One Beermat, a Coat and a Brass Key (Worn).

Words have an effect, according to an old saying.

Volvo 480 headlamp and bumper plus litter. Image: the author

Journalist Richard Bremner’s ‘Parting Shot’ article on the Volvo 480 in the September 1995 issue of Car magazine is worth another look. I am revisiting it following my sighting of this late example of the car when in Dublin recently. It’s not a car one sees often. Volvo made just shy of 80,000 of them during a nine-year production run, beginning in 1986. Whenever I observe a 480, I think of my first impressions of one I spotted outside the Shelbourne Hotel (good) and Bremner’s caustic words (less good).

The irritating fact is that Bremner’s flippant goodbye to the 480 cast an unwanted pall over what is really an interesting, appealing and notable bit of design work. Volvo considered the design good enough to remind customers they should think of it when admiring the remarkably lovely C30 of 2006, so I don’t suppose they took the Parting Shot article in any way seriously.

Volvo 480 seen in Dublin, Ireland. Image: the author

John de Vries is credited with the design of the exterior and Peter Horbury started his career at Volvo by penning the sleeve covering the rear windscreen wiper. Is it just me, or is there a hint of SD1 in the front of the car?

Could a font like this have worked on the Rover SD1?  Image: the author

Like the 340 and and the P1800, the 480 is not especially Volvo-esque, which is neither good nor bad. It’s merely how Volvo was in the 1980s, with what was a decidedly eccentric range of cars, including the 340, the 240 and the 700 series. While that’s not the sort of range one would create if you had some control over things, it’s what worked for Volvo and it worked quite well. Each of the cars served its target market well and, as I recall from the period, only car journalists had any problems with Volvos.

Channelling his inner Clarkson, Bremner wrote: “Early 480s were troublesome things. But they were interesting, a quality resolutely absent from other Volvos of the era – 240, 340, 740 – and they actually had some technical merit too.” A casual look at reviews shows Volvos performing quite well in lots of tests. And they were ubiquitous too. People liked these cars.

Excitingly industrial-design-y, 480 goodness from front to back. Image: the author

Front-wheel-drive appeared for the first time in a Volvo when used on the 480 and this helped Volvo gain experience for the later 440 model (which I have to say I don’t much care for at all). Lotus had some involvement in the handling development, but Bremner concluded that the ride was old-school Japanese: “It pitched like a dinghy in a swell, weaved like an angry hog when full-ahead in second was demanded….”

Alternative frontal treatment for 1986 Volvo 480: source

The interior is another striking aspect of the car: the seating is for four. Each person gets their own perch and when I saw the car outside the Shelbourne it struck me as being extremely cosy-looking inside, quite a notch above other car interiors with bench rear seats and dreary velour or jersey upholstery (step forward the Renault 18). Bremner’s only comment is to call the dashboard “busy”.  The interior is also Horbury’s work and I would strongly argue that it’s a fine effort: I still think about it today and I can visualise it, long after many, many other interiors have easily slipped my mind.

1989 Volvo 480 ES interior: source

I could go on adumbrating the exaggerations of the Parting Shot article, but I won’t. What I will do is wonder whether articles like this should be viewed as harmless entertainment – it’s only motoring journalism – or viewed as small increases in the toxicity of public discourse. Rather than me having to justify a preference for less strident writing, I think it is up to journos to justify stridency when writing about a car.

As I said in the opening, words have an effect. The end-point of such writing-to-entertain is that truth gets sidelined. Truth after all, is often less interesting. And I think it’s this that swept J. Clarkson off the ground on which his prose used to stand. He deduced that people would rather hear comic exaggerations instead of the earnestness of William Woollard and Chris Goffey. Bremner underwent the same change and I get the idea that he liked the sound of his own words, even their content had parted ways with the reality of the subject.

I have the idea that the worst of pop music journalism suffers routinely from the same failing: the writer tries to make art out of words referring to someone else’s art. Art can be not-true but I think journalism should be, even if it might be controversial. Don’t let art get in the way of a true sentence

So, what I’d like to do in conclusion is to remind readers that the 480 offered striking styling, acceptable performance and a comfortable ride. And we can leave Bremner’s prose in the bin where it belongs: inaccurate, exaggerated and insincere.

An interesting link to the history can be found here.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

25 thoughts on “One Beermat, a Coat and a Brass Key (Worn).”

  1. Good morning, Richard. When this car hit the market it was the only Volvo I liked. I loved the design and I still do. It’s not perfect, though. I don’t like the pop up head lights, because of the extra shut lines it creates Maybe it was necessary at the time, but the Opel Calibra had very narrow head lights. That car however was introduced 3 years later.

