Volvo C70 turns 20 – a niche car made by pas­sion

Malta Independent - - MOTORING ON TUESDAY - Edited by John Peel

The C70 rep­re­sented a new niche in an im­por­tant pe­riod for Volvo, a project that was driven by en­thu­si­asm and a love of cars by a small and pas­sion­ate team. Twenty years ago, it was first shown to the world.

When the Volvo C70 was first un­veiled dur­ing the Paris Mo­tor Show on 30 Septem­ber 1996, it was not only the slen­der body that was brand new. It was Volvo’s first “proper” coupé since the 1800 model, and the first time Volvo had co­op­er­ated with en­gi­neer­ing firm TWR on a new car. Fur­ther­more, it was to be built partly us­ing new meth­ods at a newly opened plant in the Swedish town of Ud­de­valla.

At the be­gin­ning of the 1990s, Volvo de­cided to ex­pand its pas­sen­ger car programme with a coupé and a cabri­o­let. The two ver­sions would be de­vel­oped in par­al­lel and built on the tech­no­log­i­cal base of the 850 model.

A small project group was formed in early 1994 and Håkan Abra­hams­son was ap­pointed project man­ager. Volvo had lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence in de­vel­op­ing such a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally niche prod­uct, and it was in quite a rush. Volvo there­fore chose to co­op­er­ate with the Bri­tish en­gi­neer­ing firm TWR, Tom Walkin­shaw Rac­ing, who were al­ready in­volved with Volvo’s rac­ing team in the BTCC.

“With­out a doubt this was the most fun car project I’ve been in­volved with,” Håkan Abra­hams­son says to­day. Volvo wanted a project man­ager who was a lit­tle younger – prefer­ably one who would be un­der 40 by the time the car was un­veiled.

The team had just a cou­ple of months dur­ing 1994 to de­fine the project, and they got to work al­most straight away with a com­pre­hen­sive com­peti­tor anal­y­sis. The project group had to can­cel their hol­i­days and in­stead headed to the south to France to rent and try out coupés and cabri­o­lets from their key com­peti­tors.

Since they were sup­posed to be on hol­i­day, they were al­lowed to bring their fam­i­lies, which turned out to be an un­ex­pected suc­cess. Sev­eral com­ments were noted that would not have emerged if it had been only car de­sign­ers who had an­a­lysed the com­pe­ti­tion. This was hugely ben­e­fi­cial dur­ing the con­tin­ued de­sign work and the team of­ten re­turned to their ex­pe­ri­ences with their fam­i­lies.

A large part of the de­sign and de­vel­op­ment work took place at TWR near Ox­ford in Eng­land. Volvo was re­spon­si­ble for the ba­sic tech­ni­cal struc­ture, and de­ter­mined which characteristics the car was to have. TWR was re­spon­si­ble for de­sign and pro­duc­tion ad­just­ment. A com­plete de­vel­op­ment team worked in a huge barn where Tom Walkin­shaw, TWR’s charis­matic owner, also kept his car col­lec­tion.

The project group were given an un­usu­ally free hand in terms of shap­ing the car, and head of de­sign Peter Hor­bury wanted to change the idea that Volvo de­sign was an­gu­lar and boxy. When TWR’s Ian Cal­lum showed sketches of a coupé that fea­tured a sig­nif­i­cantly arched roofline and sculpted sides, fol­low­ing pro­pos­als that had been con­sid­ered “too Volvo”, the mat­ter was de­cided. The de­sign would go on to re­main al­most un­changed right up to pro­duc­tion.

The new car had the same wheel­base as the Volvo 850 and was the same length, but it still gave the im­pres­sion that it was rather more dapper. Be­cause it was al­ready known from the be­gin­ning that the car would also be pro­duced as a cabri­o­let, the de­vel­op­ment team en­sured that the de­sign worked both with and with­out a roof.

The de­vel­op­ment pe­riod for the C70 was brief – it took just 30 months from the first stud­ies un­til the first cars were pro-

duced. The col­lab­o­ra­tion with TWR was cru­cial in achiev­ing this, and the project costs were more man­age­able.

Volvo’s then head of de­sign, Peter Hor­bury, was clearly en­thu­si­as­tic about the new lan­guage of de­sign rep­re­sented by the C70: “We threw away the box but kept the toy inside,” he said af­ter the first press viewing, where he had driven a Saf­fron Yel­low C70 onto the stage.

The front clearly linked to Volvo, while the rest of the body was sig­nif­i­cantly curvier than any­thing pre­vi­ously re­leased by the com­pany – at least the first in a long time. The C70 her­alded a new de­sign di­rec­tion that would char­ac­terise many fu­ture mod­els.

Free­dom of choice for the cus­tomer was im­por­tant in a car like the C70, and there were 17 dif­fer­ent paint colours to choose be­tween, along with solid, metal­lic and pearl fin­ishes. With 40 dif­fer­ent in­te­rior com­bi­na­tions, with dif­fer­ences in ma­te­rial and colours, the choices were al­most end­less.

