Betting the Farm – and Winning

The investment programme behind the 1991 Volvo 850 was the most important in the Swedish automaker’s history. Not only did it deliver an excellent car, it had a fundamental impact on the company’s future direction.

1997 Volvo 850 Estate (c)

Despite its conservative appearance, which looked like a scaled-down and smoothed off 940, the 1991 Volvo 850 was the fruit of the Swedish manufacturer’s largest and most expensive ever investment in new models, so it needed to be good.

It was not, however, Volvo’s first foray into front-wheel-drive. That honour rests rather heavily on the 400 Series. First to launch was the 480 coupé in 1986, followed a year later by the 440 five-door hatchback and 460 four-door saloon. The 400 replaced the 300 Series, which Volvo had inherited as a largely completed design (the DAF 77) when it took over DAF’s car-making business in 1975.

The 400 was, to put it bluntly, not great. Build quality and rustproofing at the Dutch Nedcar plant were considerably inferior to that at Gothenburg, especially on earlier cars. The hatchback and saloon were neatly styled but unremarkable and their dynamic qualities were middling. The 400 suffered, like the 300 before it, from accusations that it was not a proper Volvo, being built in the Netherlands and powered by a Renault engine.

1986 Volvo 480ES (c) car.revs.daily

The 400 Series was the first fruit of Project Galaxy, Volvo’s plan for new vehicle architectures and drivetrains to carry the company forward. The switch to transverse-engined front-wheel-drive platforms required a clean-sheet approach that saw nothing carried over from earlier Volvo designs. The less than enthusiastic reception received by the 400 Series must have caused some disquiet within the company, given the scale of the investment involved.

Prior to the launch of the 850, Volvo’s mainstream model was the 200 Series, the latest version of a model that had been launched a quarter of a century earlier. The 240 was ancient in automotive terms, but it was exceptionally well built, extraordinarily durable and had a well-deserved reputation for occupant safety that gained it a unique place in the market. It was also heavy and inefficient, and had run out of road in terms of further development potential. In 1982, Volvo had introduced a larger and more modern model, the 700 Series, but this was still a traditional rear-wheel-drive car.

Launched in June 1991, with the estate following in February 1993, the Volvo 850 was a compact executive car, aimed at a fast-growing market segment led by the BMW 3 Series (E36) ahead of the Mercedes-Benz 190 (W201) and Audi 80 (B3). The 850 was slightly larger than its competitors, with a wheelbase of 2,664mm (104¾”) and overall length of 4,661mm (183½”) for the saloon and 4,709mm (185½”) for the estate. These dimensions anticipated the growth in size of its competitors in their next generation and, because of its mechanical layout, the 850 was notably spacious inside.

The 850 was powered by a transversely mounted inline five-cylinder petrol engine in 2.0 and 2.5 litre capacities, offered in 10 or 20-valve form. These all-aluminium units were part of a new modular family of engines that had been launched with a 3.0 litre six-cylinder version in the 1990 Volvo 960.  Transmission was five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. At launch the 850 boasted four significant innovations: the new engines, Volvo’s patented Side Impact Protection System (SIPS), automatic height-adjustable front seatbelts and a new multi-link rear axle design, named Delta-Link.

1997 Volvo 850 Saloon (c)

The styling of the 850 was credited to Jan Wilsgaard, Volvo’s Chief Designer, who had overseen almost(1) every Volvo design for the previous four decades. The 850 would be his swansong and he retired in 1990. It was unmistakably a Volvo, with a six-light DLO on the saloon and practical upright tailgate on the estate. The sharp-edged style of the 700 had been rounded off a year earlier with the reskin that turned it into the 900, and the 850 was largely a scaled down version of the latter.

What was most impressive about the 850 was just how good it was from launch. It provided all the traditional Volvo virtues in a car that was remarkably good to drive, especially for a large and powerful FWD model, with an excellent combination of handling, roadholding and ride.

A 2.3 litre turbocharged engine joined the range in October 1993, powering the 850 T5 model. This engine produced 222bhp (166kW) and was good for a 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of just 7.3 seconds. The gearbox had a torque limiter in first gear, in order to protect the front tyres but, even driven sensibly, they would need replacing every 10,000 miles. The T5 was available in both saloon and estate versions and was the perfect Q-car(2), hiding its performance potential under the standard car’s unmodified bodywork. The only external sign was a discreet boot spoiler on the saloon.

