So yesterday, I got a call from David. This isn’t uncommon. David and I end up talking a bit on the phone almost every day, like high school besties in 1988. I don’t really like talking on the phone, generally, preferring the asynchronicity of text so I can do other stuff, but this is now sort of a ritual with David and me that it’d feel weird if he didn’t call. Anyway, today he called and was all excited about seeing a car he didn’t recognize, spotted in a parking lot in Frankfurt, Germany, where he currently is as he participates in the German Car of the Year award. I think he’s a judge, not a contestant, despite the concentration of oil in his veins. “It’s a Volvo, but it has pop-up headlights?” he told me, excitedly. “What is this?” I took a moment to pause and savor this moment vicariously, the moment where someone sees their first Volvo 480. It’s an important moment.
I had David send me the picture you see up there so we could, perhaps, share the Volvo 480 realization moment with a larger number of people. While I’m sure a large portion of our readers already know about this wedgiest of Volvos, perhaps some don’t! And they deserve joy, too.
The 480, built from 1985 to 1995, was Volvo’s first front-wheel drive car! Ever! It was also Volvo’s first true shooting brake – as in a two-door wagon with a clearly sporty character – since the Volvo 1800ES, and like the 1800ES, it had an all-glass hatch. This car was designed by Volvo’s Dutch subsidiary, in the old DAF factory, and was one of Volvo’s most radical and stylistic changes ever.
It was like someone swapped the brick Volvo designers had been using as styling inspiration since the early 1970s and replaced it with a doorstop or a wedge of cheese before anyone noticed, and then, bam, we had the sleek 480.
The 480 used inline-four engines from Renault, and never really got a particularly powerful one to back up its sleek looks, with power ranging from 95 to 120 hp or so. They were generally seen as pretty engaging to drive, though, and had a character not normally expected of Volvos of that era.
Interestingly, the original goal wasn’t to make a sporty Volvo, it was to make a fuel efficient one, with early concept work known as the “MPG car.”
Here’s one being tested against a Prelude and Golf of the era:
…and since we’re watching videos, here’s a commercial from the Netherlands for what I guess is sunscreen that has one in it, along with a kid TPing an attic:
Oh wait maybe it’s for a whole drugstore? I don’t know, what am I, Dutch?
An interesting styling detail of the 480 is the front grille. I had David check this out when we were on the phone because I like it. According to stories I’ve heard, after the car was designed, it was realized that it did not have the traditional Volvo grille with the diagonal bar that mounts Volvo’s logo, the old alchemical symbol for iron or Mars or male-ness.
This story, sometimes repeated by legendary designer Peter Horbury, notes that somehow over six years the Volvo management didn’t notice the car didn’t have the traditional Volvo grille. Maybe because the 480 was designed by John DeVries in Holland, away from their scrutiny?
Anyway, they stuck one on at the very last moment, and it’s under the bumper, in an area where most cars of this design tend to put air intakes they want to hide. But, in this case, that’s where the Volvo slash-and-badge is, way down low.
These were supposed to come to America, too, but never actually did, something that usually seems to get blamed on weak dollar at the time. That’s a crappy reason to deny innocent Americans of a cool Volvo, if you ask me.
There were even prototypes of a convertible!
It kinda reminds me of those Mercury Capris, but with a roll bar and somehow cooler.
Well, there you go. Now you, just like David, know something about the first FWD, pop-up light Volvo, the 480! What a fantastic way to start a day!