COAL: 1988 Volvo 780 Bertone – The Italian Swede


It seemed like a good idea at the time.  And it wasn’t premeditated – no, this happened quite without planning, almost by accident.  Quite innocently.  I had gone to a local shopping center back in June of 2014 in search of office supplies of some sort, maybe printer cartridges. As I got out of my car to walk toward the entrance, a boxy, black shape caught my eye.  A Volvo, in fact a 780 coupe.  I’d always liked those, so I walked over thinking I’d snap a couple of photos of it. And when I got there, there was a For Sale sign on the car. That’s when the trouble started.

Perhaps trouble is too strong a word, or at least I’m getting ahead of myself. 1988 Volvo Bertone, said the sign. $2000 OBO. It looked pretty sharp–no visible rust, straight body, a peek through the windows revealed a nice interior other than some cracking in the leather of the driver’s seat. Very interesting, and very tempting. I hadn’t been looking to add a car to my fleet, but this was perhaps my favorite Volvo model, at least top 5. The price was reasonable. Hmmm. At the very least, I needed more info, and I started making a case for how I might sell the idea to my wife.


I did my homework first, of course. Located a craigslist ad for the car, with a lot of information about exactly what it was, and portrayed the condition to be very good. It was the V6 rather than the more desirable turbo four, but for a relatively rare car, beggars can’t be choosers. So I emailed the seller with some questions, and he maintained that it had no bad habits and many virtues, and had just passed its annual safety inspection the previous month.  Just shy of 160K miles, which didn’t sound too bad in Volvo years. I brought the idea up to my wife, and rather surprisingly, it didn’t take much persuading. It wasn’t too expensive and she realized I’d like a change of pace from the daily driver Crown Vic. So I made an appointment to go take a look at the car.

Keep in mind that, at this time, I lived in an apartment with no off-street parking. Plus, I had my old Malibu back at my parents’ house, which needed restoration. And yet here I was thinking of buying another car, one that probably would need some work despite its apparent good condition, and I’d have to find street parking for it, plus I had nowhere to work on it. I guess I’m not so smart sometimes. Nonetheless, as I was driving toward our meeting place, I glanced into my rearview mirror and noticed that, from a side street, a silver Citroen DS had pulled out and was now following me. To call that a rare sight is an understatement–I’d only ever seen a few of them “in the metal” and this was the only quad-lamp Series III I’d ever spotted. I slowed down, hoping it would pass and allow for a good photo, but it only followed me for a few blocks and then disappeared onto another side street. I considered this chance encounter with a rare, desirable classic to be kind of a good omen about the car I was going to look at. I’ve never seen that Citroen again since, though it was wearing Virginia plates.


I met the seller at Starbucks and examined the car. Everything looked good on closer inspection–paint was in good shape, though some sun fading/clearcoat hazing was apparent, mostly on the wheel arch flares on one side of the car. A couple small spots of rust had been repaired, but nothing major. We went for a drive and, while no rocketship with the 150 horsepower B280F hauling around 3,500 lbs of Volvo, it moved down the road well enough, and handling was well-controlled with pleasantly weighted steering. The electric windows worked, as did the A/C, the sunroof, the fog lamps, and most everything else other than the power antenna. That was not a big issue as it didn’t have a radio in any case. These cars came with fancy (for the late 80’s) sound systems from the factory, but a previous owner had decided to upgrade, and had kept his equipment when selling it to the fellow who currently owned it. What it did come with was a tall stack of service records, dating from around the turn of the millenium to current.

I liked what I saw, and liked what I drove, and offered him $1800. He accepted, we shook hands, and he drove the car over the next day to transfer the title. After that was done, he asked me for a lift to a block of garages in my neighborhood, where he said he kept his “fun car”. Said “fun car” turned out to be a 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider. Lucky dude. His rationale for selling the Volvo, so he told me, was an impending move to Montana. The 780 was being replaced by a truck, with which to tow a trailer, hauling the Alfa behind. He wasn’t letting go of that one, and I wouldn’t either!


