COAL: 1990 Volvo 740 Turbo Wagon – In Sweden They Spell Panther Without An “H”



Having always had a thing for wagons, I decided that it would be a good time to own another one.  Although we already had a G20 and an Explorer in the stable, yet somehow I convinced my wife-to-be that our dog would be much more comfortable in a larger wagon.  So off to look we went…

I’d always been a fan of Volvo’s larger wagons, and until the Explorer really took off in the Bay Area I’d often notice red 740 Turbo Wagons (seemingly always with a Golden Retriever in back–the dog must have been in the official accessory catalog, or something).  We found a Volvo specialist in Berkeley who had over a dozen wagons in stock, and we settled on a black one with a butterscotch leather interior. 


While it had just over 100,000 miles on the clock and apparently originally came from Stamford, CT, there was not a bit of rust on or underneath it, suggesting that it had led a relatively pampered existence.  The dealer (actually mechanic who’d started a Volvo car lot) had gone through it and made sure it still drove as it should.  Judging by what I saw while looking around it and under the hood, everything seemed to be good, and we took it home that day.

In reference to my headline (Sweden spells Panther as Panter), I think Volvo’s 700 series really is Europe’s equivalent of Ford’s Panther chassis.  Looking at length of service (in both the manufacturer and end-user senses of the word), user friendliness, repairability, comfort, value and space for the money, not much else comes close. 


First sold here in 1983, the 700 series eventually morphed into the 900, and then into the S90/V90 series before its effective replacement with the S80 sedan and V70 wagon series.  Sold with inline fours, V6s, turbo fours, and even an inline six (as well as diesel power!) and offered in many permutations until 1998, they could be found all over the continent.

Prior to our purchase, I had always believed that all Volvos came from Sweden, with a few built in the Netherlands and a few more in Belgium.  I was surprised to see that mine was made in Canada; it turns out there was a Volvo plant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that built these from CKD kits for the North American market. 


Anyway, back to my car!  The black paint was impeccable, the leather inside was wonderfully smooth and soft, and there was just the right amount of firmness to the seats.  The pictures cannot convey their level of comfort, as the front and rear seats alike really were all-day and all-night comfortable.  Our dog (who got carsick in the Explorer) loved the back of this thing; as you’ll note, the windows are nice and low, and our dog, who’s a bit on the short side, found it perfect to look out from even while laying down amongst a bunch of luggage during a trip. For some reason I also absolutely love the way the back-hatch badging tells the world it is “Intercooled”.  


For the  1990 model year the 740 got a slight restyle, consisting mainly of large, one-piece headlamps, a more steeply raked grille (perhaps from 90 degrees to about 89; it still looked very upright), and the 16” alloys you see on the cars pictured.  This wheel is still one of my favorite Volvo designs–it’s just so big, chunky and solid, with a very restrained yet very modern style. The bumpers, however, kept the same black plastic that always faded to a light gray no matter how much Black Magic, mineral oil, peanut butter or other remedy of choice you slathered on it (peanut butter still works best, by the way).  The engine was the B230FT, a 2.3-liter turbocharged inline four that developed 162 hp in 1990 models.  Torque was a maximum of 195 ft/lbs at 3,450 rpm.  With a curb weight of about 3,200 lbs., that’s not too shabby.


Now that I think about it, there were plenty of hard plastics throughout the cabin, but all of them were in good condition, easy to clean, looked to be made of high-quality materials, and gave off a sense of permanence.  Other than the seats, the only soft item in the cabin was the new-for-1990 driver’s-side airbag (not that I ever had to find out, thank goodness).  The gauges were legible and easy to read, and it was amusing to watch the turbo gauge move around depending on throttle position and gear.  I loved hearing the turbo whistle, and feeling the shove in the back; while not particularly impressive compared with some of today’s offerings, it felt great at the time, and belied what was possible with such a large vehicle.  A solid, no-nonsense rear-wheel drive chassis that would offer up very controllable (and enjoyable) wheel spin and slides in wet weather made this wagon far more fun that it had any right to be.


A couple of months after we got it, I was on my way to work in San Francisco when it started to overheat as I got close to my workplace.  I made it there, and then parked it.  I saw that the plastic radiator inlet neck was cracked, probably having given up the ghost after the hoses were replaced and the clamps tightened prior to sale.  I took BART home at the end of the day, and on Saturday morning drove one of our other cars to my local Volvo parts place, picked up a new all-metal radiator and spent a couple of hours replacing the radiator on the street outside of my work.  Easy to work on, plenty of space under the hood, no problems.


We drove it to Orange County for Christmas. It was a really great freeway car, super quiet, those great seats, the dog loved it, gas mileage was good, and even in the California rain it was just a delight to be able to really lounge in it, still controlling the wheel and feeling a smug sense of safety versus the others on the road.


Yeah, it was the “third car”, but really it got just as much use as the others.  The automatic made my 37-miles-each-way drive into the city over the Bay Bridge more bearable on those days you just knew traffic would be bad.  We also put it to good use during our wedding when we supplied the bar.  I now realize that even with the back seats folded, I significantly overloaded the car, filling it from just behind the rear seats to the tailgate and all the way to the roof with dozens of cases of beer, wine, champagne and “the good stuff”.  It swayed a bit more than usual, and the rear suspension was compressed almost to the bump stops, but the turbo just whistled its way up over the grade from Dublin to Oakland without much weight-related loss in performance.  

In my spare time (at work) I read up on conversions, like the one offered by Converse Engineering that swapped a 5.0-liter Mustang engine into it.  Nowadays, the Chevy LS engines are the ones of choice, but either way sounds like a complete hoot, although I’m not sure how controllable the thing would be. A fun project though, for sure (although I did not ever go through with it).


After a while we noticed that the car was vibrating a bit more than normal and took longer to upshift, revving higher than normal.  It turned out that one of the engine mounts needed to be replaced (common 700-series issue, apparently) and that the transmission linkage needed adjustment.  Easy and cheap fixes, both of them, and soon the car was back to normal.  If you’ve been reading this series since the beginning, it is obvious that I seem to have a problem holding on to my vehicles for any length of time.  While in the long run it is obviously cheaper to buy and hold, I like the variety (sort of like Wilt Chamberlain? Or is James Hunt a better analogy?) and have generally gotten either lucky or been able to spot the good ones and later divest myself of them before they need anything major.  I’m still not money ahead, but definitely enjoy driving different things relatively often.


We held on to this one for several years. It moved with us (or I should say it moved us) to Oakland (closer to work) and stayed around until our vehicle count numbered five (for two people); at that point it became superfluous, and we sold it to a private buyer via Craigslist.