The brand Volvo generally conjures images of conservatively styled boxy mid-sized sedans. Of course, to aficionados, there are the “American” looking Volvos produced from before WWII through the 1960s such as the PVs and Amazons as well as the stylish P1800. Often overlooked, particularly by those in North America, are the “small” Volvos – an offering that entered the company’s automotive line-up after the purchase of Dutch company DAF’s passenger car division in 1974.
DAF / Volvo 66 (1975-1980)
The Volvo 66, introduced in 1975, was little more than a re-worked version of the DAF 66 (introduced in 1972) which itself was a more heavily re-worked version of the DAF 55. Construction remained in DAF’s facilities in the Netherlands. The 66 already fit certain Volvo requirements right off the bat – it was boxy. The Michelotti designed body (in both 2-door and estate form) was left largely unchanged save for some minor details including larger crash-bumpers and the typical Volvo crossbar grille.
Volvo naturally added safety features to keep up with the Swedish marque’s long-standing tradition. Interestingly, DAF had already been using Renault C-series engines (1.1 or 1.3 L) in the 66 before Volvo’s increasing shares in DAF beginning around 1973. Only two years earlier, Renault and Volvo (with Peugeot) had begun planning the infamous PRV engine together – but that, of course, is another story. One feature that was uniquely DAF that remained in the 66 was the Variomatic transmission.
It was essentially a continuously variable transmission that used belts to change ratios infinitely without driver input. It was a curious set-up that was arguably the most outrageous bit of engineering the sedate Volvo brand ever had in any car to bear their name prior to perhaps the company’s use of 5-cylinder engines. DAF had already been planning a replacement for the 66 when Volvo took over – this would soon become the Volvo 300 series that sold along side the 66 until the latter model was finally dropped in 1980. The cars have retained a following in spite of a rather odd history and are enjoyed by Volvo and DAF enthusiasts alike. They’re relatively affordable to own and maintain (in Europe) though the Variomatic does draw away somewhat from any sportiness.
343 /345 / 360 (1976-1991)
Only one year after the launch of the 66 under Volvo’s name, the car’s intended replacement was ready to hit the streets. This time, Volvo opted to use their own numbering system – though curiously the car, which was smaller than the venerable 200 series, was called the 300 series. The first to go on sale was the 343 – a two-door hatchback. Like the 66, this too used a Renault C engine – this time a 1.4L – as well as the DAF Variomatic transmission. Volvo offered their own manual transmission and later their own 2.0L engine to the lineup, a 1.7L Renault F-series, and even a Renault diesel. Four years after the 343 was released, the 345 – a four-door hatch – was also introduced.
By 1983 both body styles simply became the 340 along with a more high-spec 360. The rather dumpy bodywork lacks the “stately” look of bigger 200 series Volvos (though perhaps less bland than the 700 series). Like their stable-mates, the 300s were known for safety and rear-wheel-drive performance characteristics. Perhaps it’s up to the buyer to decide which was the car’s most appealing feature. Like the 66 the 300 series remained in production after its successor(s), the 400 series, launch in the late 1980s until 1991.
The 480, it could be said, was the most radical car Volvo had ever made when hit the market in 1986. Not only was they styling very un-Volvo, it was also the first front-wheel drive car the company produced. The replacement for the 300 series was already about to be launched, but the 480 wasn’t quite the answer. This was to be an up-marked sport hatch as opposed to a completely practical small family car.
The 480 shared the same platform as the 440/460 released the following year as well as, once again, Renault engines ranging from a 1.7L to a 2.0 and popular turbocharged variants as well. Some sources will note also that the Renault powerplants benefited from Porsche tuning. To add to the sporting flair of the car, the masters of handling at Lotus sorted out the suspension dynamics. This is interesting considering that the 480 was produced in the Netherlands at the NedCar factory along with some Mitsubishis – also known to have models featuring “Handling by Lotus”. Adding to the up-market appeal (when working properly) was a noticeable emphasis on electronic gadgetry on this little Volvo – particularly through the “CEM” or Central Electronic Module. This was basically a computer that more-or-less interfered with nearly every electric function of the vehicle for the benefit of some nifty features like closing all the car’s windows via one twist of the lock. Volvo engineers must have been feeling exceptionally frisky as even a convertible version was proposed, yet alas, never made it out of the prototype stage.
This was also to be the first of the “little” Volvos to reach North America, yet this too failed to come to fruition. The story is that a poor exchange rate prohibited the 480 from landing stateside in spite of having been designed with this market in mind. The car enjoyed a fairly successful career before ending production in 1995 with the introduction of the S40. The 440/460 would outlive the 480 by two years.
440 / 460 (1987-1997)
Decidedly less inspired than the 480, but nevertheless an improvement over the 300 series, was the Volvo 440 and 460. Again, built in the Netherlands, these 4-door sedans (460) and hatchbacks (440) shared much with their 480 counterpart including Renault engines (and a turbo diesel option), platforms, and other components as one might expect.
Like the 480, there was also the option of a turbocharged model. The “Si” and “GLT” variants were intended to be the sport models and would curiously seem to be somewhat conflicting with the already existing 480 model. Nevertheless, the 440 and 460 trims ranged from downright boring to mildly interesting. Some of the electrical issues noted in the 480 could also be found in the 440 and 460 as well, though they seem to have suffered less. In 1994, the cars were somewhat heavily facelifted resulting in what looked like baby 850s.
The restyle did much to improve what, like the 300, was a less than inspired design. In spite of the fact that the completely new S40 and V40 were already being built in the same NedCar plant in the Netherlands, the 440 and 460 continued to sell alongside their successor (as has been the case with many Volvos) for two years until 1997.
Though the S40 and its wagon counterpart are larger cars, it wasn’t until the introduction of the C30 (which is based directly on the second generation S40/V50) in 2006 that Volvo produced another true “small” car.