It was cru­cial that the speed matched the ap­pear­ance. The C70 was there­fore launched ex­clu­sively with five-cylin­der turbo en­gines. The strong­est en­gine, at 2.3 litres and 240 hp, was shared with the Volvo 850R. A calmer ver­sion, at 2.5 litres and 193 hp, was also re­leased at the same time, and there were also 2.0-litre ver­sions of­fer­ing 180 and 225 hp re­spec­tively for mar­kets where cylin­der vol­ume de­ter­mines tax­a­tion lev­els.

De­spite the C70 being very much an emo­tional car, where the de­sign gov­erned its func­tion, there was plenty of room for four peo­ple and their lug­gage. And since Volvo de­vel­oped it, the safety lev­els were high, fea­tur­ing a side-im­pact protection sys­tem (SIPS), whiplash protection (WHIPS), belt ten­sion­ers and side airbags.

To­gether with TWR, Volvo formed a joint ven­ture com­pany, Au­tonova, in Ud­de­valla. Volvo had pre­vi­ously op­er­ated in Ud­de­valla, but pro­duc­tion had ceased some years ear­lier. Now the fac­tory was re­built and re­fur­bished to in­cor­po­rate the niche car. Pro­duc­tion moved on from the as­sem­bly line prin­ci­ple, and in­stead a work team fol­lowed each car through sev­eral stages of pro­duc­tion un­til the next team took over. The ca­pac­ity of the new fac­tory was 20,000 cars per year.

The news that the Volvo C70 Coupé would be joined by a cabri­o­let was an­nounced at the same time as the coupé was launched. The C70 Cabri­o­let was un­veiled one year later and it was the first con­vert­ible Volvo of the mod­ern era. For many years, Volvo had been scep­ti­cal about cabri­o­lets for crash safety rea­sons, but the C70 Cabri­o­let saw the in­tro­duc­tion of fea­tures such as ROPS – Roll Over Protection Sys­tem – with two pro­tec­tive frames be­hind the rear seats that were ac­ti­vated if the car rolled over. The wind­screen frame was an­chored to the base plate and man­u­fac­tured from high­strength steel.

The de­sign stood the test of time and did not change sig­nif­i­cantly dur­ing the nine years of life en­joyed by the first-gen­er­a­tion model. The Volvo C70 Coupé was man­u­fac­tured un­til 2002, while the C70 Cabri­o­let lived on for a fur­ther three years

un­til April 2005. By this time, 76,809 C70s had been built, of which 27,014 were coupés and 49,795 cabri­o­lets.

The sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion C70 con­vert­ible, fea­tur­ing a three­piece re­tractable hard­top and built by Pin­in­fa­rina, was launched at the Paris Mo­tor Show in Septem­ber 2005. 10 things you may not know about the Volvo C70.

The C70 had one of the world’s best sound sys­tems at the time. It fea­tured loud­speak­ers from Dan­ish pres­tige brand Dy­nau­dio, along with Dolby Sur­round and an am­pli­fier with up to 4x100 watts.

The 17 dif­fer­ent ex­te­rior colours were de­vel­oped un­der the su­per­vi­sion of de­signer José Diaz de la Vega. He also led the de­sign work for the in­te­rior, while An­ders Gun­nars­son played the same role for the ex­te­rior.

In Swe­den, there is a spe­cial club for C70 owners – the Swedish Volvo C70 club. They are or­gan­is­ing a pa­rade from the fac­tory in Ud­de­valla to the Volvo Museum in Gothen­burg in con­junc­tion with the 20th an­niver­sary.

The première in Paris could also be fol­lowed on­line – it was the first time this had ever hap­pened in Europe.

In 1998, the C70 was ranked as the best Volvo in J.D. Power’s cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion sur­vey, and it came in fifth over­all.

Fin­nish firm Val­met pro­duced a pro­posal for a C70 cabri­o­let with a tin roof. This did not lead to pro­duc­tion, but the C70’s suc­ces­sor was given a roof of this type in 2005.

Tom Walkin­shaw, the man be­hind TWR, was an ex­pe­ri­enced rac­ing driver, with three tour­ing car world ti­tles and two vic­to­ries at the Day­tona and Le Mans 24-hour races re­spec­tively to his name.

In 1999, Volvo ac­quired TWR from Au­tonova and con­tin­ued pro­duc­tion in-house. Later on, Volvo formed a com­pany with Ital­ian Pin­in­fa­rina.

In the film pro­duc­tion of The Saint (1996), Simon Tem­plar, played by Val Kilmer, drove a Gar­net Red Volvo C70. The film was shot be­fore the C70 had been un­veiled, which meant a great deal of se­crecy was called for.

The pre­lim­i­nary prospec­tus for the C70 was sparse. It con­sisted of el­e­gant pic­tures, a few tech­ni­cal facts and a three-line quo­ta­tion from Peter Hor­bury: “I’ve tried to cre­ate a car that peo­ple will want, not a car peo­ple need.”

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