The T5 was replaced after just a year by the more powerful T-5R, which produced 237bhp (177kW) and achieved a 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of 6.9 seconds. Unlike the 850 T5, the T-5R came with side-skirts, titanium grey alloy wheels and an optional distinctive signature pale yellow colour, in addition to the standard green or black. In 1996 the T-5R engine was upgraded again with a larger Garrett turbocharger to produce an additional 10bhp (7.5kW) which shaved another 0.2 seconds off the 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time. The car was now called simply the 850 R.

1995 Volvo 850 T-5R (c)

Unless you were a speeding driver who was surprised to be quickly hunted down and pulled over by an unmarked police Volvo 850 T5 estate, the limited-edition high-performance variants were of little relevance to the majority of Volvo owners, but the regular versions of the 850 sold strongly on the company’s traditional strengths of safety, practicality, comfort and durability. The 850 received a mild facelift in 1994, comprising new front and rear bumpers, revised lights and new switchgear inside. From October 1995 an Audi-sourced 2.5 litre five-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine was also offered.

The final derivative was the 850 AWD, launched in November 1996 in estate form only. It was equipped with a new 2.5 litre turbocharged engine and a five-speed manual gearbox and featured a raised ride height and self-levelling rear suspension.

The 850 was replaced in 1997 with an updated model bearing Volvo’s new model designations of S70 for the saloon and V70 for the estate. A total of 716,903(3) cars were built over the six years the 850 was in production. The 850’s platform and mechanical package remained in production until 2005, underpinning the Volvo C70 Coupé and Convertible.

Volvo’s Project Galaxy, which cost a total of 15 billion(3) Swedish Kroner ($2.5 billion) was the most expensive Swedish private-sector industrial investment to that date. It encompassed not only the 400 and 800 Series models, but also new production technology for its existing plants and a new engine plant at Skövde, 150km (93 miles) north-east of Gothenburg. It turned out to be money well spent in that it transformed the company and ultimately attracted a rich suitor, the Ford Motor Company, who paid $6 billion for Volvo Cars in 1999. That is, of course, another story.


(1) The exceptions were the Volvo P1900 Sport and P1800 Coupé, the latter styled by Pelle Petterson, a automotive design student tutored by Pietro Frua at the latter’s eponymous design studio, owned by Ghia.

(2) The ‘Q’ in Q-car refers back to Q ships in the Second World War. These appeared to be unarmed allied merchant ships but were carrying concealed heavy weapons. Their unthreatening appearance was designed to lure enemy U-Boats into making surface attacks, at which point the Q ship could open fire and sink the submarine. (Contrary to what some believe, it has nothing to do with the former UK car registration system where a suffix or prefix letter indicated the year of registration. For heavily modified or one-off cars that did not have an obvious year of manufacture, the letter Q was assigned instead.)

(3) Source:

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

37 thoughts on “Betting the Farm – and Winning”

  1. My sister owned an 850 estate which she bought instead of the originally intended MPV on the grounds that the Volvo was able to carry kids in the back and luggage in the boot at the same time, something a Sharan could not do.
    The Volvo lasted nineteen years and a zillion kilometres before my nephew crashed it against a lamp post, writing off the Volvo and the lamp.
    The biggest problem during ownership was the thin dealer network and the often sub standard service of those few dealers. Her local dealer – who later had his contract cancelled by Volvo – often refused to do work requested by the owner because he thought that it would be too expensive. The nearest official dealer then would have been forty kilometres away, so the Volvo relied on the services of the former dealer. This led to a time where the Volvo suffered severe reliability glitches like a coolant expansion reservoir that simply exploded on a French autoroute because the dealer couldn’t be bothered with replacing it after we found it leaking.
    When the Volvo got older the interior suffered badly with a sagging headlining and faux leather on the door trim coming loose, making the car look far worse that it was.
    For my liking the interior was too much oriented towards US export but I liked the HVAC controls where you simply pushed on the head or feet of a small pictogram.

