(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.
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.
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.
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.
Seeing as these were built at the Bertone factory in Torino, Italy, the 780s were somehow even more rust-prone than the regular 700/900 Series cars.
Brendan – the final model year of the 780 (or “Coupe,” as they were called) was actually 1991. Production of the car ended in December 1990, with only 400 cars bound for the U.S. These vehicles are now coveted by the Volvo faithful because they have the updated B230FT engine – the troublesome PRV was finally gone for good.
Yes, my mistake. It seems that Perry fixed it in the meantime.
I have photos of a 1991 Coupe I found at a K-Mart. But as I knew Brendan was doing this CC, it will have to wait a bit. I am pretty sure it was the same Coupe I used to see in downtown Rock Island. The original owner owned the local dinner theater downtown. He traded it in on a silver gen1 S40. I couldn’t believe how much he had traded down! No S60 or S80?!
A gen1 S40??! You’re probably referring to the Dutch-built “Nedcar” S40 that was sold in the U.S. from 2000-04. Those are horrid cars.
The original owner of that ’91 Bertone should’ve traded it on something like, say, an ’07-up S80 if he wanted to stay with those elegant big Volvos. Really.
Well he traded the car probably in 2002 or so, so the S40 was a new car. But I really was shocked he didn’t get a new C70 coupe or S80. It was definitely his though, as it had the same personalized plate the Coupe had.
They are the most popular car in this town. I know that sounds far fetched, but they are somehow ALL OVER THE PLACE.
Nice find, Brendan. I am sure to learn a lot this week – starting with this piece. I had no idea that these were so rare. I’m glad you recognized it, I might have just let it blend into all of the rest of the square Volvos in the background.
Last one of these I’ve seen was in the U-pull yard. I always thought these had a very cozy looking interior, the seats seem to look super comfortable. This and the Allante featured here on CC today both come with styling from Italian houses of Pinnin and Bertone, and an interesting contrast, both came out around 1987, both have crisp yet elegant edges, showing that round and aero bubble cars hadn’t fully consumed the industry, yet.
I think the most interesting aspect about these is the insanity in building such completely unique sheetmetal, yet having the result look so much like a regular Volvo. Even the headlamps and taillights are completely unique, not shared with any other model. And to such a cost. I think the price in Sweden was twice that of a regular 760, and even those were the most expensive cars in the line-up. Why, oh why couldn’t they make it more interesting when they had the chance, and to that cost?
They probably thought it would make a bigger splash in the US and that its conservative styling would successfully link it with the 760.
If it had come out closer to the 740/760 intro, around 1984-1985, it probably would have,
If had come out before, it would have been an even better entree to the new styling idiom.
True, that would have been even smarter.
Comparisons to the Allanté (q.v.) and Chrysler TC by Maserati would seem apt here…
How would the Peugeot 504 coupe or Fiat 130 coupe measure up as a basis of comparison?
Both of those were dramatically different from their sedan counterparts, at first glance you would be forgiven for not realizing they were based on the same cars.
“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.”
I’ve seen a 780 (they were never sold in Australia) and I would add the qualifier “a little” to each of the changes Brendan noted. The difference is much more apparent in the flesh than in photographs, but if they had taken things a bit further eg in the windscreen angle and made the new lights look substantially different from the sedan units they might have been more successful. Eg why not angle the headlights back slightly?
The 780 most resembles a slightly larger Maserati Biturbo.
Italy has always been the place for boutique car making. There are so many makers that outsourced production of smaller lines to Italy, because they simply hadn’t the room, the time, or know how for small scale production.
I don’t know about production figures for the 504 coupe, I would guess they are in the low hundred thousands. But the 780 could be compared to the 130 Coupe, with its roughly 4000 cars made. Or even with the Lancia Flaminia Coupe, with similar figures.
The difference is that it was relatively cheap to make specials with unique sheet metal based on mass production cars in the 60’s and 70’s, while the production cost for manual labour had risen to punitive levels in the 80’s. I guess the 780 was the last hurrah, together with perhaps the Cadillac Allanté.
It makes for a nice 740 two-door sedan!
As Ingvar’s article earlier today pointed out, the two-door sedan was traditionally the “cheap” Volvo in Sweden while in the US its’ resemblance to the pre-facelift GM J and A body two-doors can’t have helped with well-heeled buyers looking for exclusivity.
Well the 780s cost around $36k when they first came to the U.S. in 1987. That was a lot of money, even for a Volvo, back then.
To put it in perspective, a relative of mine paid just $13k for a new Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme in ’87. But unlike the Cutlass, the 780s were built to a high standard of quality instead of a price.
