We know this 1975 Volvo C303 is one of the best ways to get around impassable backcountry. But after spending a weekend fighting traffic, jumping curbs, and going grocery shopping with in NYC's five boroughs I'm telling you: it's almost too easy to daily drive.
(Disclosure: Cool car t-shirt company Blipshift let us borrow their rolling-billboard again because they're cool guys. And they knew a lot of people would see their logo if they let us take pictures of it.)
Tear up that garbage water!
To the uninitiated the C303 looks properly intimidating to stand next to, let alone drive. It's wearing warpaint for of godsakes! Climbing into the cockpit is borderline acrobatic, and once you're finally nestled in to the flybridge driver's seat... the controls are in Swedish. Good thing there aren't enough of them to really cause much concern.
But once the engine's warmed up and you're rolling, the truck is only a little harder to drive than a lifted Jeep with the rear window blocked off. As in any old car, you've got to give yourself long distances to stop (a factor that's exacerbated by this truck's particularly well-worn drum brakes), do a fair bit of rev-matching... and sort of never be in a hurry.
Top speed is 50 MPH, which you're constantly reminded of by a little sticker on the dashboard. Don't worry, you won't be tempted to press your luck further than that– between soft suspension and incredibly aggressive off-road tires the truck starts doing the P. Diddy shoulder-shake dance above New York's new city speed limit.
The clutch is a little on the heavy side, but you'll be seamlessly knocking the four-speed manual around as soon as you get a hang of the clutch engagement point. Once the transmission's good and warmed up... before that, moving the gearshift is like stirring molasses.
This is what New York City looks like. Trust me, you want an army truck.
As far as getting too hot, the truck's thermostat displayed a healthy 90º C all weekend. Seems like sitting in traffic is a lot easier on the cooling system than high-revving low-speed off-road rides.
So, there are a few "challenges"
Turning the steering wheel while the truck's stopped is like pulling up the anchor of a pirate ship (you know, with one of those giant wheels connected to the chain?) You're gonna break a sweat.
Climbing into the truck in jeans is a bit of a bear. Women in painted-on denim basically have no chance.
Switching lanes can be a little tough because about a quarter of the circumference 'round the truck is a blind spot. You can lean to get more out of the tiny mirrors, but at some point you pretty much have to just blink, slowly change lanes, and hope anybody in your kill zone will have the sense to yield to the blind-flying military vehicle.
Getting honked at by the humorless corporate slaves in Midtown Manhattan might make you feel bad if you're the sensitive type, but relax... you're the one in the war wagon.
What you'd think would be hard really isn't
With the aforementioned lack of rear visibility and difficult low-speed steering, parallel parking is a little tricky to get the hang of at first. But the turning radius beats just about everything on the road, and the truck's no longer than a modern Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. And with your seat ahead of the front wheels, you know exactly where the front of the truck is.
This is what driving in NYC looks like. Why do you people do this to yourselves?
The pathetic top speed hardly matters in New York, where the speed limit is now 25 MPH... enforced by traffic and stoplights that keep everybody below 30 most of the time anyway. As for getting up to a gallop on the Expressway, folks in a rush will just have to pass you.
The fuel filter's about the right size to keep out branches... so it's got that going for it, which is nice.
Since you can literally reach through the dashboard to the outside-air through gaping holes in the grille, you'd think you'd freeze your butt of driving this in November. Not to worry; the engine's under the armrest, which keeps the cabin nice and toasty in short order. And it runs on gasoline so it operates more-or-less odorlessly.
Your friends will love the cargo space, too... with seating for seven and about a container ship's worth of cargo space you can get more groceries than anyone's ever brought home in the history of the NYC.
Close to the C303's homeland as we could get within the city limits.
I can't tell you what kind of fuel economy we got, because the gas gauge just kind of wobbled like an inflatable tube man at a used car lot all weekend. And sure, you're going to need to look a little harder than AutoZone when you need parts. But if you want an army truck and are holding back because you don't think it could hack city life, let me allay your fears my friend and tell you to go for it.
Fuck this sign in particular.
What it comes down to is: if you're willing to dedicate just a few more braincells to driving than you normally do, you can get around one of the worst places to drive in America with relative ease.
As a bonus, your old army truck will make you lots of friends
The "oldness," "beatup-edness," and general irreverence of the thrice-painted and heavily battle-scarred C303 we drove outweighed the ostentatiousness of it's big tires and made it a big hit with everybody.
Pop a set of mud terrains that size on a modern pickup and everyone else is gonna think you're an asshole, but when you crawl around town in what is essentially a lifted party van just about everybody that notices you waves. The Volvo-branded inflatable crash-dummy sex-doll popping out of the window didn't hurt either.
Besides, everybody's gonna want your help to get furniture home to their apartments.
Here's the whole album of our urban off-road weekend, with special guest Raphael Orlove's Baja Bug. Enjoy:
Images by the author and Raphael Orlove