Swedish Angle Iron (Part One)

Remembering the controversially styled Volvo 700 series.

Image: media.volvocars.com

The Volvo 100/200 series was an extraordinarily successful and enduring automobile. Careful nurturing and progressive development of the model enabled it to remain in production for over twenty-seven years, during which time it built up a loyal band of owners for whom no other car offered the same combination of practicality, durability and passive safety. Over its lifetime, a total of 4,125,325 cars found buyers, making it by far the most successful model in Volvo’s history.

By the late 1970’s however, Volvo realised that the architecture underpinning the 200 series was becoming somewhat outdated. Although launched in 1974, the 200 series was not an all-new model but a heavy makeover of the 1966 100 series. It was still more than acceptable for buyers who appreciated Volvo’s traditional strengths, but the company had ambitions to extend its range upmarket and realised that it needed something more modern and sophisticated to attract the sort of buyer demographic it sought.

The new model (incorrectly dubbed 400 series by the motoring press) was first revealed in spy photographs of it hot-weather testing in the Arizona desert in late 1981. First impressions were rather mixed, to say the least. It was a rigorously geometric and square-cut design, defined by sharp creases and an apparent lack of curvature in the body panels(1). The estate was notable for its capacity-maximising vertical tailgate, a feature carried over from the 200 series, but the saloon’s most controversial feature was undoubtedly the uncomfortably steep angle of the rear screen. The awkwardness of this detail was exacerbated by a diagonal piece of bright trim across the base of the D-pillar(2).

The appearance of the saloon was not dissimilar to a number of contemporary American sedans that also featured similarly geometric lines, and the upright rear window was a popular design trope at the time. Given that the United States was Volvo’s largest market, it was hardly surprising that the new model was styled primarily to appeal to American tastes. It was designed by Jan Wilsgaard, the long-serving Director of Volvo’s Design and Styling team. The drag coefficient was a then respectable but not outstanding 0.39 to 0.40.

The car was formally unveiled as the upmarket 760 GLE saloon in Sweden in February 1982, then launched a couple of months later on the US market as a 1983 model. It was a direct replacement for the six-cylinder 264 saloon, while the four-cylinder 240 series cars would continue in production. Car Magazine featured the 760 in its May 1982 issue and was not complimentary about its appearance, describing it as “heavy, angular and rather tank-like, especially in pictures.” The magazine did, however, concede that “it looks better on the road [and] drives impressively.”

The 760 was a noticeably roomier car than the 200 series. The wheelbase was increased by 121mm (4¾”) to 2,770mm (109”), improving both front and rear legroom. The car’s width increased by 30mm (1¼”) to 1,750mm (69”) which, combined with the deletion of the 200 series’ waist-level DLO instep, significantly improved cabin width at shoulder level. The 760’s overall length was, however, reduced by 23mm (1”) compared to the 200 series, thanks mainly to its more closely integrated bumpers.

Image: media.volvocars.com

The mechanical specification was essentially an update on the 200 series. The 760 was a front-engined RWD car powered by a range of engines comprising the 2.85-litre 156bhp (116kW) PRV V6 petrol unit carried over from the 264, a 2.3-litre 173bhp (129kW) turbocharged and intercooled version of Volvo’s own inline-four engine, and a 2.4-litre 110bhp (82kW) inline-six turbodiesel engine sourced from Volkswagen(3). The four-cylinder petrol engine was the pick of the bunch, giving a claimed 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 8.5 seconds and a top speed in excess of 120mph (194km/h).

Transmission was via a three-speed automatic or four-speed manual gearbox. Unusually, both were fitted with overdrive to improve fuel consumption and Volvo claimed a 10% reduction for the manual and 20% for the automatic. The live rear axle was now attached to a flexibly-mounted separate subframe to improve refinement and Volvo claimed this was now on a par with a fully-independent set-up.

Image: media.volvocars.com

The interior was very much in the Volvo tradition, with comfortable seats and large clear instrumentation. However, the centre console was now angled towards the driver and this, together with a smaller steering wheel than on the 200 series, created an almost BMW-like sporting environment.

