Top Gear’s Top 9: Volvo’s brilliant moments of madness

By topgear, 26 October 2020

The rubbish 850 Estate BTCC racer

Still one of the most incongruous-looking racing cars of all time, the use of an enormous family wagon for Britain’s premier paint-swapping repmobile racing series wasn’t without science. “The aerodynamics of the estate were slightly better than the sedan,” says Rickard Rydell, one of the drivers who helmed the Tom Walkinshaw Racing-prepped 850 in the 1994 season.

“When I signed up for Volvo and TWR around Christmas 1993, I didn’t know about the estate plans. If I’d known, I would probably have hesitated. It was lucky I didn’t know!”

Volvo admitted its chief aim with submitting an estate rather than the sedan version was publicity, as the big-booted wagon had a higher centre of gravity and more weight behind the rear axle than the sedan, making it less suitable for duties as a racer. And so the 850 proved to be a pretty rubbish contender, stumbling home 14th in the championship.

But we’re still talking about it a quarter of a century later, so who’s the real winner?

The impossibly rare P1900

You’ll have heard of the gorgeous P1800 coupe, but did you know it spawned a roofless roadster? Probably not, because only 68 units of the P1900 were ever built, between 1956 and 1957.

Apparently Volvo’s boss was inspired to commission the run when he visited the United States and observed the then-new Chevrolet Corvette, perhaps forgetting he hailed from a country where snow lay thick across the landscape for a good chunk of the year, and heated seats hadn’t been invented yet. 

Why such a short production run? When Volvo had a change of leadership in 1957, the glacial demand for the P1900 and its below-par build quality incensed the incoming Volvo president, and he canned the model for good. 

The flatnose 480

Yep, Volvo’s had a go at a sporty hatchback before. Back in the Eighties, there was the 480. And the 480 tanked, despite having the coolest feature of all time: pop-up headlights. 

The first front-wheel drive Volvo ever was a mish-mash, featuring Lotus-developed handling and Renault engines, but its true purpose was to storm the US market and get the average age of a Volvo buyer below 108.

Sadly, the exchange rate meant it would’ve been more profitable for Volvo to just sink the boat halfway across the Atlantic, and the 480 soldiered on in Europe alone until the mid-1990s.

The ballistic Noble M600

In fact, Volvo’s given away its V8 more than once to enterprising up-and-coming outfits. One of them was a British sportscar maker in Leicester, who borrowed the Yamaha-developed 4.4-litre engine from the XC90, strapped on a couple of huge Garrett turbos, and put the resulting 670hp fury into a 350km/h missile called the Noble M600. Not many Volvo engines can have gone faster than this. 

The retro Caresto V8 Speedster concept

Guess who’s back? Yes it’s our old friend Leif Tufvesson, who once again brought a bit of hygge to SEMA in 2007 with the ethanol-burning, Volvo V8-powered Caresto Speedster. To capitalise on all the juicy publicity, Volvo let Leif tune up a C70 drop-top to his own liking, with power rising from 223hp to 282hp under a bespoke carbonfibre engine cover. 

The weird C30 hatchback

Back when Ford owned Volvo, someone came up with the bright idea to wade into family hatchback waters, helping Volvo to shrug off its reputation for building mainly big, boxy sedans and estate cars. Smart move, as hatchbacks were, before The Rise Of The Crossovers, Europe’s undisputed top-selling cars. It’d be a goldmine! How could they fail?

However, instead of making a practical, sensible contender for the likes of the VW Golf, Volvo came up with a three-door only hatchback with four seats, and a gorgeous but impractical glass tailgate.

Why so form-over-function? Well, Ford didn’t want the C30 pinching any sales from its dominant Focus, which shared the C30’s underpinnings. The handsome C30 was sadly killed off after just one generation, making its dubious role in the Twilight movies its chief claim to fame. 

The crazy T6 Roadster concept

Volvo wanted to make a splash at the 2005 SEMA modified car and hot rod show in the USA. How to succeed? Perhaps with a V70 low-rider, or turning an XC90 into a ten-second quarter-mile hero? Nope. It cooked up one of the most out-of-character concepts cars in history – then fumbled the finish by forgetting to bless it with a cool name. It was just the ‘T6’. Pfft.

The T6 was actually the brainchild of a Volvo employee named Leif Tufvesson, who built his ideal hot-rod over several years from OEM Volvo parts. The engine, a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six, was boosted to around 300hp and mounted behind the passenger compartment. You might not believe this, but incredibly, the T6 didn’t make production. 

The V40 crossover that thought it was an RS3

Another slice of ‘what were they thinking’ from the Ford days here, in the shape of the V40 Cross Country T5. By 2013, Volvo had happened across quite a clever idea: taking its new hatchback, the V40, and offering it with plastic wheelarches and a jacked-up ride. Basically, like an Audi A6 Allroad: rufty-tufty attitude, but not as tall as an obese SUV.

However, no-one stopped to question which engines from the regular V40 should be carried over into the V40 Cross Country. And that meant the 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo engine shared with the Ford Focus ST and Focus RS was allowed to sneak into the range, complete with four-wheel drive.

As a result, you could buy a semi-off-road Volvo hatchback packing a 250hp punch, good for 0-100km/h in just 6.4 seconds. Think about that the next time you’re poised to overtake a V40…

The S60 to give AMG nightmares

Before Polestar morphed from Volvo’s racing team to become its new electrified Tesla rival, Gothenburg dabbled with the idea of turning Polestar into a rival to the likes of BMW’s M Division, and Mercedes-AMG.

One of its most unhinged projects was to take the humble S60 sedan, up it from 310hp to 515hp, while beefing up the suspension, brakes, tyres and slamming the ride height. The result was a Volvo repmobile good for 0-95 in 3.9secs – with a manual gearbox – and a top speed beyond 300km/h. 

Although Volvo had an attack of common sense that prevented the S60 Polestar from going into series production, enthusiasts were offered the chance to buy one of just six prototypes if they really insisted – for a cool £200,000. Makes the £120,000 Polestar 1, with 600hp, seem like a bargain after all. 

STORY Ollie Kew

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