Light Fogging

Dirty Great Volvos: Part Two – the 780 ES.

Image: carpixel

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.

Jan Wilsgaard’s proposed 780 styling prototype. (c) Volvotips

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.

Volvo 780ES. Image: petrolblog

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.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

29 thoughts on “Light Fogging”

  1. Good morning Andrew. The 780 is, to my eyes, a very handsome design and it is fascinating to read about the thoroughness of its development, nicely captured in your anecdote concerning the attention required to the elm wood door inserts.

    The elegant ‘formal coupé’ is all but defunct and the automotive landscape is poorer without it. Here’s a superlative example of the breed:

    And this what we are now offered in its place:

    1. Thank you Andrew – very interesting – fascinating the inside story on cow-hide fogging and safe wood veneer deformation – concerns you would never have considered would be part of the design process.

      Daniel – beautiful pics of the C124 -> I think quite possibly my favourite Mercedes-Benz design of all, together with the original R129 SL, which design-wise is closely related. I don’t believe they’ve designed anything better since.

  2. Ah, the 780ES. Pronounced ‘koop’, obviously.

    I am kind of nostalgic for these American-influenced two door sedans. As Daniel says, they are a dying breed… be grateful that Mercedes still makes any (the S-class two door has already gone, and I fear the E and C won’t be replaced).

  3. Apparently Volvo gave one of these to Irv Gordon when his P1800 reached one million miles – somehow he put 450k miles on that while continuing to add miles to the P1800. A good advertisement for both cars! There doesn’t seem to be much information on the current status of his P1800 since his death, beyond a couple of articles that hint that his daughter now owns it.

    (is the bonnet misaligned on that modern Benz coupe, or is it meant to look like that around the headlamp?)

    1. Hi Tom. Mercedes-Benz has long since stopped worrying about achieving consistent and visually pleasing shut-lines. Gorden (sic) and his acolytes are far too preoccupied with weightier matters like achieving ‘sensual purity’.

  4. One of my many very tiny claims to fame is having sat in one of these beasts. These are quite simply a Swedish interpretation of GM´s mid-size personal car best exemplified by the mid 80s Buick Electra coupes and Olds 98 Regency Brougham coupe. For rarity, the Volvo wins. And it looks superb as well. Is the final outright performance even important for this kind of car? It´s meant for touring and daily chores where one person is the main user and all they have to do is put shopping in the boot.
    For a very rarified Giant Test one could match the Rover 800 coupe, Lancia Kappa coupe and Volvo 780ES and of course the Honda Legend coupe from the same (ish) period. I wonder just how difficult that would be to arrange?
    There are 4 780s for sale on and none cost less than 16,000 euros. There is one for sale in Denmark for less.

    1. Just need to add a Subaru SVX to that giant test, maybe a Toyota Soarer too. Good times.

  5. The excellent reputation of Bertone’s Grugliasco factory allegedly was among the reasons why FCA chose those facilities over others that were ‘available’ at the time for its new Stabilimenti Maserati. I assume the lessons learned during their cooperation with Volvo (and others) helped build up the kind of know-how such a reputation is founded upon.

    Andrew, may I ask you for your source regarding the information that the Volvo was done in clay? Bertone usually worked using plaster, so if the Volvo was indeed created using clay, either freelance Turinese craftsmen or possibly even Swedish hands might’ve been involved, which would add to the exceeding complexity of this model’s development process.

    1. Yes, and it looked like it had a DTW-friendly ashtray. There is also a nice detail in the door pillar, which looks like it’s to open the bonnet and fuel filler with the key if the battery is flat (5th row, 1st photo). The climate control looks simple enough – just one slider and maybe a thumbwheel to its left. Is it quite unusual spec – a little early for a diesel coupe, and on the late side to have a 4-speed manual gearbox with overdrive unit?

      Certainly interesting, and probably a better proposition than a Capri (for instance) would be for the same price, and rarer with it.

    2. Oh dear, it’s disappointingly ‘worn’ looking, even for its mileage. Good luck trying to find a replacement for the broken front indicator lens and scuffed rubber bumper inserts. Is that really a spot of rust that has been touched in under the rear light cluster?

      Somewhat naively, I had assumed that all surviving 780 would be cherished examples. Apparently, not!

    3. Not actually too pricey: Looks like they also sell the bumper rubbers for about 260Euro for each end.
      In fact, spares availability on that site seems pretty good for an uncommon car! Possibly the seller could do with having a look? A period radio, and a cigarette lighter (or plug) would improve things inside. If okay mechanically, and not hiding rust, it could be worth a punt for someone.

