In the film Crazy People, Dudley Moore comes up with a marketing slogan for Volvo: 'Buy Volvos: they're boxy, but they're good!' Needless to say the campaign is a runaway success (although so is 'Come to New York - there were fewer murders last year' - it is fiction after all).
The 700 series and its later derivatives were those cars - boxy but good.
The Volvo 700 series was launched in February 1982. Initially only the 156bhp V6 760GLE saloon was offered, followed shortly by a VW diesel powered variant (at the time one of the fastest diesels in the world). A year later the 173bhp 2.3 litre turbo followed. In 1984 the 740 was introduced, which had a 131bhp 2.3 litre engine. This car was popular as it was cheaper than the 1983 release while being visually indistinguishable.
It is interesting to note that for a company known primarily for their estate cars, it took three years to introduce the first estate. By 1989, estates accounted for over 40% of all 700 series sales.
The rarest of the 700 series was the 780 two-door coupé, a most unusual vehicle which, while looking very similar to the standard 740/760 models, had not one single body panel in common.
By 1990, the boxy 700 series, whose styling had been fresh and startling in 1980, was looking dated. Volvo offered the more rounded 900 models (940 and 960), which had improved levels of trim and some mechanical refinements. These were substantially revised in 1994, gaining dramatically improved suspension which tautened handling without compromising comfort. Engines for the 940 were a 2.0 or 2.3 litre 4-cylinder, both available with turbochargers, and a 2.3 litre 16-valve. The 960 had a new straight-six engine in 3.0 and later 2.5 litre variants.
From 1996 the cars were revised again and re-badged 'V90' (for the estate) and 'S90' (for the saloon). These cars boast excellent equipment levels and are superbly comfortable long-distance cruisers, as well as being the quintessential antique dealer's load-lugger.
The last V90s and S90s were sold in 1999. The chassis lives on in a heavily modified form in the 850 and V70 cars.
Living with Them
Living with a big Volvo is a long-term thing. They are mechanically bullet proof and built like tanks (which Volvo also used to make).
The Good Bits
Standards of manufacture were exceptionally high - Volvo already had an enviable reputation for longevity (rivalled by only Rolls-Royce), and most of these original cars are, at a mere 20 years old, still running. Contemporary figures showed that over 70% of all the Volvos ever made were still in running order, a stunning figure at a time when the average life expectancy of a car was about ten years. Volvo's average was around twice that.
The early V6 engines are not well-loved these days. They are thirsty and not particularly reliable. To put this in context, they might only last 150-200,000 miles before the timing chain needs replacing. The four-cylinder engine is so tough that, properly maintained, there really is no known way of wearing it out.
Aside from niggling troubles like oil seals on turbos, the 700 and 900 series are some of the most robust cars in the world. Punctilious maintenance pays off ten-fold as they will run for ever. The bodywork is galvanised and has more layers of paint than Baldrick has cunning plans (gratuitous Blackadder reference). The estate boot lids are aluminium (so even if they do get surface corrosion, it's never fatal).
They are also pleasant if uninvolving to drive. The steering is light but not soggy, the engines are torquey and easy to drive. At night the headlights are excellent, and higher spec models have built-in fog and spot lights for even better visibility. High level brake lights are fitted.
The seats are big and comfortable, there is loads of room, the switchgear is reliable, you can get heated seats and electric everything. Some have air conditioning, but even in those that don't, the heating and ventilation is well above average. Power steering is standard, and you would not believe how easy it is to park a car which is, after all, over 16 feet long. They are so square you can get them in spaces only inches wider than the car, and you can see the back well enough to park in a space less than two feet longer than the vehicle. The turning circle is also quite remarkable - it is possible to turn round in some roads in one go.
What maintenance there is, is simplicity itself. The bonnet has cantilever springs so supports itself, and by flipping two little catches you can lift it completely vertical. There's even a courtesy light under there. The engine bay is spacious and all the bits you might want to get to are easily accessible.
The estate is simply enormous. Though not as high as some (eg, the Mercedes W124 estate) it is very square and the wheel arches are tucked out of the way. The rear seats fold completely flat. Under the boot floor in the estate there are two useful cubby holes (big enough for a gallon of washer fluid, de-icer and a wheel wrench on one side, and a CD multichanger, the electric aerial motor, a DAB unit and a mobile phone transceiver the other). In the middle there is a box where, if the optional rear-facing seat is not fitted, you can store your wellies, a snow spade, emergency triangle, and an inflatable dinghy for the beach - all of which disappear tidily under good strong lids, leaving the inside of the boot clear.
Big Volvos are, of course, safe. Volvo pride themselves on this (they were, for example, the first manufacturer to fit three-point seat belts in all models) and owners trade stories of friends who have walked away from horrific crashes completely unscathed. Cars have been rolled off the motorway, turned end over end, and bent every panel - but still the doors open, the driver walks away and the recovery crew start the engine and drive on to the breakdown truck. They are rumoured to have steel bars even in their daytime sidelights.
