Volvo’s trailblazing glassback coupé marked a new beginning for Gothenberg, but a creative swansong for its Dutch subsidiary.
With a reputation for solid looking, robust and uncompromisingly functional saloons, the last thing anyone expected from Volvo in 1986 was a shooting brake style sports estate. Yet for those with long memories or a photo of a P1800 ES to hand, Volvo had been here or hereabouts before – around 1972 to be precise. The 480 came about as part of Volvo’s plans to switch across the board to a front-wheel drive architecture. With the compact 300-series having been the responsibility of the former Daf subsidiary, Volvo’s team in Limburg were also tasked with developing a concept for its replacement.
Volvo were historically in the habit not only of taking their time over new product, but of wringing existing model lines dry. The 343 debuted in 1976, yet only three years later the programme for its replacement was initiated, suggesting a lack of confidence in the ‘Low Countries’ Morris Marina’. Ironic really, given that the 300 finally limped into its grave well beyond its welcome in 1991.
In addition to the orthodox five door 440 hatchback, product planners proposed a three-door coupé with US sales in mind. While Robert Koch’s former Daf studio in Helmond was formulating initial concepts, the Gothenburg mothership muscled in on the action, initiating an internal styling competition. For Koch, there was more than pride at stake; the very survival of his styling team’s independence lay in the balance. To up the ante, proposals from Bertone, Coggiola and Volvo styling director Jan Wilsgaard’s Gothenberg studio were also submitted, but in the summer of 1981, the Helmond proposal, styled by John de Vries, was chosen to go forward.
Faced with evolving a soft-surfaced design so that it wouldn’t look drastically out of place against its more formal looking siblings, stylists were forced to harden the car’s surfaces. The provision of US-Spec 5-mph bumpers lent the car a suitably sturdy appearance, as did its foursquare stance. However, the long pointed nose and lack of a traditional grille was a stark break with tradition – hence the rather clumsy addition below the bumperline.
Other notable features were the use of pop-up headlamps – (to comply with US height regulations), the lack of external rain gulleys, widespread use of plastic body panels and of course the homage-to-history ‘glassback’. Another innovation was the placement of the door locks – not in the door skin as was customary, but embedded in a wedge-shaped panel within the daylight opening, a solution that was subsequently patented.
Mechanically, the car would use a Renault-sourced 1721cc engine (mildly breathed upon by Porsche) with Bosch multipoint fuel injection, developing 109 bhp. Suspension was by front McPherson type struts while at the rear, a lightweight beam axle was augmented by trailing arms, a Panhard rod and Watts linkages; an identical layout to that employed to notable effect in the Alfa Sud. Steering was by speed-sensitive power assisted rack and pinion, while brakes were all-round discs.
Launched at the Geneva Motor show in March 1986, the 480 ES was Volvo’s first transverse front-drive production car. The press as expected, didn’t quite know what to make of it. Journalist, Richard Bremner was not untypical in describing it as having “a look of awkward individuality”. He went on to praise its precise steering, faithful handling and supple ride, also singling out the seats for their comfort and support. One advantage of the car’s so called ‘breadvan’ shape was that it provided four comfortable (if cozy) seats. The interior design, which featured a driver-focused dashboard design was credited to one Peter Horbury. Bremner summed up the 480 as being “a happily eclectic collection of ideas which deserve attention simply for being fresh.”
Personal recollections were of an overwhelmingly pleasant car, if not a particularly quick one. The gear change was the only notably unpleasant aspect of the driver interface I can recall – a trait it shared with lesser 400-series siblings. The performance deficit however was remedied in 1988 with the fitment of a Garrett T2 turbocharger, developing 120 bhp with the aid of an intercooler, which lent it a good deal more entertainment value. In 1993, a 2.0 litre engine supplanted the 1.7 litre unit. Like many of its contemporaries, early 480’s were plagued with electrical gremlins, so the fact that the 480 never made it across the Atlantic may have been fortuitous. Also stillborn was a convertible version.
Production ceased at Volvo BV’s Born plant in the autumn of 1995 with 76,375 examples built. Of these, over 22,000 were sold in the UK. Never a car to elicit lust at ten paces, the 480 ES was a Volvo with something of a minor identity crisis. Desirable for being resolutely different in style and approach, it demanded a more open-minded owner, one which possibly limited its appeal to those leftfield of Volvo’s traditional hinterland. In later years, Volvo would depart further from its hitherto staid image, but in 1986, the 480 was bracing, perhaps too much so for Volvo’s core market. Yet its jolie laide appearance wasn’t sufficiently sexy for the coupé contingent either.
Ultimately though, it’s tempting to view it as Born’s last defiantly daft stand. Because with the 400-series out the door, it was followed by the staggeringly torpid Mitsubishi Carisma/S40 twins. Anyone know the Dutch word for retrenchment?