Written by Alan Cesar
From the April 2004 issue
Posted in Buyer's Guides
Forget the Hokey-Pokey. Boost-fueled Volvo trickery, that’s what it’s all about. Nothing pokey about it.
Sure, on the outside these things look just like any other older Volvo, with their bricklike aerodynamics and a safe, sensible image. Through most of the 1980s, Volvo 740s seemed to be the vehicle of choice for dentists’ wives and soccer moms. It’s the kind of car that looks as though it came dealer-equipped with a bumper sticker reading “My Child Is an Honor Student at….”
But then there’s that badge on the back next to the bumper sticker. The one that reads “Turbo.” That’s the little honor student’s clue that he better make sure he’s tightly buckled into that big back seat and hanging on to his Star Wars action figures, because the trees are going to start whizzing by the windows real soon.
Like Samuel L. Jackson’s wallet in “Pulp Fiction,” it’s your clue that maybe it’s time to sit down and shut up.
Yes, the 740 Turbo looks like the typical staid, suburbia-bound Volvo—a fine upstanding citizen. But in its heart it’s a hellion. If it were a person, it would wear conservative navy suits, keep the lawn neatly trimmed and take great pains to religiously hide a penchant for tequila shots and Motörhead records.
It’s the sort of car that really confuses armchair sociologists who like to view a person’s car as an extension of the phallus. Jaguar E-Types they can figure out. Corvettes they’ve got nailed. What’s a fella trying to say with a Volvo wagon?
Henry Miller was long dead when Volvo introduced the 740 Turbo, but in “Tropic of Cancer” he described an erection as “light and heavy at the same time, like a piece of lead with wings on it.”
Take that, Sociology Boy.
The Swedish Connection
Maybe the whole thing should be blamed on Saab, who made quite a name for itself in the late 1970s and early 1980s by stuffing turbochargers under the hoods of their cars.
Sure, other folks had dabbled in turbocharging, most notably BMW with some 2002s, GM with a few Corvairs and Oldsmobiles, and Porsche with the legendary 930, but Saab really went whole hog with the idea of bringing turbos to the masses. And since Saab was, relatively speaking, just up the road a bit there in Sweden, Volvo had to take notice.
What Volvo noticed was this: They were sitting on some slightly underpowered but seriously overbuilt four-cylinder engines, an engineering department that had tons of experience in turbo-diesel freight trucks, cars that could use a performance boost, and an image that could be perked up as well. It was a natural fit.
So in 1981 Volvo began putting Garrett T3 turbochargers in some of its 240-series cars. While the concept seemed solid, the definitive Volvo turbo was still to come in the excruciatingly square shape of the 700 series, which was introduced in 1983.
Just a year later, in 1984, Volvo took the turbocharger system already devised for the 240 and stuck it under the new sedan’s hood, creating the 760 Turbo. Horsepower was nearly one-third more than the normally aspirated 760, and the car immediately provided the oomph—both on the road and in the showrooms—that Volvo needed. Volvo claimed the original Turbo would outrun a BMW 325e.
A year later the 760 Turbo was joined by the less expensive, lighter 740, which shared the 760 Turbo’s drivetrain but lacked a few options. Alongside the new 740, Volvo also debuted the new 760 and 740 wagons, which were, of course, also available with the turbocharged engine.
Volvo had just created an all-new kind of wagon, one that could accelerate from zero to 60 in about eight seconds—pretty quick for the time—and still haul a ton of junk. It was a sports sedan with a really, really big trunk.
And with a winning formula in place, Volvo made only small changes to the 700-series Turbos all the way through 1992, when the line became the 900 series. Production finally stopped in 1995 with the 940 Turbo. All told, the design lasted a full decade with only detail improvements. You could say they nailed it right out of the box.
As introduced in mid-1984, the 760 Turbo sedan was powered by a 157-horsepower, intercooled and turbocharged 2.3-liter engine (designated as the B23FT) mated to either the M46 manual transmission or the AW71 automatic transmission. Standard equipment was extensive and included a sunroof, cruise control, fog lights, dual heated seats, automatic climate control and the usual power windows, locks and mirrors.
Only a few months later, for the 1985 model year, the relatively stripped-down 740 series was introduced with its own Turbo variant. Both Turbo models picked up a little more power as Volvo began using the B230FT engine, now producing 160 horsepower.
In February 1985, the wagons were introduced, along with the Turbo versions. By some accounts, the design of the wagons had preceded the sedans, even though they followed the four-doors to market. The wagon’s lines do seem to work better with the general box design than the sedan’s chopped-off roofline. A wagon is almost expected to be boxy; with the sedans, there’s always a lingering “what went wrong” feeling.
