Guilty Pleasures: Volvo 262C

| 24 Jan 2018
Guilty Pleasures: Volvo 262C

You look at the Volvo 262C today and have to remind yourself that this is not a one-off curiosity or a freakish prototype but a true production vehicle. Yes, Volvo actually made these things, over 6000 of them in fact.

You approach it with the same mixture of horror and delight normally reserved for the worst American cars, yet the 262C doesn't even have sheer size to recommend it.

It is a mean and stunted thing, a freakish combination of disco-era sensibilities and a machine gun bunker.

Guilty Pleasures: Volvo 262C
"The driver's sense of embarrassment was palpable"

It said a lot for Volvo's confidence at the time that it had the nuts to build such an ugly car, secure in the knowledge that it would probably sell simply because it was a Volvo.

I saw my first 262C circa 1982; the man who came to buy my dad's 130 Coupé turned up in one. It was silver (as most of them seemed to be) with the then non-negotiable vinyl top; gold, black and light blue were offered later.

The driver's sense of embarrassment was palpable.

Having bumped his head on the low roof, the Fiat buyer apologised for turning up in such a monstrosity and assured us it didn't belong to him. In the late '70s people were happy with the idea that Volvo built safe, stodgy cars that didn’t rust much and were good for towing caravans.

The market had largely forgotten the P1800 and 1800ES: the 262 was a way of recapturing some of that glamour and taking on the Mercedes 280CE at the same time.

Guilty Pleasures: Volvo 262C
"Bertone were keen to point out that they had nothing whatsoever to do with the styling"

Bertone, the Italian coach builders who built stretched airport taxis for Volvo, constructed the body, or at least stamped-out the chopped roof line. It was then grafted to Volvo's standard two-door shell and the complete cars were assembled from kits sent from Sweden.

However, Bertone was keen to point out that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the styling, which was ridiculed by most of the press when revealed at Geneva in 1977. What Bertone did contribute to the 262C, other than the glamour of its name, was its ability to corrode; unlike most Volvos, these flagship coupés rusted away in the tradition of the great Italian exotics. But that was a discovery for the future.

The controversial roofline, likened to the swivelling gun turret of a tank (but without the gun) was the work of Volvo's Jan Wilsgaard, creator of the pretty Amazon, with a little help from Coggiola of Turin, who built a prototype coupé around the earlier 164 straight-six car.

Retaining the uncompromisingly angular lower panels of Volvo's regular two-door saloon body, the 262's screen was steeply raked and its C-pillar made fat and chunky. The whole thing was topped with a vinyl roof in the great tradition of the Cadillac and Lincoln 'personal luxury' coupés of the period. Here was Frank Cannon's motor, Swedish style.

Guilty Pleasures: Volvo 262C
"This is a car for successful middle-aged Americans to drive to the golf club in"

In fairness it was to the American market that the 262C was designed to appeal, not the likes of me. This is a car for successful middle-aged blokes to drive down to the golf club in, smug in the knowledge that they owned the most expensive car in the Volvo range.

Volvo were pushing safety more than any other manufacturer in the late '70s and the 262C was one of the first models to have the annoying warning clicker that wouldn’t stop until you’d put your seat belt on. Plus, of course, the daytime lights that were the butt of Jasper Carrott jokes.

Volvo emphasised the exclusivity of the 262C by fitting crown insignia on the C-pillars (aping the daft fake heraldry of contemporary Detroit luxury barges) while decking out the closeted interior in swathes of shiny, gathered and pleated black leather on nearly all surfaces.

Guilty Pleasures: Volvo 262C
"Swathes of shiny, gathered and pleated black leather on nearly all surfaces"

Fully loaded with cruise control, power steering and air-conditioning, the 262C was comfy – but it did not pretend to be much fun to drive. Despite its V6 2.8 engine it was brisk rather than fast and it wobbled through curves without much enthusiasm.

None of this stopped people buying it, of course. In Britain the car was really just showroom bait and only about 200 were imported, almost all painted silver. But the Americans lapped them up, taking 75 per cent of the 6622 cars produced: not a bad total for a four-year low-volume run that was only intended to be 800 cars a year.

I borrowed one for a week in the early '90s for a comparison test with an Audi 100 Coupé and a Ford Granada Coupé. Both were marginally nicer cars than the Volvo, but I was glad to have use of the 262C, which was smooth and reliable.

After a little while I started to think of reasons for having one. There was something tough and urban about the pugnacious shape and the car was so absurdly out of fashion at that stage that it was almost starting to look good.

Cool car for the girlfriend to drive? Maybe... but somehow I couldn't see myself in one, and the world moved on.

And that, probably, was for the best.