While fashion model Adriana Sklenarikova has nothing to worry about, the star of the party this past weekend at Pemberton Airport was a dark-green 1995 Volvo 850. We ran three days of training for Whistler Fire Rescue Services.
The Volvo was used each day in one section of our program. Twenty-four firefighters, male and female, practised their car-control skills in the vehicle. The 850 must have been photographed, in various slip angles, hundreds of times during these sessions.
Pemberton is north of Whistler, and we use the east taxiway at the airport for advanced driving schools. This past year, we have added a couple of skid control training devices to our events. One works at higher speeds, the other, the Skidbeater, is a much lower-speed device. The mule for all the testing, and the vehicle we have been using with students so far, is the trusty Volvo. There are a couple of videos of the car in action on the photos page of our website.
In a world of high-tech, a 17-year-old Volvo might seem an odd choice, but it has actually been perfect. The car used to belong to my Dad, and he drove it quite hard, including trips deep into the British Columbia forest on his way to various fishing holes. There are a few external scars, but I always took care of the maintenance, so in terms of suspension, brakes, gearbox and motor, it is in excellent condition. It has anti-lock brakes, traction management, side airbags and so on, not all of which were common in vehicles of that vintage. It does not, however, have computerized stability control, so it has no objection to the slides and spins that are part of a training day.
The 850 has been astonishingly reliable, and certainly part of this is my approach to maintenance. If something starts to wear, such as a suspension bushing or shock absorber, it gets repaired or replaced right away. This is actually by far the most economical way to maintain an automobile. Too many people wait to get the work done. In that time, the bushing or shock may start to cause problems elsewhere on the vehicle and could also become a safety concern. Either way, the fix becomes much more expensive. For example, trying to eke a bit more life out of something like a timing belt can result in serious engine damage.
On the way home from Pemberton, carrying a load of gear and a couple of instructors, the Volvo still felt tight and solid, though it will need new front struts soon. The automatic gearbox, while only a four-speed, has a couple of admirable qualities. There are sports, economy and winter modes, but the best part is if you put it into a lower gear, it will stay there. Once the motor nears redline, most modern automatics upshift regardless, in order to protect the internal bits. That is not particularly good on a mountain road, where a mid-corner gear change can cause stability problems.
At some point, we will be looking to a manufacturer to supply a school car, but for now, the 850 is doing fine. It goes back to work next week. I wonder if the engineers back in Sweden could have possibly foreseen what their design would be up to two decades later. Perhaps, because for all their socially conscious respectability, some of those Scandinavian types do have a wild side. In its own way, so does the old green Volvo.
Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at www.spdt.ca