For 1986, the interiors on the Turbos were revised, and new five-spoke wheels were fitted. Other changes included different badging and—best of all—dual-speed seat warmers. Volvo never really exploited the advertising possibilities of their new “hot” car.
Volvo made no other significant changes to the Turbos until the 1988 model year, when the 760 received a revised dashboard along with a new climate-control system. Outside, Volvo attempted to make the square shape cleave the air a little better with slightly smoother bodywork, and it changed the alloy wheels again, too. The 760 sedans received a new multilink rear suspension, but the wagons continued with the old live-axle design.
Volvo finished out the 1980s on a high note, though, as the 740 Turbo regained the full leather interior option it had lost in 1986, with a power driver’s seat, and new front sheet metal that again tried—with limited success—to round off a square. Wheels were again changed, and a black egg-crate grille was fitted.
A rare 780 Turbo was added to the boosted lineup for 1989. It was based on the Bertone-styled 780 Coupe introduced to the U.S. for 1988 and powered by the same B230FT engine, although the 780s produced a bit more power than the lesser 700-series cars thanks to more boost.
All B230FT engines were now fitted with Mitsubishi turbochargers. Revisions to the engine helped drivability a bit, brought power up slightly to 162, and provided a boost to torque, which jumped from 187 lb.-ft. to 192 at 3400 rpm.
Volvo made few changes for 1990, but in 1991 things got complicated as the 760 line was given a mild face-lift and renamed the 940. So the 760 Turbo was now the 940 SE, but a 940 Turbo model was also offered, which was basically a 940 SE without the multilink suspension. The 740 Turbo was still around, too.
For the enthusiast, the 740 was the only turbocharged Volvo you could still get with a manual transmission by 1991. On the other hand, wheel sizes dropped from 16 inches back to 15 as the 740 was moved slightly down-market.
The 740 was no slouch, though. Sedans could accelerate from zero to 60 in 7.2 seconds, while the wagons trailed only slightly at 7.8 seconds for the same sprint.
The 740 Turbo was finally put out to pasture in 1992, and the short-lived 940 SE was dropped, so the only turbocharged model offered then was the 940 Turbo.
And that was pretty much it for changes. For 1995, Volvo modified the front and rear suspensions in an attempt to reduce body lean, and after that the blown boxes were quietly retired soon after. The 960 would soldier on with an inline six-cylinder engine for a few more years, ultimately becoming the S90/V90 in 1998, but they were never offered with a turbocharger. The last rear-wheel-drive turbocharged Volvo left the showroom floor in 1995.
Buying a Box
Volvo legendary durability has reached near-epic proportions, and generally speaking the 700-series cars live up to the reputation. Among Volvo fans, the 700s are sometimes derided for lacking the iron ball toughness of the 240s, but they’re still pretty solid cars, albeit with a few weak areas.
The biggest problem is the wiring harness on all models through at least 1987. The harnesses just weren’t built to withstand heat, and the insulation on wiring throughout the engine compartment breaks down. This can lead to all sorts of weirdness with the fuel injection, electronic ignition, charging systems, starting systems, lights and pretty much anything else. And of course it’s much worse on the Turbos, since the underhood temperatures are so much higher.
Inside, more electrical problems tend to be common, with sporadic gauges, iffy sunroofs and intermittent power windows topping a lengthy list of places where electrons run amok.
On top of the electrical woes, the trim doesn’t hold up particularly well either. Volvo plastics tend to crack easily, and the headliners are notorious for sagging. Check the air conditioning, too. It’s horrible (read expensive) to repair and prone to failure.
In short, it’s a bunch of stuff that usually won’t stop the Volvo; it’ll just be annoying to anyone driving one. Luckily, 740s generally hold up better than the more-opulent 760s, which have more gadgetry to fail.
Turbo Volvos have a few things of their own to watch out for. Prospective buyers should definitely see that the turbine has been cared for through the years, and that the engine has seen regular oil changes and still has good compression. Turbocharger hoses should be inspected carefully; any oil inside usually means the unit is leaking oil. The hoses are likely to be worn out, given age and underhood temperatures. They cost crazy money from Volvo, but suitable high-temp, fuel-resistant silicone hoses are available from other sources for far less.
As for the rest of a 740, well, they’re tough, durable cars, but the oldest ones are tough, durable and now 20 years old. They may have developed typical 20-year-old car problems by now, so do the usual smart buyer stuff: Make sure the cooling system works, watch out for funny noises and leaking things, and look for rust, especially in the front frame rails. The wagons can get rusty around their hatches. Remember, repairing the air conditioning on 700-series Volvos is a nightmarish proposition.
In general, be sensible. If you’re thinking of buying a Volvo, start looking now.
With Turbo Volvos, pennies will buy performance. Dollars will just buy a lot more of it.
