Collectible Classic: 1987-1991 Volvo 780

Bob Merlis
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Andrew Yeadon
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Save for the "saintly" 1800 sports car, it's not often that the words "collectible," "Volvo," and "classic" are juxtaposed. To the untrained eye, Volvo's 780 is just a two-door version of the boxy Volvo 740/760. The cognoscenti--those few in the know--well, they know that this is a Volvo unlike any other.

That's because it's an Italian Volvo...sort of. Actually wearing a "Made in Italy" label under its hood, the car is an amalgam of Swedish nuts and bolts and the art of Italian carrozzeria. The attraction of Nordic and Mediterranean opposites is hardly without precedent. Think of Anita Ekberg romping, hip deep, in the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita or, for that matter, Ingrid Bergman's once-scandalous liaison with Roberto Rossellini resulting in the birth of Isabella Rossellini. Her beauty is understated yet undeniable, classy not brassy, but certainly sexy in an elegant way.

Back to Swedish cars made in Italy. Volvo did, in fact, have an earlier dalliance with Italian design house Bertone. The first was the rare 264TE limousine. The next was the strangely proportioned 262C coupe. Produced from 1978 to 1981, it was essentially a chop job on the Volvo "brick"--from the beltline down it was quite familiar; above that it sported a squashed (initially vinyl-clad) formal roof. At worst, it was an ungainly mutant; at best, an acquired taste. Nuccio Bertone was offered a clean slate for his last project with Volvo and built a rolling statement of subtle elegance in a new building at the Grugliasco plant outside Turin.

When the car was introduced, Volvo described the 780's market as "successful people who appreciate stylish, limited-production European touring cars, yet value the safety and practicality of a Volvo. Sleek Bertone styling on the outside, sumptuous hand-stitched leather on the inside, and the strength of a Volvo. An exotic automobile for a practical consumer." Think BMW 635CSi or Mercedes-Benz 560SEC "for those who want something more than a Volvo but will accept nothing less."

That describes owner Mark Rose, whose 1989 780 is seen here. Although the 780 initially made it to the United States for the '87 model year, it really came into its own two years later when the turgid V-6 that Volvo shared with Peugeot and Renault was joined by a more sporting turbocharged four-cylinder, the rear suspension having been upgraded from solid axle to independent the previous year. Rose's car is actually his third 780. His first rolled up almost a quarter-million miles, and his second, tragically, was demolished when it fell off the back of a transporter before he ever had a chance to drive it. With only--hey, it's a Volvo--163,000 miles on the clock, this car was originally sold in California but made its way to Minnesota, where its prideful current owner found it. On the way to Palm Springs, the Volvo made a pit stop in Ottumwa, Iowa, so Rose's dad could sort it to its current state of unrestored perfection. An oxymoron, perhaps, but somehow appropriate for a car that initially cost almost $40,000 and, a quarter century later, can be sourced for a fraction of the price. As with just about any collectible, it's always wisest to obtain the best possible example versus throwing money at a lesser one, and the economics of current-day 780 acquisition and restoration certainly support that logic.

A mere 175 hp on tap to propel almost 3500 pounds of vehicle means that the 780's mission statement doesn't include stoplight burnouts or running the Silver State Classic. Its raison d'être is, simply stated, to cruise in comfort, safety, and refined style. "It's really happy at 80 mph, especially with the A/C off," reports Rose, who doesn't think twice about driving the 200-plus-mile round trip to L.A. within the course of a day while getting a not-so-terrible 22 mpg. Rose is compelled to state the obvious ("It was never meant to be fast") but quickly points out that dropping in a Ford V-8 isn't all that uncommon yet is in no way necessary. The car is to be experienced, not throttled.

The exterior styling is unique--no body panels or glass are interchangeable with Gothenburg-built 760s--but the opulent interior alone is well worth the (reasonable) price of admission. The 780 coddles you but not in a decadent way. There are those wonderfully supportive, eight-way power-adjustable seats swathed in some 65 square feet of supersoft leather and a suedelike headliner. Climate control is automatic, and the trunk release is built into the driver's-side B-pillar.

His car still wears its original black paint and the interior wood trim is cracked, but Rose loves it the way it is, noting, "I'm content to live with its imperfections." He's especially enamored of the 1980s vibe, pointing out the graphic equalizer, the two-tone seats (taupe and black), and the shiny plastic pieces. Heavily lacquered elm accents adorn both the dashboard and the door panels, conveying a sense of the good life, Dynasty-style.

When the 780 was conceived, Ante Wendel worked for Volvo as a reliability engineer involved with product testing and quality assurance. He recalls that the first batch of cars shipped to Sweden from Turin weren't up to snuff: "There was a bit of a learning curve and some challenges still not met. Much of the first year's output never went farther than the factory gates, but the safety was certainly there. I vividly remember a feedback note from a customer who wanted to inform us that the car actually stopped a 0.38-caliber bullet fired from six feet away that had gone through the B-pillar and ricocheted off the seat frame. We resisted the temptation to use that in advertising."

Rose's greatest joy is reading the minds of the other drivers who encounter his 780 on the road. "They're thinking, ‘that's a nice old Volvo in pretty good shape,' pause, ‘but it looks different.' I see them trying to figure it out." Cruising at 80 mph on I-10 just north of Palm Springs, where the wind turbines are turning as they did when scenes for Rain Man were shot here when the 780 was new, a Cadillac Escalade pulls alongside. Its occupants lower their ultratinted windows to take in the upright elegant black coupe, then the light bulbs seem to go off. They're obviously thinking, "This is not an ordinary Volvo..." An impromptu iPhone video shoot ensues, and we get thumbs-up before they charge ahead. The 780 is, in fact, very much at home on the freeway: it tracks true and smoothly, with a satisfying, weighted feel to the steering. Blindfolded--don't try this while driving--you could be convinced you're in a contemporary Mercedes-Benz E-class or BMW 5-series. The quality and confident feel are still in evidence. It's not flashy or very fast, but the 780 makes a bold statement, paradoxically, by being the paragon of understatement.

THE SPECS
ENGINES

2.3L (141 cu in) SOHC turbocharged I-4, 175–188 hp, 187–206 lb-ft 2.8L (174 cu in) SOHC V-6, 145 hp, 173 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 4-speed automatic
DRIVE Rear-wheel
" FRONT SUSPENSION Strut-type, coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION Live axle, coil springs or multilink, coil springs
BRAKES Vented discs, ABS
WEIGHT 3450 lb (est.)

THE INFO
YEARS PRODUCED
1987–1991
NUMBER PRODUCED 8518, the majority of which were imported to the U.S.
ORIGINAL PRICE $38,975 (1989)
VALUE TODAY $3500–$7000
WHY BUY?
Solid Volvo quality, safety, and reliability packaged with minimally flamboyant Italian flair, tastefully designed and well appointed. The 780 attracts only the right kind of attention--from those who appreciate substance over flash--and can be used as a daily driver without risking the family fortune. It's more fun than it appears and is a satisfying indulgence with minimal downside potential. A great way to get into a carrozzeria-built, limited-production car without a trust fund.

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