The Volvo 480ES: The Rest of the Story

Today, the online auction website Bring a Trailer (BaT) sold a 1995 Volvo 480 Turbo for $15,250. If you’ve never heard of the Volvo 480, you’re not alone. Even I was surprised by the number of usually knowledgeable BaT commenters who posted sentiments along the lines of “I never heard of this model!”

A few days ago, I posted a photograph of a Volvo 480ES which I had taken in the parking lot of Volvo Corporate Headquarters in NJ, sometime in early 1987. I added a comment of my own at that auction, and posted a link to the photo, promising that I would flesh out the story, as I have below.

I started working at VCNA (Volvo Cars North America) in October of 1986. My recollection is that I spotted a Volvo 480 in and around the corporate industrial park within my first few weeks. I also recall meeting Bob Austin, head of the Public Relations Department for the company, around the same time, and his ‘company car’ was a 480ES! It may have been the only one the company had, or they may have been others, of that I’m not sure. But it was well-understood among the employees that VCNA intended to begin importation of this Dutch-built car, planning on a 1987 launch. Volvo dealers had been clamoring for a less-expensive model, and management thought that this new 480 could be it. In 1986, VCNA was selling 240- and 740-series models, carrying MSRPs between $15,000 and $21,000. (The 760 models were more expensive still.) The 480 would need to slide in under that to make sense.

Not only was the 480 Volvo’s first FWD car; if imported, it would become the first U.S. Volvo brought in from Volvo BV, based in Holland. The factory was co-owned: 30% Volvo, 70% the Dutch government. As an insider, I sensed that there were some concerns: Would it be perceived as a “true” Volvo? Would it be up to the same quality standards as the existing U.S. models? Would the new FWD technology be embraced? (Some of the company’s marketing in the 1980s bragged about our RWD powertrain.) And perhaps most importantly, could it be priced below the 240s, but also at a number which would make it competitive against other like-sized models?

My copy of the book “Volvo The Cars – From the 20s to the 80s”, by Bjorn-Eric Lindh, was published in 1986. Interestingly, there is a two-page spread on the 480 (b&w images below). The book’s text states in part:

“Given Volvo’s world-famous reputation for quality and durability, the new 480ES is almost certain to become a major competitor in its class, particularly in the USA…. Initially, annual output will total approximately 35,000 units, 25,000 of which will be destined for the American market.”

Those are heady numbers, given that during the years 1987 through 1989, U.S. Volvo sales totals were between 98,000 and 106,000, meaning the 480 would represent 25% of that. However, after months of planning, VCNA management realized that the exchange rate would be a roadblock to any plan to sell the 480 at the right price (at least that was the official line as spelled out in the letter sent to all U.S. Volvo dealers).

From an internal Volvo publication in my collection

America would have to wait until model year 1993 for the launch of the all-new Volvo 850, our first FWD car, and one designed and built in Sweden to boot. In the meanwhile, the 480 sold respectably well in Europe. I have a Volvo internal publication which states that the 480 existed from model year 1986 to model year 1995, and that the company built 76,375 of them (making that earlier prediction a bit of a stretch!). I suspect that Volvo felt the car was a success, and despite its Dutch parentage, it likely gave the company some needed experience in FWD technology.

This page, also from an internal book, shows how different the 480 is compared to other Volvos.

If any of my fellow former-VCNA colleagues have any additional recollections (or corrections), please share them!


All photographs copyright © 2023 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.