Because of the rapidly-evolving state of technology, safety, and fuel economy in today’s cars, the average lifespan of a model is around six years. But things weren’t always that way; the Europeans were famous for selling models for a decade or more. Look at the Mercedes R107 SL-Class, Citroën DS, and the Volvo 240; each of them lasted at least 15 years. In America, it gave European cars added cachet — the reputation of being over-engineered, fanatically slaved over until the automaker felt it was perfect. It also made the debut of a new model that much more of an event. This week, the Volvo 850 turns 25, making it one of the last of these old-school European models before modernity took hold and uprooted the old system for good.
The 850 is a paradox; today it feels old-fashioned and modern at the same time, while most of its contemporaries just feel dated. You’ll probably see one on your commute today, which wouldn’t be that big of a deal unless you realize the last one rolled off the production line 19 years ago. You might see so many of them, in fact, that you don’t even notice them. They’re usually found in cities and college towns, as both sedans and wagons. Look for the telltale upright taillights on the wagons — you can’t miss them. Then look around for any other two-decade old cars on the street. Depending on where you live, there might not be many others.
Volvo calls the 850 “the model that aimed for the stars,” and introduced it at a massive event at the Stockholm Globe Arena on June 11, 1991. But the company had begun work on the car 13 years earlier, christening it Project Galaxy in 1978. It was designed by Jan Wilsgaard, the genius behind virtually every Volvo model from the 1956 122 through the 850 (with a notable exception being the 1800 coupe). But while the design was beginning to take shape as early as 1983, the company kept pushing back on its engineers. It needed to be thoroughly modern, it ordered. It needed to be front-wheel drive with anti-lock brakes, it would have a transverse five-cylinder engine, a Delta-link rear suspension, and would be the first car with seatbelt pre-tensioners and side-impact airbags.
Wilsgaard and the Volvo design team used then-new CAD programs to make the recognizably boxy 850 as aerodynamic as possible. It then took input from a focus group of 30 women to figure out what would make the car more appealing. By the time the world saw the 850 back in ’91, it was as fully-formed, over-engineered, and thoroughly modern as anything Volvo had ever built.
The Volvo 850 debuted as a 1992 model as the replacement for the 18-year-old 240, and for as much charm as that old brick had, the 850 was light-years ahead. It was handsome, contemporary, and performed better than any Volvo ever had. The new inline-five made a respectable 170 horsepower, which was enough to make the car feel quick. It debuted in America as a 1993 model, and was followed a year later by the Wagon version, possibly the most unabashedly boxy car of the decade.
In 1995, the 850 T-5R debuted, with its engine turbocharged and hot-rodded with help from Porsche. The T5-R routed 270 horsepower through the front wheels, put there by a five-speed manual transmission. With just 5,500 T-5Rs built, they remain one of the most sought-after cars for Volvo fans.
Unlike its predecessor’s astonishing 19-year production run, times were already changing, and the 850 wasn’t destined to be around long. A power-for-the-masses T5 model was introduced in 1996, as was an all-wheel drive option. But it was too little too late in a changing world, and for 1998, the car was refreshed and renamed the S70 (sedan) and V70 (wagon). The 70-Series cars soldiered on until 2000, when they were replaced with the 60-Series, a nameplate that lives on today.
Some of the most enduring images of the cars come from the 1994 British Touring Car Championship, where the company ran T-5R wagons alongside Alfa Romeos, BMWs, Audis, and Fords. In all, Volvo built over 1.3 million 850s. We wouldn’t be surprised if over half of them survive today.
The 25th anniversary of the 850 hits close to home because your humble author owned one for several years. It was a base 1996 GLT model, dark red with Euro-spec charcoal cloth interior. It was nine years old at the time, and was a former doctor’s car with 78K on the clock. It was also in better shape than comparably-priced BMWs, Mercedes, and Saabs, and had lovably weird European features like headlight wipers, a rear foglight (great for white out blizzards), door handles that sat in the door grab handle, and that inline-five. By the time it got sideswiped and totaled at an intersection three years later, it had endured a dozen brutal Rust Belt winters and another 101,000 miles without any rust, needing only a battery, tires, and pads and rotors. While we love Volvo’s current lineup, we miss the days when a major car company could set aside 13 years to perfect its next model.