In April 1994, two blue and white-livered Volvo 850 estate cars rolled up to Thruxton’s start line for the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) season opener. Everyone thought it was a joke.
Even their drivers, Dutchman Jan Lammers and mild-mannered part-time accountant Rickard Rydell, couldn’t quite believe what they were driving. “When I signed up for Volvo... I didn’t know about the estate plans,” Rydell said later. “If I’d known, I would probably have hesitated!”
Volvo was no stranger to the idea of going racing in a car as aerodynamic as the box it was delivered in. The Volvo 240 Turbo – dubbed “the flying brick” – claimed both the European Touring Car Championship and German DTM titles in 1985 with what seemed like very little effort, and this no doubt inspired Volvo to go for broke with their latest creation.
The 850 was a ground-breaking car, and not just for Volvo. It was the first car with a transverse five-cylinder engine, a unique delta-link rear axle, integrated side-impact protection, and self-adjusting front seat belts. Later it became the first car in the world to offer side airbags. And this from a project that had started all the way back in 1978 with a meeting whose key action was to “aim for the stars.” As a result, the project was named Galaxy.
When the car was launched in 1991, it drew effusive praise not just for its safety, but also its engaging handling and characterful engine. When the estate version joined the saloon two years later, it collected a number of awards for its clever design. The Italians even went as far as to brand it the “most beautiful estate.”
But the Swedes weren’t done yet. They rocked up at the 1994 Geneva Motor Show with the T-5R estate, its eye-searing bright yellow paintwork hinting at the 240hp turbocharged and intercooled 2.3-litre five-pot that lay beneath. Originally intended as a limited run of just 2,500 units, the first cars sold out so quickly that Volvo felt compelled to run off another batch. And then another.
While the decision to enter the estate into the BTCC that year might seem like a PR stunt, there was in fact some science behind it. The aerodynamics of the wagon were actually slightly better than the saloon, but that didn’t stop Rydell’s fellow competitors from mercilessly taunting them. “To wind them up, in one heat we drove with a large stuffed collie in the boot during the parade lap!”
Perhaps out of embarrassment, the FIA revised the rules for the 1995 season to permit the use of an additional spoiler at the rear, a move clearly designed to favour the more traditional saloon car, and the Volvo TWR team switched to the four-door accordingly.
For the Volvo 850, though, the job was complete. Posters of Rydell and Lammers, bouncing off kerbs and rounding corners on two wheels, often in a one-two formation, adorned boyhood walls everywhere. Together, their exploits in the world’s most practical race car attracted more column inches than any other.
Were you at Thruxton in ‘94 when the Volvo 850 racing estate made its debut? Tell us about it in the comments below.