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.
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.
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.
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.
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: media.volvocars.com.