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History Volvo 850

Believe it or not: the roots of the Volvo 850 are back in the 70’s when the oil crisis reaches its top. Volvo plans a long-term project which would lead to a new car in the early 90’s. The car should be dynamic, economic and should contain all new features a modern driver would expect from a car. Other manufacturers used frontwheeldrive a lot more than before (mainly because buyers want a smaller car which was bigger on the inside), so the new car should also have frontwheeldrive. With the new project not only a new car should be developed, but also new production methods, new material and new plants.

The new project, started in 1978, was called the Galaxy Project. At the Galaxy Project 2 cars should be developed together: a smaller car which should be about 1000kg (35 miles per gallon fuel) and a bigger car with 1200kg as curb wheight (which should run 30 miles per gallon). Rune Gustaffson, who was responsible for building the first Amazon prototype, was in charge of the design of Galaxy Projects 1 and 2.

Pilot study & search process Volvo Galaxy

In the first fase (the pilot study, from 1978 till 1981) a new prototype was build, called the Volvo G4 (introduced in 1980). It has frontwheeldrive, new type gearbox and a 1.8 litre engine. The G4-prototype lead to two other cars: the G1 (to replace the 340/360) and G2 (which should become the 800-series).

Volvo started developing the aluminium X-100 transverse engine, a four-cilinder in-line engine which was suitable for frontwheel drive. In the project there was also a 5-cilinder and 6-cilinder engine mentioned.

In september 1980 the Volvo G1 prototype was ready. The car featured a transverse 1.8 litre engine, frontwheel-drive and the new type of gearbox (which should suitable for frontwheeldrives). As you can see in the picture below the Volvo 440 has exactly the same design as the Volvo G1. The name G1 has been changed to G13 (which became the Volvo 480), G14 (which became the Volvo 460) and G15 (Volvo 440) to diversify the different designs. A estate-version was mentioned but abandonded because its profitability wasn’t good enough.

Volvo G1 Galaxy project prototype for 440 and 850
The Volvo G1, prototype for the 400-series and 850 driveshaft

The 5-speed manual gearbox was developed by Volvo itself, because there wasn’t any 5-speed manual gearbox which could be fitted on a transverse engine. The first version of this gearbox gave many problems and couldn’t match up Volvo’s requirements. So a new and extreme small gearbox was developed, containing three shafts and double pinions (normal gearboxes have two shafts). In 1980 patented Volvo this new design. In 1981 the developing of the M55 gearbox was started.

In 1981 the G2 prototype was developed at the Olofström Plant. You can see two of the very first G2-prototypes below. Some details can be found on the 1990 740, 940 and 850.

Volvo G2 prototype Volvo 850
The Volvo G2 prototype, fundament of the 850

Product and concept selection

The new stage for Project Galaxy ran from 1982 till 1985. Goal was to select the concepts, products and working methods for the new cars.

Nils Bohlin designed, during the years when the Project 1155 (Volvo 700-series) was running, a new side protection which should be used in the G2. It was called the Side Impact Protection System (SIPS) and should protect the passengers when the car has been hit from the side. It wasn’t developed enough when the 760 and 740 were introduced, so it should be introduced when the G2 has become a production model.

In April 1982 Volvo Cars BV (the Netherlands, located in Helmond and Born) purchased the G1-project (including the G13, G14, G15 and 9 test prototypes) for SEK 128,5 milion. The further development of the G1-project lead to the 480 in 1985 (known as G13), the 440 in 1988 and 460 in 1989.

Volvo had the plan to develop the X-100 into a 5-cilinder engine and Porsche was going to be asked to develop a 6-cilinder engine. John Petterson (engine designer at Volvo) didn’t accept the last plan and started to develop a 6-cilinder engine at home. When the engine was ready, Porsche was asked to do some finetuning and optimising Petterson’s engine.

When the 5-cilinder engine (the first version had 114 bhp) and M55 gearbox were ready Volvo purchased a Chevrolet Citation. Reason for this car was the size of it: it had exact the same measures as the Project G2-car and was a frontwheel-drive. Volvo putted the M55 gearbox and 5-cilinder X-100 engine into it and started testing. During the first tests it seemed that the engine and gearbox were really good and completely matches the requirements and expectations Volvo had of it. The designer-team had decided the G2-car should have a 5-cilinder engine!

