Bringing Home Our Volvo C303 (Part: the first)

Volvo C303 at Dawn

3 Idiots, 5000km, 3 fuel filters, -17C, 8mpg.

First, we lost all our cold weather gear. We aren’t complete fools, and no one wanted to valiantly sacrifice their life to a breakdown on the frozen prairies, so we shipped an entire cargo box stuffed with winter gear ahead. When you are about to bring an antique Volvo C303 across Canada in the winter step one is ‘prepare to not die’. You can’t predict a spun bearing or a pooched oil-pump, but you can make sure you are ready to camp out until help arrives… at least up until your freight company completely looses the package. So off we went, into wild blue yonder hoping the package would show up before our inevitable frozen fate.

What did arrive on-time was all the tools and bits we hoped would keep us running. Spare hoses, CHECK. Random assorted tools, CHECK. New rear window (ours was initially half missing), CHECK. Fire extinguisher in case things went exactly opposite of predicted, CHECK. Box of random bits into which no one really remembers what has accumulated CHECK. Finally, enough octane booster and lead-additive to send us into a low earth orbit, DOUBLE CHECK! (The c303’s B30 engine calls for 98 Octane, leaded gas. Good luck finding that at the pump)

The previous owner was kind enough to replace the c303’s antique tires with some winter rated 315/75 R16 Goodyear Duratracs. After seeing the original, iron hard, 30-year-old military tires, with such severe cupping that they simulate their own gravel road; we were particularly happy not to be experiencing the vintage ride.

Once we hit the ground in Quebec, final prep consisted of a quick once over of the wiring which revived some of the gauges and illuminated some of our dash lights permanently. (we haven’t figured out why the c303 is convinced that we have the emergency-brake and front differential-lock engaged?). We also swapped out the dim 24-volt sealed-beam headlights for a pair of LEDs that can sear a Moose at 1000 yards. With the amount of dark driving in our future, light was critical to surviving the “Night Dangers”.

At this point we had a mandatory hockey break for box seats at a Montreal Canadians Game courtesy of a supplier. They lost, but fully catered and sauced we were winning ?.

Last but not least was lubrication. 20W-40 Engine oil and a filter was easy enough to find. Differentials and portal boxes use GL5 80-90, also easy to find. The transmission and transfer-case requires GL1 85W-90. GL1 is an old additive standard that favoured Zink instead of Sulfur for EP (Extreme Pressure) lubrication. We spent nearly two days looking for someone, somewhere, that had a suitable GL1 oil.

We couldn’t cheat because the Sulfur in modern oil will eat the brass components inside the extremely rare transmission and transfer-case. The answer was Redline MT90 from a hot-rod shop in Montreal. Officially it’s safe for brass, even though it meets the GL4 lubrication standard. (You might think this is not that thrilling but, after two days of hunting, this oil seemed like fine champagne)

Finally, we headed out from Drummondville at 3:30 on Wednesday afternoon. First, a quick stop to return the POS rental car that had developed a concerning shudder in every gear. Then full commitment to the road. …or maybe, let’s just quickly check to see if that box full of cold weather gear is stuck at the local freight terminal.

JACKPOT! Long-Johns and winter coats for everyone! We might just survive the plunging mercury. We hit the Highway to the roar of our fixed blade radiator fan and an unexplainable blast of cold air from under the dash. We laughed at our ‘turtlesque’ velocities and shouted conversation at each other while doing our best to minimize the wandering steering.

It wasn’t long before we realized the wiper blades were begging to be retired. Canadian Tire to the rescue. New wipers in, and a bucket of used oil into the recycling.

Across the street for gas and late late-night Subway we had our first c303 super-fan experience. A very excited gentleman leaped into our cab as we were refueling and demanded to go for a spin. He vigorously shared a ton of slightly questionable knowledge about our “Hummer” and was clad in a reflective safety-vest and a single oven-mitt. In any case, I needed someone to hold the flashlight as I checked the oil, so I put him to work and looked to see if there was a full moon.

Again, we launched into the night, and again we weathered the blast of winter air and drone of the fan. As we forged into small town Ontario, the temperatures began to fall. By morning the Co-Pilot position required being bundled in full winter gear and stuffed inside a sleeping bag.

In the back, the c303’s blast-furnace heater had become a life-saving device for defrosting after a shift as driver and navigator. The front seats of the c303 were a torture chamber and the outside temperature was only -3C. Ahead lay Thunder Bay and -13C.

Freezing to death in the C303

By the end of my driving shift I was dreading my rotation as co-pilot. Despite my best efforts I was already chilled to the bone. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that a Swedish military truck should know how to deal with cold. IT’S COLD IN SWEDEN. Frozen soldiers could not possibly be the plan.

During the gas stop, (which is when we swap drivers, since they happen like clockwork ever 2.5 hours or 250km) I dug into the dash. The first panel I pulled revealed the problem. A massive 4X6” hole directly over the radiator. We needed to block it NOW! As we began to formulate a plan, Shawn suddenly leaps from the rear (defrosting zone) and begins to dig through the box of parts that had been provided with the truck. In moments, he has a small green plate and 4 screws.

Apparently, at some point, the previous owner had removed this panel to check on the radiator and not replaced it. During our launch preparations Shawn had grabbed it from a workbench with the assumption that it matched the colour of our truck and therefore must have a home. We very nearly left it behind, he informed us.

After a night lacking sleep and freezing to death, my enthusiasm for this panel was bordering madness. (see the video of my reaction) …strong language.

Part: the second

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