Car Magazine pitched the Volvo 760 GLE in 2.85-litre V6 automatic form against two European rivals, the Ford Granada Ghia 2.8i X and Peugeot 604 STI, in a road test published in the April 1983 issue of the magazine. The Volvo’s styling was described as “very American orientated” and “gawky at first sight” but “can grow on one.” Being the newest design, the kerb weight of the 760 was, at 2,933 lbs (1,333kg) the lightest of the trio and this together with its greater power and torque gave it a slight performance advantage. 0 to 60mph (97km/h) was measured at 10.3 seconds, versus 10.9 seconds for the Ford and 11.5 seconds for the Peugeot. Top speeds were 115, 113 and 110mph (185, 182, and 177km/h) respectively.

The Volvo had the most predictable handling in all conditions. It “always understeers gently, is easy to balance and the limit is ultimately set by tyre grip.” The brakes were described as “superb” with “pressures…light, response progressive and balance excellent.” The Volvo driver’s seat also “feels the best for long-term comfort” although it was “woefully lacking in thigh clearance beneath the wheel rim.” While the Peugeot had the best ride of the trio, Volvo had made “the best possible job of their live axle [subframe location] with a “notable advantage from the use of self-levelling struts at the rear.”

Image: media.volvocars.com

Regarding suppression of road noise, the Volvo was “almost up to Peugeot 604 standard, and certainly better than the Granada. The quality of the transmission, plus its long-travel but smooth and progressive pedals, make the Volvo a very easy car to drive smoothly.” It “offers the fewest instruments and gadgets, though what dials it has are beautifully clear and free from reflections.” Overall, the Volvo was adjudged the winner of the test on its all-round competence and appeal, despite looks that “still put us off.”

Notwithstanding the reservations concerning the 760 saloon’s boxy and rectilinear appearance, sales got off to a respectable start and around 33,000 found buyers in the car’s first full year of production. The 760 saloon was, of course, just the first of a range of models that would grow to include a very practical and capacious estate car and a range-topping coupé.

The Volvo 700/900 story continues in Part Two shortly.

(1) There was, of course, some curvature in the bodysides, but this was visually overwhelmed by the razor-sharp horizontal creases along the flanks.

(2) Presumably this was covering a joint between the rear quarter panel and the roof but it seemed to be an unforced error as the joint could readily have been moved upwards and concealed by the rain gutter at the top of the D-pillar.

(3) Not all engines were available in all markets when the 760 GLE was launched.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

43 thoughts on “Swedish Angle Iron (Part One)”

  1. Thank you for the refreshment, and specifically for the machine. An instant classic, and to this date the 740 is still a wish list for my dream garage…

  2. The 760 was the beginning of an era of Volvos shouting ‘US export’ form every inch and pore that lasted until the 850.
    I remember that Volvo boasted of being the most profitable car manufacturer world wide and they introduced new methods of work like self organised group work without physical production lines where cars were pushed around from one group to the next.
    As a result quality took a severe nose dive and cars suffered from ill fitting body parts, inacceptable panel gaps, rattles all over the place and many gremlins more that undermined Volvo’s quality image.

  3. The 760 has undoubtedly qualities in the area of passive safety and seat comfort, but I don’t think I could live with a live rear axle in a car at this price point. The styling is largely absent in my eyes. I’ll pass.

    1. Volvo always claimed they were using live axles because they gave better traction in Scandinavian weather because they kept the wheels perpendicular to the road. That’s why they even designed an IRS for the 850 that nearly behaved as closely to a beam axle as possible.
      To most Volvo owners the type of rear axle was irrelevant anyway because of the way they drove their cars.
      That axle and the Lego/brick non-design with that ugly rear window combined with the overly US-style interior made these Volvos completely uninteresting for me.
      I could pay some respect to the 1xx/2xx but not the 7xx/9xx.

    1. But rather better resolved than the Volvo, especially around the D-pillar.

    2. The Mazda looks better than the Volvo because its C post and rear window are less upright by a couple of degrees. That makes it look less like a brick.

    3. I think the Volvo looks much more stylish than the Mazda. The third window on the 929 is a bit too big and awkwardly shaped and Volvo has overal better proportions and detailing. Just my opinion 🙂

    4. Volvotips website, apart from some stories about Volvo´s financial troubles over the 700 series development, has some interesting pictures, like this early prototype:

      So the definitive 760 could have been worse…

    5. That’s a little bit unfair. It’s called an early prototype for a reason. Nobody working on that clay model thought that was gonna be the end product down the line. They were simply trying out different paths, and they tried this and went another way. For a reason. But you can already see it’s a 700-car and not just an extension of the 200-series design language.

