Throughout the 1980s, Volvo was a very square automaker, in both the figurative and literal senses. Its 200 and 700 Series sedans and wagons were durable, comfortable, practical, and very square in their styling. While charming in their own conservative ways and a rational choice in European car, Volvos of this era were hardly the cars that turned many heads or stirred many emotions. Nevertheless, Volvo did have at least one vehicle in the 1980s that oozed sex appeal — the ultra low-production 780 coupe.
Most sources cite only 8,518 examples produced globally, though Volvo Bertone registry claims this number is 11,905 total, — either way, the odds of encountering two of them together are not favorable, and more so, what are the odds I did within minutes of getting behind the wheel of another 2-door Volvo for the first time ever?
This rare sighting occurred in a part of the Massachusetts I seldom find myself in, a result of personally delivering my client’s new car to their home to save them another 2.5 hour round trip back to the dealer as a malfunctioning adaptive headlamp prevented them from taking the car home with them when they signed paperwork. Upon dropping off their new MINI, I was handed over their well-maintained 2011 Volvo C70 to drive back in, and headed out to Route 20 (Boston Post Road) that would take me back to I-95. Little did I know, in just a few minutes I was about to encounter not one but two examples of a far rarer 2-door Volvo.
Truthfully, I can only recall ever seeing the elusive 780 twice in my life before. One of those such I was fortunate enough to capture on camera, as it was parked behind my car, so now I can say I’ve photographed three of the four Volvo 780s I’ve ever encountered. While the other two appeared daily driven, this white 1989 and black 1990 sadly stand rusting away together, showing no signs of recent movement with wheels buried in sand, and sporting inspection and registration stickers last valid a decade ago.
Debuting in Europe in 1985 as a 1986 model, with North American sales commencing the following year, the 780 was Volvo’s spiritual successor to the 262C — the Swedish automaker’s first “personal luxury coupe” (if one does not count the sports-oriented P1800). Like the 262C, the 780 was outsourced to the Italian coachbuilder Bertone for both design and production.
Yet while the 262C was a rather ill-proportioned, ill-positioned “Brougham-ified” Volvo, taking inspiration from American personal luxury coupes like the Lincoln Continental Mark Series, the 780 more appropriately drew heavier influence from other European luxury coupes such as the Mercedes-Benz C123/C124 (E-Class) and BMW E24 (6 Series).
Conceived as an exclusive, stylish low-production sports coupe marketed as “an exotic automobile for the practical consumer”, the Volvo 780 was unveiled to the public at the 1985 Geneva Motor Show, with production soon beginning in September 1985 in Turin, Italy. Low-production it was with only 8,518 or 11,905 (once again, depending on who you believe) produced for global sales over five years, and I’m willing to bet only several hundred at most are still in existence in the United States.
Sharing the same wheelbase, suspension, and drivetrain as the 760 sedan, despite the strong visual resemblance, the 780 coupe shared no body panels with any other 700 Series sedan or wagon — a key difference between its “chopped roof” 262C predecessor. Keeping familial ties to the 740/760 sedans and wagons, Bertone gave the 780 a 1-inch lower roof, gentler sloping front and rear windshields, lower hood and trunk, and slimmer headlights and taillights, owing to its sleeker, sexier appearance.
As the flagship model of the 700 Series and entire Volvo brand, the 780 came complete with every comfort, convenience, and safety option Volvo offered, as well as a exclusive interior finishes not found on other 700 Series cars. Interior occupants were treated to orthopedically-designed 8-way power adjustable and heated front seats, individually sculpted rear seats, fully upholstered in hand-stitched leather. The dashboard and door panels were trimmed in eleven layers of hand rubbed, polished birchwood veneer.
Other standard amenities included automatic climate control, power central locks, interior trunk and fuel door releases, premium 4-speaker sound system with seven-band graphic equalizer, alarm system, power moonroof, and full analogue instrumentation. Standard safety features included an energy-absorbing safety cage construction, drivers side airbag, front and rear head restraints, three-point seat belts for all four passengers, and antilock brakes.
European-spec 780s were initially powered by either a 2.4-liter Volkswagen turbodiesel I6 (127 hp; 184 lb-ft torque) or a 2.8-liter Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6 (147 hp; 173 lb-ft torque), while North America only received the 2.8-liter V6. Select European markets soon received a 2.0-liter turbo I4 (158 hp; 180 lb-ft torque) and later a 16-valve high-output version making 200 horsepower, with the added availability of a 4-speed manual. A 4-speed automatic was the sole transmission for North America.
1989 saw the addition of the 2.3-liter B230FT+ “redblock” turbo I4 making 175 horsepower and 187 lb-ft torque, an engine overhauled for 1990 to make 188 horsepower and 206 lb-ft torque, making it the most powerful car Volvo had ever produced up until that time. This engine would be the sole engine for final-year 1991 North American models.
It’s worth noting that the 780 was never intended as a sports car, despite its robust turbo. Along the likes of the European touring coupes it competed against, the 780 was a grand tourer at its core, providing a taut yet comfortable ride, tight European handling, and brisk acceleration.
Like the concurrent 760, early 780s featured a MacPherson strut front suspension with anti-sway bar, with a constant track rigid live axle rear suspension with anti-sway bar and Nivomat self-leveling shocks. Following the 760’s mid-cycle refresh, 1988 780s gained an multi-link independent rear suspension, losing the anti-sway bar in the process. For its final year, the suspension was further upgraded to match the new 960 sedan, gaining a locking differential, rear anti-sway bar, and a larger front anti-sway bar.
Other updates over the course of the low-volume 780 were minimal, limited to minor equipment, color, and trim details. Coinciding with the 760’s discontinuation in 1990, final 1991-model year 780s lost the “780” designation and were simply badged and marketed as the Volvo “Coupe”.
Intended as a low-volume vehicle from the start, the 780’s price was also a limiting factor to its demand. Starting at $34,785 USD for the 1987 model year ($78,831 adjusted 09/2018), the 780’s base price steadily rose to $41,945 by its final 1991 model year ($78,531 adjusted — oddly enough, due to weakening late-1980s USD).
Make no mistake that the Volvo 780 was a very special car, crafted to a level of excellence, not a budget. In more ways than one, the 780 is car of a bygone era, a living example of the statement “they don’t make them like they used to”. Special also describes this very sighting. There can’t be many 780s left, and finding two together, while driving a newer 2-door Volvo made it all the more incredible.
Photographed in Sudbury, Massachusetts – August 2018
1988 Volvo 780 (COAL)