COAL: 1996 Volvo 850 R – My Old Turquoise Brick

It’s a bittersweet sensation when you are emptying your car just before selling it. You look for all that crap you kept for years in the glove box, the door panels, between the seats, in the spare tire well. You try to feel more or less happy because you know that the money you get will allow you to buy another toy, or at least now you’ll have one less money and time consuming thing in your garage. But in the end it’s a sad farewell to an old friend. That was the situation last Saturday morning, when I sold my beloved Volvo 850 R.

How this Volvo 850 R fell into my hands seems like fate’s coincidence. Now back to January 1996. I was 19, and as a petrolhead I bought and read every car magazine I can, from my country’s leading mags (Autopista, Motor 16 and Automóvil) to some foreign ones (CAR, Autocar and the occasional Car And Driver and Auto Motor Und Sport). In an Autopista issue appeared a road test of a Volvo 850 R in a gorgeous turquoise shade. I fell in love with that car. In those days my father was buying a new car and he considered an 850, but in a rather less exciting version, a base 2.0 liter 10 valve with only 125 bhp. In the end he bought a 940, probably a worse decision. But I kept that mag with the R road test.

Fast forward to 2009. In a very hot summer afternoon, a friend of mine tells me he knows somebody who has a Volvo 850 for sale, and he thinks it’s a Turbo. I suppose it is a T-5 (that’s how the 850 Turbo was named in Europe), but he says “there was an R badge on the rear, and big alloys”. Wow…

I went to see the car, and you can imagine my surprise when I checked the number plates and realized this was the actual magazine road test car. But what a sad condition it was in. Dusty, a couple of dents in both front wings, the front bumper corners broken, tires in three different sizes (although still wearing the original “Volan” rims), and the interior was filthy. Clearly, the owner found it difficult to keep clean the beige alcantara (or “Amaretta”, in Volvo speak) and leather upholstery. I drove the car for fifteen minutes or so, and it didn’t drive bad. Not bad at all. I liked it a lot. But in those days I couldn’t afford a second car (my car was a Saab 9000 Aero then), and I passed. However, knowing my friend Javier likes this sort of cars, I chatted with him about the R, and he traveled 900 kilometres to my city to buy the car and drive it home. The car is in safe hands now.

Jump forward to 2012. Owning about twenty cars, Javier doesn’t have a lot of time to drive the R, but in the three years since he bought it, finds time to repair some things that need attention. Now he wants to buy another car and make a bit of space, and offers me the R at a price I can’t refuse. So I meet him halfway the distance between my city and his, to pick up the car in the parking of a train station.

I went there with two friends to liven up the journey. Their reaction when they see the car is a bit, well, they’re not very enthusiastic. The front bumper has the corners broken again, despite Javier having repaired them before, and the R wears T-5 “Columba” 16 inch rims. Javier says to me: “Don’t worry, the Volans are in the trunk”. But for me it’s love at first sight. Some cosmetic issues aside, the car looks amazing. We do the paperwork, give the money to Javier, shake hands and drive back home.

When I arrive home, my family’s reception is a bit quiet. Clearly they don’t like the car too much. They don’t like the turquoise color, the dirty beige interior, the light birch wood in the dashboard. But it runs strong, the Aisin automatic four speed transmission shifts smoothly, and there aren’t any strange noises. And I know it’s easy to renovate it:  only a new set of tires (this time 205/45 R17 Falkens with the factory Volans), a bit of paintwork and a lot of scrubbing on the Amaretta seats are needed to bring the R back to its former glory. A month later, the R has improved to no end.

Now that the car is sorted, it’s easy to see its appeal. For a start, the car is a real looker. The color, the gigantic (for a 1996 car) 17” alloys, the low front spoiler…people stare at it. But there’s more. A Volvo trademark, the R feels and is very safe (side airbags in 1996? a world’s first) and the seats are really comfy, making a relaxing driving. There’s good space for four people, even five. And it’s fast. Perhaps not so in U.S., where a family sedan or SUV nowadays has a V6 as powerful as a 70´s supercar; but in Europe, where the typical car is a Focus- sized hatchback with a diesel engine and 100-130 bhp, the R´s 240 bhp still mean something. Passing is easy- peasy. And that inline five sounds burbly at low revs, so nice when revved…

But the car has its fair share of faults, and curiously, the main one is the same I suffered in my old Saab 9000 Aero: the chassis and suspension set up. While the car has very good roadholding and it’s safe to drive, it’s not very exciting. Yes, it runs like a scalded cat when smashing the right pedal, but the chassis isn’t responsive enough. The steering feels remote, and not very sharp. The R corners flat around bends and it’s agile on twisty roads, but it just doesn’t feel like it likes to play in that kind of roads. It’s not what I could call “a driver’s car”. I suppose that if my R had the manual transmission and the Torsen differential which was standard on European markets, instead the auto, that would live things up.

However, the chassis’ biggest sin was the ride. Oh, the 9000 Aero rode poorly, but the R rides terrible. Those sport springs (incidentally, the whole 850 range has the same shocks, only the springs vary) and the 45 series tires are a comfort killer. Add to that a typical weakness of the 850, the delicate dashboard supports, and for sure you had rattles and squeaks.

Fortunately my R has been rather reliable. The only real troubles it gave me were a leaky radiator, and another weakness with post-´95 850s: the ABS/TRACS module gave up the ghost. A rebuilt module bought from a Volvo specialist in the U.S. solved that.

In the summer of 2015 I thought it was a good idea to look for a smaller, more entertaining car to drive, and this time with a stick. I always liked BMW 3 Series E36s and the chance to buy a 1996 328i Touring appeared. My 328i is proving to be a more “entertaining” car that I expected, its prodigious thirst for oil leading to an engine change for a second hand one, but I think it’s much better to drive. And the BMW’s “new” engine is been successful. I decided to sell the R.

I hadn’t put any ad up when a friend of mine told my plans to another friend, and a few days later I had a buyer for my car. After four years and a half and about 40,000 kilometers, another enthusiast owns it, traveling 1,000 kilometers to collect it.

So I was sorry to see it go. I liked it, a lot. It was so pretty to me…but I’m happy now I see the R is in safe hands again, and happier with a good chunk of cash in the pocket. Although my idea was simply to keep the 328i, it’s irresistible to check the ads on the Internet and look for a new toy…damn, why are there so few Alfa 164s for sale?