A station wagon is not exactly something this writer ever expected to feature in the Future Classic column of NZ Classic Car magazine, but in 1994, Volvo set lightweight race wheels in motion that would eventually see me do exactly that. At the time, the British Touring Car Championship had been running since the ’60s in one form or another, and was hard fought by various coupes, sedans and hatches from the world’s top manufacturers.
Just prior to the start of that season, Volvo dropped a proverbial bombshell on the racing world with the unveiling of its TWR-prepped Volvo 950 T5R estate race-car and its subsequent entry into the BTCC. The move proved to be a very fruitful one for the Swedish manufacturer, gaining the company endless coverage in the press — and a brand new surge of interest from the public.
No one quite knew what to make of the large, brick-like machine muscling its way through the notoriously brutal BTCC field, but it wasn’t long before it became a well respected race machine and, although it only lasted a couple of seasons due to changes in BTCC rules, the T5R/850R production models that the racer was based on have since become a cult favourite. Whether you appreciate Volvo’s styling — or lack thereof — or not, there is no denying that this super-station wagon defined an era in European motor sport, and is destined to become a classic due to its stonking performance, durability and the substantial mark it has left in motor sport history.
They don’t come up for sale all that often here in New Zealand, but if you do see one floating around with a for sale sign, it could just be one of the best investments you ever make.
First sold to the public in 1995 as the Volvo 850 T5R, the boxy wagon proved very popular, and although it was partly due to its recent BTCC stardom, it was also a very quick, reliable and fun vehicle to own and drive, regardless of its pedigree. Not to be confused with the regular, run-of-the-mill T5, the T5R, or 850R as it was known for the 1996 and 1997 years, can be distinguished from lesser models by an aggressive front splitter, lower ride height, unique 17-inch rims and a trademark half-leather, half-suede interior.
Pop the long, sturdy hood and a unique, 2.3-litre turbocharged five-cylinder B5234T can be found. A Mitsubishi-built turbocharger provides excellent boost response, coming on at 2500rpm, and reaching full boost pressure barely 500rpm later. With the added puff, the motor puts an impressive 186kW down to the front wheels via either a four-speed auto, or a five-speed manual gearbox.
Both transmissions are well regarded, and put up with a lot of abuse if well looked after. As one could already assume, besides impressive performance, the 850 is also an incredibly safe car, the first to offer side curtain airbags to protect both front and rear passengers.
Volvos are known for three things — safety, brick-like looks and excellent reliability. All three are completely justified. These cars, especially the 850s, are known to soldier on right past the 200,000km mark on the odometer and keep on going, with little complaint. The Rs, being high powered and front wheel drive, tend to go through front tyres like a drift car, so make sure to pay careful attention to the condition of the front treads — besides showing you how soon you will need to buy new ones, it might also be a good indication of how hard the car gets driven. When checking the oil, be aware that a little condensation is a common trait of the T5R motor, especially if the car does mostly short trips. Do not confuse this with a head gasket problems.
Specifications – Volvo 850R/T5R
Engine: 2300cc turbocharged five-cylinder 186kW (250hp)
Bodies: Four-door sedan, four-door estate
Performance: Electronically limited top speed 250kph (155mph), 0-100kph 6.7 seconds
Should an R-owner require it, plenty more power than the factory 186kW is available with some very simple modifications. It is because of this that the 850 has proved so popular within die-hard Volvo circles, especially in Britain. Like any other turbo car, the 850R hugely benefits from improved breathing, higher boost and a little more fuel. This is all relatively cheap to achieve, and can see very impressive gains for the money spent.
In saying that, the Volvo’s R cars are not exactly slouches on the road, and provide an extremely comfortable and enjoyable ride, whether you choose to modify them or not. Personally, this writer would love to build his very own BTCC replica car, but that’s most likely just the ex-boy racer blood talking.
New parts prices from Volvo seem reasonable enough, which is a relief as second hand parts are fairly scarce online, and wreckers seem to be very sporadic with their parts availability. Be aware that many parts are no different to any other on the 850 range, so bargains may well show up from time to time.
Representative Parts Prices*
Volvo 850R bonnet $1350+ new
Volvo 850R front driveshaft $1350+ new
Volvo 850R Right hand guard $850+ new
(* These prices are intended as a guide only and may vary.)
There is only one place to go for all your Volvo club needs, and that’s the Volvo Enthusiast’s Club of New Zealand, get in touch at www.volvoclub.org.nz.
Words: Peter Kelly