Back to the 780, which was now in my possession.  To the uninitiated, it looks…sort of like a 760 coupe.  Until you start looking at it with a critical eye, and realize that unlike the 262C, it’s not just a 760 with two less doors and a chopped top. Instead, when commissioned to create a follow-up to that somewhat controversial 262, Bertone took a different tack and changed just about everything. While keeping the general look of the 700 series, every panel on the 780 is unique to that car. The hood and trunk lines are lower, the roof is lower, the grille and lamps are slimmer–it’s an entirely different design in the same language. And to my eye, the result looked fantastic. The interior was also given the Bertone once-over. The dash format is shared with the 760, but the 780 dresses things up with genuine beech wood accents on the dash as well as in the rear-seat side trim panels, and the supportive bucket seats are unique. Several interior color choices were available, with solid black and solid tan joined by a couple of very 80’s choices in two-tone leather, gray/black and blue/black. Not only was the design work by Bertone, but they actually handled the production as well, making this car a product of Turin, Italy rather than Gothenburg, Sweden.


Not my actual interior, but identical. Didn’t get a good photo of mine before I started taking things apart…

Underneath the skin it was mostly 760, including the self-leveling independent rear suspension starting in ’88.  The debut engine was the B280F in Volvo parlance, a 2.8 liter version of the somewhat infamous “PRV” V6.  However, that engine had been thoroughly redesigned in 1985, with a new even-fire design that eliminated many of the notorious weaknesses of the first-gen PRV engines (like too-narrow oiling passages). It was joined in 1989 by the turbo version of the 2.3 liter “redblock” I4, the engine which has achieved near-immortality in so many 240 and 740 sedans and wagons. The turbo is the more desirable engine (and more powerful) but the six does have its charms, including less noise and more smoothness. Either way, it’s a solid and reassuring drive, befitting the range-topping nature of the 780 coupe. It all didn’t come cheap, either–this was a $38,000 car back in 1988 ($76,000 adjusted).


For the first while life with the 780 was good. For years I’d wanted a car with a sunroof, and now I had one, so lots of open-sunroof motoring was the order of the day. Even my wife enjoyed weekend drives in the coupe. Plus I never grew tired of looking at it, and the premium leather-and-wood interior was much nicer than that of the Crown Vic (which was still serving on my daily work commute). Basically, I was happy to be back in a car that I felt good about driving. I noticed a few issues–when stopped at a light with the windows open and the engine fully warmed up, a slight oil smell could be detected. Given that there was no smoke, I presumed there was a slight leak that was dripping on the exhaust manifold or some other hot component. I also noticed a vibration when pulling away from a stop, which I diagnosed (with a little assistance from an online Volvo forum) as a driveshaft bushing which needed replacement. That got put on the back burner as it didn’t seem to be getting any worse.IMG_5952

So my attention turned to the radio. The plastic box it was supposed to mount into was cracked, but I found a replacement online. Lucky stroke, that, as I had discovered many parts for these cars are NLA, and often one’s only source is to wait for someone parting out a wrecked example. With a total production of 8518, about ~5700 of which were sold in the US, this doesn’t happen all that often. However, that wasn’t the only issue. The audiophile previous owner had removed or reconfigured pretty much *all* of the wiring that dealt with the radio and speakers, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was left, especially given that the original harness had been cut rather than an adapter run. It was all starting to look just a little beyond my skill level. Okay, back-burner that too.

October or November ended sunroof season in more ways than one. The car has a glass moonroof with a sliding inside shade. I could tell the headliner of the car had been redone at some point, and while the headliner itself seemed to be a decent quality job, they also recovered the sliding shade in some sort of vinyl material.  That started to sag, causing the sliding shade to get irrevocably stuck in its sliding track. In the process of un-sticking the shade, the material covering it came mostly unglued, so I pulled it down. Not only was I left with a black shade in a tan roof, but the whole surface was still tacky from the glue, rendering it mostly unable to slide. And to re-cover the slide would require removing it, which entailed taking down the headliner, which according to the factory “greenbook” repair manual involved removing the rear windscreen. As it was getting cold anyhow, I figured I’d leave that for warmer months (notice a pattern forming?).