The Bad Bits
There are very few criticisms of the big square Swedish cars. Fuel economy was not the best (especially on earlier V6 autos), the optional electrically adjustable seats sometimes suffered switch problems, the turbos only last a couple of hundred thousand miles (possibly less if maintenance has been skimped - all turbocharged cars are at risk of this) and, up until 1994, handling was a little barge-like.
Some American owners have complained that the cars can't be driven in snow. Given that Sweden has snow for three months of the year and the car sells strongly over there, it is possible that this is a training issue - although Americans do tend to buy larger engines and automatic gearboxes, which may be part of the problem.
Stacked against the good points these matters are very small beer. Most owners of big Volvos keep the cars a long time, and replace them with another big Volvo. They may be unexciting but they behave exactly as advertised, and even when they become ancient all the twiddly bits generally work as well as the day they drove out of the factory.
In fact the only real problem with a big Volvo is persuading your other half to let you buy a new one - they never break down, they never wear out, they never rust.
Cost of Parts
You will also hear people comment that parts are expensive. This is true of some parts from the dealer network, but you can buy pattern parts for most things and - crucially - the cars are so reliable you really won't need many parts. Most of these comments come from people who are driving cars 15 to 20 years old with upwards of 150,000 miles on the clock. Sure, the occasional component will wear out - but if this was any other car it would have died long since. It's a bit like a hundred-year-old complaining that they need a hip replacement - sure, but most of their contemporaries died decades ago! By comparison, a Citroën XM is generally considered beyond economic repair if the automatic gearbox fails, and even the excellent Saab 9000 will always be sold with a warranty on the auto box because they routinely fail somewhere between 50,000 and 90,000 miles.
Volvo have had a bit of a problem in the past with image. First, the cars are not exactly seductive to look at. The 900 is greatly better than the 700, but it is ultimately a wardrobe with wheels. Most, if not all, Volvo drivers simply don't give a pair of dingo's kidneys about this. After all, the driver sits inside (which in these cars is a very comfortable and safe place to be) so can't see the boxy outside.
Part two of the image problem is caused by old flatulates who can't drive. This is addressed in the Edited Entry on Volvos - but ultimately the solution is again not to care. These cars mostly have engines with 140bhp or more on tap, they accelerate smoothly and cruise fast. If some old codgers choose to drive them in the middle lane at 65mph, why should that spoil your pleasure?
If your so-called friends tax you about driving a Volvo the answer is simple: let's see whose car rusts first.
Buying a Used 700/900 Series
What you buy depends on why you want it. If you want a monster motor to pull a trailer and seat seven, and you're not fussed about looks, a 740 2.3 estate is a brilliant choice. Cheap, tough and huge, you can stick the extra seats in the boot (it has strong steel chassis members and hydraulically mounted bumpers), hang a couple of tons on the back and off you go.
If your preference is for a silky smooth ride on the motorway, the straight-six V90 and S90 are the cars for you. Saloons are significantly cheaper than estates and the S90 is under-appreciated due to its appetite for fuel (all should be fine on unleaded, which was compulsory in Sweden long ago). It will take you a long time to burn in fuel the amount you save on running costs and long life.
If you want a smart family motor with room to take everything including the kitchen sink on holiday, a post-94 940 estate is the thing. Post-94 suspension is definitely worth the extra money.
The best buy in value for money terms is probably the 940 low pressure turbo (post-'94), but if you buy carefully you're unlikely to be disappointed with any model. Prices drop when the car hits 100,000 miles, so be brave and get one with just over that which has a perfect history.
What to Watch out for
Volvos last for ever as long as they are looked after1. You don't need to go to villainously expensive Volvo dealers (some now offer good deals for drivers of older cars, and discounts for members of the Volvo Owners Club), but you absolutely must use Volvo oil filters. Other parts (if needed) can be sourced from 'German & Swedish', near Heathrow Airport.
So, make sure your car has a genuine cloth-capped Volvo owner with a genuine copper-bottomed service history. Look for repeat visits to the same garage (especially non-franchised specialists, who are often superb). If it's a turbo, check for noises and blue smoke. There should be a small amount of oil around the turbo - if not it's probably been steam cleaned, which inevitably means something to hide.
Body parts are dear - never buy a bent one without pricing the repairs. And walk away from anything with even the faintest hint of rust. These cars are galvanised - rust means badly repaired accident damage or serious neglect.
Seats should be in good order, the cloth is tougher than an elephant's hide, but watch out for cigarette burns and other blemishes. Torque converters don't last indefinitely, so check the auto shifts cleanly (but the auto box seems to last for ever, like the rest of the car).
These cars were very expensive new, and dealer networks overprice second-hand ones. Private sales are a better bet. They do depreciate fairly quickly (the estates less so) but the longer you keep them the less of an issue that is. Estates in particular hit a residual value of a couple of thousand pounds, and don't sink below it until the mileage becomes astronomical or the car gets beaten up and ragged. Condition is vital when buying or selling these cars, so if you do buy one, it's worth taking care of the bodywork and interior.
If this seems like a long list of checks, remember: a good Volvo will last 20 years or more. Many are still running after nearly 50 years of continuous use. Sound 700 series with a quarter of a million miles on the clock are common. Buy carefully and you can forget buying another car for a decade.