    4. Wow, I’m amazed that anyone would still hold such an obscure part in stock. I thought it would be quite a hunt. Well found, Tom.

  6. Hi Andrew. I wonder if modern manufacturers spend so much time on details these days, ie, correct seating foam, vapours from soft leather, the splintering of wooden trim etc and the longevity of a petrol flap, amazing. As you know, I drooled over a very nice 780 at Essen several years ago, I think they are beautiful. I do like 2 door coupes and I’m on my 3rd Mercedes Coupe now. If the right one came up in the U.K. for sale, I’d gladly swap allegiance. They don’t come up for sake here that often sadly. They were never officially imported into the U.K. which I think was a missed opportunity. Probably because of the cost and the slow sales of its predecessor, the 262C. I had a 760 for several years, probably the best car I’ve ever owned, (45+) at the last count, and think it looks much nicer than the 262. I never felt it underpowered for U.K. roads.

    1. There was the 480ES, a much smaller coupe. The 780 was only ever offered in LHD, but there are probably a small number that have been imported.

  7. I think the white prototype looks ugly.
    The front is pure Eighties US and could be from a Chrysler K body car.
    Could it be that Bertone stole the non-feature of a differently coloured strip between bonnet and windscreen from that car for the XM?

    Fifty hours for building such a car sounds impressive until you know that Saab needed more than seventy to make a 999/900.

  8. I suffer from a mild perversion that manifests itself in mentally reimagining formal coupés such as these as four-doors. In my mind’s eye at least, they are perfect, but often when realised, they are never as good as imagined – yes Fiat 130 Opera, I’m looking at you. (Although the Gamma version was a good deal more successful) A four-door version of the 780 might have made for a nice update to the rather abrupt looking 740/760 saloon roofline, which never quite worked for me – a matter the 900 series didn’t quite answer either.

  9. I think it’s very tasteful – elegant, even – especially in red. For me, though, it lacks the drama a coupé should have – for example the P1800.

  10. Well I guess I might be the only one here to have actually owned one, based as I am out on the west coast of Canada where, though far from plentiful, there are at least a dozen or so in active service. Mine was an ’88 with the PRV V6 and was in relatively good shape for its age, perhaps testament to the mild climate and lack of road salt used out here. The engine was coarse and gutless and it’s widely accepted that the Volvo 4-cylinder turbo unit was far superior in both performance and reliability.

    An interesting feature was the “mechanical” self-leveling rear suspension; it required you to drive a few yards over uneven ground to pump itself up and level out. A more frustrating design was that of the release for the front seat backs, employing a complex arrangement of Bowden cables to operate an otherwise orthodox release mechanism.

    I bought mine around 8 years ago for the princely sum of $1,300CAD mostly out of curiosity, being British and acknowledging the likelihood of finding one in the Motherland to be slim. I kept it for a year or so and passed it on to a Polish gentleman who intended to fully correct its tired paint. If anything my ownership of it inspired an ongoing interest in “collecting” more obscure European cars that survive here due to the agreeable conditions and that haven’t quite increased to the value they have achieved in Europe and the UK.

  11. Hi Richard,

    It may have been to a certain extent a result of age, but to drive it felt like the motor was overcoming an internal resistance far greater than one would expect of a 2.8l V6, accompanied by a lifeless exhaust note. A little lacking in torque perhaps? Of course, you could wind it up to 120km/h without drama but I think it would have benefited from having been given the later Volvo straight-six. I’m not sure the PRV engine is particularly well-regarded in any application?

    1. No, it´s not. And it was so long lived too. I tried on in a Peugeot 604. It felt fine and no more than that. And also I tried it in a Citroen XM where it felt less enthusiastic than the 4 cylinder that was sold at the same time. It sounded good though!

    2. One place the engine does reasonably well is in the Alpine A310 V6, GTA and A610 (and assorted MVS / Venturi) in both NA and turbo guises.

    3. I tried this engine briefly in a 605 SV 3.0 with a manual gearbox. The car was almost brand new at the time and belonged to the owner of the local Peugeot dealership. The engine seemed fine to me, to be honest.

  12. Another issue with the PRV here on the other side of The Pond is parts availability. Other than the Delorean and a handful of Volvos there just isn’t the stock of used parts that make it easy to keep going. The 4-cylinder unit is much better catered for.

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