    6. I rather like the 929 (but I am partial to boxy designs). It might have benefitted from a slightly wider D pillar (like the Volvo has):

      Original for comparson:

      I’ve always been ambivalent about the 700 series: on the one hand it really was a bit too heavy-looking for me (verging on under-wheeled even, because of the track width); on the other hand a tiny, stubbornly independent marque got bonus point from me. I also like that the 700 isn’t overtly aggressive of overbearing like a BMW or Mercedes can be. The US inspired styling also added a measure of exotism to the thing, even more than its provenance from Sweden. It’s a car I would never aspire to own, but I can appreciate it when I see one (much like – certain – BMWs or Mercedeses, actually).

      That early Volvo prototype looks like it’s made from cardboard. I mean I understand financials were tight, but this is overkill (or is it underkill?). Right. I’ll get my coat.

    1. Gandini’s original design tool (thanks to the museum of wood and brick design)

  4. A very important car for Volvo, as provided their usually loyal customers to go upmarket without leaving the brand. Very succesful, too and probably making a good profit.

    The 700 was unsophisticated and it couldn´t care less about being a “driver´s car”, but it had a certain Scandinavian charm: straightforward, restrained and unpretentious (at least the cars were like that; another matter is if their drivers thought that owning a Volvo was in the same league as owning a Mercedes-Benz ).

    The 850 was a much better car, though.

    1. At least Mercedes thought that Volvo owners were in the same league as Mercedes owners.
      They took the 2xx dead serious as a competitor to the W123.

    2. Thanks Daniel, I liked the 850 article. I owned one, a very good car.

      In the ´80s, at least here in Spain, Volvo enjoyed a very good reputation for engineering and quality, almost rivaling Mercedes-Benz and BMW, but the fact is their cars mechanical spec was a bit basic and my father´s 940 fit and finish nothing special. Of course, Volvos were cheaper than Mercs.
      Except passive safety, I think the 700/900 series were overrated. Somehow, I don´t dislike them.

  5. I’ve said it before, I don’t think there was anything inherently wrong with the car itself, the problem was always the company’s delayed lead times due to lack of resources and funding. It would’ve been a front line contender in 1978 but already old hat in 1982. The same goes for practically every Volvo until the Ford era.

    Apparently, the aforementioned trim bit on the D-pillar was such a hot potatoe the final decision was moved up to CEO-level. The decision was between having an open seam or covering it up with a bit of trim where the former alternative would’ve demanded a lot of extra work in the form of hand sanding every single car until the seam was invisible. In the end, CEO P-G Gyllenhammar went with the beancounters and the trim bit has therefore colloquially been called “The P-G trim (bit)”.

    1. I posted a comment about this but it got eaten by the internet. The weld/sand alternative was costly and would/could have been a corrosion risk. Making it in one peice might have been prevented by the limits to the size of the steel blank. The problem has since been solved and I am not sure how. You never see a seam on a C-pillar (until recently – they are back on C-class cars with Opel leading the way with its chrome embellishment.
      The 700 series defied the styling critics and sold pretty well. It´s less strange than the “formal” saloons GM turned out at the time. In every way it´s better finished too. Wilsgaard´s record is impressive in how he oversaw cars of such wildly different styles. I think the 760 is my favourite but he nurtured the 200 well and the 900 facelift is decent (though not my cup of tea). You still see 740s but you almost never see its Granada or 604 peers.

    2. The problem has been solved very simply by making the whole side of a car in one piece.
      This also eliminates unwanted tolerances and chances for error and speeds up production no end.

      As an example the whole main bodywork (from the bulkhead to the rear) of an A class is made from six large pressings.
      Pressing such large panels wasn’t possible at the time the 760 was developed.

  6. I couldn’t understand what Volvo were doing producing this style of car at the time and I had the same reaction to the Renault 9. This was the ‘aero-eighties’ – hadn’t they got the memo?

    I find it odd that Volvo and many US cars seemed to get even squarer and more upright, just as others were doing the opposite.

    Despite all that, I’ve grown to like them and they carved their own niche (typical of Volvo). I recall this ad from the time, which I think is rather charming (Anthony Hopkins narrating?).

  7. The D pillar trim bit was on a few other European cars of this era, though usually better resolved.
    The XJ 40 Jaguar had it as well, and it also looked terrible.

    1. Interestingly, the first generation Ford Granada had not? They went the extra way of hand welding and hand sanding the body seam between roof and sailpanel. I’ve always thought that was curious, seeing Ford was mass producing cars at a larger rate than any of those mentioned.

  8. I had a distant recollection of a possible reason for the flatness of the 700 series’ panels and that jarring piece of trim on the D-pillar. Here it is, from CAR June 1981:

    “What is not generally realised is that the car is about a year late for release; it has been held up because a deal over body pressings between Volvo and a supplier in Poland has taken extra time to set up. Some re-engineering of the new body has been necessary to adapt the design to what the supplier could produce, too.”

    Entirely plausible, given that Volvo’s truck bus and military vehicles had supply arrangements with countries behind the Iron Curtain.

    The mid-1981 SCOOP! pictures show a far neater C and D pillar arrangement:

  9. The white photo above appears to be a Toyota Cressida, not a Mazda 929.

    All of this ‘vertical backlight’ broohaha can be traced to the first generation Cadillac Seville and ‘The Sheer Look.’ The Seville was an admirable departure for American stylists: Bauhaus and handsome. Reportedly when someone asked Bill Mitchell if he borrowed the nearly vertical backlight from the Volvo 164. “Hell no”, he replied, “if you’re going to rob something, rob a bank: we borrowed that from the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow!”

    I never had a problem with vertical backlights, until they became ubiquitous. GM used the vertical backlight long after it was interesting, unfortunately even on its rather ‘down-channel’ N bodies, the Oldsmobile Calais, Buick Summerset/Skylark, Pontiac Grand Am etc. Fortunately, the design element isn’t nearly so common, and Vert-back sedans are rare. When I see a 6th gen Buick Electra or Olds Ninety-Eight (1985-90), they come across as charmingly and handsome.

    But Cadillac did not make the Volvo mistake with its Seville. Initially the sedan was only available with a vinyl roof, ugh. But when Cadillac introduced a version without the vinyl roof, they had used hand labor to fill the body joint — making the steel top more expensive to manufacture than the vinyl roofed model.

    1. Hello PC Mast. The white car is actually a Mazda 929. Here it is from another angle, showing the Mazda badge on the boot lid:

    2. The Cressida/Mark II X60 (4th gen, ’80-’84) was

      And the Cressida/Mark II X70 ( 5th gen, ’84-’88) was

      So as they say, close but no cigar.

    3. I think that the earlier Cressida is the better, cleaner design.

    4. I must beg to differ Daniel, the older one is one of the remnants of the brougham period, but with the next model, they leapt past Euro-norm, (Granada/Senator/SD1) levels and set them firmly on the path to Lexus. The difference in appearance, at first glance might not look much, but the flush side glass and far superior plastics give a clue that one drive confirms. The X70 is the vastly better car.

    5. Hi David. I’m sure you are correct that the later model was a considerable advance and my preference is based on something pretty superficial: I dislike the placement of the side-rubbing strip and the way it interacts with both the lights and wheel arches. It almost looks like an aftermarket addition. The earlier car, with its side-rubbing strip aligned with the strip on the bumpers, looks much neater in my view. As I said, superficial! 😁

  10. As previous owner, I confirm that, it is a Mazda 929 a.k.a “Matsuda Luce” by Nihon-jin.

    I was operating Mazda 929 and Volvo 740 on daily basis while 760 was my wedding car and much later while working in Thailand I was provided a 960.
    Later in life I was gifted a 940 for life by a Japanese associate while earlier in my motoring life saw me attached to 1974 Volvo 164 (final edition), 1972 V164 and 1974 V144 (final edition)

    1. Out of curiosity I had a look at the values of 760s. Like many nice cars of the period, values are ascending so good ones are at 10,000 euros though some cheaper ones exist.

  11. The Volvo 740/760 is probably the only european car to suit the american spec sealed beam headlights better than the european ones.

    1. Hello TheNorwegian, and welcome to Driven To Write.

      The US specification twin rectangular lights certainly look more comfortable than they did on many European imports, and suit the rigidly angular lines of the 700 series:

    2. Thanks for welcoming me Daniel. I have been a long rime reader of driven to write, although I have not been very active in the comments.

      In my opinion the US-version looks better as the four headlight arrangement breaks up the surface. It also doesn’t have a piece of unpainted aluminium underneath as on the european cars, which looks a little unfinished to my eyes.

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