You can just imagine the looks on the faces of the other teams when Tom Walkinshaw Racing rolled out their racing car for the 1994 season of the British Touring Car Championship, heralding the debut of Volvo in the Super Touring era. The nose: so far, so good, so Volvo 850. But then the roofline came into view – and just kept coming.
TWR and Volvo had turned up with an estate? Was it April 1? Close: it was April 4… That said, the disbelief would have likely been countered with the fact that this was TWR they were dealing with. Did they know something the others didn’t?
On paper it was a crazy idea. What are the normal things you look at when drawing out a touring car? Low weight. A stable platform with a sensible wheelbase. Aero efficiency. This wallowing estate would be up against the nimble BMW 318i, the sledgehammer-wedge Alfa Romeo 155 TS and saloon swarms of Mondeos, Cavaliers, Lagunas and more. But as it turned out, for every negative there was a positive – off-track, if not always on.
As ever with the best stories, you could put the whole project down to an accident of circumstance. Volvo wanted to see what an 850-based racing car would look like, and enlisted Steffansson Automotive in Sweden to develop a car for Europe’s pre-eminent tin-top series of the time, the BTCC. Thing is, when SAM turned up to grab a shell from Volvo HQ, only estates were available – with no time to lose, that’s what they left with.
But it turned out the old brick wasn’t such a bad idea – not just technically, but especially from a marketing perspective. Back-to-back testing against a saloon mule showed that the estate wasn’t that far off, thanks in no part to the big natural downforce increase the long body brought. It was deemed worth the risk.
The project was turned over to iconic preparation firm TWR to bring to fruition, and the designer of the Jaguar 220 was unleashed on the 850.
Everything was stripped out and thrown away in an effort to get near the regulation base weight of 950kg, leaving a cavernous interior that you could almost park a regular Super Tourer inside. Forget the usual cramped conditions; drivers could almost have brought their families along with them.
And that was basically the point. What better way to reverse the stale and pedestrian image that Volvo had innocently acquired as a result of their commitment to safety and quality? The family car with the heart of a berserker, it was the epitome of what a touring car should be – the logical conclusion even.
The 850 was powered by a normally-aspirated, 2.0-litre, inline five cylinder motor, which in tuned form produced around 290hp. It retained front-wheel drive as per the regs, but had a bespoke 6-speed sequential transmission that allowed the engine to be mounted lower and further back – always the holy grail.
The seat also moved rearward and towards the centre, giving that typical Super Tourer look of having the driver sitting tucked to the rear of the B-pillar.An Estate With A Serious Legacy
Whether you think it’s pretty or not depends on whether you like Volvos. You could draw it in profile with five straight lines and it certainly wouldn’t provide a challenge for papercraft modellers… There was no boy racer rear wing, as regs meant bodywork had to remain stock. It had more glass than a window factory. And yet…
Somehow the incongruous and boxy look still manages to look means as hell, helped of course by those tucked 18-inch O.Z. Racing wheels and its low stance.
In the BTCC that year admittedly it didn’t set tracks on fire, but it wasn’t a no-hoper by any means. Respectable and regular points were scored, even if the 850 Estate wasn’t bothering the podium. The rearward weight distribution was a real disadvantage, taking the weight off the all-important front axle. The centre of gravity was too high and the long wheelbase reduced cornering efficiency.
If anything, the lack of front-running success merely fuelled the fire. Serious and professional in every aspect of the technical and competition side, at the same time Volvo revelled in the derision from other teams who poured scorn on their supertanker Super Tourer – and reaped the positive publicity as a result. Their approach to the media became increasingly light-hearted, riffing on the (Big) David versus (Small) Goliaths.
After all, the Volvo 850 is still one of the cars everyone remembers from that glorious period of touring cars. So who’s still laughing?
With significant changes in the aerodynamic regulations for 1995 that would have rendered an estate body-shape even more uncompetitive, the 850 Estate programme was reluctantly dropped. Reluctant from the the public and Volvo’s perspectives anyway, as the team’s drivers were not necessarily massive fans of the car – and opposition drivers even less so. Getting stuck behind the estate was bad enough, but getting overtaken by one? The shame!
An 850 saloon model took over for the following year – winning three times and laying the foundations for Rickard Rydell’s championship win in an S40 three years later. It seemed like that was the last we’d ever see of racing wagons. And it was – at least until Honda’s most recent foray with a station wagon, a BTCC Civic R Tourer. Again it turned out to be a single-year programme, but Honda’s machine proved an estate can win.
Only two of the original three 850 Estate racing chassis remain, so seeing an authentic and original one is a rare sight. But what a sight – and an unmistakeable one at that. It’s not an understatement to say that it’s an iconic car from the Super Touring era, more recognisable – and even loved – than many other cars that won races and titles.
It just shows that success doesn’t come just from silverware. Sometimes you’ve got to think outside the box – and let the box run wild.
Photos by Peter Kelly