Braking With Tradition – 1986 Volvo 480 ES

Volvo’s trailblazing glassback coupé marked a new beginning for Gothenberg, but a creative swansong for its Dutch subsidiary.

Image: car.revs.daily
Image: car revs daily

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.

Image: drive-safe-and-fast
Image: drive-safe-and-fast

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.

Image: lududbergomensis
Image: lududbergomensis

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.

Image: Volvo Cars
Image: Volvo Cars

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?

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Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “Braking With Tradition – 1986 Volvo 480 ES”

  1. This car is under-rated. The style has held up well, inside and out. The package is excellent. Unusually it’s a grand tourer which doesn’t rely on leather and wood and scale. It’s just on the edge of resembling a tamed concept car. The design left an impression on me: seeing one parked outside Dublin’s posh Shelbourne Hotel, luggage being removed, said a lot about the car.
    I bet if I go looking I’ll find good ones are now quite expensive.

  2. To my very young eyes (I must have been no older than four or five years of age), the Volvo had the impact of a UFO.

    Truth be told, I only realised it had that sill Volvo grille grafted onto its nose years later, which makes it only more jarring nowadays (partly due to the sense of embarrassment for not having spotted it earlier, I guess).

    But on the whole, it’s a very likeable thing. It may be an image car à la Audi TT or RR Evoque, but the style doesn’t come to the detriment of engineering and packaging substance, which makes all the difference. I’d certainly like one for a city runabout.

  3. A neighbour had one of these in the 90s. A turbo model. If I remember correctly, he was an architect, which fits the stereotype nicely (presumably he was dismayed by the GME Saab 900).

    Another neighbour had a Reliant Scimitar, and for a while a Lotus Excel also parked on our street, so we were well stocked for ‘breadvan coupes’ (the Excel is a bit of a stretch, I admit, but not so much).

    I am a big admirer of the current VW Scirocco, for the same reason. No doubt it will be replaced with a ‘coupe’ version of a crossover, which is sad.

    1. Breadvan: the term is a feature of British motoring journalism for anything that does not have a 45 degree slope on the back. When did anyone ever see a breadvan in the last thirty years? It may very well be that this meme along with a hatred of brown shapes what is possible in the UK market.

    2. Yes, fair point Richard. ‘Breadvan’ is a lazy and inaccurate term… but it works because it conveys an idea, right? It’s got stickability! 😉

  4. Volvo should have kept their big cars RWD. I like the 480 (but not the 440/460 saloon and liftback) but it marks the end of the Volvo I really love. maybe I’m too old-fashioned, but I think all flagship cars should be RWD or at least have rear-biased AWD.

    whenever I see a 480 (in Europe, as it never made its way to Brazil), I’m amazed about how tall, wide and beefy cars became since then. of course all cars grew, but to compare the extenal dimensions of the 480 to the C30’s is the definitive shock IMO.

    1. The S80 and S90 retain a lot of dignity, despite their drive-layout, no? I agree there is a character shift in the cars when they went FWD though and I do have a mental marker distinguishing the classics such as 240 and 740 and the ones that came later. It is true that Volvo would have retained a better distinction between them and the other brands if their large cars retained FWD. It´s a sign of Swedish modernism that they felt this was needed. How much harm would RWD do to their sales? And how much to their bottom line? The 440 and 460 cars are, in my book, among the last bad cars ever made. There have been uglier ones and worse made cars. The 400-series saloon and hatch though are so mediocre. While the S40 was no triumph, it was all in all a decent and useful car though not very Volvo-like in its appearance. That Carisma link, we must remember.

    2. “How much harm would RWD do to their sales?”

      in Sweden and the rest of Europe, maybe not too much. but I guess Volvo lost lots of sales in the U.S. when they replaced the 240 with the 850. of course the 850 brought many changes other than the drivetrain layout, and Volvo kept losing sales in America with the S70/S60/S80 that followed.

      I agree on the S40/V40, just as long as the side strips are colour-matched. black rubber strips make the S40 too hideous to my eyes. as for the S80, I think the first generation, while beautifully designed, only retains a lot of torque steer and electronic gremlins. I think that S80 (and the first-gen S60) lacks the smart, austere, utilitarianist simplicity that the 200/700/900 series had – and that had me.

  5. Jacomo: to some extent yes but I think the word has got detached from the original reference. A more up-to-date reference is called for. When I Googled the term one hunded images came up of cars that were not bread vans. I counted in rows of five. That tells you something about the term. It seems to apply to a Lotus sports car and the VW Polo “estate” thing. The first actual breadvan came from Pinterest and seemed to be a vehicle from 1950-something.

  6. Eduardo: I believe the N American Volvos were made in Canada (Halifax). The Truth About Cars people don´t have anything good to say about them. I must differ a little on the S80. It retains a Scandinavian look which distinguishes it from its peers. One parks near where I live. The interior would be a comfortable place to be. Apparently the market agrees with you and it was not a major success or even very alright-ish. The 700/900 cars seemed to go on selling year after year, I believe. They were always jeered at by the anoraks in the motoring press; customers loved them. I notice that while 700s are still rolling about an 850 is a rarity (though the chap who cuts my hair has one!).

    1. Aha, Richard. You see, I live in Halifax where Volvos were once assembled. They made only enough for Canada, up to about 10,000 per annum towards the end – any small extra were sent to the USA. My mother’s first real car after two reverse-rear window Anglias was a 1965 PV544 “made” here. That tootled along at a fair old rate of knots and never went wrong until it met a full-size Chev carrying six drunken sailors when only seven – I still have the original brochure. Dual SU carbs and unsilenced air filters. The Wikipedia page on Volvo Halifax Assembly is but fair and also gets some dates incorrect.

      A later long-term friend, made through interest in the same audio hobby, was a gentleman who line-worked the entire 35 year existence of Volvo Assembly in Halifax. He and his confreres opened large wooden crates and cardboard boxes shipped via container and screwed the contents together with instructions by IKEA. As old Percy told me, “Pity nothing fitted on the early cars.” Large wooden timbers often aligned the doors, with judicious use of the rubber mallet as well. No manufacturing ever took place as such, so any deficiency in product will have to be presented squarely at the foot of Volvo themselves in Sweden. I had two factory tours myself in the early years and saw the timber door “fitters”. Ah well, reality is so cold. Didn’t seem to hurt those older vehicles’ longevity though.

      Sorry. TTAC commenters are typically people skilled at making up things in their heads I have found, so opining on Canadian Volvo assembly by Americans is really a result of head colds because so few examples actually made it to the USA. I left TTAC almost a year ago when the new editor, also here in Halifax, turned it into average fodder. I much prefer this site myself. Here, you learn things.

      When Ford bought Volvo, they closed down the Halifax plant in 1998. The industrial action was fierce but short-lived over redundancy pay for the obvious reason that no more CKD 850s were shipped here to be assembled and the work force already was dispersing.

    1. The S70 facelift is still a pretty regular sight on German roads – the 850 is somewhat rarer. Thankfully, one of my neighbours is driving around in a vanilla yellow T5 (a US-spec car).

      To me, the 850 is the final Wilsgaard car, which is more significant than the wheels driven, I’d claim.

    2. Do people really drift in these cars? The 700 seems especially unsuited to this, despite its rear drive set-up. For me the 740 and especially 760 are dignified and comfortable cars, a Swedish Buick. The 900 is less lovely unless it is a top-spec estate like the one I saw in the Volvo museum. There´s a crazy streak in the Swedes we don´t often hear about. That explains all those swerving tyre marks one sees on country roads there.

  7. Towards the end of the 480’s life, Volvo BV’s Helmond studio carried out a facelift, which dispensed with the pop-up lights and the US-spec bumpers, so it probably resembled what the designers had set out to achieve in the first place. It was neater, but the gargoyles were part of the production car’s charm, so it ended up looking a little anodyne by comparison. (The 480 is one of those rare cars that look better with big 5-mph bumpers).

    A couple of years ago I half heartedly started looking for one of these but at the time few were available within striking distance in any kind of worthwhile condition. Ironically, given Jacomo’s earlier comments, I ended up in an NG-Series 900. I think on balance I regret not making more of an effort to find a 480 even if it wouldn’t have been anything like as versatile or (probably) dependable.

  8. Bill: my halt to reading TTAC arrived last month. I’d been cutting down and then I tired of the overt political tone of the articles (not all). Also, yes, it stopped being so interesting.

    Evidently something was amiss with N American 850s and indeed nearly every car Europe sends over. One day I’ll get an answer to that.

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