And let’s face it – back then, they were. The Swedish company’s focus has always been on safety and while safety is all well and good, it was hardly exciting.
Unless, that is, you were a fan of the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) which, if you saw it once, you would have been hooked. I know I was.
The sheer crash ‘n bash mentality of the BTCC in the early-to-mid ‘90s was spectacular. And one of the more spectacular cars was the Volvo 850 wagon built and campaigned by Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR).
It never won a race, but it was unutterably cool, simply because Volvo wagons were so un-cool. When the rules changed the company reverted to a sedan model for ’95 and ’96, winning 13 races and finishing third in the championship both years.
What is the reason for this? Well, the 850 is now 20 years old and a press release from Volvo landed in Oversteer’s inbox proclaiming this fact came with the brilliant picture you see above.
And this picture alone is worth sharing!
But the story of the 850 is also very interesting, as the car featured a number of motor industry firsts that we now take for granted – one at the front, one at the rear and two in the middle.
The Volvo 850 actually carried over nothing at all from previous Volvo models apart from its name. It represented a total departure from its predecessors and the other models in the range in virtually every respect. From the newly developed and modularly constructed all-aluminium engine range – whose first result was the 3-litre in-line six that was fitted to the Volvo 960 in late summer 1990 – a five-cylinder 126kW variant was created.
It was installed transversely in the new car, in a separate sub-frame, and drove the front wheels via an unusually compact gearbox fitted alongside the engine. This was world-first number one.
The rear suspension was attached to a new type of multilink axle called the Delta Link, which cleverly combined the comfort and pliant ride of independent suspension with the live rear axle’s stability and constant track. World-first number two.
Safety was naturally a high-priority area and the Volvo 850 took a giant step forward in this respect, not least thanks to the two world-firsts in the middle of the car: the integrated SIPS side-impact protection system and the ARH automatic height-adjustable safety belt mechanism.
The year that Volvo campaigned the wagon in the BTCC (1994) saw the world’s first appearance of the SIPS side airbags integrated in the front seats – a feature that soon made its way into the rest of the Volvo range and eventually across the car industry as a whole
Between 1991 and 1997 no less than 716,903 cars bearing the 850 badge were sold, and the last Volvo models to be built on this “old” technical platform were the C70 coupe and convertible in 2005.
The press release says that no other Volvo model has meant as much to the company from the viewpoint of technical innovation as the 850 did. It was a car that in many respects was far ahead of its time yet in other respects was exactly right for its time. It was launched 20 years ago and with its launch Volvo Car Corporation entered a new era.
But never mind all that – just take another look at that picture – never before, or since, has a desperately un-cool car been so damn cool…