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Hip to be Square: How the 700 Series Saved Volvo

Welcome to the 1970s. Volvo, a leader in its class for reliable, safe and wallet-friendly family vehicles, was looking forward to a profitable and successful decade. In 1974, however, the oil crisis turned the auto industry upside down, disrupting sales and causing many companies to shut their doors. With surging gas prices, a weakened economy and widespread panic over potential fuel shortages, Americans were ready for an automotive game changer. Volvo was beginning to struggle in keeping up with the evolving market. However, the Swedish company charged ahead through a series of embarrassing recalls, plunging sales, overestimated demand and near-disasterous failures. At a time when the world was making the switch to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, Volvo-now severely in debt-was searching for a hail Mary. Volvo was desperate to come up with a model that would move the brand into a more profitable market category. While the record-setting 200 series- with it’s cult-like popularity and rigorous safety requirements-became an industry standard, consumers were ready for an upgrade. 

After a year of debilitating auto industry hardships, Volvo was attempting to move forward to salvage it’s reputation and rebuild it’s business. As car buyers’ wants and needs were shifting to value, fuel efficiency and environmental impact, Volvo desperately needed to step up it’s game and produce a premium car. 

In 1975, under the lead of Hakan Frisinger and Hans Gustavsson, a group of engineers introduced the NV80 and NV81 projects. With new specs in mind, the team began their market research to produce a car that would not only surpass industry standards, but would also fulfill the changing needs and requirements of the public. 

The new car was to be smaller than the 200 series and 220 pounds lighter. It’s wheelbase, however, was extended by about four inches to ensure greater legroom and more space for passengers. The boxy design of the 200 series was to be upgraded to a more modern version with rounded corners on the body and a more ergonomic interior. The trusty engines of the 200 series were essentially the same in this new car, aside from a few minor improvements. The new design also inherited the rear wheel drive layout and underpinnings of the 200s-two features that largely contributed to the 200’s popularity. Featuring turbo diesels, fuel injection, and a suspended rear axle to reduce road noise, the engineers’ focus was to make this new car competitive against higher-classed vehicles. 

After much deliberation, 50 different designs and eight clay prototypes, Volvo settled on a mock up by their lead designer Jan Wilsgaard, and the project was renamed P31. 

However, the hardships were far from over for Volvo. With 43,000 large and boxy gas-guzzling family cars still waiting to be sold in the US alone, and a one million dollar production loan rejected by the Swedish government, Volvo management was forced to take desperate measures to ensure their survival. After a merge with another Swedish manufacturer, Saab, ultimately fell through in 1977, the launch of the car was postponed. The name was once more changed to Project 1155 (meaning five minutes to twelve), as it was unsure if they would have the time and resources to continue. With finances dwindling and a tight budget, they were forced to get creative. In 1978, engineers finally had a drivable prototype, but were still short on funds. In what would have been a groundbreaking deal with the Norwegian government, Volvo was given the right to drill for oil in the North Sea and sell it under the Volvo name. However, due to underwhelming support from shareholders, the deal fell through and Project 1155 was on the verge of collapse once again. 

In yet another board meeting, Frisinger pushed for the completion of the car, stating that cancelling the introduction of the vehicle would be a huge waste of already spent funds.  Frisinger ultimately convinced Volvo to proceed with production under the new name of Project 01. In 1980, the VCC, or Volvo concept car (an estate version based on the Project 01 vehicle), was shown to the public. It was tested in Sweden, the Australian Outback and the Rocky Mountains in extreme heat and cold for drivability, safety as well as new emissions control requirements. The public response was overwhelmingly positive. 

In February of 1982, Volvo introduced the Project 01 luxury vehicle under the name 760 GLE: a four door saloon with a B28E PRV V6 engine delivering 156bhp and electronic fuel injection made by Bosch. It featured an automatic gearbox, power steering, electric windows, sunroof and mirrors, heated leather seats and alloy wheels, making it competitive with higher priced luxury vehicles. 

Despite being well-built and affordable, the professional feedback was less than stellar. European reviewers felt that the 760 was still too boxy, and didn’t align with the fashionable car designs of the time. Gordon Murray of Autocar Magazine stated: “To me, it’s obscene. That goes right against the grain of what everybody else is trying to do. To me it looks like a European version of a North American car. It produces the same amount of power as a 2600 or 3500 — in this day and age it disgusts me to see something about like that. It is a definite step backwards.”

