Words have an effect, according to an old saying.
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.
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?
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.
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….”
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.
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.