The Volvo name has been, for much of the company's existence since 1927, synonymous with strength and durability; and, later, safety. Until fairly recently, the Swedish company was also known for its lack of style. The Volvo was a worthy workhorse, but not for the bachelor.
Ask most people when Volvo began to change its frumpy image, and they might suggest the turbocharged 850 of the mid-90s.
Those of longer memory might pick the P1800 ES coupé, a glamorous design made epic by Roger Moore in The Saint. But given that the most boxy Volvos came after the P1800, and that its television appearance came almost by accident, this seems a dubious answer.
Most will have forgotten the dramatically wedge-shaped 480 ES hatchback of 1986, a curiosity in the herewith staid Swedish automaker's offerings.
Volvo had built a reputation on its square sedans and wagons: sturdy, utilitarian designs that could easily accommodate the kids, the dog, and the barbecue grille.
At the lower end of its range, it had been content to field the 340 and 360: rear-wheel-drive, unexciting if sturdy compacts that became firm favorites of British, French, and Dutch pensioners. Relics of Volvo's takeover of Dutch Daf, they were built – and had largely been designed – in the Limburg province town of Born, Holland.
"Quality counts for a lot in periods of recession," explained What Car. "When times are hard, it's a human instinct to stay away from purchases which are risky, frivolous, or fragile, and to home-in on qualities of solidity, reliability and lasting value – reassuring qualities to see you through those tough times."
Then, in an about-face inspired no doubt by BMW and the success of the 3 series, the Swedes began chasing yuppies. Well before the Audi A3 and the MINI, there was the 480 ES of 1986. This premium small car gave the concept of the entry-level Volvo youth appeal.
The 480 ES was no pensioner's car. Pop-up headlights, a long wheelbase, and a frameless rear glass window gave it a dramatic look. Volvo figured that this and the Lotus-tuned suspension and low-slung seating position would appeal to buyers between 25 and 40, with higher than average education.
The company's credibility among yuppies was enhanced with the addition of a turbocharged model in 1988, boosting power and torque by ten and twenty-five percent, respectively. Emissions controls five years later would put paid to the turbo, but CAR journalist Richard Bremner was kind in his retrospective, praising the car's decent power and low weight. "This meant there was some danger of a sporty steer – pretty radical from a company that considered having fun at the wheel as acceptable as seducing a nun," he wrote.
Indeed, it is hard to capture just how dramatic a change the 480 ES represented. Volvo was a company that had, as designer Peter Horbury later remembered, been really good at telling people what was good for them. "At one time, we didn't fit cup-holders, because we thought they were unsafe," he told Britain's The Telegraph.
Horbury has also told the story of how the Volvo grille under the bumper of the car was a last-minute addition prior to release. Somehow, despite a lengthy, six-year development process, it had escaped senior Volvo management that the car would not have the classic Volvo grille and diagonal with centered badge.
That's probably because the car had been designed in Holland, rather than Sweden, by Dutch Daf designer John De Vries. In turn, Volvo regularly seemed almost embarrassed by its existence, doing fairly little to promote what could have been a turning point in the company's image.
Despite its U.S-market bumpers, the 480 ES never arrived in the United States. A proposed cabrio remained in the prototype stage. Turbocharged models were not available in Britain until a full year after the car's launch. "You sense that Volvo's U.K. arm, ever mindful of the stolid image of their products, are reticent about pushing the very merits the 480 Turbo looks set to offer," wrote Performance Car.
The 480 ES met its demise in 1995. Just 76,000 cars had been sold, but it had made its mark in Volvo history as the company's first front-drive car. As of 1999, the company fields only front- and all-wheel-drive models.
In 2006, the C30 reprised the three-door, four-seat configuration of the 480 ES, complete with glass tailgate. 210,000 were built through 2013, when the V40 sportwagon took over as the entry-level Volvo.