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.
Always rather liked the C30, unfortunately it was awfully expensive for what you got.
Probably just as well that the 480 didn’t come to the US, as it certainly wouldn’t have readily fit in with an American’s idea of a proper Volvo: a car for sensible leftists. With more environmental cred than it probably deserves.
Another new one for me. I guess it’s Peter Horbury day as well. 🙂
I always thought these were fantastically good looking cars when I visited the UK. Oddly I never noticed the traditional Volvo grill under the front bumper. Not that it has been pointed out it is a little awkward and impossible to un-see. Oh well the rear view is the best one on these anyway. I think these would have sold decently in Canada if they had been able to market them at a semi-sane price point.
+1 on the grille. I never noticed it either. Very interesting detail though, on a car that I rather like (once I discovered its existence about five years ago).
Volvo farmed out the redesign of the 1800ES to Coggiola. And a clever re-design it is. It was done very much on the cheap, and they chose Coggiola because there was so little changes that had to be done. There’s no change to the inner superstructure, and all the body hardpoints are maintained. You can se there’s a split in pressings along the top of the fenders, hidden by that chrome trim on top. The outer pressings are the same as the 1800E, while the re-designed inner pressing including the roof are just tacked on between the fenders. Really clever, and it changed the appearance significantly without much work.
here’s a picture of the 1800ES prototype, where you can see the difference between the new bits and the old bits:
I’ve started to realise how deeply Coggiola was in with Volvo. They put together the first 162C based on Wilsgaard’s design before it became the Bertone 262C. They also did this ESC based on the 1800 in 71.
I like these a lot.I met a fascinating character who owned one at an LGBT project,if the 360 was a car made for Malcolm the trainspotter then this was a car made for the stylish elegant lady who though in her 60s showed no sign of slowing down.
+1 Yes,the lady with red glasses and a matching streak in her hair!
People keep thumping into our latest C30 and it seems pretty tough given the major knocks it has taken. One was a full-sized Waikato Hospital Ford Transit Disability Coach whose driver cut left on parking so hard against the right front guard that it actually moved the car physically sideways with my wife sitting inside it behind the wheel. There were no external signs of damage other than a slight deformation of the panel placement. An upper front panel fastening was popped out and inside the panel (when removed) there was one broken clip. The Transit was sporting a big ‘cave-in’ at the right rear lower panel before he was seen to drive off again doing ‘a runner’. The more recent runner did more damage to the same panel by apparently barging straight into it at speed while the car was parked and unoccupied. NZ drivers are very laisser faire about this sort of behaviour it seems. It is a more recent trend I think since we have had a massive influx of immigrant drivers from third world countries coming to live here over the last few years now. Some of these obtain their licences in their home countries by paying money rather than sitting a driving test and must use our roads and car parks as training grounds rather like the dodgems at the Easter Show. Disappointing. There have been instances of these drivers not looking out for other traffic and suddenly turning or coming out in front of oncoming motorcyclists, killing them outright. They also frequently kill themselves or their children by driving over banks, crossing centre lines, or letting their occupied vehicles roll into waterways without handbrakes applied. Sad.
The 480 was a John de Vries design, he worked for Volvo Car Helmond, Volvo’s design studio in the Netherlands led by Rob Koch. De Vries was clearly inspired by the Volvo P1800-ES. Three other design studios were in the race back then: naturally Volvo Sweden, Bertone and Coggiola.
I’v read that there were two major reasons the 480 wasn’t exported to the US:
-Currency exchange rates.
-It was a hatchback.
It’s a bit of a cult car now here, especially the turbos.
I loved the 480.
Mum had two of these. The first was a fairly standard ’89 480 ES model bought nearly new in 1990 iirc. It was bought to replace our ’78 245 GLE estate which had begun letting her down on occasion, so my elderly Grandma insisted on funding a replacement, and Mum was firmly instructed to buy something she really wanted.
Mum loved that first 480 dearly, but it had a leaky manual sunroof that they never quite managed to fix, so in ’92 she replaced it with a then-brand-new Limited Edition which had a (non-leaky) electric “moonroof”, full two-tone leather interior (pale blue and teal green, very 90s) and all of the light restyling the later cars got (slightly more elegant wing mirrors, the wider detailing strip down the side which was previously on the Turbo only I think…).
It too was much loved and stayed with us ’til she retired and downsized to a FIAT Panda – horrifying the dealership.
Weirdly I saw the exact same LE parked outside my work here in Edinburgh about ten years back. Strange coincidence that it moved to the same place as me, but it was lovely seeing it again and at the time it still looked very tidy.
Very fond memories of both cars. Attached pic is the LE on its last day with us before being taken for trade in.
When I saw the lead in car I had a hard time placing it. Thought I still had a fairly good memory for this. Very relieved when you said it never came to the states.
