There are generalists and there are specialists. Some carmakers can pretty much do anything well. Take Toyota, Ford or Mercedes: anything from taxis to racecars, no specific body style, etc. – those are the generalists. On the specialist side, Rolls-Royce do luxury, Porsches are by definition sporty, Daihatsus are small and cheap, and so on. And Volvos, which belong to that second group, are… not like the C70.
I think it’s fair to say that Volvo were never renowned for sporty coupés and stylish convertibles, but more for their always solid and occasionally boxy saloons and wagons. Well, there is one major asterisk to that axiom, and that is the P1800. As a sporty-looking coupé (and eventually a short-lived but utterly glorious shooting brake), it’s a real oddity in the Swedish carmaker’s portfolio, the exception that proves the rule.
After the P1800 ended its 12-season run in 1973, Volvo did not have a follow-up stand-alone bespoke coupé to propose. Instead, they got Bertone to chop a 264 into a slightly smaller box, creating the 1977-81 Volvo 262C. Then, they did it again with the 780, made from 1986 to 1991. These were definitely not anything like the P1800, which looked nothing like the Amazon. These were clearly derived from the Volvo saloons – the family resemblance, despite the Bertone badge, was unmistakable.
It’s worth noting that neither of these two Bertone barges were all that commercially successful – certainly compared to the P1800, which did wonders for Volvo’s image as well. So after the 780 went out of production, the folks in Gothenburg went back to the drawing board. Thinking outside the box for once, they took notice of the turn towards bio design that the times had taken and came up with the positively curvaceous (for a Volvo) C70.
Volvo, by luck or by design, recaptured the P1800’s spirit by teaming up with a British firm to actually build the car. And not unlike the P1800’s Jensen deal, which ended in prematurely and tears, the C70’s development, undertaken jointly by Volvo and by Oxford-based touring car specialist Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR), was rocky and was dissolved prior to the car’s launch. At least Volvo spared themselves the logistical nightmare of repatriating a production line back to Sweden and TWR’s design and suspension work proved fruitful. The Volvo side of the equation, in terms of design, was coincidentally headed by another Brit: Peter Horbury was Volvo’s chief designer from 1991 to 2002.
Volvo launched the C70 at the 1996 Paris Motor Show, just as a new crop of big 2-to-3-litre European coupés was on its way. The late ‘90s brought forth the likes of the Peugeot 406 Coupé, the Mercedes W208 CLK, the BMW E46 or the Lancia Kappa, all sleek products of their design era. The Volvo was part of that changing of the guard: the older generation, such as the Rover 800, the VW Corrado or the Opel Calibra, all disappeared without clear successors in their respective ranges.
Using the smaller FWD platform rather than the ageing RWD one was a no-brainer. The C70 was not supposed to be a Japanese driftmobile or a Scandinavian Jaguar, more of a comfortable cruiser. Engine options went from an economical 2-litre for certain markets to 2.3 and 2.4 litre turbocharged motors – all of them 5-cyl., ranging from 170 to 245 hp.
In 1997, a drop-top version was added to the range. This was Volvo’s first production convertible and it soon took over the limelight. As another nod to the P1800, a pre-production coupé was featured in the movie version of The Saint, but generally speaking, the C70 really blossomed with its top down. Volvo even quit making the coupé by 2002 to focus on the convertible only for another three years, after a facelift that the coupé never got.
It follows that fewer coupés were sold than convertibles (about 26,000 versus almost 47,000), but the real comparison ought to be the 262C (6622 units made) and the 780 (just over 8500). And on that score, the C70 clearly shows that, after have failed twice to break into the high-end two-door club, Volvo got there on the third try.
For once, this is one car I vividly remember seeing for the first time in person. The first one I saw up close was in early March 1997 at the Geneva Motor Show. The sleek, un-Volvo-like appearance of this car was something of a revolution. No Volvo had ever looked like this in my (admittedly short) lifetime. What was next, a mid-engined V12-powered supercar? Well, no. The prancing moose never did materialize – Volvo merely added a line of two-door personal luxury cars to their range that lasted two generations over a decade and a half, and that was that.
The second generation C70, complete with its predictable but oh-so-fashionable power tin-top, was made from 2006 to 2013 and sold even better than the first iteration. This did not matter to Volvo’s new Chinese owners, who preferred to re-focus the brand on saloons, SUVs and crossovers. It was great while it lasted, though. The Volvo C70, especially the first generation coupé, broke the mold that the Swedish marque had boxed themselves in for over twenty years. And that’s something to prance about.
Classic CARmentary: 1998 Volvo C70 Coupe, by Adam Dixon
COAL: #9 2000 Volvo C70 – Drop the Top, by Connor Kleck
COAL: #15 1998 Volvo C70 Coupe – Let’s Drive By Wire, by Connor Kleck