The Volvo 300 series is a rear wheel drive automobile sold as both a hatchback and (later) a conventional saloon from 1976-1991. It was launched in the Netherlands shortly after Volvo acquired a major stake in the passenger car division of DAF in 1973. The series consisted of the Volvo 340 (initially badged as the 343/345) and the later Volvo 360.
The 300 series was unusual in having the gearbox mounted over the rear axle (which was of the De Dion tube type), with the 2 liter models having the driveshaftenclosed in a "torque tube". The rear-mounted gearbox helped with weight distribution but resulted in an unusually large transmission tunnel, especially by comparison with then-contemporary front wheel drive competitors such as the Mk. III Ford Escort and the Opel Kadett E/Mk. II Vauxhall Astra.
Overall, the 300 series was considered heavy and unrewarding to drive but reliable and safe by the standards of its day. However, early 360GLT versions were well regarded by more enthusiastic drivers, with the unusual gearbox location ensuring good weight distribution and unusually good balance and traction.
After building a series of compact cars, DAF sought a partner to bring its new larger model, codenamed P900 and intended to become the DAF 77, to market in 1970. Several manufacturers were approached, including Audi, BMW, and Volvo. Volvo was not originally interested due to the cost, but they were later persuaded by DAF's access to Renault engines. This helped Volvo expand its model line-up without the large expenditures associated with developing a new model. Building cars in the Netherlands also helped the Swedish Volvo to access the markets of the EEC, of which Sweden was then not yet a member.
Volvo purchased a one-third share in DAF in 1973, increasing to a three-quarters stake in 1975; the DAF company's name was changed to Volvo Car BV that year. Free of its passenger car division, DAF's commercial vehicle division, DAF Trucks, still operates today.
The Volvo 343 was introduced in 1976. DAF had already begun development of this car as a replacement for the Volvo (previously DAF) 66. It was fitted with a 1.4 litre Renault engine in the front and DAF's radical Variomatic continuously variable transmission unusually mounted in the rear, helping weight distribution. To add to the appeal of the car, Volvo adapted the M45 manual transmission from the 200 series to fit in place of the CVT, and was sold alongside the CVT models from 1979. A five-door model, the 345, was added in 1980. In around 1980 also larger wrap around bumpers were introduced. 1981 saw the addition of an additional engine option, the Volvo designed B19, only available with the manual transmission. A revised bonnet, grille and front lamp arrangement and slightly different wings signalled a facelift in 1981, which also gave the car a new dashboard and revised interior.The third digit designating the number of doors was dropped from model designations in 1983. The 360 arrived that year with two 2.0 litre engine choices, the 92 bhp (69 kW) B19A and the 115 bhp (86 kW) B19E, also from Volvo. This 2-litre 360 model was available in five-door and three-door hatchback form, with four-door saloon models added in 1984.
In around 1985 a further facelift was introduced. Amongst other small changes, (optionally body coloured) wrap-around bumpers with the indicator repeaters attached to them were fitted. Instrumentation changed from Smiths units to VDO. The older Volvo redblock engines in the 360 were upgraded to the low friction B200 unit. Capacities and outputs remained much the same. The carburettor version was designated B200K and the Bosch LE-Jet fuel injected version is known as the B200E.
From 1987 on, incremental improvements in features and emissions control were made. Production of the 300 series ended in 1991, despite the fact it was supposedly replaced by the Volvo 440 in 1987.
A famous advertisement for the 300 series in the late 1980s saw a crash test dummy "come alive", and drive a 340 out of a second floor factory window, nose-diving into the concrete ground.
The 300 Series had a choice of three petrol engines; a 1.4, 1.7, and a 2.0-litre. The 1.4 litre B14 was a Renault C-series OHV pushrod unit, and for the 360 there was the B200 2.0-litre engine taken from the Volvo 240 with outputs varying from 95 bhp (71 kW) to 112 bhp (84 kW). A new Renault F-series 80 bhp (60 kW) 1.7 litre petrol engine (designated the B172) was introduced in the 340 during the late 1984 range facelift, along with a 340 version of the saloon, which was only available with the new engine. A diesel engine for the 340 developing 55 bhp (41 kW), was only available in certain markets and was added to the 340 models in 1986. This diesel was a Renault F-series like the petrol 1.7, and was available with a 1.6 litre non-turbo engine only. These diesel models were never offered in the UK. However they were offered in right-hand drive form in Ireland. Volvo also experimented with LPG tanks, a feature of which was made available in 1979 with the Volvo 343 and 345 but they were limited in LPG availability.
Reputation and popularity
Like other Volvos, the 340 embodied many ground-breaking safety features which have since become standard on most cars.
While the car was fundamentally robust, the detail build quality was never up to the same standard of Volvo's larger, Swedish-built models, coupled to the fact that the early Variomatic cars proved to be particularly troublesome. The Volvo badge however ensured that the car had a strong middle-class following (often as a second car) particularly in the UK in the 1980s, regularly making that country's top annual 20 sales tables for that decade, and they are still fairly common in the UK 15 years after production ceased. They are robust and mechanically simple (and therefore easy to maintain). Even the unpopular Variomatic transmissions are reliable given proper care. The rust protection was poorer than other Volvos, but the engines (especially the 1.4 and 2.0s) were quite durable.
An unusual feature of the car's design is the geometry of the rear axle. Two degrees of negative camber on the rear de Dion axle produces a similar stabilising effect as the expensive and complex Weissach axle launched by Porsche a year after the launch of the Volvo 343. The inherent stability of this design made the car popular with caravan owners, being voted Tow Car of the Year in 1985.
The Renault-sourced 1.7 litre engine suffers from a well-known problem where the carburetor mounting flange warps due to engine heat, causing a small air leak and subsequent running problems. This is easy to fix, requiring minor machining of the mating faces.
The Volvo 300 has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years with a number of very active websites across Europe. A strong, young following has developed attracted by a rear wheel drive car which is very cheap to buy, insure and relatively easy to work on. In the UK, despite being unsuitable for professional drifting, many 300s (because of their low price) have found popularity amongst the amateur drifting community. Known as "trampdrifting," old bangers are modified to drift at a minimal cost and are discarded once they reach the end of their usefulness.
It featured among the top 10 most popular new cars in the UK in 1982, 1983 and 1984, and was one of the UK's most popular imported cars of the decade.
It was not sold in North America. The Volvo 360GLT only was introduced in Australia and New Zealand during 1984, and lasted until 1987.
There are a few variations of the Volvo 300 series that never made production:
The Volvo 340 estate and a convertible were both built as design studies, but neither was put into production. A van version was also considered. The van was essentially a five-door 340, but with both windows on the rear doors replaced with body-coloured metal and with the rear seats removed.
Another model of note was the 363 CS. Named either for 'Clubsport' or for 'Competition Services', to indicate a high-performance version, the 363 CS was based on the three-door bodyshell and fitted with the B27F 2.7 litre V6 PRV engine as used in the Volvo 260 series. The gearbox was a five-speed Alfa Romeo unit, as Volvo did not have a suitable design which would fit a transaxle-design. Again only a prototype, a small number were built (some say three, some say eleven, some say a single example) and were painted in metallic silver with black and orange 'Starsky and Hutch' - style stripes down both sides. Flared wheelarches and orange-painted, multi-spoke alloy wheels were also included to create a sporty look.
Top Gear co-host Jeremy Clarkson has a long hatred for the 340. In a 1992 episode as a preamble to a road test of the then-new Volvo 850, he has one destroyed in a scrap metal shredder. In another episode, he intentionally crashed one against a tree as he pointed out Volvo's reputation for safety.