Volvo 480 Turbo

The image of Volvo has always been one of a genteel conservatism. There's no outright snobbery involved in the brand, but those loyal to the Swedish manufacturer do seem to conform to a stereotype that may or may not be flattering. There's no posturing involved like other premium-priced models, no aggressive marketing designed to target a particular consumer. The Scandinavian manufacturer simply let its innocuous boxes appeal to innocuous people, as long as they had money to pay for it.

That's not to suggest that Volvo's are luxury cars; you don't expect leather and wood trimming when you sit in one, but it's definitely not at the lower range of the market, rubbing shoulders with disposable tin like Fords and Opels. They were sedate, safe saloons for accountants, offering a cosy way to move boxes of files and the family Retriever around without any particular sense of urgency. Cardigans were an optional extra from the factory.

Don't be fooled, however, into thinking Volvo's are slow; they're perfectly capable of keeping up with Audi's and BMW's (well, the smaller ones anyway), it's just that the owners have no desire to do so. While the German saloons excel in bullying other road users onto the hard shoulder, Volvo likes to plod along, knowing how much power it has and utterly refusing to use it, because it just wouldn't be sensible. As the Mercedes roars past honking his horn and shaking its fist, the Volvo owner will make a light tutting sound, and shake his head. In motoring terms, they are the embodiment of the word "comfy."

So when you hear that Volvo had produced a sort of, well, err, something along the line of a sports car, then the silence is only broken by the sound of teaspoons clattering onto saucers. "A sporting car?" enquires the husband, lowering his newspaper. "From Volvo? My word, really, this is really quite intolerable. I shall write a letter of complaint at once."

Volvo knew their target market, and what it would and would not accept. Which is why, on an average day in a nondescript ceremony they announced that they had built a Shooting Brake. A what? Hold on.

A long time ago, sporting gentlemen sat themselves on a simple, open wagon with long benches down each side, and let themselves be pulled around the forests and fields until they were in the appropriate place for shooting. With shotguns resting on their laps, knees warm under tartan blankets and flasks of brandy and whisky being passed around, it was all very much the quintessential country scene, and these open wagons, or brakes as they were called, were the lowest sort of rough-and-ready vehicles the moneyed classes were prepared to ride on.

Even if you're off out for some country fun, the prospect of spending hours staring at the back end of a horse loses its appeal. And despite the Eighties yuppy penchant for buying their way into genteel society, the average consumer shied away from actual mud and turf, so a real wooden-sided wagon wasn't exactly what was wanted. Some sort of combination, like a sporting estate car was in order, and if you're looking for an estate car, you look to Volvo.

This wasn't Volvo's first foray into the concept of a sports car; twenty years earlier Volvo had sold the 1800, rightly considered a classic these days. The trouble was timing; they released that car at exactly the same motor show as the Jaguar E-type, and given the choice, very few people went for the Swedish option. Price didn't help either; the 1800 cost more than the Jag in the UK, thanks to export costs, even though Swedish cars at that time were right-hand drive. In a bid to make the car seem more impressive, Volvo played around with the 1800, making a very small run of 8000 Shooting Brakes, called the 1800ES, before shutting down production in 1974.

That 1800ES was very much in the mind of one young designer when the call came from headquarters in 1978 that maybe they should have another go at making something sportier. Codenamed Project E12, Volvo Headquarters in Sweden decided to give their Dutch counterparts a test, and commissioned the team in the ex-DAF factory (which Volvo had bought a few years earlier) to come up with something radically new. The Dutch knew that they had to impress their Swedish overlords, or the whole factory would face closure, despite their ability to churn out the dull little Volvo 340. A sword of Damocles was hanging over them; develop a replacement for the Volvo's small car platform, or face the axe.

With that threat, and the radical brief of making a front-wheel-drive car, the Dutch team set to work, sketching out bold lines, rakish angles, acres of glass and pop-up headlights; all the marks of a serious Eighties roadster with none of the traditional elements that make up a Volvo at all. And a young designer by the name of John de Vries, returned to the old 1800ES as a source of inspiration. The short wheelbase was visually extended with large side panels and stretched windows, with the rear chopped off with a masterstroke of flat glass that opened up as a frameless tailgate. It was an daring design for the conservative manufacturer, but it won high praise from the Swedish top brass, and was put forward into production.

Unlike the cumbersome and wallowing Volvo 200 series, which was the standard brick being churned out by the company, the little 480 was to have a much more rev-happy and sprightly engine, courtesy of Renault. The little 1.7 litre unit was squeezed under the rakishly sloping bonnet alongside a turbo unit, with the whole setup tuned by Porsche engineers for optimum power. Since the back end of the car would now be "dead" because the power was at the front, the rear suspension would be handled by the English mechanics at Lotus. This thoroughly European effort was done to entice the Americans into spending their hard-earned dollars on the finished product, and to that end it was held together with an intricate web of cabling that controlled all sorts of technological gadgetry.

Considering this was Volvo, the electronic toys fitted to the 480 were things to make your life more practical. Alongside the airbags and ABS were useful gizmos like speed-variable wipers that automatically turned on at the rear if you engaged reverse, and door-timed headlights that stayed on for 20 seconds after you got out, to help you put your key in the front door. How thoughtful.

The trouble was, it was all very new territory for the Swedish manufacturer, and from the initial 1986 launch, tweaks and revisions were continuously made to get the car working properly, but the maze of electronics proved frustratingly stubborn. While the car never actually broke down, any number of on-board systems could go on the blink at whim, and even at idle the little 1.7 engine sounded cholic. Topped off with a disappointing exchange rate meant that the sporting Volvo would never get to see the other side of the Atlantic, and without American sales the model was effectively doomed. Even the introduction of a 2.0 engine in 1993 couldn't raise much interest, and two years later the model was cancelled, with only 80,000 units made.

Despite its sloping profile and short wheelbase, it never became a driver's car like it's brand rival, the Volvo 340, which should go some way to explaining why one would be sitting forlornly on steel wheels with rotting wheel arches in a Warsaw back street. Without the performance to match the low nose and sleek lines, this most un-Volvoish of Volvos could never be considered a serious sports car. It was just too serious.


Garwanko said...

Huh! I see my Volvo on the photo :-) It's very annoying car, but I love to drive them!