An epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo

| 11 Nov 2022
Classic & Sports Car – From sea to shining sea: a 10,000-mile Volvo adventure

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For as long as I can remember, my life has been ruled by cars: my first words after “mom” and “dad” were probably “1968 Mustang Fastback”.

Back then, I was brought up around the idea of making memories with cars: when I was a baby, my dad and I would spend Sunday afternoons driving to shows in our 1984 Volkswagen Westfalia, where we would be surrounded by old cars and the unmistakable smell of high-octane fuel.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
A 10,000-mile road trip in a classic Volvo 144S was 23-year-old Xavier Thériault’s answer to the post-pandemic blues

As I grew older, my affections turned to Japanese cars thanks to films such as The Fast and the Furious.

Every penny from my $8-an-hour part-time job at McDonald’s went towards my dream car: a Nissan 240SX.

A few days after my 16th birthday, I rounded up all my cash and bought one, but never got to drive it because the head gasket blew the day I got it – and that’s before I discovered the Swiss-cheese frame rails and the non-existent brakes.

Unfortunately, at that point my mechanical knowledge was virtually zero, but that would soon change.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
The Great Lakes provided a beautiful backdrop, but the Volvo was not best-suited to the rough terrain

You might think the purchase of the Nissan would be a lesson learned, but it only fuelled the fire and my next buy was a ‘track modified’ 1984 Volvo 240 – which essentially meant that it was unfit for the road.

It was on the stiffest set of badly installed coil-overs you could find, and fitted with a tired, fuel-injected B21 engine making 100bhp on a good day, but I loved it.

It was almost always broken, but when it wasn’t I was out cruising with friends or making another obnoxious modification.

For a high-school student, it was perfect: loud, way too low, and rusty in all the right places.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
The Volvo’s roof tent offered only minimal protection from the elements

Unfortunately, as I prepared to leave for university I needed something more practical: out went the Volvo, and in came an automatic 2004 Honda Civic.

I soon regretted that decision, but it wasn’t until my second year of university, in August 2020, that I dipped a toe into the classic world again.

I remember browsing the classified ads on my phone and landing on a dark-blue 1969 Volvo 144S.

I wasn’t looking for another Volvo, but they seemed to fall perfectly into my budget.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
The ever-changing scenery proved one of the real highlights for Thériault

The test drive went horribly, with the propshaft almost ripping a hole through the floor and the car refusing to idle once warm, so I left without making an offer.

A month later the vendor called me back and we settled on a 75% price reduction; I picked it up the following day.

The two-hour drive home to Moncton, New Brunswick, on Canada’s eastern coast, wasn’t entirely successful – my dad had to push-start me three times – but we made it back.

I spent a few weeks driving around town, but then the transmission let go and I parked the 144 under a tree in my parents’ backyard, where it would stay until April 2021.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Roadside repairs to the classic Volvo were a semi-regular occurrence

During the height of the pandemic, online classes brought with them a loss of motivation for me.

I was about to enter my final year as an architecture student, but I had nothing left to give. The world seemed to be at a standstill, and I felt no different.

I had an itch for adventure, but international travel was not an option due to the global lockdown.

Canada, however, was wide open, and it didn’t take long to concoct the road trip of a lifetime, something I’d dreamed of doing ever since watching the infamous Top Gear trio conquer some of the most dangerous roads in the world.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Fabricated components and makeshift parts became critical to making progress

I set my sights on the Arctic Ocean: Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories.

For that to happen, I’d need a reliable car I could count on in the most rugged terrain – and, most importantly, one I could fix myself. The rebuild began.

To make my vision happen, I ordered a ton of parts from Scandinavia, Europe and North America: new suspension, carb rebuild kits, a transmission rebuild kit…

I spent weeks in the garage plugging away, but in the process taught myself some important skills that no doubt saved me later on.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Thériault’s classic Volvo felt almost at home in the snowy conditions

On 4 July 2021, the day of my second vaccine (the key to entry in all provinces), I set off on my great adventure. I was 23 and beyond excited by the sense of total freedom.

My first destination was Peggy’s Cove, on the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, where I spent my inaugural night in the tent.

You don’t think about it at home, but sleeping out on your own, exposed to the elements, is pretty scary: you never know which animals could come out for a snack, but I lived to be scared another day.

That morning, I did the normal touristy things – visiting the Cove, taking some pictures – and also took the official ‘standing alongside the car’ departure photo.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
The hardy Volvo with the epic Rocky Mountains in the background

The first few days were uneventful – sleeping in truckers’ lots, driving a few hundred miles each day, and getting into the groove of the trip.

Some of the locations I had the pleasure of sleeping at introduced me to some interesting characters – it was fun, and eye-opening. By week two, I was making good progress: I didn’t have a timeline per se, but two months was my loose target.

At that point I was in Ontario, alongside a new friend called Frederico: a 45-year-old Italian retired rally driver, who loved going to the beach and lived out of his Civic without a worry in the world.

He was such a character, and one of the wisest men I ever met.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
The immense trip slaked Thériault’s thirst for a Top Gear-style automotive adventure

We stuck together for a few days in Wasaga Beach before parting ways, as I struck out into the hilly part of Ontario.

The scenery there was stunning and I had a fun time swimming in the Great Lakes, scarcely able to believe how clear the water was.

My car, on the other hand, didn’t love this terrain. In fact, it nearly died.

The heat had become a recurring issue, but it wasn’t anything that a few hours parked at the roadside couldn’t cure. The real problem was a slight vibration I felt through the driver’s seat.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Thériault’s self-taught engineering skills proved invaluable during his epic solo road trip

It started as a little tickle, but nearing Thunder Bay, on Lake Superior, there was no doubt in my mind that, whatever this thing was, it was getting worse.

