Swedish Angle Iron (Part Three)

Concluding the story of the Volvo 700/900 series.

Image: media.volvocars.com

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.

Image: autoevolution.com

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.

Image: autoevolution.com

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:

Model: Years: Production:
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.



Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

40 thoughts on “Swedish Angle Iron (Part Three)”

  1. Hi Daniel, thanks for this great series on the 700/900 series. Now, would you say I’m being weird if I told you my personal preference is the earlier 940/960, with the white-orange front indicators? Also, Wikipedia mentions M46, a 4-speed manual gearbox with overdrive that was fitted to certain versions of the 940. I’m surprised by this: why would anyone in 1990 buy a car equipped with such a fossil?

    1. Because they were making the four speed since forever, and they were buying in the overdrive units from Laycock de Normanville since forever. The M4X-units counted its pedigree from the M40 starting its life in 1961, they were subsequently upgraded for every generation of cars, but basically the construction remained the same. Volvo started buying in overdrive units as an easy plug-in starting in the mid sixties, and by the late seventies they had become without a doubt LdN’s biggest customer. I would guess at that time the production cost was minimal and long since payed for both customers, and they just continued offering the overdrive option indefinitely, because it was much cheaper than developing an in-house five speed unit. Over a million cars was sold with that option, counting for between a third and half of LdN’s entire production output.

  2. The softer surfacing on the 960’s front wing doesn’t match the rest of the car. It is obvious in the body side reflections visible on the dark blue example pictured above.

    As if anyone were fooled by this cheap trick, they did it again to the 1997 S70.

  3. Good morning gentlemen. Faisal, you’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed the series.

    Konstantinos and gooddog, I agree that the 1994 nose was, I think, rather too shallow and insubstantial looking. The beefier 1988 700 Series nose suited the overall shape of the car rather better. Here’s a nice example of the car in its best iteration:

    1. +1. It turned into a handsome vehicle – very dignified. Having looked at the brochures, it seems that one could’ve specified some quite colourful interiors, too.

  4. I don’t understand how they could make relatively extensive changes to the body, but couldn’t do anything about those doors. Wouldn’t they be cheap to redesign compared to the body?

    1. Doors are (or rather were) one of the costliest things to design and re-design on a car. It is not only the doors itself with several different pressings but also the entire side pressing on the car itself. Integral to that, the placement and mounting of roof channels spanning the width of the car, the placement of fire walls front and back, how everything is mounted to the chassis and wheel wells. Any significant change in the doors form factor changes every other parameter if only minimally. Count to that all the glass, all the rubber seals, all the outer trim bits, all the interior trim. Count to that that the body is designed and constructed as a whole, changing any body hardpoints may have an unknown impact on structural integrity, crash safety, wind stability, and so on. That’s why the industry had to endure “those doors” because they were a known entity for the company.

    2. Also, the doors on the 700/900- series are interchangeable between sedan and station wagon. Obviously they thought it would cost too much to re-design the doors for the sedan and have to make two different kind of doors for a platform that was already eight years old at that time.

  5. Thanks Daniel for your story of the 700/900, I liked it a lot.

    I have fond memories of my father´s 940 saloon; he bought it brand new in January 1996, powered by the B230FK engine (that´s a 8-valve 2.3 low pressure turbo, 135 bhp), with a manual transmission (fortunately it wasn´t the 4 speed+ OD). Well, the pleasant memories are from our family journeys in it, because the 940 was dated in 1990, let alone in 1996. The exposed wipers and 740 dashboard were rather crude in the ´90s and the less said about the rear suspension, the better.

    On the bright side the engine was very torquey and the seats fantastically comfortable. And the rear seat was a good place to be, as the high position and relatively low belt line gave a very nice and airy feeling. A big contrast with the gloomy, Guantámo-spec rear compartment of current cars.

    940s fitted with the LPT engine were supposed to be a kind of final edition for the last year of production (1996) but it was rather succesful so it wasn´t discontinued until 1998. Keen pricing and high standard equipment made it a tempting deal if you didn´t care too much about driving appeal. My father´s car had standard climate control, leather, alloys, LSD (why…) and metallic paint, for the same price of a base 850 2.0 10v.

  6. The modular engine programme was a programme on its own set apart from the development of the cars, the cost not accounted for in the development of neither the 960 nor the 850, but it cost Volvo something in the region of a billion dollars in todays money. The thought was to have a series of 4/5/6 cylinder straight engines, all related to each other and built in the same engine factory. Because they needed something bigger than a four cylinder but smaller than a six cylinder. Ultimately they didn’t build any four cylinder versions of the modular engine, when they found better results in the smaller versions of the five cylinder.

    1. The four cylinder fitted to the S/V40 mkI (and the Laguna RTI 16v) wasn´t derived from the modular engine?

    2. Oh yeah, you’re absolutely right. I totally forgot about that car. What I meant was its implementation in the 850-series if cars. But yes, I totally forgot they actually made a four cylinder modular engine.