    1. Excellent resume, Daniel, thank you. What faster and safer method could there be of shifting antiques, both furniture and humans, than these beasts? Splendid stuff.

      Barring the obvious analogue/touch screen technology change, this ain’t a million miles apart, is it?

    2. Hi Andrew. Thank you for your kind words. That looks like an S90 touch screen, if I’m not mistaken!

  2. Hi Daniel, thanks for your article, usually i thought that the bmw 3 series compact was the first luxury c-segment which nevertheless was not successful (where the audi a3 then broke through) instead the volvo 480 was actually the first luxury c-segment.

  3. This is a car it´s taken me a long time to accept even if my parents ran it in S70 form. One thing that throws me off was that it looks like a bigger car than a 3-series or A4 and also bigger than the Mondeo of the same period. So, I don´t tend to think of it as a competitor for them. The one I drove was the 2.4 litre five cylinder model. I wonder if its life in Ireland wore it out sooner than if it had lived in Sweden: the suspension didn´t strike me as anything more than adequate; country lanes in the SW of Ireland were tricky for the car as they have wierd cambers and very random bulges and dips so it was best to drive a bit slowly. The seating was excellent especially in the back; as a driver the position Volvo nudged you to was upright and formal. While I could have moved the seating and probably did, I felt too close to the wheel. All of that said, it was a very good car and as I always say, even nicer in some of the warmer colours than were mostly chosen. I saw a bordeaux over oatmeal model in Silkeborg a few years back and that really sold me the car (sorry to say) but the 5 cylinder engines and comfy seating are, of course, good selling points for this machine.
    Could we say Wilsgaard is a car designer with the longest and most consistent run of cars? I suppose Sacco is the winner here but if you think about the span of time Wilsgaard covered and the variation in the styles it is very impressive. There isn´t a “Wilsgaard” design but rather he stewarded Volvo design through a long period with good judgement. None of the cars he did were flops as designs and at least three of them are downright excellent.

  4. Good morning Richard. Wilsgaard was certainly a highly competent designer. For me, his weakest effort was the original 700 Series saloon, with its too-upright and almost flat rear screen, and that really awkward diagonal joint at the base of the D-pillar. Here’s a seasonal photo showing what I mean:

    I suppose Volvo was pandering to the contemporary American market automotive fashion for extremely rectilinear designs.

    When the design was overhauled to become the 900 Series, this area was handled much more competently:

    1. If I were to be hyper-critical, the front end of the original 244 was a bit heavy-handed and reminded me of a snow plough:

      Again, the facelift sorted it out very well:

    2. Oh, that´s funny because I adore the 700-series for exactly the feature you dislike and I view the 900 as, as best, a low-cost facelift. That´s not to say I don´t like the 900 – they are a lovely car. But the original 700 is so well made and, in a way, out-GMs GM. GM didn´t make any car as well as the 700. As it happens I saw a gold 740 roll by yesteday and it was a delight – simultaneously large and also a bit dainty. They have probably Volvo´s best interior. Super cars.

    3. I guess we’ll have to agree to differ on the 700 (and 900) then! The estate version is the way to go in either case.

      Incidentally, the lovely 780 coupé was built by Bertone, but was it also designed by the Italians, rather than Wilsgaard? I’m also choosing to ignore the existence of the 262C.

    4. Is it my impression or the slightly sagging headlights of the Bertone were reprised in the 1998 S80? Same for the slight protrusion of the grille, which has become a constant of the designs from 1998 until the previous generation – thankfully without the chrome

    5. Hi Jeroen. I hadn’t noticed that before, but I see exactly what you mean:

      It wasn’t just the 262C. All the facelifted 200 Series models had the same front end treatment. Is the S80’s front end an intentional reference to the earlier model, or just a coincidence?

