Dirty Great Volvos: Part Two – the 780 ES.
The success of the Bertone and Volvo partnership bred goodwill, long term relationships being established between manufacturer and carrozzeria, which maintained their longevity, thirty-plus years from their labours – enough to tip the scales in favour of a second attempt.
Once the final 262C had trundled off the forecourt early in 1981, the new project coupé was planned under the P202 code number. Lengthy concept briefings took place in both countries over a period of three years, the Torinese producing some typically flamboyant early renders.
Imagine the reaction. Nuccio Bertone himself being informed the initial drawings were “too aggressive.” Paolo Caccamo, Bertone chairman states, “Three designs were drawn. One too similar to the 760, one too sporting, the final of the scissor designs a compromise that both parties were happy with. It may not be innovative but it is elegant.” A further development saw the Italians enlarging their factory by a not insubstantial 200,000 square feet in anticipation.
Sven-Gunnar Johannson, Volvo’s engineering project manager, joined the fray sometime after designer, Wilsgaard had drawn up some initial sketches. Working closely with Bertone’s project manager, Mario Panizza, the process began to smoothen out, although certain details still rankled. The Swedes were sticklers for ultimate quality, seat foam that deformed “all too easily” led to protracted searches for better materials.
The seatbelt pre-tensioners, vital to Volvo’s safety programme, contained dynamite; the Italians stored these explosives in the endearingly termed Sal Della Dynamite. As to the seats, two diversions occurred. The first, the motorised seat mechanism was deemed obstructive, Johannson using a Gothenburg-Turin flight to doodle a solution à la napkin.
Next came the cabin material covering, all 220 square feet per car. For seats described as “enveloping the driver”, a hard and dry leather was not conducive to comfort. Then again, too soft could induce the fogging index – fumes from overly soft and supple cow-hide could fog-up windows on hot days.
Trials were carried out down under, alongside Gothenburg workshop based specialist equipment to ascertain if temperatures over 107 degrees C caused any fogging, discolouration or cracking. The Achilles heel being the glue used between fabric and panel but with no time for another Australian endeavour due to the imminent product launch, a swifter solution was deemed necessary.
Johannson had a test hack 760 all but stripped then loaded to the gunwhales with freshly glued panels. Two Volvo employees were then tasked to drive from non stop Turin-Gothenburg. The test proved positive, the employees became heroes of the day, being allowed home for the weekend in prototype 780s.
Bertone’s Reparto Sperimentale, (experimental workshop), assiduously busy with all manner of prototypes, employed skilled artisans who could easily have become exasperated by the ever watchful Swedish eyes. The elm wood door trim proving another bone of contention – seven layers were found to splinter in a crash situation. Experiments found weaving steel in to the wooden layers, whilst keeping the wood grain would deform satisfactorily.
Finally, to the bodywork. The Reparto Regazzi translated those final drawings into full size clay models, which in turn, were turned into the moulds prior to production, requiring only minor tweaking for the eventual five year build. The carrozzeria was split into three distinct areas for production. A, initial body fabrication: Bertone’s artisans were more than skilled in hand forming or welding; traditional skills handed down, but not when Volvo is in town. The Swedes demanded single panels – sans welding, which would have compromised the zinc rust proofing. Bertone had to learn on the job.
B, the paint shop: one car leaked its battery, spoiling part of the engine bay and some external panelling. Bertone ordered the car destroyed, now understanding the Swedish fully. Hall C, final assembly area for interiors, trim, glass, etc where extraordinary amounts of time were swallowed up. One example being the fuel filler flap. An (Italian) estimate was put forward that over its life the car will do 18mpg – the owner(s) filling up 5,000 times. Horrified, Johannson ordered the flap be tested for 20,000 uses to “ensure Volvo quality.” The flap was subsequently re-engineered.
Fortunate journalists given access to such areas remarked that this was no typical Italian workshop where workers would normally be sitting around smoking or playing cards with rally car posters on the wall. “It’s quite dull really; clean, efficient with all the care and attention señor Bertone would expect.” The Italian’s have a phrase, La Bella Figura – the beautiful figure which compliments the operation to a tee.
Add in Swedish expectations of quality and it’s easy to see why each coupé took fifty two hours to knit together, daily totals were between nine and twelve made. And you thought the X1-9 at thirty hours was too long a build time… Initial expectations were put at thirty cars built per day.
Volvo, overseeing testing and development would again ship parts Turin bound for assembly. Approximately 80% of the floorpan, all mechanicals and air con were Volvo supplied, the remainder being Bertone-sourced, alongside their subcontractors.
March 4th 1985 saw the 780 coupé launch at the Palexpo, Geneva with full production starting in September that year. Rather sadly the final car rolled from the Grugliasio facility on December 7th 1990. In total 8,518 were made, the United States taking the lion’s share at some 5,700. Many of the protagonists involved rate the 780 as a career highlight.
The coupé was always a difficult step child even with all Volvo’s built in standards combined with Bertone’s design flair. Residing in the $40,000 price bracket cornered sales to those already knowledgeable of the Swedish brand. Hampered by tepid engines, those Leaping Cats and Germans surged ahead. Plans for a 1992 upgrade of power train and interior remained on the drawing board.
But for one, literal last hurrah dealt with in part three.