Uninformed passers-by may dismiss Scott Irving’s mid-nineties Volvo estate as a pensioner’s garden centre runabout. But this gross error works in Scott’s favour when his bagged bruiser leaves them for dead at the lights…
Feature taken from Fast Car magazine. Words Daniel Bevis Photos Matt Clifford
The British Touring Car Championship has a lot to answer for. There’s a generation of old-school petrolheads out there who are desperate to live out their dreams of BTCC glory by buying a Sierra RS Cosworth or E30 M3 in order to relive the halcyon days of the 1980s. For us, the really exciting time was the Supertouring era of the 1990s.
Manufacturers’ works teams were pouring astonishing budgets into developing remarkable race cars, things that looked like stickered-up examples of road-going saloons dumped on huge multi-spoke wheels. The technology inside these racers was unprecedented and scary, forever altering the perceptions of cars like the Ford Mondeo, Renault Laguna, Peugeot 406 and Vauxhall Vectra in the eyes of everyday consumers. And perhaps the coolest moment of all came in 1994 when Volvo teamed up with TWR to launch a racing version of the 850 estate. With Rickard Rydell and Jan Lammers at the wheel, these deliberately bizarre Touring Cars may not have troubled the podiums too much, but they became (and remain) many people’s favourite cars of the Super Touring oeuvre.
There’s a particular image that sticks in the mind for the die-hard fans and it’s what you see if you stick ‘BTCC Volvo 850’ into Google Images – the amusingly frisky sight of seeing a fully liveried, decked and caged 850 wagon bouncing over the kerbs with two wheels in the air. This is where they looked absolutely the coolest, no-f**ks-given at maximum attack. And it’s this image which particularly struck a chord with retro brick enthusiast Scott Irving.
“I’d been through a few years of driving pretty tragic and forgettable second-hand Vauxhall Corsas,” he recalls. “And I knew I needed to get myself something totally different and a bit leftfield. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for estate cars, and given the obvious cool factor from the ’90s Touring Cars, the 850 was for me the stand-out car of the time – especially when slammed to the deck and hopping over kerbs on two wheels!”
That said, he wasn’t planning on building a full road-going replica resplendent in blue-and-white Securicor Omega livery. No, for starters he was happy enough to position himself, at the age of 21, in a bone-stock 850 R. And if you’re not familiar with exactly what that is, allow us to fill you in on the back-story: the genesis of it all was the 850 T-5, when Volvo decided to jazz up the perceived sensibleness of their battleship-like compact-executive by shoehorning in a transverse 5-cylinder engine, a turbocharged 10-valve 2.3-litre serving up 222bhp. This really made the best of the car’s clever chassis, with its delta-link semi-independent suspension and passive rear-steer, and in 1995 the model naturally evolved into the 20-valve T-5R. This had a different ECU and a bit more boost, adding up to 243bhp and 150mph+ thrust.
Porsche was involved in the engine tuning and transmission setup (as well as the seat design!), and these fully-loaded boost buses were proper stealthwagons. In early 1996, the T-5R was replaced by the 850 R, which had redesigned spoilers, sportier bucket seats, a really powerful stereo, and the much-celebrated M59 manual transmission option. This last item was seriously hardcore and came complete with a viscous LSD, and the 850 R also got a bigger TD04HL-16T turbo on a reworked manifold, larger intercooler, and a bespoke Motronic ECU. The upshot of all this was 250bhp, which is more than enough to surprise people at the lights.
So this is a car you need to know about, particularly given there’s only about 150 examples of the 850 R left on the road in the UK (and about half of those are the less powerful automatic-transmission versions). “That first 850 R I bought didn’t last too long, as it suffered from colossal rust issues, so it was broken and scrapped – much to my disappointment,” Scott recalls. “But then I saw this one for sale all the way down in Kent. Its registration number was only two digits different to my old 850, so I took it as a sign! I caught the train from Carlisle to go and view it, knowing full well I wouldn’t be able to resist buying it.”
There was no need for a return ticket, as fate already had this playbook marked. The car was advertised as being ‘immaculate’, which obviously always means ‘needs a bit of work’, and Scott found there was some rot in the tailgate, a whole bunch of dents and dings, some fading exterior plastics… but none of this was enough to put him off. He had plans, and he knew what he was looking at. “It was showing 152k miles on the clock, so I wasn’t expecting a show car,” he reasons. “Still, that number’s kinda low for these cars…”
It’s true that these warships are fairly bulletproof and will happily sail on into stratospheric miles, and Scott was more than happy to sign on the dotted line and cruise all the way back home in supreme comfort. And it wasn’t long before the mods began in earnest: “It all started with some suggestions by my good friend Grant Gilliland to use bags, as he had recently bagged his Mk6 GTI,” he recalls. “So that was decision made, and I used an Only Charged Dubs setup, made up of Air Lift Performance hardware with BC shocks and 3P management.”
The next step was to carry out a full glass-out respray in the Volvo’s original shade of red, Scott having dismantled the car himself at his local bodyshop. While he was building it back up again afterwards, he took the opportunity to replace as many parts and trim pieces as possible with new-old-stock items helpfully sourced by Neil at the nearby Lloyd’s Volvo dealership. A set of USDM indicators found their way in too, along with a black egg-crate grille, and the rear wiper was deleted to tidy up the tail.
The real big-ticket item in the makeover, and by far Scott’s favourite part of the build, is the wheel choice. Now, you may be familiar with the fact that certain Volvos share a PCD with certain Ferraris, and what you’re looking at here is a set of rims pinched from an F355. But they’re not just any old mainstream Ferrari wheels. No, these are super-rare two-piece forged magnesium BBS GT2s, face-mounted and super-aggressive. If there’s any way to entertainingly dissipate the sleeper vibe of an 850 R, it’s to bolt on the rollers from a Ferrari race car, and we love the chutzpah of it. It’s just so naughty.
“People’s reactions to the car can be pretty funny,” Scott assures us, “and it’s almost always positive. The 850 R is so rare in the UK that you hardly ever see them anyway, so seeing a bagged one kinda blows people’s minds – if they even know what it is!”
So consider this lesson learned: the uninitiated may sideline this car as simply a tidy old Volvo estate, but there’s a hell of a lot going on here. Big turbo power, ultra-modern chassis tweaks, race car rims, and all underpinned by BTCC dreams… this is one red brick institution that’s keen to move with the times.