I didn’t end up driving the Volvo much in January or February due to bad weather and lingering road salt. March brought a new and intermittent problem, though–the car would sometimes flat-out refuse to start. The dash lights would come on, as would interior accessories, but the starter wouldn’t fire. Checked the battery and was told it was fine. Started looking into the issue more, and identified a few possible culprits–the starter switch, the park-neutral safety switch, or wiring gremins between the dash and the starter. Ignoring the best-practice advice of “don’t throw parts at a problem” I decided to try the starter switch first. Bought a new one, but between its arrival and my attempts at installation, a bigger issue came up, unrelated to the car. We had come to the renewal deadline for our lease and decided that it was time to buy a house. We found ourselves in late March with the requirement to find a home, arrange the purchase, and move, all before July 1. Somehow, we did it, moving into the new place on June 30.

The Volvo had been essentially forgotten during all this, and when I went to start it up to move it to our new house, no amount of coaxing would get it to start. So I had a new house in the Northside area of Richmond, and a car stuck in my old Museum District neighborhood. It was parked on the street, though, which gave me an advantage–folks were used to seeing it there and no one would look too askance if it stuck around a while longer. So there it stayed, and I stopped by on the way home from work most days to work on it. Replaced the starter switch to no avail, disassembling much of the lower dash in the process. Tried to replace the park-netural switch but I could not for the life of me figure out how to get to it. I ended up attaching a test lead to the hot terminal of the starter and applying the other end of that to the negative battery terminal, at which point the Volvo finally roared back to life and I made the journey from old home to new in late July.IMG_5983

In the meantime both the plates and the safety inspection had expired. I decided to make the switch to antique/collector plates, but never got around to taking the paperwork to the DMV, as all of my weekend hours were now occupied with home improvement projects. So passed the summer and fall both, with “house stuff” taking precedence over “car stuff”. Which brings us to the present day… Since bringing the Volvo here to our new house last July, it’s been driven all of twice, both times around the neighborhood. I’ve made no progress on the starting issue, other than the observation that a brand-new battery makes it happen less frequently. I still haven’t renewed the registration. And, within the last couple months, a water leak has developed that is causing the rear footwell carpeting on the driver’s side to become soaked after rains. I have no idea where it’s leaking from, so I’ve had to go in with towels after each rain and try to soak up as much water as I can. I’m not getting it all though, so I’m afraid of both floorpan rust and also mildew/mold developing. (So far, frequent temperatures below freezing have kept that at bay).  And to top it all off, perhaps to add insult to injury, one of the tires has gone flat in the past couple weeks.

It’s a shame, really.  It’s still a beautiful car, though it could badly use a wash. The interior is still nice, even partially disassembled. Which is why fixing that water leak is now my paramount worry as the last thing I want is a permanent mildew smell. But I’ve learned the lesson that letting a few little things go can quickly turn into bigger problems, and the dilemma of trying to maintain an older car that *isn’t* your main transportation–when things break, they don’t have to be fixed immediately, as you’re not relying on the car to get you to work, to shop, or on trips. But it’s a slippery slope, one that ends with a non-functional car sitting on your driveway, making you feel guilty every time you look at it.


This is not to say I’ve given up. The problems are minor, all things considered, but if I were to sell it now, I might get half of my investment back. Plus I’m stubborn, and I want to prove to myself that I’m not in fact in over my head. I’d like to think that it was a lot of bad timing, what with the house hunt, leading to higher-priority matters throughout the summer/fall, and then quite a long stretch of cold weather. As spring approaches, I should have more free time to get back to work and fix what’s wrong. Maybe once I get the cabin reliably dry again, and the starting issue solved, I can even get a radio wired up. And I’ve got to get that sunroof shade operational again. Because it’s a fine machine to look at, but an even better one to actually drive. So I’m determined to prove that there will be more driving of the Volvo in my future. After all, how many Italian Swedes do you know?

Thanks for following me on this journey through the Cars of my Lifetime!

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1990 Volvo 780 – Rectilinear Luxury by Bertone

Curbside Classic: 1990 Volvo 780 Turbo Coupe – An Exotic Automobile for a Practical Consumer

Curbside Classic: 1980 Volvo Bertone Coupe – Lost in Translation