

Good luck!
–George Butler
Tallinn, Estonia

The engine is running rough? Change the spark plugs. When you look at the spark plugs, they’ll likely be fouled.

I am with ok4450 in that your best bet would be to get a reliable beater.

A mid 90s economy cars with very little options such as a Corolla, Prizim, Escort, Cavalier, Sentra, Saturn , would be my choice. These cars a are all simple and some had old fashioned three speed automatics, a manual transmission would be a plus IMHO.