The first thing to get a handle on is what exactly you’re starting with. Volvo spent more than 10 years making Turbo boxes, so you should expect a few changes along the way.
In the 1980s, Volvo used larger Garrett T3 turbochargers, which spool up slower but can give more ultimate power. Late Turbo cars have sophisticated LH-Jetronic fuel injection that the earlier cars lacked, and their Garrett T28 or Mitsubishi TD05 turbos spool up faster, but they won’t take as much boost as the T3s.
As noted already, the very earliest 760 Turbos use Volvo’s B23FT engine, while everything from 1985 on used the B230FT, which was itself a revised, low-friction version of the B23FT. For boost freaks, the bulletproof B23FT offers several advantages over the later 230s, such as a forged crankshaft and stronger connecting rods. B23s are easy to spot, since the distributor is on the driver’s side of the engine instead of facing the firewall.
Among the B230FTs, the later, the better. Early B230 engines used relatively weak connecting rods, but they got better over the years. The 1989-and-on versions have a reputation as the strongest, due to a revised, beefier design of the crankshaft and connecting rods. The B230s used in the 900-series are stronger still.
What About Boost?
Turbo Volvos have two great strengths when it comes to producing more power: the ability to crank up the boost and the ability to take it, as long as detonation is scrupulously avoided.
Simply installing a free-flowing exhaust and every turbocharged engine’s best friend, a Saab Automatic Performance Control system, can do wonders to beef up the old boxes. Installing the APC on any 700-series Volvo is a cakewalk, as the cars already have a knock sensor that can be piggybacked on. Good instructions for the installation can be found online at .
Some Volvos, particularly the luxocoupe 780s, were fitted with an APC-like option called Turbo+, but it was a pricey add-on, and they’re not that common. At any rate, the Saab setup is a relatively easy add-on and works better than Volvo’s home-brew solution.
Of course, whenever you’re upping the pressure, a good boost gauge is a must. The stock uncalibrated gauge is not your answer, and detonation is easy with the Volvo’s relatively high (for a turbo) 8.7:1 compression ratio.
On the other end of combustion, the hot setup seems to be running a 2.5-inch exhaust from the catalytic converter back, eliminating the center resonator and going into a free-flowing muffler. Simple and effective.
Careful use of the APC boost levels combined with the easy exit route for the engine gases can pull about 200 horsepower out of the 2.3-liter engine. Now, as the Volvo ads used to say, you have a wagon that hauls more than groceries.
If you don’t feel like being careful with the boost, an air-fuel meter would be wise. Leaning out a turbo Volvo is not going to earn you one of those nifty factory-issued high-mileage badges. Detonation can quickly turn disastrous on a Volvo.
Run the boost high enough, and you’ll need to start thinking about a steady and adequately regulated fuel supply.
Beyond that, it’s time to dig into the engine a bit and think about camshafts, cam timing and uprating the valve train. Once you’ve done that, you may want an ECU chip to get around the rev limiter designed into the stock piece.
Going further still, the question becomes the depth of your pocketbook. Pretty much any performance mod imaginable has been tried on at least one of the gazillion B21, B23 or B230 blocks Volvo produced. The parts are out there, along with 300-horsepower-plus turbo Volvo engines to prove it.
Boxy But Good
Junkyard Volvos can be a source for tons of good stuff, and with so many cars produced, they’ve become more common in the salvage yards. Plus there are several salvage yards that stick solely to Swedish cars.
Exhaust manifolds on 1990-and-up 740s flow considerably better than earlier models, and when they’re ported to fit a larger turbo, the difference is even more dramatic. They are prone to cracking, though.
Different final drive ratios were used in various models, and these are swapped easily, too. Stock 740s had a 4.10:1 ratio, whether they had a turbo or not. V6-powered 760s had a 3.73:1, but 960s use a 3.31:1 ratio. The stock Turbo ratio is best for performance, but options do exist. Limited-slip differentials were often available as a factory option.
If the stock engine has turned over its last revolution, the 1993-’95 940 Turbo had a better bottom end along with piston oil cooling. These models also have larger front brakes and larger pistons clamping the rear discs.
Even though Volvos are legendary for their longevity, they’re pretty common in boneyards because Volvo made a ton of the 700 series—more than a million 740s alone.
Actually, any intrepid wrencher could take an old 740 and make a turbo monster out of it. The parts are certainly out there, although you’ll have to contend with crazed owners of Alfa Romeos, BMWs, Saabs and who knows what else scavenging Volvo’s best stuff for their own cars. Brakes and intercoolers, in particular, seem to be hot commodities.
Boxy but Good
Volvo may have intended to attract the masses with their turbocharged 700-series cars, but they have gained a cultlike following over the years. With a zillion or so examples produced, finding one shouldn’t be too hard.
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