When I was looking for something rare and interesting, I went after a Volvo 480 Turbo. There’s good reason for it. This was Volvo’s most daring car: futuristic, tuned by Porsche, and now completely overlooked.

I ended up forking out the same sort of money for a car that needed a lot less steel to create, my 1985 Autobianchi A112. I also looked at a second-generation Honda Prelude, but luckily I got scared of those vacuum hoses. Meanwhile, all I really wanted was an E30 wagon.

But even though I didn’t buy one, the Volvo 480 celebrates its 30th anniversary at the Geneva Motor Show next week, so let’s have a look at how Volvo managed to end up making the most futuristic compact of the eighties.

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Since ‘480 ES’ doesn’t sound too exciting, let’s talk about Project Galaxy instead. That’s right. PROJECT GALAXY.

No relation to the Ford Galaxy minivan, Volvo’s Project Galaxy began in 1978. Just two years later, the Swedish had their first front-wheel drive prototype. Going from longitudinal engines and rear-wheel drive to transverse front/all-wheel drive cars was a significant step forward. Fiat actually did that with the Autobianchi brand twenty years before, after realizing what Mini was working just fine. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, even the most conservative companies in the car world were working towards front wheel drive, like GM and Toyota. Volvo followed suit, and the task of turning the concept into products landed at Volvo’s Dutch subsidiary, formally known as DAF.

Before the more conventional 440 and 460 four-doors, the 480 ES was the first front-wheel drive Volvo to hit the streets in 1986.

What’s incredible is how they made the car look, picking a design that even Volvo itself didn’t think looked like a Volvo. If you’re curious how they ended up with a wedge-shaped compact with pop-up headlamps after deciding not to go with Bertone’s design proposal, I highly recommend reading Volvo Tips’s article, which features all the original sketches and prototypes.

Thanks John De Vries for the design, who decided to go with a glass tailgate that was a homage to the 1800 ES shooting brake. The interior was Peter Horbury’s creating, with the instrument panel angled towards the driver and featuring a digital trip computer for the first time in a Volvo.

The original 480 ES’ 1.7 liter engine came from Renault, but Volvo wasn’t satisfied with its performance and hired Porsche Engineering to do something about that. The Germans managed to improve the torque curve, and with 109 horsepower, the 480 ES could accelerate to 120mph. Thee years later came the Turbo, which had 120 horsepower thanks to a Garrett exhaust turbo and an intercooler.

The 480 was never supposed to be a huge seller. It was Volvo’s first big step into the future, and while they did upgrade the car once more with a torquier 2.0 engine in 1993, they only managed to build 76,375 480s before moving on in 1995.

While Volvo also had plans for an open top 480 ES, the project got canned after the prototype was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in 1990. Volvo even built a Targa for study purposes, and today, all of these prototypes live at the Volvo Museum in Gothenburg.

I’m a bit terrified by the lack of parts and all those electronic issues, not to mention Renault’s Porsche-tuned engines from the early eighties, but hell, I might just buy a 480 Turbo one day.

I just turned 29. Volvo makes safe family cars, right?

Photo credits: Volvo


Contact the author at mate@jalopnik.com.