    One of my fellow students had a white 480 Turbo. I sat in it only once. He drove of and redlined the engine almost right away. Poor car. Performance was OK, but I would have liked more power, considering this was the top of the line version.

    I love the four seat lay-out in the interior. You could squeeze five in a car this size, but you shouldn’t and it’s good the designers realized this. The dashboard has this instrument pod which was probably meant to give the illusion to float in front of the driver. In that sense it reminds me of today’s BMW iX.

    I walk past a 480 almost every day. Sadly it has a ridiculous hood scoop. There was a green one in the same area, but that seems to have disappeared in the last couple of years. Walking past it always makes me realize how small the 480 actually is.

    1. That B post badge reminds me of the “lambda sond” stickers on Volvos during the period of catalytic converter hysteria. I also always liked the 480 except for its engines.
      The popup lights were necessary to habe the headlamps at the required height for US export.

    2. At the time I thought Lambda Sond was a type of in-car hi-fi system. By chance I found an ad for the Rover SD1 which is photographed from a low angle, making it look like a 480.
      The four seat layout is very agreeable. Even if you don´t use it, it is a nicely cosy arrangement. The 480 is an evocative car – it suggests travel and not-too-far-off places. I don´t mind the engines – it´s not intended to be a sports car but a tourer and if it can go at 75 mph comfortably, then that´s enough.

    3. Thanks for clarifying the pop-up headlight issue, Dave. Too bad it was never imported officially in the US.

      I don’t like the engines either. They lack a bit of power for autobahn storming, but apart from that I think they sound annoying. When I was still living at my parents’, one of the neighbors had a 440 and later a 460 with the same engine. At the time I always thought that if an engine could complain, that’s how it would sound.

    4. I first erronuously read that small badge on the B-post as “Lambada Sound” when I first saw it- and it was the moment I realised I really needed glasses, which I have worn ever since 🙂

    5. Bruno, that’s a perfect example for the health benefits of Volvos. Even if you don’t own one, it is good for you.

      Was the 480 really never sold in the US? That’s strange, regarding how heavily Volvo was depending on US sales at that time. For the 480 it’s even more irritating as they gave it sidemarkers even for Euro countries.

  2. “Channelling his inner Clarkson” – nail hit squarely on the head and the reason why I eventually stopped buying Car magazine, having been a customer since 1963. And not just the lazy, dismissive appraisals of the cars under consideration but the dubious command of the language in which they were written. The past tense of weave (your second quote) being a typical example.

    1. Mr. Bremner was never one of those Car journalists one read for the enjoyment of their prose; in fact there were comparatively few of those, a matter which becomes evident when one peruses the occasional back issue. (With the inevitable proviso that tastes do differ) Most of the time, his reports were fairly innocuous, but the ‘Parting Shot’ series and its predecessor, ‘Dogs’ was somewhat infra dignitatum for an organ such as Car. The dead hand of EMAP publishing was very much in evidence by then, I suspect.

    2. To be fair with Richard Bremner, series like “Parting Shot” and so on are very usual in any magazine, a bit of a “cheap shot” where a journalist writes something despective about a car just because it has gone out of production. To a certain extent it´s a way of praising the new model that supersedes it (although the 480 didn´t have one).
      Richard wasn´t my favourite Car Magazine writer, but eventually he wasn´t offensive in his articles.

  3. Good morning Richard. Yes, the 480 really was rather nice. Here’s a studio photo of a late example:

    Coincidentally, Honda had a very similar idea for the contemporary Accord Aerodeck:

    1. I seem to remember hearing that the design for the Accord Aerodeck started life as a replacement for the Reliant Scimitar GTE, although I don’t know how much truth there is in that.

    2. Both the 480 and Aerodeck are options to consider if a Lancia Beta HPE is too frightening. Of the two newer cars, Honda´s is the most austere in execution. It´s excellent (formal correctness and all that). If I ran a car magazine I´d put the three of them in a group test.
      Eoin´s a little harsh re: Car in the 1990s but he is right in that the tendency to write what sounded good over what was reasonable had begun to develop. The GBU section needed a health-warning. I am not saying all cars are good and criticism is wrong; what I want is some effort made in the direction of precision. This need not have run counter to Car´s agenda to pull no punches. I think the supply of journalists who can write well, write in an engaging way and who can resists misleading is on the small side. And I notice that the editions from the late 70s and early 80s were full of cracking prose but also not full of Bremneresque hyperbole.

    3. A group test sounds like a plan. I like all three, I haven’t driven them myself, but I’d probably have the Honda.

    4. A couple of Toyotas were seen knocking at the back door of the clubhouse:

      Have we forgotten anyone? (The original Volvo 1800 ES, awesomely fetching Lynx Eventer, Ferrari FG/GTC4Lusso, and a handful of one-offs and prototypes were all unavailable for comment.)

