Technological breakdowns – there’s one Born every minute.
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.