      In the spring of 1994 I encountered a car that was actually labelled a Volvo 840. I always wondered if it was only someone having fun with labels or if it was some sort of pre-production variant that never made production. It was parked outside a tech company that had ties with Volvo, so you never know. Ultimately, Volvo never offered the four cylinder in the 850 but a smaller 2-litre version of the straight five. I’ve always wondered if that 840 I encountered was supposed to be some cheapo variant with the four cylinder, as it also had unpainted grey bumpers in contrast to the 850’s body coloured bumpers.

    3. When the S/V40 was launched in 1996 the press complained about the lack of refinement and relatively high NVH of the four cylinder. Perhaps Volvo thought twice about installing that lump under the bonnet of the 850 (840) and tarnish the image of the car, that I would say it´s linked to the turbine-smooth five cylinder.
      Anyway Volvo made a 2.0 (in 10 and 20-valve) version of the five cylinder, so they had covered the low end of the range.

    4. Looking at the Wikipedia article on the Volvo Modular Engine, I find myself wondering if it was produced according to a sort of à la carte menu, rather than a logical hierarchy.

      “Could I have the B5234FS with Thai sauce, and VVT just on the exhaust cam, and extra high compression? Oh, and Denso EMS instead of Bosch Moronic 4.3, and a side order of an AW50-42LE with adaptive shift logic.

      You don’t have Denso EMS this evening? That’s a problem, Moronic 4.3 disagrees with the medication I’m taking.

      Siemens Fenix 5.2? That would be just fine”.

  7. There’s also a story about the two designers doing the new rear end. Either that Volvo had already thought of doing something similar but nixed the idea on cost, and the two designers went on at their spare time and presented the board with a fait accompli. And the board accepted the proposition almost without change. Or they presented the idea and was “asked” to finish the job on their spare time. The point is, the Volvo board of directors was presented this new proposition with all the calculations already done, and could this productionalize the proposition for minimal cost. Without those engineers working on their own dime the new rear end to the 960 would certainly never have been done.

    1. Thank you for outlining matters addressed for Board’s assessment.
      That’s very enlightening.

      On the other hand, VWofAmerica once did offer 32 variants out of a single VW Rabbit (nee Golf) without needing any metal and structural amendment.

  8. Thanks Daniel for your story of the 700/900, I liked it a lot.

    I have fond memories of my father´s 940 saloon; he bought it brand new in January 1996, powered by the B230FK engine (8-valve 2.3 low pressure turbo, 135 bhp), with a manual transmission (fortunately it was a proper 5-speed, not the 4 speed+ OD). Well, the pleasant memories are from our family journeys in it, because the 940 was dated in 1990, let alone in 1996. The exposed wipers and 740 dashboard were rather crude in the ´90s and the less said about the rear suspension, the better.

    On the bright side the engine was very torquey and the seats fantastically comfortable. And the rear seat was a good place to be, as the high position and relatively low belt line gave a very nice and airy feeling. A big contrast with the gloomy, Guantámo-spec rear compartment of current cars.

    940s fitted with the LPT engine were supposed to be a kind of final edition for the last year of production (1996) but it was rather succesful so it wasn´t discontinued until 1998. Keen pricing and high standard equipment made it a tempting deal if you didn´t care too much about driving appeal. My father´s car had standard climate control, leather, alloys, LSD (why…) and metallic paint, for the same price of a base 850 2.0 10v.

  9. Hi boarezina. I don’t find the doors objectionable and think they work fine with the facelifted nose and tail.

    In any event, Rover did exactly the same thing when they heavily facelifted the 800 at both ends, retaining the existing doors, described here:

    An Open and Shut Case

  10. Thanks for an excellent informative article. I bought one of the last 960’s in 1995 just before they rebadged it as the S90. I clocked up a huge mileage visiting clients throughout the UK, France and Germany. It was a lovely car to drive, quiet, extremely comfortable and very reliable and could turn in a good performance with that lovely straight six engine. It even achieved 28mpg if you were light footed. They seem to be quite prized nowadays with good ones fetching £5-6000. Estates of course are the ones to have

    1. Hi Alastair. Thanks for sharing your experience of the 960. It’s good to hear that it was such an amiable companion. You certainly gave it a serious long-term test.

    2. Out of interest Richard, why would you want to buy a Buick? (Genuine question, not being snarky)

    3. To answer the Buick question: Buick majored on comfort and refinement, a little like Lancia and Rover. Volvo have a bit of this in their bigger cars. I drive a Peugeot which is a middle market car, majoring on refinement too. I wish my Peugeot had a little more glitz though. Buick has that.

    4. Thank you. Without the transatlantic context it’s hard to know what they offer. I think I’d be a potential customer too.

  11. Volvo with overdrive… I drove one (a 245) for a year in Boston in 1992-93. The overdrive was about the only bit that functioned well in a very neglected car (vibrating driveshaft, dodgy steering rack…). I’d never come across overdrive and it was simple, smooth and effective. Traction on winter tires was incredible for a fairly crude RWD setup.

