Curbside Classic: 1991 Volvo 740 Turbo Wagon – Deservedly Legendary

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Prejudice forms early, and in the case of the 700/900-series wagons, I had a serious bias against them from a young age. The luckiest kids were dropped off at elementary school in 740 turbos and were often rather easily defined characters: they had the most expensive Crayola collections, the most elaborately packed lunches, you get the picture. It was a clear case of sour grapes and while I hated crayons and I didn’t know what an intercooler was, these wagons, with their large side glass, sculpted headrests, chunky door pulls and modern font adorning their tailgates looked slick and I secretly wanted one. Even today, they are easily my favorite Volvos and would be my first choice for restoration and personal use.

That the 240s were built for a full year after the 740 left production and continue to be more sought after today shows everything wrong with Volvo’s image at the time, since the more advanced car represents the pinnacle of the brand’s traditional characteristics. A friend once remarked that the 700/900 series were like the 240 with “all the stupid taken out,” and I have to agree. Not only are they safe, durable, fun to drive and comfortable, they were dynamically compentent, well-packaged and plush in a way the their forebears couldn’t manage.

In fact, one could say the 700 and 900-series cars never got the praise they fully deserved.  When they debuted in 1982, journalists were quite open in their disapproval of the newest Volvo’s styling and, to be fair, the car left something to be desired when equipped with the PRV V6.  The basic tenor of the 760’s reception was along the lines of, “fifteen years for an all-new platform and this is what you give us?”

When looking at early conceptual sketches of the newest Volvo, let alone the new 760’s contemporaries, it’s easy to understand the disappointment.

Even though the wagon didn’t enter production until 1984 (first as a 760, then as a 740 the following year), the final design chosen was conceived first as a long roof, as reflected by its immeasurably cleaner and leaner look.  And when fitted with the boosted B-series four-cylinder, also debuting in 1984, they were much faster than the PRV versions, as well as the 240 Turbo.

So while the sedans were seen as stodgy, and the 240-series, rustic and friendly, at least the 700/900 series wagons, especially in turbo form, fulfilled their objective as both a big seller and a status symbol.  With Scandinavian modern interiors and torquey performance, this reputation was well-earned.

As any gearhead worth his or her salt will tell you, however, their appeal was multi-dimensional.  Far from being mere cultural icons, these ultimate rear-drive Volvos took to modification very well.  At 2.3 liters, the four-cylinders were already large enough to offer good torque on their own and were very mildly turbocharged.  With their stout internals, they could take much more boost very easily and weren’t hard to turn into rockets.  Gothenburg wouldn’t fully actualize its penchant for turbo madness until the 850 came out, but those cars couldn’t be boosted quite as recklessly.

If the engine block could take aggressive turbocharging well, the chassis was similarly well-suited to stiffening.  A well-located, judiciously damped live axle rear suspension is arguably better than more primitive independent rear suspensions, and at a time when stability control didn’t exist, with BMW, Peugeot and Mercedes selling cars with rear semi-trailing arms, Volvo’s “Control Track” axle was a great design, eliminating jacking in corners and track changes throughout the suspension’s travel and saving lots of space.

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High unsprung weight and soft suspension meant a lot of heaving over big bumps, as with any relatively light car with a live axle, but these cars are a set of springs and shocks away from genuine precision; no need to upgrade rolling stock.  And as those sixteen-inch meat-slicers wheels fill out the fenderwells so nicely, why bother?  Even at 24 years of age, a nice set of IPD springs and Bilsteins would make a good investment for this wagon.

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If you feel I’m gushing a bit too much, I apologize, but I doubt this car’s owner would be any less effusive in his praise.  Turbocharged rear-drive Volvos have a devoted following and by the looks of this scene (captured by Paul, if you couldn’t tell) the owner is a well-informed fanatic, with an early round-headlight 242 Turbo to complement this wagon.  It’s an ideal pairing.

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The slanted grille, front fog lamps, solid headrests and revised dash mean this wagon is a 1991 or 1992; basically, it’s the pinnacle of the four-cylinder rear-drive Volvo’s evolution in the US.  1991 was unfortunately the last year a manual transmission was available, but boost was turned up for 1990, and reinforced side-impact protection (SIPS) debuted for 1992 (1991 was also the only year of the 940 SE sedan, with its elusive combo of independent rear suspension and red-block turbo four).

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By 1994, the 940 would be decontented in preparation for its final year of US sales in 1995 (they lasted until 1998 elsewhere).  The 700/900 series lasted in 960 (later S90) form until 1998, with many changes under the conservative skin, but most people will tell you that the ones to own are the live-axle suspended turbo fours.

The 700 and 900 series cars were overall a mixed success.  Many were built, and many were loved, but they were seen as unimaginative when introduced and coincided with the company’s flagging image as the ’80s drew to a close.  For many who didn’t know much about cars, there was little awareness of the car’s well-hidden dynamic capabilities, and for those who were into the image of Volvos as safe, reliable workhorses, there was always the 240 sitting next to the 740s and 940s in the showroom.  And to be fair, despite their comfort, solidity and safety, the 760s and 960s didn’t have the refinement or style to really mix with the German establishment and the Japanese upstarts.  The wagons, simultaneously better looking and unburdened by the demands of sex appeal, were well-insulated from these concerns.

In fact, it’s really shocking to realize there’s no real replacement for this car in Volvo’s current line-up.  The V60 is more of a compact wagon, and everything else is in the company’s line-up is an SUV or an SUV-pretender.  The Volvo wagon made it through most of the 2000s with its dignity and image intact, even as its sedan counterparts struggled to make a good case for themselves against flashier competition.  There are too many reasons for the Volvo wagon’s demise to discuss here, but it is sorely missed.  And for the Volvo faithful, there’s really no topping the 700/900 turbo wagons–it’s the ultimate brick.

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