In true Italian fashion, there are no visible body seams. I have to check in person, but all the seams seems welded. At least the sail panel, where a small trim hides the seam between the roof and quarter panel on the regular 760. The Italians are crazy for details like that, and it probably involved a lot of hand labour.
You’re correct on that one – the 780s were virtually hand-built in Torino and it showed in every example ever made.
I wish my relative’s Cutlass Supreme were of higher quality but alas, it was thrown together with relatively slapdash assembly methods in Detroit.
Yes, these were quite expensive. Lundahl Volvo did get in a few of them–Mike’s wife drove a wine red 780 Turbo for a while–and I remember a sticker price of about 40K in the late ’80s. For comparison, in 1988 my dad got a new 740 Turbo sedan, bright red with tan leather. It was about $25,000, a fair chunk of change back then, so I can see why few ponied up for the $15K dearer 780.
As a toddler I was vaguely aware of Volvos during that time but I remember hearing about the 780s when they first came out. Even then I knew that it was an exclusive car.
Back then I frequented the local Chevy-Pontiac-Oldsmobile dealer in our town because my parents had a less-than-stellar ’87 Cutlass Ciera that was constantly needing repairs. I vividly remember comparing the then-new Cutlass Supremes, the Ninety Eights and Toronados. I didn’t care much for the latter two cars and I felt that they weren’t worth the $10k-$15k premium over the older RWD Cutlasses (which were more durable BTW).
Yes, I can attest to that with this one I found. Despite its imperfections from wear and tear, all body panels and trim seemed to fit perfectly with no gaps or imperfections.
Seconded. Despite 168,000 miles, the panel fit and both interior and exterior finish on mine are still excellent, and there are *no* creaks or rattles when driving over rough roads. These were built to a very high standard.
Minor correction: The Acura Legend coupe didn’t arrive until midway through the 1987 model year. The coupe was introduced about 15 months after the sedan.
It was also much, much less expensive than the 780, FWIW.
Thank you. It is fixed now. Looks like I’m succumbing too much to my own chronological instinct and not doing enough fact checking for years 🙂
If it makes you feel any better, the only reason I knew that is that I was looking at Honda’s press information (in Japanese!) on the first-gen Legend a few weeks ago.
Nice coverage, Brendan. By the time this vehicle was being produced, Bertone was employing 2000 workers and had an output capacity in their factory of 25,000 cars a year. The agreement between Bertone and Volvo was a 50% division of costs and profits, so I think the conservative styling had much to do with the bottom line and trying to sell as many units as possible.
It should be kept in mind that it was the production of Wacky Arnolt’s MGs and Bristols for the US market back in the 50s and 60s that actually saved Bertone from going under back then. Money for styling is nothing compared with the income from production. When you’ve got financial skin in the game, sometimes you err on the side of caution.
I think its a very handsome car, but really not differentiated enough from its bread and butter siblings.
I love the styling – inside and out – of the 780. Very elegant, it took the crisp Volvo style of the time to the best possible conclusion.
I do agree that it was handsome. And a clean, well-cared for, good-running original would still appeal to me.
Nice car! I remember seeing one of these for the first time, about 10 years ago in Memphis. Up til then, the only Volvos Id ever seen were the boxy and commonplace sedans and wagons that litter suburbia. In other words, I paid them no real attention. Upon seeing a burgundy 780 in really nice shape, I took notice. A cleanly styled and handsome 2 door coupe is just my kind of car. Just a shame we didn’t get the turbo 16v with the manual trans on these….
I would so love to have one of the later 16V turbo models. Didn’t realize they were automatic-only in the U.S., though… that’s a little disappointing, and surprising since even the 740Ti wagons could be had with a third pedal in those years. I also didn’t realize they were anywhere near this rare. I’ve seen quite a few, including (at least) a couple with the “COUPE” badge on the decklid.
I don’t know if they made a ton of sense at the time, due to being so pricey and so visually similar to the regular 700-series… but, to me at least, they certainly do now. This is such a good looking car, and parked next to a 740 sedan I think the subtle differences would jump out at us. At the very least, Volvo could write it off as washing that bad taste from the 262C out of their mouths.
That new coupe concept looks extremely BMW-ey in the front.
Interesting side note from Wikipedia: In the Italian market, originally only the Volkswagen built D24TIC was to be offered, with 129 PS (95 kW), but soon the V6 also became available…
In other words, there was a brief moment where this very expensive and heavy Volvo was only sold to Italians with a 130HP Volkswagen straight-6 turbodiesel! Wonder how many of those they built…
The 740 and 940 sedans weighed a good 400 lbs less, too.
