The Volvo 850. If you don’t know anything about cars, you probably still know what an 850 is. Never in Volvo’s history has a car been so radical in terms of the brand shift it created. The 850 and the clever marketing team behind it revitalised the Volvo brand and made it, well, they made it cool. And it still is cool. And not cool in the way your dad says cool. We mean properly, ‘look at that Volvo, that’s mega’ cool. The 850 did that. Clever sausage.
The Volvo 850 wasn’t just the product of clever marketing though. While the team behind the adverts and press cuttings were, without a doubt, talented, the car’s success would rest on more tangible attributes. Happily, the 850 had lots. Though there were four in particular that Volvo really wanted to shout about.
There was the unique ‘delta-link’ rear suspension, the five-cylinder 20V engines, the self adjusting front seatbelts (this is a Volvo after all) and SIPS, or Side Impact Protection System to you and me.
The big selling point, and the one that ruffled feathers, was the engine. The five-cylinder transversely-mounted inline five-cylinder was a confusing proposition for many. But Volvo was ahead of the times, and if you don’t believe us, look at the Focus ST and the Focus RS – Volvo-derived five-pot engines in each. And once the press got hold of the 850 and tested it, they put everyone at ease by giddily reporting that it was a damn fine engine. 2.0 or 2.5, 10 or 20-valve, it was a powerful, torquey engine with a pleasant throb and as such, a bit of personality. Personality. In a Volvo. The early 1990s didn’t see that coming.
When Volvo rolled out the T5 – of which the T signifies turbo – the world lost its mind. The 850 wasn’t nippy. It was downright fast. Stupidly fast for the time, in fact. The Germans looked on, aghast, as they watched Volvo scoop up sales left, right and centre. We adored the 850 here in the UK, and the sales figures sent ripples through the market while making Volvo’s accountants smile like a Cheshire cat.
While the engines – especially those with forced-induction – were brilliant, there was no escaping the old adage of power being nothing without control. Volvo had this covered.
Volvos of old were sturdy, but blunt instruments. They weren’t precise or agile, they weren’t engaging or entertaining. Old Volvos got you where you were going and if you happen to be hit by a planet or your mother-in-law en route, an old Volvo would keep you safe. The wheels took the four bhp made by the engine and did half-arsed job of putting them on the tarmac. Nothing more, nothing less.
As such, we though the 850 would be much the same. It was, after all, just a big Volvo, right? Well, yes, but it also had clever ‘delta-link’ semi-independent rear suspension which in turn offered a degree of passive rear-wheel steering. The front suspension, while not as breakthrough as the rear, was setup perfectly for the car. The steering was tight and direct and as such, the 850 was a riot to drive. It still is. You have to push an 850 very hard before it will spit you off the road. If you buy one, up the brake brake discs and pads to something a bit sportier, make sure your wheels are shod in decent rubber and you’ll have more fun than anyone ever should in a Volvo.
And let’s not forget, the Volvo 850 wasn’t all shout. In 1996 Tom Wilkinshaw Racing built a number of 850s to compete in the British Touring Car Championship. And in typical ‘sorry what now?’ fashion, the first cars were estates. Those crazy Swedes.
The car wasn’t hugely successful, despite Rickard Rydell being behind the wheel, but it didn’t really matter. It was a brilliant marketing opportunity and one that finally gave Volvo owners something to be proud of, and something that gave potential customers the push they needed to walk into a dealership. Plus, in 1995 Volvo entered a saloon (because TOCA said no to the estate, boring sods) and they qualified on pole position 12 times and won six races, with Volvo placing third in the Manufacturers Championship.
The Police also loved the 850. It was big enough to hold all their cones and high-visibility paraphernalia, it was fast enough to catch most criminals and if they drove into said criminals at speed, the Policemanofficers would be (relatively) fine. Plus, the 850 was comfortable, and when your shift is eight hours long, comfort is important.
So what should you be looking out for if you’re buying one? Well, in the case of the T5, you want to keep an eye out for abuse. It’s a cheap, fast car and that means plenty have slipped into the hands of those lacking any kind of mechanical sympathy. So look for tyre wear, listen for suspension knocks, make sure the clutch feels good and make sure it goes into gear without too much fuss.
Other than that, you’re looking for general wear an tear. Tidy cars are starting to climb in value, even the normal SE or GLT models, so now is the time to pounce. T5s are going up too, and if you’re wondering why we’ve not mentioned the T5-R, it’s because they’re over five grand for a rough one.
The good thing, however, is that the 850 now tends to fall into the hands of those who appreciate it as the classic it is. And if you’re quick, and you have a couple of grand to spare, you could be one of them.