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Volvo 850 BTCC

This article is about the Volvo 850 racing project. After many years not being active in motorsports it was time to give Volvo a more sporty image.

Volvo at the BTCC

When the Volvo 850 was launched in 1991 Volvo wanted to upgrade their image. The 850 was a very good step into the right direction but despite the great (more sporty) handling compared with the other Volvos the direction of Volvo felt the sporty character of Volvo should be increased. Volvo left motorsport-activities in 1987 and felt it should race again. Volvo deciced the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) should be the perfect podium for its racing activities.

The Volvo 850 Touring Car prototype of Steffansson Automotive

Volvo Senior Vice President Martin Rybeck approached Steffansson Automotive (SAM) to design a prototype car for racing, based on the 850. Volvo gave a lot of information and support of the 850 to SAM. Volvo also promised to gave a bodyshell. But when SAM went to Volvo to pick up the bodyshell only 850 Estates (the facelifted versions, with new headlights and bumpers) were produced. But the project couldn’t have any delay so Volvo and SAM decided to use the Estate bodyshell. When Rybeck heard about the story he thought it would be a great idea to race with an estate! The marketing potential should be huge, but when it becomes a failure it would be embarrassing for Volvo.

Volvo 850 Estate Racer prototype Steffansson Automotive Volvo 850 Estate SAM racer touring car motorsports prototype Volvo 850 Estate racer interior dash SAM prototype
The Volvo 850 Supertouring racer prototype of SAM (click on the image for a larger version). The car is now for sale at Blocket.se

The 850 Estate racer prototype of SAM was very promising. To be sure the Estate racing car shouldn’t become a failure Volvo tested the saloon and Estate in a windtunnel. The results were very surprising: the Estate should have a better downforce due its large flat roof.

TWR and Volvo

Volvo decided to take the project to the next level and Tom Walkinshaw (of TWR, Tom Walkinshaw Racing) was asked to have a close look on the Estate-version as racing car. The motorsport experts of TWR confirmed that when the weight could be taken to the legal minimum, there shouldn’t be a lot difference between the saloon and the Estate on the circuit.

Volvo confirmed joining the BTCC at the end of 1993 and gave TWR a three-year contract for building and designing the 850 BTCC racing cars. The 850 Estate racing car was build in Oxfordshire (England) and designed by Richard Owen.

Volvo showed the 850 BTCC cars in January 1994 at the Swedish Motor Show in both saloon and estate versions, to provide some room for speculations. But the rumours were ended at the Geneva Autosalon in March 1994 when Volvo confirmed it should enter the BTCC championship with a Volvo 850 Estate.

The 850 Estate racer was equipped with a 2.0 litre 20 valve 5-cylinder in-line engine (without turbo), delivering 280bhp @ 8.500rpm. The car was a frontwheeldrive (FWD) and has a X-Trac 6-speed sequential gearbox. The brakes were all ventilated discs by Brembo (which also supplied the brake calipers). Wheels are from OZ (18-inch) and tires were supplied by Dunlop. A sprint from 0-100km/h (0-60 mph) took about 7,4 seconds.

Volvo confirmed former Formula One driver Jan Lammers (The Netherlands) and Rickard Rydell (Sweden) as their drivers for the 1994 season. The official team name was: Volvo 850 Racing.

Jan Lammers March Ilmor 1992 Formula One F1
Former F1 driver Jan Lammers in a March-Ilmor in 1992

Volvo 850 Estate in the BTCC 1994 season

The first race of the season was on April 11 1994. TWR had some serious troubles to finish the first cars and time was running out. Just before the first test sessions at Snetterton (April 4 1994) the cars were finished. Just in time!

Volvo 850 Racing BTCC 1994 sponsors livery
The livery of the 850 Estate in the BTCC

The 1994-season wasn’t bad at all: the best place in qualifying was a thirth place (Lammers and Rydell) and in the race a fifth place. Volvo ended on a sixth place in the Constructors Championship at the BTCC that season. The car did pretty well in high-speed corners but in slow and sharp corners there was a lack of grip and traction, caused by the weird weight balance of the car.

After the season Lammers abandoned the BTCC because he didn’t like the driving-style of touringcars. And later he admitted he didn’t support the Volvo 850 Estate BTCC car for 100%: the difference between the road version and circuit car was too little (Lammers drove a 850 T-5 himself back then). Another funny story told in some interviews (like Autoweek, the Dutch version of Autobild) with Lammers is how the other drivers responded to an estate racing car: some drivers called the 850 Estate a baker’s car and being overtaken by the “pizza delivery” was also not done. Lammers said when he or Rydell overtake a car they would be hit at the back some corners later (the 850 drove a lot of laps with broken rear bumpers in the BTCC at that time) and some drivers complained about the sight behind the 850 Estate: when you drive behind it you couldn’t see anything due the stationwagon-bodyshape. But there was also good news: the 850 was liked by most of the drivers off-track: it was a perfect car at the golf. Lammers said: “At that time my handicap dropped down faster than my laptimes!”