As in Japan, Italy imposed really punitive taxes on gasoline engines over 2.0 liters (since replaced by CO2-based rules, I assume), which is why even a lot of fairly large cars were offered with 2-liter engines in that market. There were sometimes bigger sixes or even V-8s, but those were pricey enough to limit them to real high rollers, so offering only bigger gasoline engines was kind of a commercial death sentence except for very exotic cars. (The fact that even Ferrari offered a 1,991 cc version of its V-8 for the home market 208 GT4 and 308 GTB/GTS speaks volumes!)
Also, it was a smart move, because the 780 was vey popular in Italy, relatively speaking. I think it was one of the biggest markets, after the US, Sweden, and perhaps Germany. Or if Italy was even higher. I guess they took pride in it being made in Italy, because large and expensive cars have never been popular there. Also, the Italians have always had a penchant for understated luxury, especially in the 70’s/80’s, with all the terrorist threats, and so on. Unconspicious consumtion, in a way.
That straight six 2.4 liter turbo diesel was basically a truck engine from the Volkswagen LT vans and light trucks. I’ve read in an ad that only 680 Volvos 780 Coupe were built with the diesel engine.
Perfectly normal now, an expensive (“premium”) coupe or sedan with a 6 cylinder diesel. A new Maserati Ghibli has the same VM Motori diesel engine as the Ram 1500 for example.
A very attractive car indeed. I can’t help but think it looks like a slightly squared off Maserati Biturbo, however.
I was writing the same thing above while you posted! While the styling on the Maserati is slightly preferable to me, being more expressive than the Volvo, the ownership prospects swing so far in the other direction…
And the Biturbo looks even more Cavalier-like than the Volvo.
I want to disagree, but I cannot!
I always liked the lines of the 780 coupe. I admit I am partial to “Long, Low, and Linear” as witnessed by my near copy 1987 Buick LeSabre T-Type. Which one friend has likened to a 780 with better proportions. ( I asked where he had read that, it seems familiar)
Nice. I like those H-body coupes.
I know purchasing power varies from nation to nation and that income levels differ and so on. Still, with Danish taxes a baby like this cost more than 100,000 in Denmark when new! 100,000 US dollars, that is.
Well, you gotta pay for all that other “free” stuff somehow……
I thought these were very well designed and handsome cars when they came out – quite different from the 740/760s – but were way too expensive.
I’m a Volvo guy and would like to have one now but it would have to be a pristine example as you’re out of luck getting any body parts. And it would have to be a red block, no “blender” PRV V6 for me………
It’s kind of a sensible shoe version of the Allante! I like both, but my taste in cars can be a bit dodgy.
Tom’s right about it being a b230ft. Aside from the wheels, you can also sort of see the Turbo gauge in the first actual shot of the interior (in the top right of the instrument cluster).
Shameless self-promotion, my 245 with v6 Bertone wheels:
That looks really good with the 780 wheels!
My favorite Volvo, bar none. I’d even take this over a P1800 or 850R. I guess that shows me as the child of the 80’s that I am. But these cars just manage to look great to me from every angle–as has already been mentioned, this is among the “best of the best” of the flat-plane right-angle styling idiom. It just wears the shape like a finely tailored suit. And that interior, too–lovely. A 780 Turbo is pretty far up the list of practical classics that might grace my garage given the chance.
A foreign car specialist in Raleigh had an immaculate one for sale sometime around 2008. If I recall the details it was a ’90 Turbo for something like $8K. Unfortunately, about the most I could have paid for it at the time was $0K as I was quite broke, so that obviously stayed a dream…
CC Effect: Saw a black one at a local shopping center. ’88, looked very clean inside and out, for sale for $2K. Attempting to contact seller.
If it checks out, convincing my wife is going to be the difficult part.
My daughter’s first car was one of these, tbt
I seem to recall these as being priced similar to a Mercedes E-Class coupe. Clean, classic, timeless styling that still looks good.
O, so this is the Tc by Maserati by Volvo? Take your mainstream car, change the lines slightly, have it assembled in italy, and charge a WHACKING lot more for it? Volvo’s previous attempt to make their cars more stylish and premium was the ?262d,? Which answered the demands of people who wanted a regular Volvo, but squashed, fancy, and even more expensive. There weren’t many of those buyers either.
The TC had a nicer interior than any Volvo of the period, as did most K-cars. The 780 had much better proportions than the TC and many Volvos, but it was priced off-scale and never had a decent engine option.
“Finding one today is about as difficult as finding a piece of Ikea furniture whose name can be easily pronounced.”