The origins of styling trademarks are often as much accidental as anything else. Repeated themes such as the profile of the Mini or the Beetle were not chosen because they were perceived to look to great but because the dominant engineering influences preferred them on a variety of justifications. Similarly, features such as the BMW, Mercedes Benz or Rolls-Royce grilles were not chosen but are simply continuations of existing styles. Or, perhaps the example of SAAB style–that evolved because SAAB could not afford to move to another car from the 1968 99 until GM bought the company in the early 1990s.
Another case is the rear window of the Volvo 1800ES. By the end of the 1960s, the Volvo P1800 (also known as the 1800S) was looking long in the tooth, as well as expensive and not that fast, and Volvo looked as many options for moving forward, either through a restyle to a more fashionable fastback or a complete reskin. Volvotips has a good run through on this, but you can clearly sense a couple of things – an internal design would be preferred (I suspect Volvo has always been most at home working in a Swedish environment) and a low cost solution was almost inevitable.
In 1970, we saw the answer – the Volvo 1800ES with the same rear wing as at the existing coupe, a longer roof line and a very distinctive all glass rear hatch, which eliminated the need for another complex pressing for the hatch itself. It did, though, create one of the era’s more stylish and memorable sports coupes. Tom Klockau’s personal account of the 1800ES is a great read.
The 1800ES died in 1973, unable to comply with various safety and emissions regulations. It was also a very expensive car, initially being priced in the USA and UK at Jaguar E type like prices. Total production of the 1800 and 1800ES was 47,000 units over twelve years.
Volvo did not offer anything with any sporting intent after the 1800, except the Volvo 240GLT from 1978 and later the 360GLT (740 Turbo? -ED). Both were sturdy sensible saloons presented as something with a sporting intent. Blacked out trim, additional lights, alloy wheels, different wheels and tyres were there, of course. These cars certainly weren’t comparable BMW or Alfa Romeo, but somehow, more like your dad in jeans–he’s still your dad, and therefore he’s older than you.
The Volvo 340 and 360 range was replaced in 1987 by the 440 hatchback and later the 460 saloon, built on a front wheel drive, transverse engine platform that although not innovative, was at least contemporary. The first car from this family, known as the G or Galaxy range in Volvo code, was actually the 1986 480ES Coupe, based on the same platform. This strategy matched that of VW in 1974, when the first Sirocco was launched ahead of the (commercially much more important) Golf, to test the manufacturing processes and to test the waters for a front wheel drive VW.
The engines were borrowed from Renault, as they were for the preceding 340/360 range and Lotus were involved in the tuning of the suspension. The styling was all by Volvo in the Netherlands, rather than Sweden, and showed the first sign that Volvo was able to move away from the straight line, boxy style of the 240/260 and 740/760 series cars.
There were two key points about the styling – the pop up lights were as startling on a Volvo as anything could be, and were unusual in that sector of the market. The 480ES was actually one of the last European cars to use them. The second feature was the frameless all glass rear hatch, clearly deliberately picking up from the 1800ES, flagging the car as a sporting Volvo and adding a second point of differentiation to its competitors, such as the VW Sirocco, the Opel/Vauxhall Manta/Cavalier Sportshatch and the later Calibra, and a range of Japanese coupes, such as the Mitsubishi Starion and Toyota Celica, and later, the Rover 200 series Coupe. Perhaps the car Volvo most wanted to be compared to, in terms of image and reputation, was the Honda Prelude.
The rear hatch was important; without it, there would be little or link to the 1800 or 1800ES and it gave Volvo a strong differentiator in the market. Otherwise, the car was essentially the same as many other European cars, of its size, with a transverse four cylinder engine (1.7 litre or 2.0 litre), 5 speed gearbox, and Macpherson strut front suspension. Crucially, though, it is first Volvo that seems fully class competitive, as opposed to having appeal through distinction, (don’t worry – I’m not expecting everyone to agree!) and I believe the front wheel drive is something to do with that. After all, all Volvos saloons are now FWD, including the large-for-Europe S80.
The interior has perhaps not aged well, but in 1986 this was measured as a stylish interior, and was the work of Brit Peter Horbury, who in 1991 became Volvo’s director of design prior to moving to Ford USA in a similar role. The rear seat was always two conjoined bucket seats rather than a bench, and was perhaps a little more spacious than expected.
Horbury was also responsible for adding the Volvo grille below the front bumper, as a late addition, when Volvo determined that a recognisable grille was required, and there was nowhere else to put it.
The 480, from the off, had quality problems. Most serious were significant electrical failures leading to a redesign of major components for 1990. This proved the benefit of Volvo offering the 480ES ahead of the 440, in 1987, and the 460 saloon in 1990.
Contrary to Volvo’s original intentions, the car was never offered in North America, largely due to unfavourable currency movements. It was, though, designed to be compliant with Federal regulations and was even fitted with bumpers that met the NHTSA five mph requirement.
There were not a lot of changes to the 480ES – a turbocharged engine in 1987 and a round of minor changes in the early 1990s. Production ended in 1995, with a considerable stock of cars to be sold off, at a total of 80000 cars. The 480ES was not replaced: the first generation S40 and V40 were strictly saloon and estate only.
The second generation S40 and V50 did however spawn the Volvo C30–either a compact 3 door hatchback, like the BMW 3 series Compact to the regular 3 series or a sports-coupe-hatchback based on the S40 saloon. Either way, the most striking thing about the car was the frameless all glass rear hatchback, which with the strongly profiled rear haunches clearly linked back to the 1800ES and the 480ES. If you could live with the cramped rear seats and comically small boot, it made for an appealing left-field choice.
The rear hatch style, although not entirely frameless, has been continued into the current V40 and V60 cars, adding a certain Volvo character, and helping enhance their appeal against the predominantly German competition.