Concluding the story of the Volvo 700/900 series.
With global sales of over 1.2 million, the Volvo 700 series was a highly successful car for its maker. However, by the late 1980s, it was beginning to look quite dated. This was a particular issue for the saloon, with its always controversial rear window / D-pillar treatment, which was a throwback to an early 1980s American styling trope. Sales began to suffer, especially in the UK and German markets.
Replacing the 700 series with an all-new model wasn’t an option, however. Volvo was committed to a switch to front- (or four-) wheel-drive for all its model ranges and to this end was undertaking its largest ever investment programme, called Project Galaxy. Launched in 1978, Project Galaxy continued for over a decade and cost a total of 15 billion Swedish Kroner (US $2.5 billion), making it the most expensive Swedish private-sector investment to that date. The first fruit of the project was the 1986 400 series, followed by the 1991 800 series.
With the company so heavily committed elsewhere, but still needing to extract further life from the 700 series, it was decided to give the latter a major overhaul. Recognising that the saloon’s rear end was the most problematic stylistic issue, that was the area that would receive attention. The project was given the entirely literal name of Operation Backlift(1). It involved designing a new rear end for the saloon aft of the C-pillars. The designer tasked with this job was Hakan Malmgren. He didn’t have to look too far for inspiration: his twin brother, Rolf, also a Volvo designer, was working with Jan Wilsgaard on the design for the forthcoming 800 series.
Hakan Malgren designed a new rear end based on that of the 800 series that featured a more inclined rear window, wider D-pillars and a larger rear quarter-window. Crucially, the disruptive diagonal trim strip across the base of the D-pillar was no more: the pillar now flowed smoothly into the rear quarter-panel. He also incorporated a boot lid opening that extended down to bumper level. The new tail was subtly radiused to mitigate the sharp-edged look of the 700 series. It perfectly complemented the revised, smoother front-end introduced in 1988 on the facelifted 700 series, giving the car a fresh and entirely coherent and contemporary appearance. Operation Backlift was a triumph and the new 940 and 960 models were launched in September 1990.
One other aspect of the 700 that needed attention was its range-topping PRV V6 engine. It was never a particularly highly regarded unit, lacking both power and refinement. Volvo designed a new, modular(2) 2,922cc all-alloy 24-valve straight-six engine to replace the mediocre V6. The engine produced maximum power of 201bhp (150kW) and torque of 197 lb ft (267Nm). The comparative numbers for the 2,849cc PRV V6 were 168bhp (125kW) and 177 lb ft (240Nm).
It wasn’t just the increase in power and torque that were significant. The new engine was also impressively refined. Renowned automotive journalist Leonard (LJK) Setright drove the new 960 and his impressions were published in the November 1990 issue of Car Magazine. Setright described the new engine as “splendid.” He continued, “smooth running is just the first of the new engine’s credits. It is shallow, slender and respectably light at 403 lbs (183kgs), not to mention being much easier (and much cheaper) to match to the catalysts which are now standard on all Volvo petrol-burners.” Setright found the Aisin-Warner four-speed automatic transmission “well matched” to the engine, resulting in “shifts that are almost perfectly unblemished, either in sport or economy mode.”
In summary, Setright thought the 960 “a good and fairly luxurious £27,000 saloon in which the virtues of speed and quiet smoothness will never lead to any pretensions of sportiness. That is as it should be.” His only complaint was that “the 960 will still be called the 960 even when powered by the 165bhp turbocharged four-cylinder engine; only the 24V postscript identifies the true 960.”
For 1991, the first full year of production, certain markets such as Japan and Australia received the 960 still fitted with the PRV V6 engine, but this was phased out in 1992. The other petrol engine option for the 960 was the venerable Volvo inline four-cylinder petrol unit in 16-valve turbocharged 1,986cc form, producing maximum power of 188bhp (140kW) and torque of 206 lb ft (280Nm). Those who preferred diesel power could choose the Volkswagen Group’s 2,383cc inline-five intercooled turbodiesel producing 114bhp (85kW) and 166 lb ft (225Nm).
The new tail was also fitted to the cheaper 940 saloon, which adopted the facelift applied to the 740’s front end earlier in 1990. This was different to the 1988 facelift of the 760 in that it did not incorporate the latter’s extended bonnet and semi-concealed scuttle panel and wiper arms. The 940’s engine options were carried over directly from the 740 and comprised the Volvo inline-four petrol unit in 1,986cc and 2,316cc capacities, and the Volkswagen Group’s 2,383cc inline-six diesel. All engines were available in naturally-aspirated or turbocharged forms(3).
The 960 received modest annual updates before being treated to a facelift in 1994. This comprised a shallower front grille and headlamps and fully-integrated body-coloured front and rear bumpers. A smaller 2,473cc version of the modular six-cylinder engine was added to the range, and the four-cylinder engines were dropped from 1995. The diesel engine was dropped in 1996.
In the same year, Volvo renamed the 960 saloon and estate S90 and V90 to align with the company’s newly adopted model name format. Both cars remained in production until February 1998 when they were replaced by the S80 saloon and V70 estate. The 940, which never adopted Volvo’s new model nomenclature, also remained in production until February 1998. It was not replaced directly, but the FWD 850 saloon and estate, which had been facelifted and renamed S70 and V70 in 1996, were the de-facto successors to the 940.
Total production of the 900 series models, including the renamed S90 and V90, was 668,046 units(4) over eight years, broken down as follows:
|940 Saloon||1990 to 1998||246,704|
|940 Estate||1990 to 1998||231,677|
|940 Total||1990 to 1998||478,381|
|960 Saloon||1990 to 1996||112,710|
|960 Estate||1990 to 1996||41,619|
|960 Total||1990 to 1996||154,329|
|S90 Saloon||1996 to 1998||26,269|
|V90 Estate||1996 to 1998||9,067|
|S/V 90 Total||1996 to 1998||35,336|
|900 & S/V90 Total||1990 to 1998||668,046|
Together with its the predecessor, the 700 series, total production over sixteen years was 1,907,409 units. They were Volvo’s last rear-wheel drive cars and were vital in maintaining the company’s cash-flow and profitability to enable its continued investment in a wholly new range of front- (and four-) wheel-drive models. This endeavour also brought Volvo to the attention of the Ford Motor Company, who paid US $6.45 billion in January 1999 to purchase Volvo Car Corporation from AB Volvo. That is, of course, another story.
(1) It was also known by the more prosaic title, Project P90.
(2) A five-cylinder 20-valve version of this engine would be installed transversely in the FWD 850.
(3) Although not in all markets.
(4) Source: Volvo Car Corporation.