Volvo’s iconic 850 celebrates its 20th birthday

Volvo’s iconic 850 celebrates its 20th birthday

Volvo’s ‘boxy but good’ 850 model celebrates its 20th birthday this month and to mark the occasion Volvo has issued a press release reminding us how innovative and important this model really was.

In 1990 the 850 was developed with some genuine world firsts in a production vehicle like having its gearbox fitted alongside the engine and using a new type of multilink axle called the Delta Link. Naturally there was some new safety tech as well; a side impact protection system SIPS was rolled out and height-adjustable safety belts were also included.

The 850 went on to be more than just a popular family hauler and by 1994 was entered into the British Touring Car Championship in station wagon form. When the rules changed in ’95 and ’96 the Swedish company reverted to a sedan model and won 13 races and finished third in the championship both years. But it would be the racing wagon or ‘flying brick’ that has gone on to become a motorsport icon.

Volvo’s 850 is certainly a more interesting family car than most, to read more on its history view Volvo’s press release below.

Volvo Press Release: 850s Innovation is 20 years old

Volvo’s 850, launched 20 years ago this month came with four world firsts for the motor industry – 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 170 hp 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.

What is more, Volvo had invested immense effort in designing a truly lively car that offered plenty of keen driving pleasure, even tuning the exhaust note to enhance the car’s sporty credentials.

Behind the wheel, the cockpit was now more driver-focused than in previous models. Generous support for the left foot made enthusiastic driving easier, as did the car’s excellent properties.

The design of the 850 showed only relatively modest departures from classic Volvo lines. There was no doubt this was a Volvo, yet it looked entirely new in every respect. The new car’s heritage could be clearly seen at the front and rear, while several interesting solutions contributed to a cohesive overall impression such as the unusual side window treatment and the new type of bonnet with integrated grille that became a standard feature of Volvo models for many years to come.

For the first time in Volvo’s history – with the exception of early P1800 production at Jensen in Britain –the new model was initially built in a non-Swedish factory as the Volvo 850 GLT first went into production in Ghent, Belgium. The company’s Swedish factory in Torslanda took over part of the production output later on.

From the production-technology viewpoint the 850 had a number of new features developed to improve and streamline the production process, such as increased use of robots and automation, the use of lasers for measurement, cutting and welding, and larger one-piece body pressings than ever before. The car’s technical layout also made assembly easier: the marriage-point was made fully automated and all “under-up” work (working above shoulder height) was eliminated.

The 850 was launched in the sporty GLT version, with a 20-valve naturally aspirated engine producing 170 hp. It was keenly priced midway between the 940 and 960, so its sales success was assured right from the outset, even on Volvo’s most important export market, the USA. Car tests over the world delivered a unanimous verdict: the new Volvo appealed to everyone and the 850 reaped a formidable harvest of international awards, almost 50 all told.

In true Volvo fashion the model quickly underwent considerable development in terms of both breadth and depth in order to appeal to a wide customer base. By summer 1992, in time for model year 1993, a somewhat detuned model known as the GLE was introduced, featuring a 10-valve version of the five-cylinder engine producing 140 hp. Half a year later an estate car version of the GLT and GLE hit the showrooms, packed with innovative solutions to enhance both flexibility and safety.

The estate model was the first to feature large vertical tail lamp stacks that covered the entire D-pillar from the lower edge of the tailgate window all the way up to the roof line, a solution that Volvo’s five-door cars still use.

In time for the 1994 model year the company launched a high-performance model known as the 850 Turbo (or T-5 as it was known outside Sweden) with somewhat gentler body lines with altered bumper contours for all versions. The Turbo model delivered 225 hp and 300 Nm of torque, and if that was not enough an even higher-performance version was unveiled at the Geneva motor show in 1994: the 850 T-5R in eye-catching yellow livery.

The limited production run of 2,500 cars with the 240 hp engine was swallowed up immediately and was succeeded by 2,500 cars in black, which also disappeared from showrooms at a rapid pace, followed finally by the last run of 2,500 dark green T-5R cars.

Volvo campaigned an 850 station wagon in the 1994 British Touring Car Championship with some success. 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.

1994 also saw another world-first in the 850 Series: side airbags integrated in the front seats – a feature known as the SIPS bag that soon made its way into the rest of the Volvo range.

Increased demand for more horsepower and higher torque was met with the 1996 models: the 850R with 250 hp and the 850 TDI which was powered by a five-cylinder diesel engine. Another very pleasant addition to the 850 Series was the 193 hp light-pressure turbo that was installed in another variant that broke new ground for forthcoming Volvo models: the four-wheel drive 850 AWD.

1996 was also the last year for production of cars with the 850 badge. In November the 1997 model range was launched as the S70 sedan and V70 estate car. This new updated generation was also the first to use Volvo Car Corporation’s new model nomenclature. In terms of appearance they resembled their 850 predecessor but under the skin there were major changes.

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.

It has been said that the Volvo 850 with its 15 billion kronor investment bill was the largest Swedish industrial project ever at the time. That is correct, but also not entirely true.

This was not the price tag for the car but for Volvo Car Corporation’s future: the figure encompassed not only an entirely new technical platform but also, crucially, investments in production technology and plants, such as the all-new Skövde engine factory that today supplies Volvo Car Corporation with engines that are a further development of the modular units developed for the 850.

The 850 thus completely reshaped Volvo’s product strategy – and indirectly continues to do so to this day.

No single Volvo model has meant as much to the company from the viewpoint of technical innovation as the Volvo 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.

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