Volvo 850 G2 prototype technique in a Chevrolet Citation
In this kind of car (a Chevrolet Citation) Volvo put a 5-cilinder engine and M55-gearbox. Could you believe it?

The G2-car should have the following dimensions: maximum length of 450cm, maximum width 170cm, max height 140cm and a wheelbase of max 260cm. The 850 was a bit bigger: 466 x 176 x 144cm and a wheelbase of 266,5cm. The weight was also a bit heavier.

The X-100 engine was presented as 4-cilinder (1.6 and 1.8 litre), 5-cilinder (2.0 and 2.2 litre) and in the meanwhile 2 diesel-engines (1.7 and 2.1 litre) were being developed.

Also new was the first version of the Deltalink split rear axle, designed by Hans-Olof Arvidsson and Lars-Runo Tillback.

In 1983 the P1 and P2 prototypes were finished as full-scale model. The P1 was designed by Jan Wilsgaard and the P2 by Rolf Malmgren. The team couldn’t decide which model was the best, so they decided to put the best elements of both designs in a new prototype, called the P3. After the P3 has been presented as a clay model, not everyone was happy about it. Including Wilsgaard, who went to Carrozzeria Coggiola Torino (in Turin, Italy) to take his ideas and concepts into a next level.

Volvo P1 and P2 prototype
The Volvo P1 and P2 prototypes (full-scale models designed by Jan Wilsgaard and Rolf Malmgren). There weren’t enough big differences in the design, so it resulted in a new prototype called the P3. As you can see the P2 has a lot of details (especially the back of the car) which can be found on the later 940 and 850.

The next stage in the Galaxy Project was to develop a automatic gearbox (very important for the USA-market). It should also be a very compact gearbox, just like the M55. Volvo approached Aisin Warner (AW) and the Zahnradfabrik Fredriechshafen (ZF) to develop a gearbox which could meet the specifications Volvo needed for the car. If a compact automatic gearbox wasn’t possible for the new car, the project would be cancelled.

The automatic gearbox ZF had developed was too big and meant Volvo couldn’t fit a 5-cilinder engine in the car, but should use a 4-cilinder. Volvo choose AW to develop a compact gearbox because the co-workers of the Galaxy Project were very happy with the 5-cilinder engine.

At the end of March 1984 the first driveable G2-prototype was finished. This G2-model was called the M020. In april the direction staff of Volvo was asked to test the M020 G2-prototype. They had some mixed feelings about it: it drove quite good, but it missed the some character. This leaded to the M021 and M022 prototypes which should be better. The M020 was also taken to a test circuit in the USA, where some spy-shots were taken from the car. The G2 was being renamed to Project A.

Volvo G2 850 prototype testdrive
The first driveable version of the G2 prototype. Notice the USA sealed beams as headlights.

During all the testing and driving Jan Wilsgaard was still in Italy, trying to design the ultimate replacement for the P3. Lasse Petterson designed the P3 and everyone was very pleased with the result and agreed to continue working with it. But when Jan Wilsgaard presented his version (called the “B3”) everyone was in a shock: that car looked amazing! There was also a other prototype of the B3 but it was left in Italy. The first B3-car had small pillars with large areas of glass (which was very important for visibility). All the styling details give the B3 an amazing and surprising character. Just what the project needed!

Volvo P3 prototype
The Volvo P3 prototype, designed by Petterson. If Wilsgaard didn’t show his B3-design this would be the car that was the base for the 850.

Volvo B3 prototype 850
The Volvo B3 prototype by Jan Wilsgaard. You can recognise a 850 already in it!

Volvo C3 prototype 850 hatchback
Wilsgaard also designed the C3, a notchback with low Cd-values.

Wilsgaard also designed the C3, a liftback (berline) prototype which was actually a smaller version of the 740/760. Volvo thought it would be the perfect sister-model next to the 700-series. There was also a coupe-prototype designed, but it only was designed as a study model. Very remarkable were the doors and rear side windows: there were no frames! Later this concept has been used at the C70.

