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The Glove Box: Volvo 480

The Glove Box: Volvo 480

Volvo: safe, sensible, and a little old-fashioned. Right? Maybe at one point, but today, Volvo, under the ownership of Chinese company Geely, is reimagining itself as a high-quality, modern luxury brand. The car I have for you today started all of that back in 1986. It introduced an all-new platform that paved Volvo’s way to its crisp, Scandinavian present. And for U.S. Volvo nuts specifically, this car is a sore spot, because we came so close to being able to buy this clean, cool piece of metal.

If you had heard of the Volvo 480 before reading this article, find me so I can give you a high-five. It’s not as obscure as the Torino or other cars, but it is an exquisite cocktail of the features auto nerds go crazy for: the 1980s, 3-door shooting brakes, pop-up headlights, hot hatches, and Volvo itself.

Photo from John Lloyd on Flickr

Volvo is releasing a whole lineup of new products that share a crisp, clean, distinctly Swedish design language and engineering ethos. The XC90 and S90, while surely stealing a slice of Mercedes, BMW, and Audi sales, do not try to emulate any German design ideas. Interiors are bright and airy, and body sides are free from unnecessary ornamentation. The new “Thor’s Hammer” lighting signature is striking. Volvo is a true luxury brand now, cool without trying. The automotive press’ reaction has been one of amazement at Volvo’s quiet restraint wrapped around compelling mechanicals—Motor Trend’s SUV of the Year was the XC90 last year. One might say that these cars evoke “stealth wealth.”

So how does some nerd-mobile from the 1980s fit into this equation, you ask? Well, Volvo often has trouble breaking from traditions. Whether due to lack of funding or an aging customer base, resistance to change is often justified, but it can get Volvo stuck without fresh product after a while. The previous XC90 was built from 2002 to 2014, using a Ford platform that was thoroughly outdated by the time the new all-Volvo model came out.

Similarly, Volvo had purchased Dutch small-car firm DAF in 1974 and introduced the 300 Series, an inherited DAF design, in 1976. As I will discuss in my next article, DAF made some technological advancements, but the 300 series, their planned larger model (larger at least than the tiny 66), was uncompetitive against VW’s Golf and Ford’s Escort because its engine drove the rear wheels. The contemporary compact cars had more room inside and were lighter thanks to their front-wheel-drive designs.

Volvo brass realized that sooner or later, the brand, though never really mainstream, would have to make a competitive front-wheel-drive car to stay financially solvent. As the auto industry was well aware by that point, removing any drive components from the area behind the engine freed up much more space for passengers. The 400 series filled the gap in 1987. Built at the DAF factory (today a contractor called NedCar), Volvo’s inherited compact-car facility, it resembles a shrunken 850, which, unlike the 440/460, did come to the United States. For better or for worse, Americans rarely receive Volvo compact cars.

I should touch on naming conventions before going forward. (Woohoo!) Starting with the 144, Volvo named its cars with a series of three numbers: the series (100), number of cylinders in the engine (4) and number of doors (4). Midway through the 240’s run, in the 1980s, Volvo stopped notating the number of doors. Soon, with the advent of turbocharging, the middle number stopped having significance. The 460 and 440, for example, both only had four-cylinder engines, but the 460 was a sedan while the 440 was a hatchback. Eventually, Volvo dropped the middle number and added an S or V (later XC and C as well) to indicate body style; e.g. the S40 (compact sedan) and V70 (midsize wagon).

The 480 is one of two Volvos to carry an 8 in the middle. The other, the 780, was a luxury coupe with Italian-flavored design by Bertone. Neither had 8-cylinder engines; rather, the 8 indicates that these models are something special. Wisely, Volvo chose to lead its front-wheel-drive revolution with the cool-looking car, releasing it a year before the workaday 400 series.

A 480 and its spiritual successor. Photo from regtur on Flickr

The 480 ES (its full name) and the more recent C30 both evoke the styling of a famous Volvo model, the 1800ES, an accidental icon created in 1971 as a sort of passing gesture to generate more sales on the P1800 sports car platform. The large rear window is the most notable trademark, but the concept of a sports car in a long hatchback was an unusual concept. We might call the original 1800ES a “shooting brake,” a term we car enthusiasts love to use to describe sporty 3-door wagons.

Whatever you call it, Volvo designed the 480 looking to the future, but with an eye on the past. Arguably, today’s new Volvos do the same. Simple exterior lines, as beautifully illustrated by the S90. have long been a Volvo touchstone. Wagons more beautiful than their sedan counterparts are a common Volvo thread, too. And of course, the interiors (the interiors!) of the new cars are so simple, yet so high-quality, recalling the thoughtful, elegant simplicity of any number of past Volvos, like the 240. (Talk to Jack Lamb about the joys of a 240 wagon.) Unlike the classics, though, the revolutionary new Swedish stunners all have front-wheel drive (or a front-wheel-biased all-wheel drive system), which began with the 480.

Volvo also used the 480 as a platform for an upmarket hot hatch. The archetypal hot hatch, the Volkswagen Golf GTI, still had the market cornered, but even the effort involved in creating the 480 Turbo showed that Volvo was in touch with the youths. Hot hatches have been popular since their creation, so Volvo figured it could make some cash with a slightly faster 480. It sold well enough, but it was not a knockout success. Really, the 480 as a whole was too expensive, just like the more recent C30. Aspirations of luxury, poor exchange rates, and not enough effort spent on cost-cutting where it counted made the price tough to swallow. Plus, even the fast version only had 120 horsepower, a little weak for the high asking price.

Perhaps this problem with saleability is why Volvo, at the last minute, pulled the 480 from the United States market. There already existed a 50-state-legal version, but the 480, like the C30, would have likely been popular in San Francisco and nowhere else. I exaggerate, but American tastes would ultimately not have aligned with the 480. In addition,the dollar was losing value against the Dutch guilder, the local currency of the ex-DAF factory that built the 480. After the Black Monday stock crash on October 18, 1987, Volvo pulled the plug on this lusty little hatchback’s hopes in the U.S. entirely.

If it wasn’t evident already, I’ll say again that I love this car for everything it is and represents: the design, the sportiness, and Volvo just having some fun. I always thought, though, it was nowhere close to coming to the U.S. But now, I have nostalgia for an alternate universe where we did get this little charmer and there are American 480 enthusiast clubs. Wouldn’t it be great to cross-shop an old 480 with a used BMW?

Photo from Auto Clasico on Flickr

Now that earlier 480s have reached 25 years old, the story gains the silver lining of importation. There are a decent number still zipping about Europe. They are safe in a crash, of course (at least for their age) and more than fast enough to keep up with modern traffic. They are apparently good to drive and you can fit lots of stuff in the back. One road test from 1987 deemed the 480 better than the Honda Accord Aerodeck, another shooting brake favorite. A few are already here, but choices will be limited if you don’t import. You will be the coolest person at the next Swedish car meet if you take the leap, and you’ll have a solid, fun, useful car for daily use. What more do you need?

Here’s a PDF of that road test I just mentioned, from What Car?, that calls the 480 “the most unVolvo-like Volvo yet.” To learn about the aborted effort to bring the 480 to the States, head over to Car Buzzard. Here and here are two more articles for general knowledge. That’s all from The Glove Box for now. Next week, as I’ve already given away, I’ll be talking about the rubber-band microcars of DAF. It’s more exciting than you think.

(Cover photo from Jérémy Romand on Flickr)