Remembering the controversially styled Volvo 700 series.
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By the late 1970’s however, Volvo realised that the architecture underpinning the 200 series was becoming somewhat outdated.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.
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.
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.”
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.