Fixing Karl’s butt, Part 1: Replacing the tailgate.

Or: How to use your camera phone to fix your Volvo.


The old tailgate. Zoom in to admire all the damage and rust.


The “new” tailgate before I scraped, melted, and dissolved all the stickers and badges.


Karl’s new butt! You’d never know it wasn’t the one he was born with. And yes, I will be putting the DIESEL emblem from the old tailgate onto the new one. That Karl is a diesel is quite a point of pride.

Last July, when Matt bought the big blue truck we call Bruce (after Bruce McCulloch), we went to one of the local “U-pick” junkyards to get him some new mirrors. (The ones that came with it were for hauling RVs and stuck out at least a foot farther than was necessary.) By astounding coincidence the yard also had a Volvo station wagon. That it was a wagon was shocking enough (these yards always have 240 series Volvos, but never have wagons), but it was also the same year and color as my beloved Karl. Matt talked me out of taking the chrome luggage rack (which I regret to this day even though I would never ever tie luggage to a luggage rack and just think they look hella rad) but he did help me detach the tailgate.

Karl’s tailgate has been one of the biggest troubles I’ve had with him since we adopted him. We have since discovered (thanks to a belatedly-acquired owner’s manual from eBay) that half of the issue was our own ignorance, but I still think that the Teenage Girls of Less-Than-Average Intelligence who owned Karl before me had, as usual, a lot to do with it. To sum up the issues: the tailgate wouldn’t latch for love nor money and we resorted to, I hate to admit, kicking it shut. Also one of the Teenage Girls of Less-Than-Average Intelligence was either rear ended or had backed into something at a high rate of speed because the tailgate and passenger side pillar beside it were crumpled and rusted. And finally, Volvo wagons of this vintage all share the same dumb design flaw: all the wires that power the various doodads in the tailgate (the wiper, the washer, the license plate lights, the defroster) run through the hinges. Yes, the hinges. What can any kindergartner tell you about bending a wire 3,000 times at a 90-degree angle? It snaps in half.

Yesterday I was inexplicably gripped by the need to suffer no longer the crappy tailgate. With my hair up, my vintage beads on, and still wearing my going-to-town clothes, I wandered into the driveway (ostensibly) just to see how hard it would be to switch out the locks. That part was wicked easy (the locks were held in by a simple retaining clip) and the project snowballed out of control from there. I never did change my clothes.

It turns out that, to a large extent, when you have a working part to reverse engineer you do not need a tutorial or a manual (neither of which I was able to find for this part of the project). You only need a camera phone. Stick that skinny little bad boy into the space you can hardly get your hand into and snap a picture. Voila! You now know how all that crap goes together.


Cell phone photo of the back of the lock, inside the door, showing how the latch mechanism is hooked up. This was after I popped off the retaining clip holding in the lock.

It took me four hours and a dozen cell phone photos but I got the locks, latches, and tailgates switched out 99% by myself. (The remaining 1% was split between two semi-retired neighbor fellas who, respectively, cut down an overlong bolt that was preventing the tailgate from adjusting correctly, and allowed me to try out approximately 300 small tools which I ended up not needing to use.) In all, the project used three screwdrivers, a small hammer, three sockets, needle nose pliers, and, when a bolt I didn’t need to save turned out to be completely inaccessible by any means known to man, a very small hacksaw. Oh – and a painting ladder to hold the tailgate up while I detached and reattached it.

The tailgate now latches easily when you shut it (you don’t have to slam or kick it) and it stays latched without having to be locked. (I whooped out loud when it worked the first time and got a lump in my throat when it continued to work flawlessly the next 6,000 times I tried it.) The only non-working (mechanical) feature now is the selector switch, which in one position should have allowed the latch to work as normal and in another would have made it so that the door cannot be opened from the inside. The “new” door was missing this part altogether and Matt and I had effectively destroyed the old one. I couldn’t figure out how to fix it and I didn’t really think I needed it, so I tossed it. If ever you find yourself in the cargo area of my car I guess you’ll just have to use one of the other four doors to get out.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Rewiring!

— Amanda


One thought on “Fixing Karl’s butt, Part 1: Replacing the tailgate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s