They don’t come more iconic than the Volvo 850. Present in the BTCC for just one season, the TWR-built Volvo 850 Estate is by far and away one of the, if not the most iconic BTCC car of the last 30 years. Unusually for a car featuring my BTCC History series, it wasn’t overly successful on the track, but its novelty and legacy, and the fact its still mentioned often to this day make it a perfect candidate to explore in my latest edition of BTCC History.
The 850 was a bold car for Volvo to make their BTCC debut with in 1994. Allied with Tom Walkinshaw Racing, the team which had run Mazdas and Rovers in the BTCC for much of the 1980’s, Volvo’s 850 Estate was announced as the Swedish marques BTCC challenger at the Geneva Motor Show.
The BTCC version of the 850 Estate was designed by Richard Owen, the same Richard Owen who had designed Jaguar’s XJ220 Supercar which launched in 1992.
Perhaps unusually for a new manufacturer making their BTCC debut, Volvo decided to field two rookies in the 850 Estate for the 1994 season. Rickard Rydell and Jan Lammers were chosen as the two to drive the 850 Estate. Rydell, who would go on to become one of the top drivers of the Super Touring era and 1998 champion in the Volvo S40 was drafted in after two seasons in Japanese Formula 3, whilst Lammers was bought in following the conclusion of his short Formula One career at the start of 1993.
Despite all the hype and talk around Volvo’s BTCC entry, the sheer amount of work needed to convert the car into a BTCC racer meant that the 850 Estate didn’t hit the track until late March at Snetterton, just one week before the season started at Thruxton. Due to its unique shape, a number of modifications had to be made to make it suitable for use in the BTCC.
The driver’s position was moved, to a much lower and more centralised arrangement with extensions of the pedals, and the steering column needed. A new gearbox was made by TWR, which allowed the team to move the engine back and lower in order to ensure its weight was sufficiently behind the front axle. Volvo had left plenty of space under the bonnet for TWR to make the necessary modifications, this was because the extra space would be used to fir the turbos in higher specification versions of the 850.
The 1994 season itself wasn’t one that will be remembered for the 850 Estate’s on track heroics. Gabriele Tarquini won the title at the first time of asking in the all-Italian Alfa Romeo 155 TS from Alain Menu in the Renault Laguna. Alfa Romeo also won the constructors title from Renault.
The 850 Estate had a powerful engine for the BTCC, but unsurprisingly its poor aerodynamics let it down. High-speed corners weren’t too much of an issue, but the unusual, rearward weight distribution meant that the front wheels lacked weight over them. This resulted in a lack of traction and grip in slow speed corners. The 850 Estate’s unusual shape drew comments from the rest of the field, who often complained about the lack of vision when following behind it due to the sheer size of the rear end of the car.
Rydell and Lammers finished 14th and 15th in the 1994 season with 27 and 18 points respectively. Despite a season-best 5th place at Oulton Park for Rydell, the opening six rounds of the season featured a spate of retirements with Rydell’s Oulton Park finish being the only points scored by the team. The second part of 1994 was much kinder, and from Brands Hatch GP onwards Rydell embarked on a run of five consecutive races in the points with Lammers also scoring his first points of the season at Brands Hatch GP with a 7th place finish.
Rydell would go on to score points nine times in 1994, and Lammers four times. Volvo finished the season 8th in the manufacturer’s championship on 103 points, ahead of Nissan on 69. The 850 Estate would also qualify in 3rd for round three of the season at Snetterton in the hands of Rickard Rydell, however, he would go on to retire from the race.
With a new set of regulations in place for 1995, the 850 Estate was no longer compliant and Volvo replaced the Estate model with the 850 saloon at the end of 1994. Jan Lammers departed the team and was replaced by Tim Harvey and Rydell remained with the team, he would go on to finish 3rd in the championship the following year.
The fact that the 850 Estate is still talked about shows just how successful its one season in the BTCC was. The first car of its kind to enter the BTCC, in the last decade we have seen the Honda Civic Tourer and Subaru Levorg also enter the series, and each time they do so comparisons are drawn with Volvo’s 1994 season. Just three 850 Estate cars were built for the BTCC, and all raced in 1994. Although both the Civic Tourer and the Levorg have eclipsed the 850 Estate in terms of on-track success, I’m confident that the Volvo 850 will still be fondly remembered in years to come.
What did you think of the Volvo 850 Estate, do you remember watching it on track in 1994? Let me know in the comments below or over on Facebook!