    6. Well, I never was a Volvo-Guy but had a lot of friends driving one and remember a lot of good rides with them. I was so disinterested – to avoid the word ignorant – that I could never tell the difference between 700, 800 or 900.
      But I’ve always liked the 262C. I just never knew why.
      Now that I know that Mr David Robert Jones has owned one, I know a reason – the reason par excellence.
      (I’ve been flirting with a Studebaker since the 70s because Mr. Ferry owned one. That never worked out, because owning a Studebaker would have exploded my wallet for sure.)
      I think I’m going to look for a 262C now. Just not in black, because Mr. Jones probably had a different taste than I do when it comes to the colour of a car. But probably a piece in good condition will also make my wallet explode…

    7. My father owned a 940 bought new in 1996. It´s curious how the 850, being not too different to the 940, looked a lot more dynamic and even sporty, at least with the right alloys. The flatter bonnet, roof and boot helps. And some details from the 940 dates it inmediately, like the rain gutters and the clumsy wipers.
      Anyway I didn´t like my father´s 940 because it was terrible to drive.
      The 740 is no oil painting but with more modern bumpers and a set of 16″ Hydra alloys, like the Turbo 16 valve I had the chance to drive a few years ago, it started to look rather attractive.

    8. The “diagonal joint” on the 740 wasn’t Wilsgaards calling, it was a problem that was discussed as high as on CEO-level. The problem was the seam between the sail panel and the roof, either hide the seem with a piece of trim or go the extra way of welding/sanding every individual joint. After much debate PG Gyllenhammar decided on the trim solution, therefore it was called “The PG (piece of) trim” from thereafter, though it remained a controversial topic throughout its run.

    9. Thanks, Ingvar. The joint doesn´t disturb me – it reminds me of a similar one on the 240. They resolved the problem on the 900 by …. what exactly? A bigger pressing? I don´t think the 900 has a filled and sanded weld. If it does, it´s impressive. It has no joints from the roof down the c-pillar and on to the rear dine

    10. @Richard; I don’t know how they resolved in on the 940, but it is possible they went the extra length just to make right their earlier sins. What I do know is that Volvo had vetoed any substantial work on the 740 body, but a couple of engineers worked on it on spec and presented the new 940 rear to the management, and they bought it wholesale. I would guess those engineers had solved the Gordian knot in some way without a cost increase because the solution was cheap enough to put in production without much further work. If those engineers hadn’t sacrificed their evenings for that job, there wouldn’t have been a new 940/960 rear.

    11. That’s fascinating stuff, thanks for sharing, Ingvar. I’m pleased to hear that the rogue joint wasn’t Wilsgaard’s doing as it was unworthy of him. What a great story about the engineers’ commitment to correct the problem. Chapeau to them.

  5. Up to a coupe of years ago there was a dealer in Hamburg specialised in Volvos from the 200, 700/900 and 850 series.
    Some of the cars he had on offer looked very good but had hundreds of thousands of kilometres and still cost serious money. People wouldn’t pay that kind of money if the cars didn’t have the necessary substance.

  6. When this car was released I always had to think of Saab. One of the critiques I’ve always stumbled upon back in the day was that Saab only had a 4 cylinder engine. In the pre-GM days there was no money to develop a V6, an inline 6 wasn’t going to fit in the 9000 (Austin managed to place one transversely and so did Volvo later as well with the S80), so what could be more logical than a transverse inline 5? I later found out that they were developing an inline 5 with variable compression in Trollhättan, only a 1.6 but with 225 bhp and 225 lb-ft I’m not complaining.

    Volvo did it, however, and not Saab. I’ve very little experience with the 850, but one of my friends had the later S70. I don’t remember it all that well to be honest, but I recall the engine mounts were a bit soft, causing the engine to move more than I would like when shifting. Is this a thing of the transverse inline 5? I remember this from the Lancia Kappa too.

  7. The 850 is just 20 cm longer than an 1990 BMW 3-series and 12 cm shorter than the 1988 5-series. It is an in-between car in size terms. Would any 3-series buyer consider the 850? Or is this idea that customers are so scientific in their choosing?
    I wonder what else Bowie might have considered over the 262C. It´s such an odd car – expensive, not a Volvo, handmade, wierd, not a limousine (I don´t think think DB drove). If you´d asked me I´d have guessed he might have picked a large Mercedes saloon but possibly a Citroen CX Prestige. Bowie was good at doing things differently. And even the conventional choices were surprises in a way.