    Moving to London in 1999 we bought an 850 estate (2.5 petrol), replaced a few years later by a 2002 model V70 (2.4 petrol), which is now 20 years old, still smooth and comfortable and still with the worst steering lock ever. The 245 had a brilliant lock, as did the 850 – I was not expecting this from a FWD car with a wide engine. I was told once that the FWD V70 had been engineered (by Ford I assume as it is a relation of the Mk 1 Mondeo), apparently, for a transverse installation of the 6-cylender engine. Therefore, the steering lock had to be restricted for all iterations or the front track increased significantly. After 14 years ownership I am used to it – it makes a better driver of me and gave me a slightly thicker skin!

    The 5-cylender engine in both 850 and V70 is an absolute gem – smooth, characterful, great low-end pull and smooth revving. The V70 (Automatic) can do 38 MPG on the motorway – town driving takes that down to 25 MPG, though… And the car is full of convenient and clever design touches, calm colours and a well-oiled feel. Nothing is brittle. Our Mark 1 Mondeo was similar – but that’s another (related but different) tale.

  12. The 900 series could be a little confusing in some aspects.
    In the US market, the bottom of the range 940 had a front end very similar to the 740. It seemed something made to deliberately downgrade the base 940.

    The ´92 940 US range had three versions: the 740-nosed GLE (2.3 16-valve engine), the slant nose Turbo (2.3 8-valve) and the SE, which in reality was a 960 with the Turbo 8- valve engine. The bonnet, dashboard and rear suspension was the same as the 960´s.

    Also a bit confusing (at least for a car spotter like me) was the huge engine range.
    The 940 could be had with a 2.0 8-valve, 2.0 8-valve Turbo, 2.3 8-valve, 2.3 16-valve, 2.3 8-valve low pressure Turbo, 2.3 8-valve Turbo, and 2.3 “Turbo Plus” 8-valve with 195 bhp. The 960 was powered by the 2.5 inline six, 3.0 six, four cylinder 2.0 16-valve Turbo, and the PRV6. Add the diesel (was there a non-turbo diesel engine?). I´m sure I forgot a few engines.

    My father´s 940 was identical to this, same colour and alloys (named “Adhara”). It was scrapped in 2015.

    1. The US market Volvos always seemed to be a bitsa this, bitsa that kind of business.

      For example, the 240 stayed with the seventies front end quad rectangular headlights and bonnet well into the mid 80’s, missing out on the ’81 front facelift with the wider turn signals and integral headlights but getting the ’81 rear facelift with its rear lights and turn signals going around the corner. Or is that asslift? Bumlift? Lever de derrière?

      Another US special was the Volvo 262, not the couple but a two door sedan, but with the 264 engine and trim. A model not sold anywhere else in the world, not even Sweden.

    1. In the film “A man called Ove” there is a fantastic scene where Ove, a Saab enthusiast, has a kind of dispute with his neighbour (a Volvo fan). Ove´s neighbour buys a Volvo 960 “Executive”, it seems the same as the Royal, but with hubcups! A certain “rationalistic luxury”.

  13. The 262 – it exists!

    There’s something of a Poor Man’s Camargue about that.

  14. What a shame Volvo’s flagship didn’t look like this in the first place. The ultra-square 760, while being timeless, fed all the old jokes about Volvo engineers working on perfecting the square wheel. It just seems to be so rectangular, with so many lines front to back, and so many right angles, like an American GM A-car finessed by Swedes. In all fairness to Volvo, that high boot lid on the 9 really only came into fashion during the 7’s lifetime, but the front and rear didn’t have to be so rectilinear.
    Looked at out of the context of its time, it’s not really such a bad looking car. But compared to all the other designs available, for me the Volvo did not enough to compensate for its looks.

  15. Ah yes, the Royal / Executive LWB version. I probably should have mentioned it in the piece. Volvo had a couple of goes at getting the C-pillar design right:

    The original (bottom) is rather severe looking, but I suppose more honest than the fake quarter-window and infill panel on the revised version. I guess it allowed Volvo to utilise the standard saloon rear three-quarter panel:

    1. The original DLO treatment is rather jarring, but perhaps nothing is as jarring as seeing those Volvo P1 “Libra” alloys on a great big old barge like that!

      They were designed as ‘eco’ aero-focused wheels for the compacts, a substantial executive car like the 900 series deserves to have a large, elegant multispokes like the “Uranus” alloys on the upper left car!

  16. All these are not from the official drawing boards at Volvo but coachbuilt by Nilsson Special Vehicles, an outside third party coachbuilder, mostly specialized in ambulances and hearses but also linousines. They’ve had official ties to Volvo since the sixties and their cars are sold through Volvos sales channels and with guarantees as if they came from Volvo itself. The differences in treatment of the C-pillar could be seen as a trial and error way for Nilsson getting it right. The Royal/Executive line was popular as embassy courtesy cars around the world, as they could be special ordered from any Volvo dealer globally.

  17. There was a Volvo 940 Royal for the Spanish market. My father owned a metallic green Royal, bought in 1992. The Royal was a base spec 940 with some equipment upgrades and the 2.3 8 valve petrol engine. Very confortable and a great car for long distance drives. It was replaced by another 940 in 1996, finished in metallic red paint with climatronic, black leather seats, wood inserts in the dash and all four doors and alloy wheels. This was replaced by a S80 in 2001 and was still running around in 2016 in Marbella

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