What is it that makes a car sexy? Not just attractive, but really sexy. Is it looks? Power? Handling? The formula is not so simple. We could ask a lot of people, and I suspect that the only common answer would be something along the lines of “I’ll know it when I see it.” Consider this as one of the rare Volvos to pass that test.
Volvo has been known for a lot of things, but building sexy cars has not been one of them. Not even the Saint-ed P1800 (CC here) was really a sexy car. Sexy for a Volvo, maybe, but in a world of Jaguar XK-Es and Corvette Stingrays, the P1800 didn’t even move the needle. Volvo’s thing was to build cars that were, for the most part, durable, boring and safe.
By the 1990s, though, it was becoming apparent to Volvo that durable, boring and safe was not going to generate the kind of moolah necessary to keep a small independent company in the black over the long haul. All through the 80s, upscale American buyers were flinging their cash into the hands of Mercedes and BMW dealers from coast to coast. Sure, a Volvo 240 might be a suitable car to which a young yuppie-mommy might affix her yellow “Baby On Board” sign, but for those with real disposable income to stay in the Volvo family, a march up-market seemed to be the move.
I will leave it to someone else to chronicle Volvo’s assault on the sports sedan market, though I will at least wonder aloud about Volvo’s switch to front wheel drive as the platform which which to do so. I will come right out and admit that I am generally not a fan of Volvo’s front wheel drive cars. Except for this one.
As Volvo was developing its S70 and S80 lines, style and appeal were the new order of the day. In line with this philosophy, Volvo entered into a joint venture with the British company TWR (Tom Walkinshaw Racing) to develop and manufacture a low volume halo model that would help get the word out about Volvo’s new direction. Although quite a bit of the S70 would be used in this new car (which, in turn, began as a riff on the Volvo 850 platform), much of the car would be unique. This was no quickie hacksaw job. The car was designed with some notable features such as boron steel A pillars that would support the windshield during a rollover, as well as a pop-up roll bar to protect rear seat occupants. We can’t have Volvo selling unsafe cars now, can we?
Mechanically, the C70 would be in keeping with Volvo’s modern philosophy. Gone were the old red block engines and the tried and true rear wheel drive. In their place would be an inline five cylinder engine, offered in different turbocharged versions, including low (2.4L) and high pressure (2.0 and 2.3L) variants. The high pressure 2.3L engine would be good for 236 horses, which could move the 3,600 pound ragtop along with some urgency. Although most cars were automatics, a five speed was available and seems to have been fitted to perhaps only five percent of production.
To my mind though, the thing that sets this car apart from its contemporaries was its styling. The styling was done under the direction of Peter Horbury, who headed up Volvo styling through most of the 1990s. Horbury later moved to Ford and was largely responsible for several attractive cars there during the era of the “three bar grille”, including the 2006 Fusion and the 2010 Taurus.
Car styling must be a difficult thing, or else how could it be so frequently fouled up? It is hard to get the shapes and proportions just right. In this car, Horbury got the job done. Is there a better looking convertible built in the decade between 1995 and 2005? Horbury is reported to have said that in this car, “we threw away the box and kept the toy inside.” There were several attractive four-place ragtops offered in those years, but I’m not sure that any of them surpasses this one. Top up or top down, this is one of the best looking car of its era.
After a thirty month gestation, the C70 hit showrooms as a 1997 model, and remained in production through 2004. Altogether, there were only about 50,000 of these soft tops built over the model’s eight year run, with perhaps half of them making their way to the States. There was also a closed coupe offered, which sold in genuinely minuscule numbers.
I must admit to some wonder about one thing – of all of CC’s contributors, there is probably none who is less enamored with the cult of Volvo than yours truly. So, I ask myself, how do I manage to find all of the fun ones? Not only was I the first to snag and write up a P1800, but now I get one of these. Although this one is a bit of a cheat as I know its former owner quite well.
He bought this car at about a year old, and had to search high and low for a stick shift version that was not silver. I rode in it many times, and even spent a weekend with it when its owner borrowed one of my cars. I can report that the combo of the high pressure turbo and the five speed was a hoot to drive. The car also boasted of one of the best air conditioning systems I have experienced in recent years. I had only two gripes – the excruciatingly slow motion of the electric passenger seat which was required for anyone to access the back seat, and the fairly severe structural quiver experienced on less than perfect roads. Oh well, don’t we have to put up with some personality flaws to live with a car this beautiful?
Unfortunately, the other long-term issue was that all-too-common European-car frailty. The car’s owner finally gave up on it within the last few months after one-too-many plus-sized repair bills. Even the sexiest of companions can eventually wear out her welcome if she can’t keep her hands out of a fellow’s wallet. However, after well over 150,000 miles, I suppose that my friend did as well as could be expected with a front wheel drive Volvo with as many complicated systems as this one had.
For those who have forgotten, this car was already in its third year by the time Ford bought Volvo and annexed it into the Premium Auto Group (along with Jaguar, Range Rover and Lincoln). There would be a replacement C70 with an optional retractable hardtop, done this time under the Ford umbrella and without any help from TVR. While the car was produced in slightly higher numbers, it has been recently abandoned. The newer car may have had some improvements, but it never looked as good, and I suspect that this was much of its problem – it certainly never temped my friend. I suppose the lesson here is that it was indeed possible for Volvo to build a sexy car. But not two of them in a row. So, we shall just have to make do with this one – Ja?.