Curbside Classic: 1989 Volvo 780 – Rectilinear Luxury By Bertone

(first posted 4/8/2012)     After the Volvo 1800 series was discontinued in 1973, Volvo had a hard time getting back into the specialty coupe business. Their next attempt to get back into that market was the Bertone-designed and built 262C, but its sales were about as low as its chopped top. The 780 was Volvo’s (and Bertone’s) second try at a luxury Volvo coupe.

After the 1800ES said goodbye in 1973, Volvo decided they needed something a little more sporty than their bread and butter sedans and wagons. The result was the 262C, which was designed by the Italian coachbuilder Bertone. It featured a radically chopped top and luxurious leather-swathed interior that would not have looked out of place on a Mark V or Eldorado. As it was based on the luxury 260 line, it was saddled with the less-than-stellar PRV V6. While it provided Volvo with a limited edition top-of-the-line vehicle, sales were never very high and it was discontinued after the 1981 model year.

The new Volvo 760GLE was introduced to the press in Monte Carlo in February of 1982. While there, Volvo executives took the opportunity to visit the nearby Bertone facility. Bertone had not only designed the 262C, they also assembled the cars from Swedish components. Volvo was hardly the first manufacturer to take advantage of Bertone’s production capabilities; they had also built the Lamborghini Miura and Espada, the Lancia Stratos, and the Fiat X1/9. Ultimately, Volvo gave the green light for Bertone to create a new flagship coupe based on the 760. The finished product, the 780, was unveiled in Spring of 1985.

While the 780 looked quite a bit like the 760 from which it was derived, not one exterior panel was shared with it. Under the skin, though, there was much in common, particularly the engine, transmission and suspension components. The 780 was originally offered with two engines. The first engine, meant primarily for the European market, was a 2.4L turbo diesel. It produced 129 hp at 4800 rpm (DIN figures). Zero to 100 km/h was achieved in 10.5 seconds. The other engine, which was supposed to be for the US market, was a smaller version of the 2849 cc PRV V6. The 2458 cc engine included a turbo with intercooler and 163 hp, with a 0-100 km/h of nine seconds. Despite all the work put into this engine, it was never put into production, and North American 780s received the same 2.8L V6 as their 760 brethren.

As would be expected of its top-of-the-line status, the 780 was the most expensive Volvo, retailing between $35,000 and $40,000 during its production run. For that lofty price, you got a limited edition coupe with a very long list of standard equipment. Two-tone leather (later available in solid colors too), beautiful wood trim, Nivomat self-leveling rear suspension and power everything was standard. Anti-lock brakes were also included.

The 780 was never intended to be a high-volume vehicle. Indeed, the reason Volvo contracted production to Bertone was to take advantage of their greater efficiency with low-volume vehicle runs. This car would have cost Volvo a lot more money if they had built it themselves. The price was another factor. My dad got a new 1988 740 Turbo, and it was about $25,000, a not-inconsiderable sum at the time. A 780 would have been at least another ten grand, big money in the late ’80s. 35K translates to about $67K in 2012 dollars, a lot of money for a Volvo.

As expected, 780s were not frequently seen on the street. Production for the 1987, 1988 and 1989 model years were 2035, 2334 and 2166, respectively. My dad was buddies with the Volvo dealer in Moline, and I don’t think I ever saw more than two or three 780s back when they were new cars.

Not much changed during the production run, but in 1989 a Turbo model was added. It produced 175 hp at 5400 rpm and 187 lb ft of torque. It also added lacy-spoke alloy wheels to differentiate it from the V6 780. By now the V6 was making 145 hp.

Mike Lundahl, the dealer in Moline, naturally drove just about every model of Volvo, but I never saw him in a 780. He actually preferred 240 and 740 wagons, as he frequently went duck hunting and always took his golder retriever, Jack, with him. A wagon was essential. However, I did see his wife driving a 780 one time in about 1990. It was a Turbo and very pretty in metallic burgundy with a saddle tan leather interior. I only saw her drive it once, as she preferred the wagons too, and usually had a white 740 or 760 wagon.

By 1990, the 780’s time was just about up. The Turbo model was quite an improvement in performance and reliability compared to the PRV V6, but sales didn’t really go up with its introduction. Just 1300 were made for 1990. The 760 had received a new. more aerodynamic nose in 1988, (the 740 got a similar treatment in 1990) and the 780 didn’t, so now it wasn’t the most modern looking Volvo either.

For 1991, the 780 was renamed the Coupe. Little else changed, although some 780s received a chrome vertical-bar grille. The one 780 I regularly saw was a black-on-black 1991 Turbo, owned by the owner of Circa ’21, a downtown dinner theater. It had the chrome grille, and I never saw another one with it. It was a regular fixture in downtown Rock Island between 1997 and about 2000. For some reason he traded it in on a first-generation S40, the one that was based on the Mitsubishi Carisma. I never figured that one out. Why didn’t he get a C70 or S80? At any rate, I never saw that 780 again.

The 780 had a long life, but only 8518 were built in six model years. Despite this, Volvo probably sold a lot of 240s and 740s to folks who came in to ogle a 780. Its successor (of sorts), the C70, would not come out for another five years, but would be much more affordable and built by Volvo, not Bertone. Our featured car, which Paul found, appears to be a 1989 or ’90 as it has the driver’s side airbag but the 780 decklid badge (’91s would have a ‘COUPE’ emblem instead. Any 780 is a rare find today, so thanks for providing the pics, Paul!