By the late 1980’s Swedish manufacturer Volvo had gained a reputation for making well-built, sturdy and safe cars for boring people who didn’t know how to drive. Despite a successful campaign with the Group A 240 Turbo in both the ETCC and the short lived WTCC during the 1980’s, this image did not change.
Volvo was not very pleased with this apparent failure and wanted to make a big change for the 1990’s. The company introduced their new and sportier front-wheel drive 850 model in 1991, a car which they hoped would be their game changer. The car’s handling from factory was much better than the rather cumbersome rear wheel drive Volvos of old. This prompted Volvo’s management to think about re-entering motorsport for 1994, from which they had been absent since 1987.
The 240T had been Volvo's weapon in the Group A years.
By then Group A had dissolved, forcing Volvo to look for other options. During that time the exhilarating British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) was by far the most popular championship, using a new 2.0L formula called Super Touring. This competitive championship was teeming with manufacturer involvement, allowing Volvo to test their new car’s strengths against the Ford Mondeo, Nissan Primera, Toyota Carina-E, Peugeot 405, Mazda Xedos 6, Renault Laguna, BMW 318is, Vauxhall Cavalier (Opel Vectra) and Alfa Romeo’s winged 155 homologation special.
The initial Super Touring prototype built by Steffansson Automotive.
Volvo tried to find a partner to develop the racing version of the new 850, and ended up at Swedish performance specialists Steffansson Automotive (SAM). Volvo requested SAM to fashion a prototype based on the 850 to test the concept. During that time the 850 model had just received a facelift, and the factory was busy first producing the more popular Estate version.
When SAM went to Volvo to pick up a fresh bodyshell, this was all that was available to them. Wishing not to delay the project, Volvo and SAM decided on using the Estate as a base car for the racer. Volvo CEO Martin Rybeck was reportedly very enthusiastic about the marketing potential of such a car. Testing proved the car had some legitimate performance potential. In the wind tunnel it was found the long roof line actually generated more downforce than a saloon body would. In the still spoiler-less BTCC this advantage was a godsend.
A howling 20-valve 2.0L 5-cylinder engine powered the insane station wagon.
After the initial SAM-prototype was judged to be very promising, Volvo decided to go all the way with the project. Thanking SAM for their valiant effort, they approached motorsport wizard Tom Walkinshaw of Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR). TWR had been responsible for the successes of Jaguar and Rover in the Group A days of touring car racing, and had built all of Jaguar’s winning Group C prototypes.
Intrigued by the unusual bodyshape, TWR studied the concept of using a station wagon in racing and confirmed SAM’s earlier conclusions. Provided the weight could be taken down to the bare minimum, the Estate would not be any less effective than the saloon-bodied car. The two companies then agreed to a three-year contract obligating TWR to design and build the definitive racing cars.
The finished TWR-development.
The finished machine weighed in at just 975 kg (2150 lbs), roughly 500 kg (1102 lbs) less than the standard car. A naturally aspirated transversely mounted 2.0L 20V 5-cylinder engine lurked under the long bonnet. The bespoke unit revved to an amazing 8500 rpm and chucked out close to 290 horsepower. A 6-speed X-Trac sequential transmission ensured the power was always on, and allowed the engine to be mounted lower down and further back, aiding weight distribution.
Kerbhopping was on of the 850's favourite pastimes.
Volvo presented both an Estate and a saloon-bodied car at the January 1994 Swedish Motor Show to keep the public in doubt. Later in March they confirmed their plans to race the Estate at the Geneva Motor Show. Driving the rabid grocery-getter would be Swedish touring car ace Rickard Rydell, and former F1-driving Dutchman Jan Lammers. Lammers had a prior association with TWR, having won Le Mans in 1988 driving a TWR-built Jaguar XJR9.
Although the Volvo's weren't race winners, they were able to competently run in the top 10.
Volvo’s competitors were astounded by their decision to use the Estate version. Rival drivers were also not too keen on the car, referring to it as “a baker’s car“ and “the pizza delivery“. The 850's performance was excellent on high speed sections due to its superior downforce, but the car struggled in the slower technical corners.
Its ungainly weight distribution lead to heaps of understeer because of the heavy engine, severely slowing the car. The competition could go into the corner faster, and step on the throttle much sooner, leaving the big lump of Swedish iron for dead on slow speed tracks.
Meanwhile, Alfa Romeo was proving dominant through clever use of the rules. The Italians had built 2500 155’s with special adjustable front splitters and big rear spoilers, giving the homologated race cars a massive aerodynamic advantage. The 155’s dominance was protested continuously, but spelled the end of aero restrictions for 1995.
Although the car suffered from a few major drawbacks it was not a complete failure. The peculiar choice of bodyshell had given Volvo a ton of free publicity. However, not all this publicity was necessarily all that good, as Lammers and Rydell both showed the 850’s excellent ramming qualities by violently taking out Joachim Winkelhock’s BMW and Tim Sugden’s Toyota at Snetterton.
This set some bad blood, and Lammers would later comment that his colleagues didn’t appreciate being overtaken by the “baker’s van” all that much. More often than not the Volvos would receive a heavily suggestive nudge on the rear bumper in the next braking zone.
The pace of the big 850 was often lacking in comparison to its competitors, but Rickard Rydell managed to put the car 3rd on the grid for the third round at Snetterton. Unfortunately his car refused to start on the beginning of the formation lap, leading to him having to start from the back. After an unremarkable race at Silverstone Rydell put the car 6th on the grid at Oulton Park. He managed to snatch a place and finish 5th, the car’s best ever result.
The big Volvos got into a lot of fights in the legendary ultra-competitive and super close BTCC races throughout the season. Actual results were average at best, but Volvo’s scheme to raise the brand’s profile was working out really well.
Sadly the precedent set by Alfa Romeo’s liberal use of the rules meant all cars would be mandated to carry a standard aerodynamics package for 1995, making the already questionable Estate body shape even less competitive. Volvo was consequently forced to revert to the regular saloon model for the 1995 season.
A compilation of the 850 Estate's wonderful exploits, narrated by the great Murray Walker.
The Volvo 850 Estate was a brilliantly bold statement from a brand previously characterized as insufferably boring. It brought weird and wonderful unseen sights to the already wildly popular BTCC circus. Although it was never truly successful on the track, the 850 Estate’s wanton lunacy has etched its delightfully square shape firmly into the public consciousness, exactly as Volvo had hoped.