Thursday, 25 October 2007

Classic - Volvo 850 T5

The incongruousness of seeing something very familiar acting in an entirely unexpected manner is one of those little pleasures in life that we can all enjoy. The short but happy moment at a wedding reception between your grandmother standing up to dance to Propellerheads and her legs, unable to keep up, collapsing beneath her and leaving her in a surprised but jolly heap is surely one to savour. Ditto seeing your headmaster in the supermarket and realising that he has a family and owns a pair of jeans. Members of the royal family staggering out of London nightclubs dressed as Nazis (alright, not that unexpected but still interesting). The taxi driver in The Bourne Identity running down the road shouting ‘you forgot your change’. What a funny place the world can be.

Now, what do you think of when you hear the name ‘Volvo’? If you’re an unimaginative sheep – don’t be offended by that, it’s just nature – you’ll have an image of a beige, boxy estate car in your mind, much like Karen Hill’s car in Goodfellas. Practical, roomy, safe for the kids… dull, uninspiring, unadventurous. Of course, this is unfair. A swift rake through Volvo’s history reveals a rich heritage of uncompromising design and sporting prowess; the sleek and swoopy P1800, the bombproof Amazon, the wacky and outlandish variomatic 66, the turbocharged 480 liftback – they’re not as dull as you might think.

Volvo are, of course, very much aware of this staid and sensible image; indeed, they revel in it. After decades of cosseting crash dummies and shifting wardrobes around Sweden they’ve carved themselves a wholesome little niche as the family load-lugger of choice. Their efforts to break into the Chelsea tractor market with the XC90 have been a rousing success and, yes, they still shift estate cars by the hangarload. But it’s a little-known fact that some of these anonymous estates are rather more potent than others…

The current hot ticket in the Swedish suburb of Torslanda is the S60 R, the latest in an enduring and celebrated line of Volvos to sport the T5 engine – an enthusiastic five-cylinder turbo mill; 20 valves, all-aluminium. With 300bhp cloaked in a reasonably unassuming shell it’s a recipe for some very satisfying traffic light conquests, and it owes much to its predecessor - the 850 T5.

Launched in 1992, with the estate arriving in ’94, the Volvo 850 didn’t really offer any surprises. It was spacious, it was well equipped, it performed well in crash tests, blah blah et cetera. You expect these things from a Volvo, it would be a disappointment if it wasn’t this predictable. The 850 T5, however… that was something special. You see, ballistic station wagons are ten a penny these days, what with BMW bringing out the V10-engined M5 Touring and Audi countering with the frankly ludicrous 572 bhp RS6, but a decade or so ago it was quite a stretch to believe that a vast metal box with the aerodynamic properties of an Ikea bookcase could punch through the air at over 160mph with a Labrador in the boot. And yet it was so.

The boffins at Volvo aren’t boring at all. In fact, you get the feeling that they just love to confound the stereotypes of the general public, hiding sniggers behind their hands as they formulate increasingly outlandish and freakish concepts. What next for the T5? Why, take it racing of course!

As well as competing in the Australian Super Touring Championship, it was impressively competitive in the hands of Jan Lammers and Rickard Rydell in the British Touring Car Championship in 1994. Built in conjunction with Tom Walkinshaw Racing, there was something spectacularly bizarre about seeing a family runabout plastered in the Securicor livery and bouncing over the kerbs at Brands Hatch. It was, rather sadly, replaced by the regular saloon version in ’95 after the BTCC rules changed to allow the massive rear wings that have since become the series’ trademark, but if, like me, you were trackside in those strange days of 1994 to witness the rorty Lagunas and screaming Primeras being monstered by a car which in all probability was piloted by a man in stringback gloves and a flat cap, you’ll feel somewhat nostalgic for the old brute. It’s like a special kid in a sack race – you don’t expect him to win, it’s just nice that he’s taking part.

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