You could make a very strong argument for the 1994 BTCC season being among the most exciting in the series’ history. It gave us Alfa Romeo based domination (plus some associated off-track politics to spice things up that bit more), Renault’s charge to the front of the grid in the dying months of the year, not to mention some truly spectacular passes and off track excursions.
So far, so BTCC. It might’ve been a stellar season and one of the highlights of the Super Touring era, but then the UK’s premier domestic championship has a habit of producing reliably compelling action. No, what really set 1994 apart was the launch of Volvo’s all new challenger, one based upon, of all things, the 850 estate!
At a stroke, Volvo had produced one of the most iconic touring cars of all time, a publicity coup which continues to echo to this day; mention mid ‘90s BTCC to anyone with even a passing interest in motorsport, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the Volvo estate will crop up sooner or later.
It’s also worth noting that the decision to campaign the 850 estate came with some notable performance benefits, most notably increased downforce and marginally enhanced grip, a legacy of the extra weight over the rear axle.
The 850 estate was far more than a mere publicity stunt though, it was a statement of intent and a means of Volvo to set about reinventing its sporting image. Quite how seriously the firm took this can be seen in its decision to entrust the design and development of the 850 BTCC programme to TWR, Tom Walkinshaw’s eponymous race outfit and a concern riding high on a string of recent successes, including Jaguar’s Le Mans programme.
TWR’s ability to deliver winning race cars was beyond question, but so too was its founder’s willingness to bend the rules of any series he happened to be in to breaking point. Walkinshaw’s commitment to gaining a performance edge was referred in the Volvo’s cylinders heads, which, while not strictly illegal, most definitely went against the sprit of the rules.
BTCC regulations permitted teams to adjust all manner of valve train variables in their quest for extra performance, they just weren’t allowed to alter either the angle of the valves themselves or weld extra material to the inside of the head. TWR opted to cunningly circumvent the rules in the most literal of senses, by re-mounting the ‘production’ head at an angle, having first chopped out a portion of its underside in order to achieve a suitable mounting face between block and head. This in turn created a more advantageous inlet and exhaust valve angle, which, when combined with the enlarged valves and chunky cams, gave well over 300bhp in race guise.
Volvo’s 2.0 20v five-pot would eventually become one of the most potent engines on the grid, a stalwart motor on which the firm built much of its latter success.
Other spec highlights were more conventional though no less impressive, with the Xtrac 6-speed gearbox and attached Limited Slip Diff’ being the most significant. Front wheel drive differentials had come on in leaps and bounds since the 1980s and were now the key to putting over 300bhp through the front wheels in something resembling a tidy manner.
TWR set about shedding as much weight from the pair of 850 race cars as possible, eventually getting them down to TOCA’s minimum weight limit. They were in a race against time though, with much of the engineering work still being finalised as 1993 gave way to 1994, the year Volvo was slated to make its Super Touring debut.
The pair of drivers for that 1994 season were Jan Lammers, a Dutch ex-F1 man, and Rickard Rydell, the latter soon to become a BTCC legend and a firm favourite with British fans. It soon became clear that while undoubtedly quick the 850 needed work if it was to challenge for wins, though it should be noted that no one could touch the Alfa Romeo 155s of Gabrielle Tarquini and Giampiero Simoni for much of the season. The team’s best results were a pair of 5th places, one for each driver, and a qualifying spot of 3rd on the grid.
There’s no way of painting the 850 estate as a successful race car in terms of results, and it was replaced at the end of the season; Alfa Romeo’s success (achieved with the aid of wings and splitters) had brought about a change in the rules. It was clear that there was more aerodynamic benefit by using the 850 saloon as a base, so that’s what the team used from 1995 to 1996.
None of this prevents the 1994 BTCC 850 estate from being fully paid up Retropower heroes though; some things are more important than basic stats, facts and figures, and the plain truth is that no Super Tourer made quite as much of an impact as the fantastic Swedish house-brick. Check out the video below to see what we mean.