However, popular opinion shifted when representatives from Autocar, Car and Driver and Road and Track magazines took the 760 out for a test drive. They all agreed that, while the design wasn’t beautiful, it’s handling, durability and performance were exemplary. 

In addition to the B28 PRV engine, in 1983 the 760 became available in limited markets with a 6 cylinder TD24 turbo-charged diesel engine. This engine delivered 109bhp and 151 lbs of torque. In 1983, Volvo released the 760 Turbo, with a 4 cylinder B23ET that boasted fast acceleration, going from 0-60 in under 8 seconds. Volvo used it’s speed as a marketing technique, testing the car against more expensive luxury brands. In a 0-60 acceleration test against the Porsche 944, the 760 station wagon won. 

In 1984, two years after the release of the 760, it is less luxurious, lower-end counterpart- the 740- was introduced to the public. The 740 was available as a four-door saloon (the 744) and later as a five-door station wagon. It was substantially cheaper than it’s 760 predecessor and featured less bells and whistles, as Volvo was looking to close the gap between the 240 series and the 760 series. However, the 740 base model still came equipped with power steering, central locking and heated seats as standard. The 740 was equipped with a 4 cylinder engine, offering less power, but better fuel economy. It was available with a B23A carburetor engine or a B23E fuel-injected engine. 

Estate versions of both the 760 and 740 were added in 1985, as the 765 and 745, respectively. The 760 featured an electronic traction control system as well as standard anti-lock brakes in many models. The introduction of the estate would launch Volvo into the spot of leading station wagon manufacturer in its size class. In Italy, 1985 also brought the introduction of an intercooled version of the 2-liter turbo engine in the 740, as larger engines were heavily taxed. Additionally, the most exclusive of the 700 series was presented at the Geneva Motor Show: the 780. 

The 780 was a two door, four-seater coupe, essentially replacing the 262C Bertone coupe, which was phased out in 1981. Also designed by the Italian company Bertone, the expensive 780 combined elegant, sleek design with a lavish interior. The roof, hood and trunk lines were lowered, with a gradual slope to the trunk, streamlining the well-known tank look associated with Volvo. It had chrome features, improved headroom and a matte black trim. With all of the features of the 760, plus climate control, wooden interior trim, electric adjustable seats, cruise control and standard ABS brakes and eventually a driver’s side airbag, the 780 projected Volvo into a higher market. 

The first two years that the 780 was available globally, it featured a B280F V6 engine and independent rear suspension. The engine output was later increased from 150 PS to 175 and then 188. 

The most drastic and extensive changes to the 700 series were made in 1987 (1988 model year). A multilink independent rear suspension became available on the 760 and 780, in addition to a more stylized front body. This included recessed windshield wipers, aluminum hood, aerodynamic headlights, a revised dashboard, tilt-steering and a new stereo system, among many other modifications. ABS brakes were offered as an option on the 740. 

I’m 1989, the 4 cylinder B204GT and the B204FT engines were introduced on the 740, with 16 valves, an intercooler and a turbocharger that provided up to 200 horsepower. Volvo decided against a powerful 2.3 liter engine, but even with the 2 liter engine, the 740 was still able to beat the Audi 100 and the Mercedes 230 in speed and performance tests. 

The 740’s front styling was updated in 1990 with composite headlamps and 780-style tail lights. It was also fitted with an upgraded Mitsubishi TD04 series engine and a new fuel system. 1990 was the last year for the 760, however, but the 740 continued production.

In 1991, the trusty 740 received a dashboard update. 1991 was the end of the line for the 780, which was discontinued this year. However, the 740 pressed on until production ceased in October of 1992, with 1993 being the last model year.  The 740 engine, chassis, transmission carried over into the Volvo 940. 

The 700 series of cars took Volvo from the brink of bankruptcy to a new level of car production. For an entire decade, the cars set the safety standard for vehicles at the time, surpassed expectations in the power and speed categories all the while staying loyal to Volvo’s brand of trusty, affordable family cars.