At next week’s Geneva Motor Show, Volvo will unveil a pair of new and updated models that typify the image of the Swedish brand – estate cars. The all-new V90 estate will make its public debut at the Swiss show, as will the 2016 refresh of the popular V40 front-wheel-drive estate model – updated with a new ‘Volvo face’ corporate styling.
Although Volvo had seen the advantages of spacious wagons for some years, it was a real latecomer to the benefits of front-wheel-drive cars, first coming to the party just 30 years ago. Volvo’s Swedish compatriot Saab had adopted front-wheel-drive from the outset in 1948, as it felt this configuration better suited the harsh Scandinavian winter driving conditions. Volvo, however, waited until it revealed its sporting 480 ES at the Geneva Salon 30 years ago in 1986.
Now enjoying a degree of cult status, the 480 ES was the first front-wheel-drive wedge shaped hatch-estate with a transverse engine produced by Volvo. When the annual Geneva show opened on 6 March 1986, the Volvo 480 ES was one of the new cars that attracted the most attention.
It was not just the premiere of the first sporting car from Volvo in more than a decade; the 480 ES was also the brand’s first front-wheel-drive car in series production, with a model designation tied to the 1800 ES sports wagon, which ended production in 1973. The low, wedge-shaped body with its pointed nose and pop-up headlights provided a hint of the future, while the abruptly ending rear section with its glass tailgate was yet another way to pay homage to the 1800 ES.
For its time, the 480 ES’s level of technology was reasonably high, with an ‘electronic information centre’ giving the driver digital information about average fuel consumption, average speed, range and outside temperature.
The Volvo’s 1.7-litre engine came from Renault and produced 109 bhp thanks to the help of catalytic converters. This was enough to produce a top speed of 118 mph and enabled the car to sprint to 62 mph in 9.5 seconds. In 1988 Volvo launched a 480 Turbo, which had a 120bhp engine with the help of its exhaust turbo and intercooler, and a new 2.0-litre engine was later added to the 480 ES series, with 110bhp and, above all, improved torque.
The 480 series was designed to be a niche model and was not a big seller for Volvo. However, it was more important for Volvo than many realised at the Geneva Motor Show in 1986, as it was the first model in a large and comprehensive project – called internally Galaxy – with Volvo entering a new era of technology, with rear-wheel drive replaced by front-wheel or all-wheel drive, and a range of new engines was developed in house by Volvo.
Project Galaxy began in 1978. Two years later, the first front-wheel-drive prototype was ready. The project was then split up so that Volvo Cars in Sweden was responsible for the larger car that would become the 850, and the Dutch subsidiary Volvo Cars B.V. was responsible for the smaller models – the 440, 460 and 480.
The Volvo 480 ES was primarily marketed in Europe, with the UK becoming the model’s largest single market, with around 22,000 examples sold. Production of the car in Volvo’s plant in Born, Netherlands ended in September 1995, to be replaced by the new compact S40 and V40 models. In total 76,375 Volvo 480s were built.