To me this is not a Volvo. Borrowing the Renault engine reinforces that. Somehow I don’t care. I would love to have that 480 Turbo in the cover picture. If it must be wrong wheel drive it must have a hatch. Article was very interesting and insightful. Have seen a lot of central american product and asian product that never made it to the states but not many of the European market.
It’s a Volvo; Volve designed the chassis and everything but the engine. Is a Caravan with the Mitsu V6 not a Chrysler?
It’s proof that Volvo was not a rich company; just be happy Renault didn’t get their hands on them.
I remember reading about these in C&D and wondering why we never got them here in the states, it was always rumored that they would be here “next year”, but they never came. Wasn’t there a convertible one too?
Just a few of them, only as a prototype and built in the UK. I found this one, it was actually for sale:
With the notchback like that it gives me a huge TR7 vibe.
Funny you say that, as the corner indicator clusters were used on the Grinnall TR7/TR8 models. (Heavily updated and re-engined versions of the wedge)
Actually the shape of the pop-up lights is TR-ish too.
I was a Volvo dealer technician in the mid-to late-80’s. I remember when we kept hearing the 480 was going to hit the U.S. just any time. After a couple of years of rumors, we stopped hearing about it. It would have been a nice addition to the product line, but probably would’ve ended up more expensive than the 200 and 700 series, kind of like what happened when the Ford Contour ended up being priced in a way that encouraged folks to buy a Taurus for a couple hindered more.
Great post … I knew about the 1800 connection but not the 480. The C30 is the first Euro car I’ve ever owned, probably the oddest too but a very satisfying compromise between my desire for a good handling sporty and responsive MT and my wife’s desire for a small, durable and safe hatch. Oddly the only picture I have of the car on my phone is …
On some angles it works. On others it looks like a TR7 trying to be a Honda.
Very interesting write-up, especially on the heels of the 300-series one from yesterday! I knew what a 400-series looked like, but very little beyond that.
Lots of strange and disparate styling elements that come off as being at odds with each other, but I do like it, especially from the rear. I love the way the P1800ES references are incorporated – an obvious homage but without being “retro” at all. The slightest hint of the original’s “shoulders” is such a nice touch. From the firewall back, the body also looks very Japanese to me, especially with all that flush glass (think EF Honda Civic, BF Mazda Familia/323). The combination of pointy beak+upright hatch is also making me think of the 1st generation Saturn SW, which came later, but looked less oddly-proportioned being a 5-door. Then you’ve got the pop-up lights which are also very Japanese and look totally out of place, and the turn signals/parking lights that are a dead ringer for Rover SD1… and a traditional Volvo grille tucked underneath. Weird…
I’m thinking that I would’ve liked it way more with the early 440 front end shown here, but then I suppose that would’ve defeated the purpose.
Interesting that Volvo had originally planned on selling them in North America. I’m almost certain it would have been a flop. Way too different from what we thought of as a “Volvo” back then, too much stiff competition from Japan, and it would’ve come out during the years when Americans began their hardcore shunning of hatchbacks. But looking back, I bet the 440/460 actually would have done well here! The conceptually-not-much-different S40 was something of a hit 10 years later, when Volvo didn’t have nearly the same swagger they did within the U.S. during the late 80s.
I remember first reading about the Volvo 480 Turbo in the 80s. I’ve seen the 1800ES before. I used to know someone who had one back in the 70s, and I thought wouldn’t it be neat if Volvo were to bring that car up to date, up to the 80s. Unfortunately, that never happened. I read somewhere that despite intending to import the 480 to North America, it would’ve been too expensive, it would’ve required more safety features than would’ve been realistically possible. Many reasons that I find unforgivable at best.
You’re right. Mainly due to currency exchange rates, as I mentioned above, the 480 would become too expensive in the US. Plus the fact that it was a hatchback, and that’s a bit of an “issue” too, isn’t it ?
Plans for the North American introduction of the 480ES were actually at a very advanced stage when they got called off. We already had a couple of them in Canada for testing and market evaluation. In the summer of 1987 one of the Volvo Canada regional managers dropped by my dealership with one and I spent a very memorable day driving it around. Although my market was small, historically it achieved one of the highest market penetrations for the brand in Canada, as it was anchored on one side by a college town and the other by an air force base where a lot of service personnel returning from the German bases were posted.
I remember the car being surprisingly sporting to drive, even with the non-turbo engine. It also felt exceptionally sturdy (and perhaps even heavy) for its size, which combined with good seats meant it was Volvo enough for me. Driving around, reaction from the public to the car was phenomenal. Each time I parked, a small crowd gathered and it was all thumbs up when they found out what it was.
Canadian dealers were very excited at the projects of having a new and fully modern model to sell, even though Volvo was already warning us that the price was going to be high–maybe even pushing against the price of the base 740 at the time. A lot of us were devastated when the import plans were ultimately cancelled. Volvo was doing much better in Canada back then and I still think we could have sold enough of them to make it worthwhile, especially considering that most of the costs to federalize the car had already been incurred.