It doesn’t make a lot of sense that the very pinnacle of driving would be a box-on-wheels old Volvo on a patch of dirt and ice in rural New Hampshire. But I don’t need life to make sense.
[Full Disclosure: This weekend I drove historic rally cars representing every decade from the ‘60s through the 2000s, from Saabs to Subarus and all kinds of Audis and Porsches in the middle. The cars were all privately maintained, and a huge thanks goes to those gracious owners who let me drive their cars, and to Team O’Neil Rally School for organizing the event up at their New Hampshire home. More articles are coming.]
This is the Volvo 142 that the future World Rally Champion Markku Alén took to third at the ‘73 1000 Lakes Rally in his home country Finland. I can’t say how nervous I was when I stepped into this car. I could barely drive it. I halfway forgot how the steering wheel works.
It’s not like there was anything physically special about the car. It’s a Volvo 142 that rolled off a Swedish assembly line in 1972. There’s a little four-cylinder engine up front, a solid axle out back, and not much but a gas pedal in between. It is a rally car: a production road car modified to race against the clock on public roads.
There is little to separate it from an old professor’s car but for the stripped and caged interior, some bigger carbs, and some extra steel welded into the floor. It’s not even particularly different from my parents’ Volvo 240 I learned to drive stick on back in high school.
But stern-faced Markku “Maximum Attack” Alén is one of my heroes. I’ve watched the old BBC broadcast of the ‘73 1000 Lakes I don’t know how many times before. This car’s history was very real, just like all the trees I worried about not crashing it into.
On my first few laps of Team O’Neil’s test course, I spun and spun and spun again.
But Charles, the big and kind man who bought this car almost by chance from a Finnish museum, gradually settled me down. I started to breath. I started to look up. The car started to make sense.
The Volvo is the classic epitome of a rear-drive race car, steered with the gas pedal, sideways everywhere. Strip away the history, strip away the look, strip away the sound and everything but the way it drives, and it is still incredibly fast and almost hilariously rewarding from behind the wheel.
And what gets me about it is that its thrill comes second to its toughness. It has rear-wheel drive running a solid axle at the back. It has ultra old-school cam-and-roller steering.
It was built to take jumps so extreme that they could (and did) break a man’s back. Seriously. The sister car to this Volvo broke broke multiple bones in its co-driver’s back and ended his 20-year career.
Looking through the spare interior, the car’s little analog rally computer reminded me of its job—to cover as much of the roughest ground in the world, as accurately as possible, with technology now four decades old. Its response to its challenges was to be as sturdy as conceivably possible.
It is a mix of history and speed and excitement, held together in the shape of a Volvo brick. It could not be more mismatched.
Maybe that’s why it feels so perfect.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove