Swedish Angle Iron (Part Two)

Continuing the story of the Volvo 700/900 series.

Image: carinpicture

In the Spring of 1984, two years after the launch of the 760 GLE saloon, Volvo introduced its less luxurious sibling, the 740. Deliveries started later in the year, first in North America, then in Europe. The estate versions of both the 740 and 760 were launched in February 1985. They went on sale in North America in the summer, then in Europe in the autumn of that year. The market had by this time become used to the saloon’s angular looks, so the estate, shorn of the saloon’s controversial rear window, was generally regarded as rather smart, even handsome.

Oddly, for a company so concerned with safety, anti-lock braking was only available on the top of the range 760 GLE saloon, and not at all on the estate. Volvo’s explanation for this was that there was no room to house the bulky ABS control unit in the estate without compromising load space.

Car magazine tested the 700 series estate in November 1985. The reviewer thought that the estate might well attract “the sort that grimace at the saloon’s styling but rather like what Volvo stands for.” The pricing, from £10.8k to £17.5k, neatly slotted in above the 200 series estate’s £9.2k to £10.6k range, also giving existing Volvo owners an obvious choice for trading up.

The reviewer rated first impressions of the new estates highly: “It is the refinement that gives these new estates an instant appeal. Get them onto a motorway and straightaway you feel able to settle down in an environment of agreeable ease and well-being.” Road noise was “admirably low” and there was “just the barest whisper from the wind.” The “black-everything interior” was, however, “positively funerial” but was saved by the “low waistline” and “excellent climate-control” that was standard on the 760GLE.

The 156bhp (116kW) V6 automatic was “steady and smooth” but “not over-burdened with performance” while the 180bhp (134kW) turbo-four manual was “quick but not specially(sic) smooth.” The ride, however, was somewhat disappointing, being “joggly” and giving the impression that “the whole suspension is under-damped and too stiffly sprung.” The reviewer suggested that optional self-levelling suspension “should help tame things when the vehicle is fully laden.”

Open wide. Image: beaconcarsales.co.uk

The 700 series estate was commendably practical with its vertical tailgate that “opens to just about the full width / depth of the rear of the body.” A consequence of the car’s low waistline, however, was that the space beneath the optional roller blind to cover the load space was “curiously shallow(1).”

The reviewer concluded that “the stockbroker belt will reach out its collective heart to the 700 series estate and Volvo will be equally glad to reach out for the not inconsiderable sums necessary for acquisition.” And so it would prove to be the case.

In pursuit of its upmarket ambitions, Volvo unveiled a 700 series-based two-door coupé, dubbed 780, at the Geneva motor show in March 1985. Styled and built by Carrozzeria Bertone in Turin, the new coupé was a clean and elegantly styled car with a more classical profile and none of the awkwardness of the 700 saloon. The coupé’s front end was shallower and smoother than the saloon and estate’s.

Despite the similarity in appearance, there were no body panels shared between the coupé and saloon. Perhaps surprisingly, the coupé shared the saloon (and estate’s) 2,770mm (109”) wheelbase and 4,800mm (189”) overall length and was a mere 10mm (1/2”) lower, so was unusually spacious for such a car, and perfectly sized for the US market for which it was primarily intended.

Image: motortrend.com

The 780 went on sale in Europe in 1986 and in the US the following year. It was powered by the same range of engines as the 760 and was initially fitted with the same live rear axle. In 1987, it received a new four-link self-levelling independent rear suspension layout. As a hand-built car, the 780 was exclusive and expensive, intended to be primarily an image-builder for Volvo. It remained on sale for five years until 1991 and a total of just 8,518 were produced.

The 760 model was given a substantial overhaul in 1988, intended to distinguish it more strongly from the 740. The bodywork forward of the A-pillars was all-new. The pre-facelift car had a separate scuttle panel between the trailing edge of the bonnet and base of the windscreen, which contained the cabin air intake grille and exposed wiper arms. The facelifted model instead had a new, longer aluminium bonnet with an upswept trailing edge that partly concealed a new recessed scuttle panel and wiper arms.

Image: autoweek.nl

At the front, shallower headlamps with integral fog lights were flanked by new indicator / sidelamp units that wrapped further around into the front wings. These, together with body-coloured bumpers (with black rubber inserts) and door mirror cappings gave the front end a smoother and wider look. At the rear of the saloon, a red reflective number plate surround now connected the tail lights to give the appearance of a full-width light bar.

Inside, the 760 received a revised and more driver-orientated dashboard with an angled rather than rectangular instrument cowl and revised upholstery options.

