30 years of Volvo 850T-5R & 850R

By: Mark Higgins, Photography by: Volvo

Presented by

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Volvo's flying wedge turns 30

Back in the late 1960s Volvo enjoyed a pretty cool image thanks to Roger Moore and the TV series The Saint, where each week Moore would hunt down baddies and their devious plots against the world from the cockpit of his Pearl white 1800S coupe.

Moore liked the 1800S he drove in the show so much he bought it and used it as transport long after he retired as Simon Templar in 1969 and became James Bond in 1973.

| Read next: 1962 Volvo P1800 review

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Volvo went touring car racing with this

With the demise of the 1800, Volvo took a nosedive with enthusiasts as they were hell bent on giving the world solid, safe, conservatively styled (for the sake of being kind), family transport like the 240 series.

But that all changed in 1991 when the Swedish car maker whipped the covers off their new 850 with the slogan "A dynamic car with four unique innovations".

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These referred to the new transverse five-cylinder engine driving the front wheels, the Delta-link rear axle, a genuine side impact protection system (SIPS) and self-adjusting seatbelts.

While both the sedan and wagon had an all-new boxy design akin to something more from Lego, the wagon in particular was a hit and Volvos were again lurking about in places other than bowling clubs and church carparks.

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Boxy and Lego-like in shape, the wagon had something about it, making it very cool

First came the GLT with a choice of a 2.0lt or 2.5lt 20 valve engine, then the wagon arrived in 1993. While at first it seemed like more of the same from Volvo just in different clothing, what won Volvo back its mojo was the arrival of the 850 T-5R and 850R performance twins.

In April 1994 jaws hit the ground when Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR Group unveiled Volvo’s entry in the manufacturer-rich and super-competitive British Touring car Championship (BTCC). Rolling out through the curtain to a packed media conference was a ground-hugging racing Volvo…wagon.

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Brocky in 05 at the wheel

It was more than a publicity stunt as the 850 wagon proved to be highly competitive with a best qualifying place of third and fifth the best race finish. Although it ran for a single season before switching to the sedan body this crazy touring car (wagon) gave the brand a massively positive image boost and sales ran hot. Even rival John Cleland, driving a factory Vauxhall was happy, being a Volvo dealer in Scotland.

The motoring world pricked up its collective ears again that year with Volvo introducing a sporty turbo version, called the T-5, capable of zero to 100km/h in a very un-Volvo like 7.8 seconds.

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Capitalising on the racing 850 wagon and turbo powerplant Volvo created the limited-edition T-5R in 1995.

Adding to the hype surrounding the T-5R was that Porsche co-developed it. A new ECU added 1.5psi of boost for 13 more kilowatts to 177 and a handy 300Nm from its 2.3lt turbo five-cylinder that could be had with a four-speed auto or five-speed manual. Zero to 100 was done in 7.4 seconds.

A total of 6964 Volvo 850 T-R5s were produced over 11-months from August 1994 in sedan and wagon trim with just 25 lobbing into Australia recognised by their front and spoilers, side skirts and polished aluminum door sills.

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Following the success of the 850 T-5R Volvo upped the ante with the 850R, a full-on production model and even hotter with serious performance cred. Zero to 100km/h 6.7 sec and a top speed of 254km/h thanks to the 20-valve 2.3lt turbo five now with 185kW and 330Nm or 177kW in auto trim. Referred to as the flying brick the 850R rode on five-spoke titanium grey 17x7-inch alloys with licorice strap 45 series grippy Pirellis. A broader colour range was offered including red, black, dark grey, dark olive, turquoise and white.

The interior featured body-hugging, alcantara and leather trimmed front sport seats, alcantara door cards and a two-tone leather-wrapped steering wheel, plus a beefy audio system.

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When it went on sale the Volvo 850R was the flagship model and the wagon the costliest at $81,950 with the sedan a pinch less at $79,950.

Like the T5-R before it, the 850R came in both sedan and wagon bodies and production ran for a single year from 1996. In that time an estimated 6000 were produced.

It wasn’t just Britain where the big 850 hit the race tracks.

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Volvo Dealer Racing entered an 850 T-5 sedan for Peter Brock and Tony Scott in the 1994 James Hardie 12 Hour production car race at Bathurst, finishing 25th.

Australian race fans and rivals got to gawk at the 850 wagon, driven by Scott in the 1995 Australian Super Touring Championship. The following year Volvo pulled off a coup, recruiting Peter Brock to drive an 850 sedan in the Australian championship and help Volvo rid itself of the cardigan image.

A Walkinshaw- built BTCC cast off (one of four built) was imported, painted red with Brock’s famous 05, prepped and managed by George Shepheard, the pair having enjoyed success together in the 1979 Repco Reliability Trial. The distinctive sounding five-cylinder made its debut at Albert Park’s debut as the new home of the Australian Grand Prix.

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Bad luck and mechanical dramas meant no wins and Jim Richards was drafted in to drive the Volvo at Bathurst, in a support race to the 1000 enduro that Brock was driving in. Rainmaster Richards won the wet race on Sunday giving Volvo its first local Super Touring victory.

In 1997 Brock focused on his Holden drive and Richards took over the Volvo. Armed with a newer 850 he finished fifth in the 1000 enduro, now for Super Tourers with Swede Rickard Rydell.

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A quarter of a century after production, T5-R and 850Rs are thin on the ground but every now and then one pops up for sale. A recent mint T-5R sedan was advertised in Unique Cars for $30,000.

Given the rareness, performance and that Volvo won’t ever build anything like this again given their recent declaration of an all-electric powered future just over the horizon, either of these performance twins is bound to creep up in value. As the wagon was clearly the most popular of the two when new, expect them to be dearer. Although they are pretty robust old jiggers, have a Volvo specialist check out whatever you are serious about. After all, any turbo engine is more stressed than a non-turbo. And if you do find a good one you’ll discover they are a bit of fun when driven enthusiastically, like they were in the BTCC and by Scott, Brock and Richards back in the 20th century.

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From Unique Cars #453, May 2021

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