R.A-S.H: The Volvo 480


R.A-S.H is staying properly European this week; and the after visiting the French and looking at an off-roader that really, really wasn’t, we’re heading North to look at a car that, well, didn’t really know what it was. And nor, in truth, did Volvo or anybody else.

Volvo had played this game before, as every one of you knows very well, with the P1800 and P1800ES of the ’60s, and by ’86 they had decided that the time had come once more to remind the world there was more to the Swedish firm than boxy station-wagons and slab-like sedans.

Nope; 480 was different.

“The Volvo 480 is unlike any other car today. It combines sporting elan with Volvo safety, reliability and durability. Its roadholding is outstanding, designed to enhance driving pleasure. It has personality and refinement, embracing advanced technology. It’s the new Volvo. For people who demand the best in life.”

Best in life“. Another of those meaningless, throwaway phrases that goes totally unqualified, like saying “hope you have a nice time”.  The 480 was new ground for Volvo, and, well, everybody else too. What we had here was a three-door hatchback-cum-coupe-cum-station-wagon arrangement. It had pop-up headlamps, which usually suggests sports-car, but front-wheel-drive, which doesn’t. The only car which shared these details was the Honda Aerodeck, and that car wasn’t especially easy to categorise, either.


“It is still reassuringly orthodox in its embodiment of the traditional Volvo virtues. “

Well, that doesn’t make things any simpler, either. So, I suppose the 480 would be best described as “What Volvo would build if they didn’t want to build a Volvo”.

“Volvo believes that a relaxed driver is unquestionably a better one”

I happen to agree on this, unfortunately Volvos in the past could have been accused of tending slightly too far towards the sleep-inducing. Anybody reading this brochure in 1986 who saw the pop-up headlamps and hoped for a sports-car, would feel their disappointment building. It all seemed rather inevitable.


“The difference between enjoyable and exciting driving is the drama. Volvos are built to work with the driver as a team, responding predictably to the drivers commands in every situation. Even unexpected ones. We believe that driving should be enjoyable. Never dramatic”.

There goes the final nail in the excitement coffin; but it does at least serve to define the 480 a little. Here, then, was a car designed for the driver, but in a dependable, reliable, trustworthy way. You could have fun, good, clean, responsible fun… but not too much in case it sends you giddy.

The 480ES wasn’t actually Swedish, of course. It was built in the same factory as the 300 series in Holland. In fact the platform was later used by the 300’s replacement, the 400, a car which wore its sobriety on its sleeve.


First launched with a normally-aspirated 1.7 litre Renault engine whose 109hp provided further evidence towards un-sportiness. In later years there was an attempts to throw a bit more coal on the fire when a turbocharged version with ten extra horsepower appeared. This was later replaced, though, by a two litre engine that dropped things back to 110hp. It’s a shame that the 480 had disappeared by the time Volvo went properly turbocharger crazy; a 480 T4-R would have been a hell of a car.

Even though it was never going to win any gold cups for adrenaline-on-demand, Journalists of the day quite liked the 480. Autocar told us; “grip is strong, turn-in eager and body-roll well controlled.” I guess they liked the fact that it existed, more than anything else. That Volvo still had some imagination.


“When it comes to cars- especially when it comes to cars, you generally get what you pay for. From Volvo, you are buying the highest quality- in the form of safety, reliability and durability. You get a car that is built to last”

Today, Volvo have the C30 and, well, that isn’t a sports car either. However, both that car and its S40 relations both seem treat the driver in the same way as the 480 used to. The C30 charms the driver, treats him well, makes him feel good about himself rather than goading him towards silliness like the BMW 1 series and Audi A3 do. That’s fine; let the Germans do their aggressive best while the Scandinavians sit things out and get the sauna and birch twigs ready.

The C30 can be had with far more power than the 480 ever could, but the Ford Focus platform beneath it; though very capable, was never designed for out-and-out fun and games. So far, there’s no real evidence that Volvo will ever bring us a genuine sports car, but one gets the feeling that they could if they wanted to. I suspect that, should that ever happen, it’ll be well worth celebrating.

In the meantime; go out there and get a surviving 480 while the values are still on the floor. Nobody seems to remember them or hold them in any particular esteem, which is more than a slight pity. Especially with those pop-up headlamps.

(Disclaimer: All images are of original manufacturers publicity material, photographed by myself in my second bedroom- part renovated. All copyright remains property of the original owner)

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15 responses to “R.A-S.H: The Volvo 480”

  1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

    Always liked these, I dunno why we didn't get them in the US, I dont care that its underpowered.
    I'd bring one in but then I'd have to yell explanations to people in traffic about why I put Volvo badges on my Honda hatchback. Do I wanna do that? Perhaps.
    A guy I was talking to who has a couple Volvo 360s in the states was telling me about a guy who has a 480, believed to be the only one, if I am remembering that correctly. No 440s in the states. Yet.

    1. duurtlang_ Avatar

      I'd guess there's a very well documented reason why the 480 didn't go to the US. It was designed with the US in mind, as evidenced by the side reflectors that are absent in Europe, even on (non-gray import) American market cars sold in Europe. I'm too lazy to look it up though.

      1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

        I recall reading that they decided not to import it at the last moment, they believed sales would be low, and the C30 later proved them right. Looks great though, and they're dirt cheap now.
        I think it would have done well here as a roadster.

        1. JTuhka Avatar

          <img src="http://www.volvo-club.cz/graphics/gallery/full/220_volvo_480_08a.jpg&quot; width="600">
          I agree. Too bad the 480 Cabrio never reached production. Handful of prototypes survived, though.

          1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

            We got this badged as a Mercury, curiously enough.

    2. ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq Avatar
      ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

      I would really appreciate if you would do a feature on those!

      1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

        The 300-series Volvos? That's in my long term plans, hopefully this summer.

        1. ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq Avatar
          ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

          Yes! Also the 480, but I get the sense that fellow is far away. What parts of the country are those in?

  2. mdharrell Avatar

    "…P1800ES of the ’60s…."
    The P designation for the 1800 was dropped in 1963 when production was moved to Sweden. There never was a P1800ES, as the ES was only manufactured from 1971 to 1973.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Correct. Just testing.
      Shameful knowledge fail.

  3. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

    There's a reason that I adore both the 480 and the Accord Aerodeck (the original, not the four-door Accord Wagons that I understand were dubbed 'Aerodeck' in some markets). Shooting brake? YES. Pop-ups? YES. YES YES YES.
    Oh, and no discussion of the 480 is complete without a mention of its adorable Volvo grille.

    1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

      I love the placement of the grille, only mechanics get to see it when its up on a lift.
      It's as if they designed the whole car, it was ready to go into production, but some top exec made them conform to the company look, and this is the only place where they could put it.

  4. Sjalabais Avatar

    Nice writing! These cars are primadonna's, a long way from Volvo's famed reliability. The turbo's have already gained a tiny following – not many good ones left, and they are getting expensive. But if you have a look at mobile.de you will see that the pedestrian versions are still being thrown after you. Cheap thrills.

  5. sport_wagon Avatar

    This post cannot be complete without this pic:
    <img src="http://img106.imageshack.us/img106/9459/lindabd7.jpg"&gt;

  6. ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq Avatar
    ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

    960 = 2*480 that was the Volvo sportscar, or at least BMW fighter. Anyone know if the little windowlel in the doors opened? How about the rear side glass did it pop out to the side a bit at least? Neatest thing about these is that the wipers go full blast if you hit the accelerator hard, at least on the early ones.