When Volvo released the T5 variant of their 850, the Swedish automaker wanted to boost its profile in order to gain market share. Instead of a traditional marketing campaign, Volvo took the 850 racing in the British Touring Car Championship.
How the decision to use the 850 estate came about wasn’t intentional though. Volvo commissioned Steffansson Automotive to develop a BTCC prototype, but when they went to collect a body shell only estate variants were left. This news quickly reached the Volvo board, who saw it as a golden opportunity to break the stereotype of only selling estates to middle-aged geography teachers.
As it turned though, the 850 estate’s long roofline actually proved advantageous, with the race car producing more downforce over the sedan equivalent. A longer wheelbase and more glass did equate to increased weight, but being below the minimum meant there was still opportunity to move ballast around.
Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR), who at this point were more commonly known for their Group C racing efforts, were enlisted by Volvo to run the works program with a three-year contract.
From when the 850 estate first lined up on the BTCC grid at Thruxton Circuit in April 1994, competitors saw it as more of a marketing exercise than anything else. The Volvo team was undeterred, and as a tongue in cheek measure stuffed a toy Border Collie in the back for a parade lap.
The Volvo’s distinctive sound came courtesy of its TWR-developed naturally aspirated 2.0L five-cylinder engine, which made around 290 horsepower and put in on par power-wise with the rest of the BTCC field.
Sadly, the 850 estate only saw competition for the one season, where Volvo placed sixth in the constructors championship. For the 1995 BTCC championship, TOCA altered the rules to permit additional spoilers, but these could not extend past the bumpers or the roofline. Sadly, any advantage the estate had was now gone, so the T5 850 sedan took its place for the next two seasons, where Volvo drivers frequented the podium more often.
This particular car, which was on display at the recent Brands Hatch Super Touring Power event, has an interesting history. It started life as a BTCC 850 estate, but was converted into a sedan by replacing body panels, and then used for aero testing ahead of the ’95 season.
Since its purchase from a seller in Holland a few years ago, its current owner has returned the Volvo to its original estate form. Right now it is still undergoing some light restoration work, but the plan is to have it back on track again at classic motorsport events in the future.
Success can be measured in many ways and while the Volvo 850 estate never took home any British Touring Car Championship silverware, I’d argue that all the publicity it received outweighed any trophy. After all, is there anything better than a fast estate?
BTCC Racing Photos by Volvo Cars