More significantly, the 760 saloon received 780 coupé’s four-link independent rear suspension layout(2) intended to improve the car’s refinement and ride quality to match its upmarket competitors. The 760 remained on the market until the autumn of 1990 when it was replaced by the 960, a heavily revised car based on the 760, but with completely new bodywork aft of the C-pillars on the saloon. A lower-specification version dubbed the 940 was also launched at the same time.

Image: rac.co.uk

Notwithstanding the launch of the 940, the 740 remained in production and was updated in 1990. The front end received the shallower indicator / sidelamp units from the 760, albeit paired with narrower single rectangular headlamps, which required a body-coloured infill between them and the grille. The latter was black plastic with a chrome rim, rather than the more upmarket bright metal item fitted to the 760.

Unlike the facelifted 760, the 740 retained the separate scuttle panel and exposed wipers of the original model. Inside, the 740 received the revised dashboard from the 760. The 740 outlived the 760 by two years and remained in production until October 1992, although examples remained on sale for well over a further year.

Total production of the 700 Series over its ten-year production life were 1,239,363 units(3), broken down as follows:

Model: Years: Production:
740 Saloon 1984 to 1992 650,422
740 Estate 1985 to 1992 358,952
740 Total 1984 to 1992 1,009,374
760 Saloon 1982 to 1990 184,026
760 Estate 1985 to 1990 37,445
760 Total 1982 to 1990 221,471
780 Coupé 1985 to 1990 8,518
700 Series Total 1982 to 1992 1,239,363

This was an impressive total, but there was plenty of life left in the design, in the guise of the 900 series.

The series concludes with the Volvo 900 story in Part Three shortly.

(1) This was also a consequence of the separate rear suspension subframe necessitating a relatively high boot floor, flush with the top of the rear bumper.

(2) The estate retained the lighter live axle set-up in order not to compromise its maximum payload.

(3) Source: Volvo Car Corporation.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

27 thoughts on “Swedish Angle Iron (Part Two)”

  1. It always surprised me the lack of height in the SW boot (from floor to the roller blind). I suppose that in Sweden and the US you could leave your stuff exposed without problems, but in a lot of countries that´s an big attraction for thieves.

    I think the 780 is a very handsome car, however in Spain it cost almost the same as a M635 CSi. I know which I would buy…

    1. Hi b234r. Your reply to your own question is perfectly enigmatic! I would by the Volvo, for its elegance, rarity value and lack of ‘sporting’ baggage. It would be the perfect car to drive down to Monte Carlo or Nice. Speaking of which…

    2. Why does the 780 make me think of this:

      I’m astonished by the sales numbers. I would have thought that many more people had bought the estate just to avoid the awful rear window of the saloon. Maybe that’s depending on the country.

    3. Lots and lots and lots of fleet sales in Sweden. The 740/940 was the preferred lease car in Sweden for those that got their leases paid as a company perk. Also the Swedish police force was a big buyer of the 700-series sedans, more so than the 850. Not until the XC70 you could see the 800-series used in any numbers. They loved their 700-series so much you could see them in police use well in to the 21st century.

    4. I thought the SW sold better than the saloon, too, at least the 740.
      But in Spain, in the ´80s and most of the ´90s, a big, luxury car with a SW body was a big no-no. A SW was something people associated with plumbers, painters and carpenters, with cars used as a work tool. Sales of Mercedes-Benz TEs, Audi 100 Avant or BMW E34 or E36s were poor. So it depends a lot on the country.

      Daniel, the 780 is nice (no pun intended), but the E24, and the M on top of that, well, is very nice.

    5. Interesting that you mention the lack of boot cover on the SW. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, most American station wagons lacked the cover too, so people resorted to creative ways to cover their holiday gear, like using a canvas sheet, or just throwing a couple of beach towels or an old bed sheet over their stuff.

      I would have chosen the M635 CSi as well… in a heartbeat!

    1. You’re very welcome, Faisal, and thank you for your kind words.

  2. “The “black-everything interior” was, however, “positively funerial” but was saved by the “low waistline” and “excellent climate-control” that was standard on the 760GLE.”
    The car reviewers hated just two things about car interiors: colourful ones and ones that were not colourful. It´s pretty exasperating to read this kind of thing.

    1. Maybe that is why interiors are so relentlessly grey now. I would love wine red velour in my next car…

  3. Thanks Daniel, I think this is one of those rare occasions where the facelift works better than the original. That new front looks much better to me than the original one.

    I’ve always liked the 780 very much, even if its front is just slightly awkward to me, as if the low, but very upright grille and headlamps can’t decide between being sleek and bluff. Or maybe I’d have liked the front and rear width to taper a bit more at the extremities. I do wonder how many of those 780 sales were actually in America.

