are not just a recent phenomenon. Back in the mid-'80s those crazy
cubist Swedes unleashed a snail-fed block of flats they dubbed the
by David Morley.
"It was like Peter Costello handing out free cash; like Vince
Jones in a cocktail frock, fishnets and stilettos. Dammit, it just
didn't make any sense. But there it was... all 36 turbocharged cubic-metres
of it. The Volvo 740 Turbo was so far outside the nine dots for
the short-back-and-sides Swedish maker, it beggared belief. A turbocharged,
rear-drive missile from Volvo? Couldn't be. Could it?
'Fraid so kids, and for those who thought Volvo's cardigan-burning
antics are recent behaviour, think again. As far back as 1986, the
Big V was hatching stuff like the 740 Turbo as a means of changing
the way we thought about the cars it produced.
But while gear like V70 T5s and C70 Coupes and Convertibles are
the modern interpretation of the Swedish wild child (helped no end
by the styling wand of Brit, Peter Horbury), Volvo's earlier attempts
at making like wild and crazy guys weren't always so convincing.
Love in a box
Somebody (and it wasn't me) once suggested that the
7 series Volvos would be great looking cars if people bothered to
take them out of their packing crates before driving them around.
Oooooh nasty. Fact is, though, that the 740 Turbo used a standard
7 series bodyshell in either sedan or wagon. I'm reminded of Dudley
Moore's suggested advertising line in the film Crazy People: "Volvo
- they're boxy but they're good". Needless to say, he was locked
up for it.
In the wagon's case, the thing kind of gets away with
it, because a wagon is supposed to be a box on wheels in the first
place. Err, mission accomplished.
The sedan, meanwhile, is similarly afflicted by the cubism movement
and looks pretty dowdy with it. But that much you probably already
knew. What might come as a shock is that the 740 Turbo is a reasonably
quick set of family wheels that handles okay, provides all the safety
you're looking for and is good buying second-hand.
The first thing you need to know about the 740 Turbo
(in fact, any 700 series Volvo) is that it's a big bugger of a thing.
Compared with one of the biggest passenger cars around in 1986,
Ford's XF Falcon, the 740 was actually bigger in some directions.
Okay, the Ford had more track and cabin width, but
the 740 was 23 mm higher and 10 mm longer, although the Volvo's
long front and rear overhangs meant the Ford had a longer wheelbase.
In any case, it was no micro-car and that, combined with the upright
styling, means the interior is huge and also means you can use pretty
much every cubic centimetre of it.
The seats are among the best in the business and while the dashboard
layout isn't terribly flattering for the driver, the whole thing
has that wipe-clean feel that IKEA has been trading on for years.
Exterior-wise, how the thing shapes up now is largely
down to how you felt about them back then, as well as how well the
particular car has been looked after. Those blacked out window frames
and black bumpers screamed Euro back in the '80s, but unless they've
been cared for well, the whole look can be pretty downmarket these
Mind you, the five-spoke alloys still look the biz.
The wagon version, meanwhile, still looks like a scout hall with
number plates, but for our money, it's the real sleeper of the lot
and makes more sense given you're not buying a Ferrari in the first
place. Like, you ain't gonna pull chicks, so you might as well be
able to move furniture.
The real surprise
You'd be forgiven for missing the sporting touches
like the wee chin spoiler and the fog lights, but one drive of a
740 Turbo should convince you that the holy order of things has
been up-ended (by 1986 standards, anyway).
The engine was, in fact, based on nothing more exotic
than the old B23 four-potter, so it retained the single overhead
camshaft layout, the two-valves-per-cylinder deal and cast iron
block, alloy head arrangement.
It also stuck with the undersquare 96 mm x 80 mm
dimensions as well as the slightly rough and ready feel that most
four-pot Volvo owners will know only too well. But while it lacked
some gee-whizz, it was as tough as a drover's wife and took to turbocharging
like it had been made for it.
Compression ratio was dropped from 9.5:1 to 8.7:1
to allow for the turbo. In fact, you could argue that the 740 Turbo
was one of the very early 'smart' turbos in that it didn't use stratospheric
boost levels and piddly compression ratios. Instead, it ran a mild
boost pressure and relatively standard everything else so that it
didn't really feel like its turbocharged counterparts of the time.
No, it's not as good as a modern installation, but
there's less turbo lag and more low-down flexibility than the majority
of everything else sporting a snail at the time. And let's not forget
it made 115 kW of power and 253 Nm of torque.
Just drive itTop
So what was it like to drive? Pretty damn good, actually,
with reasonable suspension (it was before Volvo's experiment with
hardwood dampers) for a half-decent ride.
The steering is reasonably communicative, but the
downside here is that often it spends its time telling you you're
about to understeer off the road. It was no race car, but at least
Volvo had the smarts to tie it down better than its non-turbo brethren.
Our pick would be the automatic version... not because
the manual's no good with its extra fifth ratio, but rather that
the four-speed auto means the engine is harder to catch off boost.
And let's not kid ourselves; we are not talking sports car in the
first damn place.
If you want outright refinement, the V6-powered 760
is going to be more your cup of tea, because there's a fair amount
of mechanical presence in the blown 740. Big four-potters are like
The best thing about it, of course, is the sheer bloody-minded
usefulness of the thing. It'll cart big families and large amounts
of practically anything else. Once again, it's the main reason we'd
look for a wagon (hosing Commodores in a safe-deposit box is always
tempting, you see).
Watch out for...
Being a Volvo and a four-cylinder one at that, the
740 Turbo is made of stern sterf. But there are caveats. So let's
start with the one that covers all geriatric turbocars, shall we:
if there's no service record, ask why. And, in the absence of a
suitable answer such as "the dog ate it" be very afraid.
Yes, it's a Volvo and, yes, it's a strong car, but
turbos can and do fail and when they do, there'll be tears. Simple
Also, like a lot of blown motors, it's not just the
turbo that can lose the plot. The condition of the whole engine
needs to be checked closely, and we'd start with a compression test
as well as a cooling system pressure test to show up blown head
gaskets or cracks in the block or head.
While you're being suspicious, check that there's
no smoke from the tailpipe when you give the engine a bit of a rev.
For that reason, also make sure you start the engine from cold on
any car you're considering buying. A pre-warmed motor can hide a
lot of maladies.
While you're down there, check for oil leaks from
the front of the engine, low down (around the sump). Rear axles
can give trouble, and if you're keen you can drain the diff and
look for metal particles in the oil. Anything metallic in the diff
oil is bad news. If you don't go to those lengths, at least check
the diff pinion seal as this is a common source of leaks.
The front end will get loose on high-milers, so check
for squeaks, clunks and groans, all of which indicate the bushes
are going to need replacing soon-ish. Have it done now, because
a 740 with a tight front-end is a vastly nicer thing to punt.
Rust isn't a major problem, but it can occur. Check
the tailgate and the storage bins under the floor as these can trap
water and invite tin worm.
And just so you know we've done our homework, check
the aluminium pipe in the air-con system where it runs under the
metal clamp securing it.
Corrosion can get into the A/C pipe where it passes
under this metal clamp and, all of a sudden, you've got no air and
a hefty repair bill. Cleaning the corrosion off the pipe (if you've
caught it in time) and treating it with something like WD-40 will
do the trick."