Volvo 850 Estate racing Lammers Volvo 855 BTCC 850 Estate racing
Lammers flying around in his Volvo 850 Estate

1995: goodbye Volvo Estate racer, welcome 850 saloon @ BTCC

In 1995 the rules of the cars design were changed. Since the 1995-season it was allowed to have front- and rear wings but those wings weren’t allowed to pass the rear bumper or be higher than the roofline. These new regulations only allowed Volvo to use a 850 saloon instead of the 850 Estate. When Volvo should appear with the Estate (including a rear wing) at the starting grid it could be banned.

Volvo 850 Racing saloon Harvey Rydell presskit announcement
Rickard Rydell and Tim Harvey with the new 850 Saloon racer

Because the saloon with rear wing had a much better downforce than the Estate without rear spoiler the choice for the 1995 season was easy: Volvo was going to race with the 850 saloon. In 1995 there were also some other changes (besides the front and rear wings): a catalytic converter was now a mandatory. Because Jan Lammers didn’t want to race another season at the BTCC Tim Harvey (England) took over Lammers’ place at Volvo.

TWR/Volvo 850 Racing BTCC 1995 sponsorship livery
The livery and sponsors for the 1995 season

The 1995 BTCC season was much better than 1994 for Volvo: Rydell took several pole positions and won four races! Rydell was a title contender that year but unfortunately didn’t win the title. Harvey also had a good season with 2 wins and several podium finishes. It was a very good season.

Volvo 850 Racing TWR engine 1995 5-cylinder Volvo 850 Racing BTCC Harvey pitbox Volvo 850 Racing engine under the hood
A closer look at the 850 Racer: the engine, pitbox and what can be found under the hood

1996: even more success for Volvo in the BTCC!

In 1996 the team name was changed from Volvo 850 Racing to TWR/Volvo 850 Racing. Tim Harvey left the team and signed at Peugeot, who entered the BTCC with the brand new 406. The young talented driver and Formula 3 champion Kelvin Burt (England) replaced Harvey. Besides the new driver and slightly changed team name there were some other small changes: Michelin was the new supplier of tires and OZ Wheels was replaced by BBS (the size went from 18-inch to 19-inch). The front brakes (discs and calipers) were changed from Brembo to AP. The steering system was changed to a new version made by TWR.

Rickard Rydell Volvo 850 saloon sedan BTCC 1996 Brands Hatch
Rydell in action at Brands Hatch

That year was slightly better than 1995: Rickard Rydell took 5 pole positions and won 4 races, which delivered him a thirth place in the final standings (194 points). Burt finished 11th in the final standings (66 points) and won one race. TWR/Volvo 850 Racing managed to finish third in the Constructors Championship.

1996 was the final year for the 850 Racing car. It was replaced by the Volvo S40 (S40R) in 1997. One of the 850s that was used in the 1996 BTCC-season was used in the STCC (Swedish Touring Car Championship) in 1997. After that season the car was moved to the Volvo Museum in Sweden.

850 Estate still racing in the DSC

Today a Volvo 850 Estate is still in use as a racecar: Dutch driver Jochen Pethke (who was racing in the Volvo 360 Cup at Zandvoort) is now active in the Dutch Supercar Challenge (DSC). The car isn’t exactly the same as it was in the good old days: the 6-speed sequential gearbox of X-Trac is replaced by a regular 5-speed manual transmission. The car has a 2.3 litre 5-cylinder turbocharged engine.

Volvo 850 Estate turbo racer Pethke DSC
The Volvo 850 of Pethke in action

It’s hard to verify, but the rumours says the remaining Volvo 850 Racing-cars (the cars that didn’t go back to Volvo Sweden) should be destroyed in Switzerland. The reason was very simple: nobody should see which modifications made the car faster (of course something like that is top secret). But for some reason one car survived and was stored in Mijdrecht (The Netherlands) for a long time. The engine was removed. Pethke heard about the 850 Estate racer and wanted to buy the car. After some tough negotiations Pehtke managed to convince the previous owner and bought the car. He fitted a turbocharged engine into the car, made some minor modifications to match the DSC-regulations and is racing with the car these days.  To follow the 850 Estate racing adventure of Jochen Pehtke, please visit the website of Pethconi Racing.

Volvo 850 Estate BTCC
The Volvo 850 Estate BTCC racer at the Volvo Museum

Many thanks to Autoweek and Jochen Pethke to keep the 850 Racing alive!

© Volvotips 2011


If you like this article, you might also enjoy reading the history of the Volvo 850.

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