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Floating on Air

23 May 2021

Delivering a left-right-goodnight combo to the ‘coilovers and wheels isn’t a build’ crowd with a Volvo 244 so well refined you simply couldn’t ask for anything more

Words: Jaden Martin Photos: Beinn Chapple-Law, Jaden Martin

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The world is a crazy place, man. I mean, regardless of whatever ideology about how we came into existence you believe, there’s no denying that billions of people living on a tiny flying rock that spins around a burning ball of gas is a trip of a concept. So it’s even crazier that, while there’s all that going on to occupy our minds, some people still choose to spend their time worrying about someone else’s coilovers and wheels build.

While that introduction may seem like a loaded statement, one Auckland man has had the earmuffs on and sights dialled in when enacting his latest build. A humble operator, Jay Thomson doesn’t listen to the riff-raff. He has no time for that nonsense. It’s that humility that has seen this very car wind up on these pages, focusing on his vision and not on the words being spoken. It is an unlikely find on our shores, more akin to pounding the streets of its Scandanavian origins than the degraded back roads of rural Kiwiland. The breadbox design draws heavily on ’80s European styling, packed with sharp, straight edges. It’s simple, elegant, and seldom the starting point for a modified car build here, which made it the prime candidate for Jay.

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For those who have never been introduced to the foreign nameplate, this is a 1982 Volvo 244 GLE. Volvo is the national automobile of Sweden, offered in a billion models over the span of whoever knows how many years, each systematically almost identical to the last. But that’s the charm; they’re for the most part great-looking cars that can be made amazing with a few small tweaks. What are those tweaks, you ask? Well, coilovers and wheels, of course.

It was those that formed Jay’s intention for the car at the outset, but it’s come a bit further than the original drawings thanks to the dedication of its owner and the capable lads at Autostance. In fact, without the latter part of that equation, it’s very likely it would have just been that simple coilovers and wheels jobbie — not that there is anything remotely wrong with that. It was Autostance figurehead Heino Wendzich who whispered in Jay’s ear and helped to change the course for the low-slung foreign roller. The coilovers are there, yes, but most readers should know by now that anything that has rolled out of the Autostance workshop rarely stays static. Yep, this Swedish loaf is floating on air.

Now, I’d best clear up any misapprehension: wandering down to the local auto-parts shop, buying a set of pre-made bags off the shelf, and chucking an old Volvo on air just doesn’t happen. I’d even hazard a guess that it’s impossible anywhere in the world. While the lads at Autostance have done well to get it down to a fine art for almost any car you hand over to them these days, it was a real challenge to have the Volvo reach the ride height you see pictured. Redevelopment after redevelopment, the system is now set around a set of BC Gold adjustable shocks that have had the traditional springs removed and converted to air bags with Autostance Performance bags. A four-gallon air tank and Viair compressor combo occupy boot space to produce, store, and supply precious pressure to the custom run lines throughout. Air Lift Autopilot V2 air management is the final hoorah to rounding out new suspension.

It all sounds so easy: bang this in there, connect that line here, but what you don’t see is the hours of testing and refining that got it here. Once you know what to put where, it’s like following instructions, but making parts work that were never intended to be there in the first place, and making them work well, that’s a whole ’nother thing. Even more so when you throw the ‘wheels’ into the mix. Forget the generic rollers you can tick up at the five different shops down the road. These had to be special, true to the car’s roots and, above all else, embody the perfect fitment. They’re also the reason the ‘coilovers’ got so tricky, tucking 18s under these tiny guards is a big ask at the best of times. Trying to do so when the car needs to air out and prevent daylight from journeying one side to the other, all the while having those rollers measuring in at 10.5 inches wide with an offset of -1?! That’s crazy talk. Crazy talk that both Jay and Heino were all about and have gone to huge effort to ensure happened.

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Heino started with a timeless set of 16-inch BBS RS, pulled them apart, and double-stepped the lips and barrels by two inches. As for width, well, that was to ensure they really kissed the guards. Only catch? Those guards would need to be a good 100mm wider than the factory offerings down back, which makes it a testament to the craftsmanship that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s gone on with the widening, and they now swallow the BBS with ease.

Jay and the team could have called it a day right there. Coilovers (with bags) and wheels. Job done. Clearly, he did not! Pop that engine bay and you’re treated to a surprise in the form of a fully specc’d engine bay — like something ripped straight out of Scandinavia’s biggest show, Gatebil. The factory 2.1-litre slant-four draws air through twin Weber 45DCOE carbs wearing a set of custom stainless steel trumpets on one side, while on the other spent gases are sent through a custom stainless steel exhaust manifold that has been fabricated to loop up high and drop down hard. The remainder of the exhaust runs back through a custom 2.5-inch system finished by an AdrenalinR stainless muffler and dumpy tip.

The old lump is no power maker, although it doesn’t need to be; it sounds good, looks better, and completes the car in a way that you otherwise weren’t expecting it to be packing. It’s the little details like the custom cover plates, batter box, and reservoirs that get you; small, simple additions that make a big difference.

That’s how the entirety of the Volvo presents. Sure, the aired-out ride height is boned within an inch of its life and the starkly chrome wheels are instantly recognizable; however, it’s contrasted by the factory champagne paintwork and minty factory interior offering. You get big bold statements and quiet, humble finishing.

So, I invite those in this crazy world with strong opinions to try and even call this a ‘coilovers and wheels’ build. You’ll be sadly mistaken, and maybe even delightfully surprised with what you find in reality.

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This article originally appeared in NZ Performance Car issue No. 287