Back in ’08, I wrote a brief ode in these pages to the Dutch manufacturer DAF (Van Doorns Automobiel Fabriek), long defunct as a carmaker but still in business making trucks, whose little cars, equipped with the innovative Variomatic continuously variable transmission, were once common sights on the roads of Europe, often in Dutch-tulip hues of red or yellow. After 1975, persuaded that DAF’s transmission technology was way ahead of its time, which it was, and that its access to Renault mechanicals was a valuable asset, as it turned out to be, Volvo wrote a big check and took over the automotive side of the firm. The surviving DAF model, the 66, became the Volvo 66, “the tiniest Volvo ever,” in the words of my colleague Andy Bannister, who wrote an article about it for Techshake.
Living in France at the time, teaching English, and deeply desirous of acquiring my own set of four wheels—my principal means of locomotion being an ancient prewar bike that creaked and groaned—I succumbed to the little car’s appeal and cheap price and came as close to buying a 66 as my bank account would allow, which, I discovered, wasn’t very close: barely enough for one down payment. My bike had to serve awhile longer, until I managed to negotiate downward the price of a blue 1966 Simca that lasted a couple of years before shrugging off life and its transmission halfway across a busy intersection. By then I was on my way back Stateside anyway.
But my mother, with whom I’d been lodging in a converted kitchen on the top floor of her tumbledown 200-year-old house, was sufficiently intrigued by the Volvoized DAFs to plonk down her coin for the 66’s successor, the 300-series, in her case a two-door 343 hatchback. It was a first for her. Since leaving the States, where she’d once owned a , she’d owned only French cars, most recently a Peugeot. But she liked the looks of the little Dutch-Swedish hatch, and willingly took one on a meandering test drive through the local mountains. She was unimpressed by the Variomatic, which admittedly sucked most of the life out of the 1.4-liter Renault engine. Indeed, all her life she dismissed the whole notion of “automatic drive,” as she called it, insisting on a stick. It was a deal-breaker for the Volvo. But then, lo and behold, Volvo introduced the 343 with a four-on-the-floor manual transmission, and she was sold.
The 2-door 343 was originally introduced in 1975. It spawned a small clan, including the 4-door 345, the 360 hatch and 4-door sedan with 1.7-liter engines, and ultimately the 440. But my mother’s was the basic DL version of the 343, a white 1980 model, identical to the one in the photo at the top of this post, with the original 1.4-liter Renault engine making 95 hp, . When I drove it I found the car a bit bulky in the curves, of which there were—and are still—many in the French-Swiss borderlands, and I deemed it less than a thrill on the straightaway, but my input was no longer of interest. My mother loved her little Swede à l’hollandaise. She drove it all over Europe, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. It never let her down except once in East Berlin, of all places, where the clutch went out. Via a kind of samizdat auto-mechanic network (she worked for the UN, and had a fat Rolodex) she discovered a dealer specializing in Volvo parts, the larger Volvos being popular with East German Politburo bigwigs. The price was exorbitant until she produced Swiss francs, at which point she was in charge of negotiations. She and the Volvo were soon on their way back Westward, new clutch and all.
The 343 outlasted Mother. After she died, in 2002, a family friend started it up one last time and drove it out to its final resting place, a local wrecking yard. It was a faithful companion and only ever had one owner, who loved it dearly. A respectable epitaph, I think.