    5. This?

      The 480’s eventual successor, a lovely design in its own right, if not very practical.

    6. Maybe if the 480 had sported a ‘Honda’ badge I might have liked it just a little bit….

  4. Regarding the SD1 comparison – I think the front end also looks a bit like the Ferrari 400, what with the visible headlights-that-are-not-really-headlights (with the integrated tapered side indicators) and the real (pop-up) headlights above it.

    It is quite a rare car, which is why I was surprised when I stumbled upon one in Bosnia of all places.

  5. Hello, I had the use of a 480 for a while. It’s looks are ok but the reason I didn’t like it was the harsh engine, dull steering, lack of performance, choppy ride and horrible hard plastic dashboard. The whole car creaked and groaned and in every way was unrefined. I’d rather have anything with a free spinning motor, responsive steering and good handling. A Fiat 128 replaced the 480 and was massively more enjoyable.

    1. If you shatter any more of my illusions I will have to ask Simon A. Kearne to impose a barring order on you, Simon. I am the kind of person who needs to be let down gently.

    2. I knew a couple of friends that had 480s (second hand), they bought them because they liked the styling, but always complained about the terrible plastics Volvo used in the interior. In the 90´s I read in some magazines that the 400 series was a particular low point in Volvo´s quality reputation.

  6. The GBU section of Car magazine was gauche. It was a carbuncle which ruined the complexion of an otherwise good magazine. Unfortunately the infection surely spread and now Car is with sepsis- the entirety is infected. It is not worth the cost of purchase, let alone the time invested in reading it. Yuck.

    Volvo 480 used to be a common enough sight. I have not seem one of these in some years. Where did they all go? They didn’t appear to have rust problems.

    Issues such as rough ride are solvable if you spend a little time. If you like a car enough to buy it do not be put off. It is advisable to purchase second hand and never, ever, ever borrow or use finance. Use the money you have saved to improve your car instead and once that project is completed, use the money you are not sending to a bank or finance company to improve yourself (make your life better).

  7. Rather surprised Lotus were unable to do much to improve the 480’s dynamics, mention is made of a 2.0 turbo prototype engine for the 480 however am not able to find any data even if it is likely a Renault sourced engine.

    Here are some alternative proposals for the 480 courtesy of Volvotips.

    Along with some images of the 480 Phase II facelift prototype.

  8. Surprised the involvement of Lotus was not able to significantly improve the dynamics of the 480.

    Am particularly interested in finding out more about the 2.0 Turbo prototype engine in terms of output, it is not clear if the engine in question was the 2.0 Renault F-Type or a Volvo sourced design.

    As far as alternative front end treatments for the Volvo 480 go, prefer the Phase II facelift prototype as well as the Bertone and Jan Wilsgaard proposals.

  9. The comparison with the SD1 is valid. Bache, having been fired from BL Limited went to Volvo, but the Dutch outpost, formerly DAF. Not only that, once he was settled he recruited some of his old colleagues. At the last minute, Volvo head office in Sweden decreed that that car must have a Volvo grille. The solution, from a former Longbridge stylist Stephen Harper, was inspired by the Ferrari 288 GTO driven by his former boss, Roy Axe. I used to enjoy driving those 400-series Volvos but they weren’t the most reliable.

  10. My understanding (which I recall came from an official Volvo history book, which I seem to have misplaced) is that the last-minute decision not to sell the 480 in the USA was a consequence of unfavorable exchange rate fluctuations of the Dutch guilder vs. the US dollar, which would have made the car too expensive for US buyers. (Presumably the same dollar-vs-guilder inflation that put Fokker out of business a decade later, as they built and delivered airplanes against orders taken years earlier and priced in US dollars…) But I’m still shocked that they retained the USA-spec corner markers on the rear fender; perhaps the tooling had already been ordered?

    I must admit that I quite liked Car‘s GBU section, as a kid in the USA in the ’80s-90s (a land where automotive journalists were unwilling to say an unkind word about any car whose maker might buy ad space, and you always knew that a BMW would win any comparison test). We’d get to see the likes of Car only rarely, when someone’s father returned from an overseas business trip and brought us some magazines. I took such great pleasure in reading the GBU one-liners disparaging the miserable American and Japanese cars that populated my childhood (but which always struck me as deliberately awful conveyances cynically designed for a generation of Americans that had been misled in their basic understanding of what an automobile should be). One GBU description of a Toyota sticks with me, verbatim, to this day: For = Popular in America, Against = Their roads are straight.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: