Computer Says No

Technological breakdowns – there’s one Born every minute.

All Images: Author’s collection

This cringeworthy yet humorous phrase uttered regularly by the character Carol Breer in the TV show, Little Britain reminds us of the fact that while computers may have given us countless advantages and convenience in every field you can imagine, when they malfunction or are not programmed correctly they can cause immense frustration. Computerisation in cars can be a source of aggravation too, as today’s subject shows, although an iffy digital onboard diagnostics system was not the only thing impeding the Volvo 480’s market chances.

The genesis of the 480 was 1978, when an internal Volvo project named Galaxy was initiated. By the early eighties the main stylistic direction was established and unexpectedly neither the design by Volvo chief stylist Jan Wilsgaard nor the proposal by Bertone was chosen to go forward for further development. Instead one by Dutchman John de Vries (completed under the guidance of Rob Koch, the chief designer at Volvo’s Dutch subsidiary) was preferred.

From the start this new Volvo coupé was aimed at the American market – this is why the low, fixed headlights of the original proposal were replaced with pop-up headlights. In march 1986 the 480ES as it became known had its public debut at the Geneva Motor Show, and the first of the two brochures stems from that era. Using virtually studio photography only, the 30-page catalogue devotes much attention to the “futuristic design“, the versatile interior (the work of Peter Horbury), and the new Electronic Information Center onboard computer.

The 480ES, Volvo’s first front wheel drive car, generated predominantly positive comments on its styling which was very unlike any other Volvo of the time. Initially only the Renault-sourced 1.7 litre engine was available and its output of 109 bhp was deemed marginal for such a vehicle. Volvo was quick to announce that a turbocharged variant was in the pipeline; it would become available at the end of 1987, as well as a launch in the USA. The aim was to produce 35,000 480s annually, of which 25,000 would be bound for America.

One of the proudly presented innovations inside the 480ES was the so-called Electronic Information Center (EIC). Among its readout functions were oil, water and outside air temperature, average speed and fuel consumption. The EIC also served as the fuel gauge and engaged the rear wiper when reverse gear was selected while the windshield wipers were on. A feature connected to this but dropped on later 480s was increasing the windshield wipers’ speed to maximum whenever the throttle pedal was fully depressed for maximum acceleration.

Electrical glitches and complete failures of the EIC were rife however, and while not being able to check your average speed was a minor nuisance, not being able to see how much fuel was left in the tank was of course a problem. Today with the advances in electronics over the past thirty years the EIC would certainly easily be made reliable, but for 1986 Volvo’s programmers had perhaps been a little bit too ambitious.

The introduction of the 122 bhp 480 Turbo gave a positive impulse to performance and sales but the US launch still hadn’t happened. Several 480 Turbos were shipped to the USA for testing; they required modification in places in order to comply with the American regulations but as the 480 had been designed with the USA in mind in the first place this was a relatively simple process.

The fixed front indicators and secondary headlights were replaced by more fully orange items, the side markers at the rear were changed from orange to red, the rear fog lights were deleted and a different rear bumper was fitted with a changed aperture to accommodate the USA-style license plate. The USA-specification 480 Turbo pilot models also had unique colour schemes – some had a full leather interior in cream for example.

A changing economic landscape however made the American market business case for the 480 increasingly weak; the Dutch guilder becoming very strong against the US Dollar, steadily increasing its proposed price. The black monday stock market crash was the final nail in the coffin; Volvo announcing that the planned launch of the 480 in the USA was definitely off.

The Dutch Volvo plant in Born was by that time just starting to produce the new 440 and 460 models alongside the 480, which became more and more of an also ran. Nevertheless Volvo persisted with the model until 1995; the second brochure shows how little Volvo’s coupe changed outwardly during almost a decade. Volvo’s brochure photography style had changed however; this time most photographs in the 26 pages were taken outside in the real world. On the engine front, post-1990 non-turbo models were now fitted with a more meaty 2 litre Renault-sourced engine.

Slightly more than 76,000 480s rolled off the Born assembly lines, a good deal less than what had originally been planned. Its spiritual successor, the C30, did better but apparently not good enough to deserve continuation either. Attractive looking to most and capable and safe as a Volvo should be, perhaps the 480 deserved a better fate. As is currently the case with the cars themselves, brochures for the Volvo 480 are neither expensive nor hard to find today.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

9 thoughts on “Computer Says No”

  1. Good morning Bruno. The Volvo 480 was one of those cars that seemed to exist, but barely touch the consciousness of most potential buyers. It was a good first stab at FWD by Volvo, but the 440 and 460 that followed it were less good than they looked and often dismissed as not ‘proper’ Volvo’s, thanks to the Renault engines and lower production quality at the Nedcar plant . Still, if they did some of the heavy lifting for the excellent 850, then it was money well spent.

    As for the C30, I really rather liked them, even if they were difficult to categorise: not quite sleek enough to be a ‘proper’ coupé, while not quite practical enough, thanks to that small rear hatch .

    For our non-UK readers who may be unfamiliar with the odious Carol Breer, here’s a taster:

    1. Thank you for that little reminder of Ms. Breer; just as with Fawlty Towers or Seinfeld clips I can’t resist watching them even though I’ve already seen them many times!
      Yes, the 480 never did really achieve a foothold- it was relatively popular in The Netherlands and received widespread publicity upon its introduction but there was of course more than a little national pride involved in that with it being designed and built in our little country.

  2. I think the design that they went ahead with was a good choice, compared with the alternatives. I really liked these – sporty, but also sensible, in the Volvo tradition. I liked the proposed convertible, too.

  3. The lovely Carol and 480ES in one article: Saturday lunchtime bliss! I exercised self control and searched through my old copies of Italian coffee-table car gospel “Le Grandi Automobili” first to see how it had been received at the time (Edition 24, summer 1988, pages 127-134), before reading Brrrruno’s great write up.

    Their Bruno (Alfieri), loved the style and- rather strangely in my opinion- thought the Turbos’s red side stripe was an asset. He seems to have had an almost DTW ash tray preoccupation about steering wheels and couldn’t resist commenting that the spokes were a bit wide for gripping on the 480. Significantly he said that the “Gradual turbo” had an electronic pressure control suggesting a waist gate that was held closed electronically rather than by spring pressure like I’d naively assumed. Something else to go wrong! He also noted that the computer display showed fuel economy and range as a default, if you wanted to know how much was in the tank you had to press a button.

    Alfieri drove 500km presumably without any ‘Electronic Information Center’ tantrums and signed off by unwittingly giving Volvo’s baby the kiss of death; “I consider the selling price to be very low, and it (is) easy to forecast both commercial success and fame for this car”. Whoopsy!

    I think I’ve seen two in my life, always a highlight because I loved it as soon as I saw it aged 10 in the Observer’s Book of Cars.

  4. My dad and I went to the Volvo dealer when the 480 was introduced. We got a 4 page leaflet , which is basically a short version of the older brochure shown here. I still have it. I really liked the 480 when it was new, but now I think it’s styling is a little busy with the all the lights and shut lines in the front. I’ve never regarded them as particularly rare as I stumbled upon them quite often back in the day. I still see one every week on my walks, but I hardly see them on them road. The 480 seems really small compared to contemporary cars.

    One of my fellow students bought himself a white secondhand 480 Turbo when he graduated. I sat in it only once. He drove like a complete lunatic, redlining the engine when it was still cold. I briefly considered one too, but they were a little too expensive at the time.

    I was very disappointed in the 440 and 460. Not my cup of tea at all. The C30 was nicer, although I would have liked it to be less a round a bit more angular.

  5. Just wait until the fanboys figure out Porsche laid their hand on the cylinder head to improve power, and prices will soar right up!

    i’m pretty sure most of these have been sacrificed as motor donors for r5 turbos and GTE’s by now.

    1. By this logic the first generation Seat Ibiza with the motor system Porsche should get expansive soon. The cars are advertised as such already.

  6. One more thing: The EIC also made sure the windshield wipers and rear wipers were synchronized in operation. My OCD is satisfied.

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