Volvo Galaxy Coupe prototype 850
The Coupe of the Galaxy project, designed by Wilsgaard and Erik Skoog

At the beginning of 1985 some of the Volvo boardmembers weren’t happy with the developing of Project Galaxy. It was too expensive and the development was going too slow. They were about to cancel the project, until they saw the designs of Wilsgaard. That convinced the board and the project was free to continue. One week later the A2SN (actually Wilsgaard’s C3) and the A2S (a saloon based on the P3 with a new back) were presented. Stig Falk was asked to implement his idea to integrate the grille into the bonnet. He had that same idea already at the 700-series but couldn’t convince the design them at that moment. Hans Carlstedt was now responsible for the technical design of the new car.

Volvo A2S sedan prototype 850
The A2S sedan prototype, presented at the same time as the A1SN hatchback (actually Wilsgaard’s C3).

Also new was that ABS should be a standard feature of the new car, and all engines would be able to run on unleaded fuel. The engines must run at least 200.000km without any big problems and have a service lifetime of at least 20 years.

In september 1985 Aisin Warner presented a small automatic gearbox to Volvo. It had the same size as the M55 gearbox and was called the AW-597. In november 1985 Volvo approved the design of Aisin Warner and gave them green light to develop the gearbox to a next level. In the meanwhile Volvo has developed also the M56. But why did the new car needed two gearboxes available? It would be strange and costs too much money. For these reasons the M55 was being cancelled and the M56 was the new gearbox which should be fitted into the new car.


The last phase of the project was started in 1986. In this stage the final car design should be created, which should change Volvo forever. It must change Volvo, because it was the most expensive and largest industrial project of Volvo ever! The car should be for sale in the beginning of 1991, so there were 5 years left to concrete all plans and production.

The 5-cilinder engine now has 2.3 litre displacement and was called the T23. Volvo had the plan to use the 6-cilinder version of it in the 760 and 780 from model year 1992 (that didn’t happen because the 740 and 760 didn’t excist anymore at that time, but it was used in the 960 since 1991).

The A1SN-prototype (now called the 1202) was taken for testdrive in the USA to test the brakes and climate/heating system. The hatcback-model was being stopped for development at the end of 1986: it was too expensive to create two cars at the same time which weren’t different enough. Instead of the hatchback the saloon should be more flexible. Besides: the CD-value of the saloon was far enough reduced to meet up the requirements Volvo had given to the project. The project was renamed to “Project S” (referring to the birthday of Queen Silvia, the same day Volvo decided to continue the sedan and drop the hatchback-project). Wilsgaards B3 was chosen to be developed further. CAD-design was also introduced.

A new creation in the project was the so-called Driving Pleasure Group: 4 members of the project team who weren’t happy with the performance and characteristics of the prototypes. They were going to test the cars and bring up ideas how to improve the car so it would be really fun to drive.

In 1987 Gosta Svensson designed the automatic adjustable seatbelt. It was called ARH (Automatic Retractor Height adjustment). The belt directly runs onto the reel (fitted in the pillar) instead via a runner which was located on the floor. With this system it is more comfortable to wear a seatbelt. At the engine department the new (variable) inlet-design was developed which should give the engine more power and torque.

At the end of 1987 Volvo decided the new car should be build in Ghent, because the Swedish factories didn’t have the capacity to build a complete new car. Volvo was very pleased with the Belgian plant (which has been in use since 1965). At the same time the test results of the new automatic gearbox of Aisin Warner were presented: it runs very well and the results are excellent! The new car should be produced in week 15 of 1991 (Volvo called it: 9115 for short). At the end of 1987 the project was (again) being renamed to Project GE (with the G referring to the first name of the project). One day before Christmas the 1418 prototype was ready and presented. It should be send across the Atlantic to run some perfomance tests.

Volvo 850 prototype 1987
Prototype 1418, made in 1987 and driveable in 1988. As you can see the B3 of Wilsgaard was further developed and looked more like the final 850 (except the 740-front).

The Volvo 700-series didn’t get many changes during the years, because Volvo didn’t want to interrupt the Galaxy project. But when sales of the 740 and 760 started decreasing in 1987 and 1988 they felt the need to do something. The twin-brother of Rolf Malmgren (Hakan Malmgren) was asked to start modelling a new back of the car. The redesigned car should also have the new automatic gearbox and the 6-cilinder X-100 engine (the new back and engine leads to the 960). This car should a good base for testing the new Galaxy’s powertrain.

