- First Volvo with a transverse 5-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive
- First Volvo to feature SIPS
- First mass-production car ever to feature side airbags
- First car ever with Delta-link rear axle
- First Volvo with all-wheel drive
A front-wheel drive Volvo with a 5-cylinder transverse engine – the Volvo 850 was a car that changed everything. It was the result of the Galaxy project, which got its name because it was aiming for the stars. The 850 series achieved great success in the field of motorsport, and was the first car available from Volvo with AWD.
The brand-new Volvo 850 GLT had its world premiere in the Stockholm Globe Arena on June 11 in 1991. The new model was the result of one of Sweden’s largest industrial investments and differed fundamentally from previous Volvo designs. It had front-wheel drive, a five-cylinder transverse engine and offered a whole new level of driving pleasure.
The new car was launched as “a dynamic car with four world-firsts”. These new features were the transverse 5-cylinder engine, the Delta-link rear axle (designed in-house), the integrated side-impact protection system (SIPS), and the self-adjusting front seat belt.
Even though the design was reminiscent of the 700 series, the 850 was a completely new car. The work on developing the model began back in 1978. At a meeting held that year, it was decided that it was then time to think freely and aim for the stars. That’s why the project was christened Galaxy.
Project Galaxy resulted in two model series – one Swedish and one Dutch. The underlying technology was developed jointly, but after this the teams split up. The Dutch company Volvo Car B.V went on to develop what would become the 400 series, while Volvo Cars in Sweden developed the 850 series.
The first model to be presented was the 850 GLT, with its 20-valve normally aspirated engine producing 125 kW. During the development phase, Volvo worked actively to make the 850 GLT a lively car that delivered great driving pleasure while achieving the correct intake and exhaust noise.
The next important 850 derivative was presented in February 1993 – the estate. It boasted typical Volvo features such as the sharp rear section for maximum load capacity. One new design feature, however, was the extended vertical tail lights that covered the entire D-pillar. During the development phase, Chief Designer Jan Wilsgaard had a model on which the large tail lights could be removed and replaced for comparison. The estate version was subsequently awarded the prestigious Japanese Good Design Grand Prize in 1994 as well as named Italy’s ‘Most beautiful estate’.
The 850 series was soon expanded with various engine options. The model that would achieve most attention was presented at the Geneva Motor Show in 1994. With its distinctive yellow paint job, the 850 T-5R really stood out like an exclamation mark on wheels. This special model was intended to be manufactured in a limited run of 2 500 cars, its turbocharged engine with intercooler producing 176 kW and 330 Nm of torque. Equipment included special spoilers, a square exhaust pipe and 17-inch ‘Titan’ alloy rims. The yellow cars sold out in a couple of weeks, and so the same number of cars were produced in black, finally followed by a run of 2 500 dark green T-5Rs.
1994 was also the year in which Volvo returned to the racetrack – and in extremely eye-catching fashion. When two 850s drove up to the starting line for the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) season premiere at Thruxton in southern England, they were estates! Competing with a ‘van’ in Europe’s most prestigious standard car series attracted an enormous amount of attention. Volvo invested heavily alongside Tom Walkinshaw Racing, with the two cars being driven by Swede Rickard Rydell and Dutch driver Jan Lammers. In 1995, estate cars were practically outlawed by rule changes and Volvo switched to racing the saloon model. That season, Rydell achieved third place overall in the championship.
Right from the outset, the press called the Volvo 850 “the world’s safest car”, and in 1995 it introduced another world first in terms of safety. At this point, the Volvo 850 became the first mass-produced car to come with side-impact airbags.
The 850 AWD – the company’s first four-wheel drive car that was launched in 1996 – was a pioneer for Volvo. The 850 AWD had four-wheel drive engaged at all times – a viscous coupling automatically distributed the power between the front and rear wheels. If one of the rear wheels started to spin, the electronic TRACS anti-spin system automatically distributed the power between the front wheels to the one with the best grip. The 850 AWD was powered by a newly-developed engine with low-pressure turbocharging to produce 142 kW, and was the predecessor to Volvo’s four-wheel drive XC models.
1996 was the 850’s last year pf production. When the models underwent a major upgrade in 1997, the designations were changed to S70 for the saloon models and V70 for the estate version. A total of 1 360 522 cars were built with their roots originating in the 850 series.