    I was reminded of the Biturbo as well. No bad thing in my book.

    1. Hi Richard. Do you mean physically, or via Photoshop? I could probably manage the latter if you want.

  4. The problem of the 780 was its high price. It was very nearly twice from what I expected the MSRP would be. Still a vast improvement over the 262C. There is some Biturbo-ness to the 780, but overall the Biturbo is the nicer design me thinks.

    My only recollection of the Volvo 700 series was a drive from Helsinki to a small cabin in the woods some 200 kilometers north. It was in a 740 estate, with a 2.3 4 banger and a 5 speed transmission. I agree with the reviewer from Car magazine that the suspension was too stiff and underdamped. It was noisy as hell, but the car gave the impression it was (nearly) indestructible.

    1. I suppose that the sky-high price of the 780 (I looked at an old magazine price list again…it was as expensive as a W126 500 SE) was due to being built in Bertone. If Volvo had an adequate factory for the 780 (was it really so difficult?), surely the price would have been more reasonable, and 780 would have sold very well in US.
      And why a diesel version? Perhaps Volvo was contractually obliged with VW to buy a certain number of engines and they didn´t sold too many 740/760 diesels, so there were plenty of engines left and had to fit them anywhere.

  5. The design, especially the Coupé-design, works a lot better with bright colours than with dark colours.
    The Coupe for me has some DNA from the Maserati Biturbo and from the Talbot Tagora too.

    The interior of the 780 with those boxy headrests is very inviting !

    1. I can see the Tagora and Biturbo resemblances. However, I am reasonably confident that Volvo were not looking in those directions but more like the N American market and comparable large coupés from GM such as the Buick Electra and maybe Cadillac Seville.

  6. What a trip down memory lane, Daniel! Growing up my parents had two matching 740s, a black 1990 GLE sedan (with the somewhat ill-advised dealer-fit body kit) and a blue 1989 turbo (intercooled!) manual wagon. They were generally reliable, if somewhat petulant, and left us stranded on a myriad of occasions but easily racked up over 300k miles each by the end of their reign. The sedan eventually lost overdrive in its auto gearbox and the wagon had a shoddy radiator, among other faults. They sat around for years as I was deeply emotionally attached to them as a kid despite them being replaced by our 2005 Honda Odyssey and a used 2001 V70 T5, but eventually my parents donated them to the local school district’s car collection program.

    My father occasionally laments getting rid of the wagon especially as it’s impossible to find any five-door with a manual in the States these days. Here’s my younger brother as a toddler in 2007 with that great old blue estate in the background!

    1. In the ´80s and ´90s american movies it was difficult not to see a 200 or 700 series somewhere! Volvo really hit the jackpot with those cars.
      Was your GLE a 16 valve? the 16v redblock didn´t last long in the Volvo range.

    2. Yep, Volvo knew what Americans wanted and to some degree still do! I’m not too sure on engine specs as I was only 12 when they were sent to the great scrapper in the sky, but Wikipedia reveals that all 1989+ non-diesel 740 GLEs had the 16V so it must have been as I’m certain it was a 1990 model.

  7. I really like the 780 and toyed with the idea of buying one a while ago, but didn’t. They are actually quite hard to find, let alone in good nick. Surprise, surprise … they do rust quite enthusiastically.

    The 780 was not sold in many markets outside the US, Sweden and Italy. It was, for example, not marketed at all in Germany, which is surprising as, by volume, it was the third biggest market for brand Volvo (probably because they knew it was a losing proposition at the given price point?). The diesel version was made specifically and only for Italy, I think, probably for tax reasons.

    1. The calculated price for a 780 in Germany way 90,000 Deutschmarks at a time when an E32 BMW 735 cost 80,000 and an 750 V12 cost 110,000. Maybe it was a good idea not to try to sell the Volvo.

    2. I think the diesel was available in other countries as well as Italy.
      Probably the most desirable version of the 780 was the one fitted with the rare 200 bhp B204GT Turbo 16 valve, an engine that also was installed in the 740 and 960.

  8. I always found the 780 to be a rather good looking car – especially compared to the comical caricature that is its predecessor, the 262C.

    On a random note, the 780 appeares in a very good film called Limey from 1999, where it’s driven by Terence Stamp’s character’s daughter.

    1. I remember a 780 appeared in the ´80s soap opera “Falcon Crest”. imcdb.org says he car was wrecked in a episode; we are all talking how expensive the 780 was and the producers destroy a brand new one!

  9. Having owned both a 780 and a Maserati Biturbo I suppose their might be some resemblance evidenced by my own personal taste! The Biturbo is a truly tiny car in comparison though, no longer than the contemporary Golf.

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