One year later some big steps were taken when the cooling system, airconditioning and climate control (based on the R134-standard), ARH safety belt and Malmgren showed some new models and tested it with Wilsgaard. CAD-designs developed the design even further.

Volvo 850 prototype impression by Malmgren 1988
A new impression of the car, designed by Malmgren and is based on Wilsgaard’s B3/1418

In 1988 the prototype 1418 was been send to the USA to perform different driving tests. Unfortunately the car has been photographed several times by a spy journalist. Volvo tried to bailout the journalist (after a two hour chase) but with no succes. The pictures has been published in several car magazines.

In august 1988 Volvo faced a big problem: 40 bodywork designers quit their jobs because they were interested to work somewhere else as CAD-designers. A big loss with so little time left! Carlstedt was given carte blanche to create a new team which should only focus on finishing the project.

Fun fact: Volvo asked 30 women (who were working at Planning and Design departments) to give a female look at the new car. This was very important for the USA because 45% of the USA Volvo-owners was a woman. The opinions of these 30 women were very valuable.

The design should soften a little and to get a better performance the engine displacement had been increased to 2.5 litre.

In 1989 big steps were made when the new plant in Ghent got its final form: the production area was finished, the supplier departments were set and Aisin Warner also was ready to go building the new automatic gearbox for Volvo. But still a lot needed to be done: the press tools weren’t ready and some other equipment wasn’t arrived yet.

The new SIPS-system was also integrated into the new car and a lot of safety designs were being tested. The new car should be extremely safe! There was also a new prototype designed, with much softer lines.

Final prototype Volvo 850
Almost ready! The prototype of the new car, some little details were changed but you can recognise it as a Volvo 850

During 1989 the new name was being discussed for the new car. After the 500-series and 600-series were being rejected, Volvo decided to call the car Volvo 850. GLT was also added to point up the sporty character of the new car. The name “850” fits perfectly between the 700-series and 960 (which name was invented just before the name “850” was introduced). The “5” in the name refers to the 5-cilinder engine.

In 1990 the 6-cilinder engine was ready and introduced at the end of the year in the new 960. At the new plant in Ghent the machinery and robots were tested and at the end of the year everything was ready to go. Some final tests were planned in Arizona, but at the airport a container was being dropped from 5 metres height. Unfortunately: it contained a Volvo 850-prototype which was completely destroyed (except the engine and gearbox).

The workers of Ghent were sent to Göteborg to talk to their co-workers and learn from eachother. Also the new tools have arrived in Göteborg and 90 pilot cars were produced to test everything in the production process and to check the quality of the car.

At the end of the summer the new 850 was presented at the National Road Safety Office of Sweden to be granted for a type of approval. This should be done in every country of Europe. All the suppliers of Volvo should deliver parts which were matching the type of approval.

Some minor modifications were made (new rear bumper and some other details) and the 850 was ready! In 1991 the final test series were produced in Ghent, 10 weeks before the first production model should be produced. When these models were tested everyone was really ecstatic about it.

On thursday April 11 1991 the first Volvo 850 GLT was ready in it’s final form. Not longer a prototype, but a real production car. The first Volvo 850 was a fact!

The first Volvo 850 leaving Volvo Gent
The first Volvo 850 as a production car leaving the plant in Ghent (Belgium)

Commercials and advertisements were being developed, because the car should be launched successful. The car should be presented in public at the IAA Frankfurt Motorshow in September 1991.

Volvo design sketches by Malmgren for the 760 but is recognised as 850 or V70-prototypes
Some sketches of the Malmgren-brothers for a new 760 stationcar (which became the 940 and 960). This design didn’t make it, but it did on the Volvo 850 Estate. Some elements can be found in the 2000 Volvo V70 Estate

Volvo 850 Estate prototype 760

Volvo Galaxy Estate 850 prototype with 760 and 740 940-elements

An Estate prototype based on the A2S sedan of Wilsgaard. The design shows Malmgrens rear lights and many people thought it was the new 760

The Estate was introduced in 1992, just before a big facelift was planned (with new bumpers and H1 headlights and some minor interior modifications).

© Volvotips – 07-2011

If you like this article, you might also enjoy reading the story of the Volvo 850 T-5R & 850R and the story of the Volvo 850 Racing in the BTCC.

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