I pulled over and jacked up the car, fearing the propshaft bushing.

At first it seemed fine, but then I saw it: a huge chip in the propshaft. Big trouble.

Vibrating like a jackhammer, the car lumbered to the nearest town and for a moment I thought this might be the end. What were the odds of finding a replacement propshaft nearby?

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Repairs to the classic Volvo en route included a carb strip-down, an alternator swap plus a replacement propshaft

I tried posting on a few Facebook groups and, believe it or not, within an hour I got a call from a gentleman named Kevin who lived five blocks away and had the very part I needed. It was like winning the lottery.

The prop was still on his Amazon parts car, but he dived beneath and emerged shortly after with the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

We took it back to the Walmart parking lot and I was ready to go.

The following weeks progressed just like that: my car being the biggest hunk of junk, then meeting fantastic people and miraculously getting it back on the road each time.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
The classic Volvo 144S tackled the full spectrum of driving conditions on this 10,338-mile adventure

One of my fondest memories was when I took the 144S out on a gravel road in Saskatchewan.

Driving along with the sun going down over my shoulder, plumes of dust in my rear-view mirror and miles of cornfields ahead was amazing.

No doubt I paid the price later when that dust fried the alternator, but it was worth it.

On another occasion I drove 160 miles with my carburettors attached to the engine only by cable ties, and a water bottle doubling as a coolant overflow, but it all worked out.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
The stunning Northern Lights were interrupted only by the unsettling groans from nearby grizzly bears

By the time I made it to the mountains, the car had an alternator from a diesel generator fabricated in place, and a bastardised carburettor whose throttle would stick on as a kind of unwanted cruise control.

The Rockies were an adventure. Before that point I’d never seen a mountain in my life, and I shed a tear when I first witnessed them.

I spent my first night sleeping in a layby, where I met someone – now a good friend – who persuaded me to climb one of the surrounding peaks with him.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Reaching the sparsely populated territory of Yukon took almost a week of committed driving

It’s probably the closest I’ve come to death, sleeping at the top of Whistler Mountain in shorts and a T-shirt on the first day of snow. It was stunning, but we suffered for that view.

A few weeks later I found myself in Victoria, British Columbia, on the shores of the Pacific.

I didn’t stay there long, but made the most of it by reconnecting with a fellow adventurer I’d met in Ontario.

Yan, an entrepreneur in his mid-40s, was completing a bike ride across Canada – now that’s an accomplishment.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
With so few petrol stations, a tank of spare fuel was a must

All too soon I was back on the road, making my way north. On this stretch I didn’t muck around: it was starting to get really cold.

Although the weather wasn’t on my side, the scenery more than made up for it: empty roads, mountain ranges on each side and complete solitude.

Some sections were gravel for hundreds of miles, and fuel stations were few and far between.

Phone signal was also a scarce commodity, but that didn’t really bother me.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Driving through the permafrost in Canada’s Northwest Territories

Getting to Whitehorse, Yukon, took about a week of driving for eight hours every day.

I stayed in town for a few nights to gather some resources: canned foods, winter clothes, and three jugs of oil – by now the Volvo was leaking/burning a litre of the stuff every 100 miles.

On my final day, I did a quick mechanical inspection in another Walmart parking lot and set off for Dobson.

From there I reached the famous Dempster Highway, a 750-mile gravel road that features one filling station and nothing else. It doesn’t help that there are signs at the entrance stating that if you crash, no one will come looking for you.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Metalled roads became a rare treat for the Volvo 144S

I took my time, but soon I was deep in the snow and even deeper below zero.

The car was relishing every minute of it, me less so because the heater chose that moment to let go.

It was mountain ranges for as far as the eye could see, completely covered by snow, and valleys going on for hundreds of miles, utterly unobstructed by anything man-made. On this road, every day was an adventure.

The first night, I slept 200 miles from the nearest human, which was probably one of the most special experiences of my life, surrounded by this immense, untouched landscape.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Swapping fat alloys and low-profile tyres for a set of thinner steel wheels helped the Volvo plot a course through the snow

I wish I’d looked at the sky for a bit longer to enjoy the Northern Lights, but I was in my tent being scared again – this time with good reason.

The wind had picked up and was whipping at the canvas, and all night I heard all kinds of groans that I later identified as being grizzly bears. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep for one second.

Stopping for fuel the following day, it was amusing to see the reactions of the ice road truckers to the car – it must be one of the lowest vehicles to ever make it through there during the snowy months.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Thériault and his Volvo 144S would have struggled to complete the journey had it not been for the kindness of some generous strangers

I settled into a little local community, where I discovered that the rear passenger-side damper had dislodged during the drive.

Thankfully, my luck was in again because the only workshop within 300 miles in either direction was located just a few hundred metres from where I was sleeping.

I bought a few bolts and managed to get it sorted before midday.

I drove on to the Arctic Circle, but that wasn’t what I was here for: I did take some photos, but I was after the ocean, and that was getting close.

Classic & Sports Car – Retelling an epic Canadian adventure in a classic Volvo
Despite its slammed stance, the Volvo 144S coped remarkably well in the snow

Finally, on 9 October, I arrived at Tuktoyaktuk and the mighty Arctic Ocean. My trusty 144S had carried me 10,338 miles, to all three oceans of Canada, in just 98 days.

I stayed in Tuk for a few days; I was housed, fed traditional smoked fish, and even given a wolf’s tooth from a recent hunt.

To say that the trip was life-changing would be an understatement.

I made so many connections along the way, and proved to myself that I was capable of achieving anything I set my mind to, just like my faithful Volvo.

Words and images: Xavier Thériault


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