Curbside Classic: 1990 Volvo 780 Turbo Coupe – An Exotic Automobile For A Practical Consumer


(first posted 5/27/2014)     The personal luxury car market in the late-eighties was a world of polar opposites. At one end were mostly soft-riding, comfort-oriented American cars like the Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Mark VII. At opposite end of the spectrum, were performance-oriented driver’s cars like the BMW 6-Series and Mercedes-Benz SEC. Sure there were very opulent SECs and sportier Mark VII LSCs, but the American and German luxury coupes had clear, distinctly different missions. There wasn’t any clear competitor offering the best of both worlds. That is, until 1986 when the Volvo 780 came along.


Much like Sweden’s neutrality in World War II between the American and German belligerents, the Volvo 780 straddled the line between its American and German luxury coupe competitors. At the time of the 780’s introduction, Volvo North America’s PR manager issued the following statement describing the car’s target market: “The Volvo 780 is for successful people who appreciate stylish, limited-production European touring cars, yet value the safety and practicality of a Volvo. An exotic automobile for a practical consumer.”


Well, at the very least they definitely got “limited-production” right. Over the course of its five-year lifespan, just over 8,500 examples of the 780 were produced globally. Finding one today is about as difficult as finding a piece of Ikea furniture whose name can be easily pronounced.


Part of the reason for such low production numbers was that 780 production was outsourced to Bertone, the famed Italian coach builder that was also responsible for the car’s design. The 780 shared the 740/760’s 109.1 inch wheelbase as well as most mechanical components, but despite a familial resemblance, it featured completely unique sheet metal. Bertone lowered the roof, hood, and deck, and set the windscreen and rear window at faster angles. Slimmer head- and taillights completed the 780’s sleeker appearance.


Inside, the 780 pampered its occupants with one of the most luxurious Volvo interiors ever. Ultra-soft leather seats with front and rear sport headrests, a tasteful amount of genuine burled beechwood trim, full analog instrumentation, automatic climate control, heated front seats, moonroof, anti-theft system and premium sound system were all standard.


From the get-go, the 780 was meant to be more of a halo model than a household companion to other Volvos around the world. Much like today, in the 1980s Volvo aimed to be a safe, upscale, and distinctive family car, not the Swedish BMW. In reality, the 780’s closest competitor in the U.S. was the Acura Legend coupe, a model which also occupied the middle ground between plushness and overt sportiness, and was released in shortly after as a 1987 model.

780 turbo engine bay

In 1986 and 1987, the car was suspended by the 700-series’s Constant Track rear axle, and in North America, powered by the same 2.8L aluminum PRV V6 found in the 760. A big change came in 1988 when the live axle was swapped for Volvo’s first independent rear suspension, complete with Boge Nivomat self-leveling, and for 1989, the V6 was supplemented by the same 2.3 liter “red-block” turbo as found in the 740 and 760 turbo, making 175-horsepower in special, higher-boost tune.

bertone d

For 1990, a refined version of the turbo engine with a smaller turbo allowed faster response while boost was turned up again to bring power up to a healthy 188 horsepower, with 206 lb-ft or torque.  The PRV V6 was unceremoniously dropped for 1991, leaving the hot 2.3 as the sole engine available. 0-60 times for the 2.8L V6 was 9.8 seconds on a good day, but later versions of the 2.3 turbo achieved the same in the low eight second range, even when hooked up to the mandatory (for North America) four-speed Aisin-Warner AW71-series automatic. Certain markets with high displacement taxes received a special two-liter red-block with both turbocharging and a sixteen-valve head, certainly a great combination with the M46 manual transmission, and true to form, Volvo’s constant refinements resulted in a much-improved car by the time production ended.


As far as safety was concerned, Volvo equipped every 780 with every available feature at the time. Front-ventilated, four-wheel disc anti-lock brakes, driver’s side airbag and knee bolster, front seatbelt pre-tensioners, outward rear passenger shoulder belts, energy-absorbing bumpers, and an energy-absorbing safety cage were among these features.


As a curbside classic hunter, it’s always a treat when a rare car finds me. So it was a real treat when I was coming out of work and parked right behind my car was this navy 780 coupe. Although I did not get a look under the hood, running a quick AutoCheck on the license plate confirms that this vehicle is powered by the 2.3L turbo, rather than the standard a 2.8L V6.


This one has certainly seen better days, with some loose trim, scratches, rust spots, and a large dent behind the passenger’s side door. Other than that though, the body seemed clean and original, with the chrome trim glistening in the afternoon sun. While not flawless, the navy metallic paint didn’t look half bad for being twenty-five years old.


The interior was a sadder story. The once lustrous burled beechwood trim was now deeply faded. The driver’s seat, likely worn to shreds, was covered by a seat pad. Typical in Volvos of this vintage, this 780 featured a crack in the upper dash and gaps between dash panels forming due to heat-induced warping. The driver’s door panel also looked to have sustained some wear-and-tear through the years.


Despite its rather dirty appearance, the rest of the interior leather looked remarkably good for its age, with no visible cracks or tears. Wear-and-tear was the overall theme of its interior, although a good interior detailing could do wonders for this car.


For its last model year, 1991, the 780 nomenclature was dropped, with Volvo simply calling the car “Coupe”. Volvo would not offer another coupe in its lineup until the 1997 C70. Unlike the flagship 780, the C70 was positioned lower in Volvo’s lineup. Its lower price and available convertible model undoubtably made it a much more successful car in terms of sales volume.

Volvo Concept Coupe

As is happens, Volvo has recently unveiled a concept model, simply named “Concept Coupe”. While Volvo hasn’t officially announced whether or not it will be put into production, there have been rumors circulating that the car could be put into limited production by none other than Bertone. With beautiful P1800-influenced styling, let’s hope this breathtaking concept becomes Volvo’s next flagship coupe.

780 red Volvo Cars North America

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1990 Volvo 780