Curbside Classic: 1989 Volvo 740 Turbo 16 Valve – The Unusual Flying Brick

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Typically, when a car is arriving to the end of its commercial life, its maker doesn’t try to do significant changes to it; perhaps a “special edition” with more extras (like new hubcaps and bodywork adhesive stripes!) for the same price, maybe introducing a cheaper entry-level version, and that´s all. So it was somewhat unusual when in 1989 Volvo showed a top-of-the-range version of its 740 with an almost brand-new turbocharged 16 valve engine, and decided to sell it in just a few select luxury car markets.

Volvo 440 and 850

At the end of the ’80s, Volvo was ready to enter in a new era. The future of the small Swedish car maker relied on the project “Galaxy” born a decade earlier, which would create two families of front wheel drive cars: a medium sized car, the 400 series (440 on left), and the big (for European standards) 850 (right). The 440/ 460 and the coupé 480, designed to replace the ancient and awful 300 series, were a half- hearted attempt (it showed) and they stayed in Europe, although initially Volvo had plans for selling the 480 in the U.S market (a weak dollar prevented that). The 850, however, was a very important car for Volvo; a truly modern FWD sedan and station wagon that would provide the Swedish with a competitive car against the likes of Mercedes, Audi and BMW.

Volvo 1982 740

The 850 was one of the two successors of the 700 series; the other was the 900 series, a more traditional rear wheel drive car, and an evolution of the 740. I suppose the 900 was Volvo´s plan B, just in case typical buyers considered the 850 too radical. The 700, launched in 1982, was not a state of the art car even when new, especially compared to the Audi 100 C3/5000, launched in the same year: staid and boxy styling, old engines carried from the 200 series, antiquated interior, and a big, fat live rear axle. As the years went by, newer cars such as the Mercedes W124, BMW 5 Series E34 and Saab 9000 were leaving it behind even more, making the 700 almost uncompetitive, only adequate for Volvo’s traditional customers. I´m not saying that the 740/760 were cars without any merit or appeal, and certainly they had charm, but objectively speaking, they weren’t the best in class.

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It´s easy to assume than in those final years of the 700 series Volvo was glad to let it die, anxiously finishing the new 850, which also would bring a new generation of five cylinder engines to leave the old “red block” four cylinders obsolete. So it´s a bit strange that Volvo, just a couple of years before the death of the 700 series, concerned themselves to develop a sixteen valve version of that engine (called B234F), destined for a relatively short life.

The red block eight valve was a good powerplant in many key features. It was a simple, rugged, reliable, easy to work on engine, with good torque at low revs and, in turbo form, could be rather quick. Unfortunately refinement wasn’t one of its virtues, and fuel economy left something to be desired. Perhaps this wasn’t so important in the US market, but in Europe fuel economy could be a problem, mainly when other makers were reading more efficient, 2 litre sixteen valve engines.

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So Volvo worked a four valve per cylinder variant of the red block, in 2.3 litres form. This engine featured double overhead camshafts, counter rotating balance shafts and hydraulic tappets, but would lose one advantage (for the lazy owners, at least) of the old one: it was an interference design, so if the timing belt broke, the engine would commit suicide. Ouch. Nevertheless, the new sixteen valve was more powerful at 155 bhp and fuel economy improved a bit. The following Volvo 940 would use it, too. The top of the range engine was still the eight valve turbocharged red block, though.

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Still, even more strange was that a few months later Volvo launched a sixteen-valve turbo 2.0 litre version, the B204FT/GT available in 190 bhp (FT) and 200 bhp (GT), reaching the remarkable figure of 100 hp/litre (no mean feat). This new engine was installed in the 740 and 780 Coupé; while the 780 was an attractive, in an old fashioned way, “luxury personal coupé” that welcomed the arrival of the powerful B204GT, the marriage of an old fashioned car like the 740 and such a modern powerplant was a bit unusual, to say at least.

The 740 Turbo 16 Valve, as was named, would be available only in some European markets, mainly the ones where “big” displacement engines were heavily penalised by taxes. Yes, in Europe, an engine bigger than 2 litres was considered “big”. The two usual 740 bodies, sedan and station wagon, were offered, but only with a four speed plus overdrive manual transmission.

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A 200 hp engine in a rather pedestrian chassis would have made the 740 too fun to drive. At least Volvo bothered to install the new independent multi link rear suspension, which debuted in 1987 in the 760, so the new car had the potential to handle decently and ride better than the live rear axle 740s. That was a sedan-only feature, however; the Station Wagon had to make do with the rear live axle.

Strangely, my country (Spain) was one of those markets which received the new 740 Turbo 16 Valve, others being Portugal, Belgium and Italy (perhaps France too?). I say it was strange because our government didn’t penalize big engines, and because back in 1989, while our economy was steadily improving, the luxury car market was relatively small, And, in Spain the Volvo 740, priced at about 1989’s five million pesetas (or 30,000 euros, or 34,000 US dollars), was a luxury car indeed.

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One of the few 740 Turbo 16 Valve that got to Spain was bought new by a foreigner living here, or at least that can be deduced reading the car´s documents: first registration was made with a “Placa Turística”, or “tourist number plate”, a formula used back then in my country for owners who resided here for just a few months a year (there were some tax deductions implicated). I don´t know how many owners followed, but the current one is a friend of mine, Javier. He bought it unseen, trusting in my (not always reliable) second hand car buying skills. I picked the 740 up from the seller, drove it for 150 kilometres home, where I treated it for a well deserved session of detailing, before sending the car to Javier by tow truck, 900 kilometres away.

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It´s a very curious car, the 740 Turbo 16 Valve; an appealing mix of old and new. The styling is plain’y antiquated, but somehow I find it attractive. The rear window is as controversial as always, and the huge bonnet and roof, almost completely flat, are so remotely different to today´s trends, that the 740 seems a car from forty years ago. But the gorgeous sixteen inches “Hydra” alloys give the car real stance. The car looks terrific: square, proud, self-confident. We christened the car “Badass”…

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Inside, it´s a bit of a let down, with the plain standard 740 dashboard; only a slightly “sporty” cloth upholstery lives things up, but the unremittingly blackness is sad. However there are almost no rattles or squeaks, and the plastics have stood the test of time (26 years!) very well. The electrical equipment works perfectly, although the air conditioning doesn’t. Good thing Javier lives in the north of Spain, where summers are a lot cooler than in the south where I live.

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And, how does it drive? It´s a shame, but I can´t say anything conclusive. The engine condition wasn’t the best when I drove the 740; black smoke in the exhaust and not much thrust were the response when I floored the throttle. I´m sure that Javier´s mechanical skills will solve that. The same about handling. Original shocks and 200,000 kilometers on the clock don´t mix. Ride comfort seems a lot better than my father´s rear-live-axled 940, though.

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This rare 740 Turbo 16 Valve is one of the crown jewels of Javier´s garage. When Javier gets tired of it I wouldn’t mind to drive it 900 kilometres south to my garage. Incidentally, this engine appeared in a short lived version of the 960 for the European market. Yeah, Javier owns one of those, too.