Volvo has gone through various evolutionary leaps throughout its existence as a company. The Swedish brand has maintained a strong emphasis on safety throughout, but there are numerous technological, design, and branding changes that have really helped to shape the company as the chic, sophisticated luxury car manufacturer we see today.
25 years ago, Volvo first took the covers off of their 850 sedan. It was a model that boasted four “firsts” for their model line- it packed a transverse 5-cylinder motor, a delta-link rear axle, the side impact protection system (forefather to Volvo’s incredibly strong chassis technology today), and a self-adjusting front seatbelt. This may seem relatively pedestrian, but the 850 would prove to be iconic in a number of ways.
It was more than just an evolution of the earlier 700 series, having started development in the late 1970s. While the sedan formed the backbone of the 850 lineup, it was the wagon that most people will remember it for. It’s hard to believe it now, but the boxy wagon took home two design prizes in its time- including one from the Italians, no less.
While there were a number of engines available for the 850, the most sought after was the T-5R found in the 850R. The motor was a turbocharged and intercooled variant of the inline-5 in the regular 850 GLT, pushing 240 hp and 330 Nm of torque at a time when 200 hp was considered high performance. The initial run of 2,500 yellow 850Rs sold out within the first few weeks, and the remaining 2,500 850Rs were finished in a dark green paint job.
The 850 also proved to be a formidable weapon on track, in wagon trim. It was entered by Volvo in the British Touring Car Championship and proceeded to dominate during the 1995 season. This was attributed to the increased natural downforce as a result of the wagon shape, and the form was banned for the following season. These days, we see a number of BTCC teams adopting the wagon or touring variants of their cars- no doubt for the same reason.
In later years of 850 production, Volvo also introduced an AWD model which had a viscous coupling to transfer power to the rear wheels. The slip allowed the system to be all-wheel drive nearly all of the time, and these variants came with a light-turbocharged motor with 193 hp on tap. While not quite the 850R, these cars could be just as quick.
Throughout its 6 years of production, the 850 single handled changed both the image and the direction in which Volvo was headed. It proved that estates need not be slow and cumbersome, and it paved the way for the S70 and V70 to come. A total of 1,360,522 850-based models were produced during that 6 year time period. With Volvo’s comeback to the world of touring cars, its only fitting that we pay homage to the car that started it all.