    1. Well, I suppose if Mr. Bowie insisted on always crashing in the same car, it might as well be a Volvo.

  8. You’re all reminding me of my age again….. For me, the 200 series front end lacked the grace of its predecessor. After having two 145s (the best proper estate car ever built, by any manufacturer) I found the dashboard of the 245 heavy handed, likewise the whole front. The 700 series looked great (again, in estate form) but to my astonishment I found it lacked headroom. At that point I changed tack and took to Saabs for the next decade or so – until GM put a stop to that.

    1. Which 200-series front end? There were at least three (flat, Parthenon grille and flattish). For me the 200 is one of those cars that could have been made in perpetuity. I think Volvo could easily have sold 20,000 of them annually forever, without affecting sales of anything else. It is possibly the only long-life car candidate in that size and price range. Mercedes could have kept the W-123 going too but such resistance to change would have jarred with their technical pride. Volvo didn´t need to maintain modernity on all fronts.

    2. Hi JTC. Yes, I agree about the first 240 (the mustard coloured car above) with the shovel nose and circular headlamps. I suppose it made sense, along with the low-set bumper, to improve pedestrian safety in the event of an accident, but it was a bit ungainly.

  9. When the 140 series Volvos replaced the 120 series, I disliked it immediately because of the ‘light front/heavy rear’ styling , and from then on Volvos have never been a marque I would want to be seen in. Any I have driven have impressed me as not being as safe as Volvo frequently claim, since they can’t get basic ergonomics right. I give them brownie points for taking the 850 wagon to the BTCC, but not enough points to make me want one.
    The last one I drove – a user-chooser on the company fleet many years ago, was frequently suffering from a flat battery ( people would switch on the sidelights, to make the headlights go off – then forget to switch off the sidelights…)

    1. I can well understand how the 140 series might offend anyone who appreciated the 120 series and I take the point about rear-heavy styling. But the 145 remains for me unbeaten. As for Mr Herriott’s question, all 200 front-end variants seemed heavy-handed – but that’s an entirely personal foible.
      And what about the 164 nose? (why was there no estate?). Imagine a Wolseley badge illuminating that grille and you have a worthy successor to the 6/110….

    2. Good morning JTC. The Volvo 164 / Wolseley comparison would never have occurred to me, but you’re absolutely right:

      An influential BMC-era Wolseley…who would have thunk it?

  10. Thanks for writing about one of my favourite cars.
    I had the pleasure to own a beautiful 850 R in a kind of turquoise blue color over beige interior for four years. The 5 cylinder was super smooth, the interior spacious and comfortable, and for me that boxy body with huge 17″ alloys and low front spoiler was so cool…I usually like discreet cars and that 850 R of course it wasn´t, but I loved it anyway.
    Besides that, it retained typical Volvo virtues: quietness, no-nonsense interior design (aside from the alcantara upholstery, a nightmare to keep clean), efficient HVAC, the best seats in the industry with the possible exception of the Saab 9000 Aero´s, and good build quality.
    A shame the chassis wasn´t nothing special compared with a 5 Series (sorry), and I suppose Volvo engineers knew the 240 bhp (mine was an auto) were to tax it too much, so they chose a rather hard suspension; so hard that dashboard mounts were breaking. That´s a common weak point in 850s, by the way.
    It was fairly reliable, I bought it in 2013 so she was an old girl yet, and needed an engine radiator, a heater core (very easy to replace, unlike other cars that require to dismantle the whole dashboard), an expansion tank, and a rebuilt ABS/TRACS ecu. That´s another weak point in post´96 850s.
    I replaced with a 328i Touring E36 “project car” that taught me that project cars are more fun to read about in Internet forums than to have them in your garage.

    1. You’re welcome, b234r, glad you enjoyed it and thanks for sharing your experience of owning an 850.

  11. I think the 850 did pretty well in the touring car championships. They stuck a picture of a Labrador dog in the back as a tribute to one of its usual roles in life.

  12. This platform (P80) might not be super sharp but its very comfortable and quiet.Almost no wind noise in cabin until 140 km/h.Also the parts are almost exclusively made in Japan,Germany and Sweden.There is still a lot of value left on those cars dont sleep on them.Get a nice one and run it to the ground !

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