$850 won’t get you far in searching for a car these days. Just about anything around that price will be broken, rusty, undesirable, or a combination of all three. Every once in a while, though, if you look hard and long enough, you might find a hidden gem; a diamond in the rough. Coming across that too-good-to-be-true ad is an adrenaline rush, immediately sparking thoughts of what could be followed by the logistics. “Where will I put it?” and “Will my significant other toss me to the curb if I bring this home?” For many, those models are uncommon, performance-oriented versions of coupes or sedans with some ties to motorsports or a buyer’s heartstrings. For Jacob Maller, FCP Euro’s email marketing specialist, his $850 find was far from a performance platform but carried the motorsport and emotional credentials that even the most beloved European sports cars have.
If you ever have the chance to meet Jacob and get into a conversation about all things four-wheels, you’ll quickly realize that cheap and odd finds aren’t anything new. After realizing he wouldn’t get his AE86 project running by the time he received his driver’s license, he purchased his first Volvo, a 760 Turbo wagon, for $760. Although the Toyota was his first love, it was the 760 that changed his trajectory. “I loved having a solid, versatile, unique, and fun station wagon that I could haul all kinds of stuff (parts and people) around in. Since then, I’ve owned more than 11 Volvos and currently have a fleet of 6 Volvos.”
While oddballs like a Porsche 924 Turbo and a V6-swapped SW20 MR2 sit between the six Swedes, inexpensive and relatively uncommon Volvos have remained Jacob’s bread and butter. His small collection features Swedish steel spanning the ’70s to this past decade, but all are suited to street use. Working here at FCP Euro, it’s hard to escape the allure of motorsport events, whether wheel-to-wheel or more relaxed HPDE events, and during the summer of 2019, the thought of lapping local North East tracks got him looking for his next project.
Setting out to build a track car of his own, a BTCC-inspired 850 wasn’t Jacob’s original plan. “The first car that came to mind for me was the Volvo C30. However, finding a manual one isn’t an easy task.” After losing out on a potential candidate while trying to free up money, it would be a while before he would find his new ride. “Months went by with little luck finding a suitable manual C30, until one day, I spotted something interesting, something different, something even rarer: a manual, cloth interior, base model, non-sunroof 1995 Volvo 850 Wagon, a rare slick top.”
In the mid-eighties, Volvo entered the European and German touring car championships under the then-new Group A ruleset with their 240 Turbo sedan. Within three years, the Nordica-sponsored cars won both titles before leaving the world of motorsport. Nearly a decade later, Volvo Senior VP Martin Rybeck was looking to bring more to the Volvo name than just its well-earned safety image and proposed taking on the Touring Car circuit once again with the new 850 sedans.
As the story goes, the team chosen to develop the prototype arrived at the factory with a short deadline and left with the only bodyshell available: the 850 Estate wagon. Sensing a marketing opportunity, Rybeck allowed development to continue, and the wagon made its BTCC debut in the 1994 season under the Tom Walkinshaw Racing banner. Soon, images of slammed wagons blasting over curbing, hopping up on two wheels were everywhere as the long roof became a fan favorite. Although it never matched the success of the 240 Turbo, its single season was a massive PR win, spawning a new generation of Volvo fans and enthusiasts.
The Volvo 850 is largely credited as the start of Volvo’s modern luxury image in America, and many were loaded with nice materials and upmarket features. For racing purposes, though, those features add complexity and weight, distinct disadvantages on the track. Jacob’s newly-found project was free of all those luxury qualities, making it the stiffest and lightest of the variants offered in the US. As images of two-wheeling BTCC Volvos danced in his head, so too did a rough idea for a fun piece of content.
“Jacob, you know what would be funny for the build series? If you purchased the 850 for $850.” With those words offered by Creative Services Director Ben Marouski, Jacob headed down to Pennsylvania and returned with a 300,000-mile Volvo 850. With the car acquired, the plan was to keep it simple and focus on the suspension and brakes while only refreshing the engine. According to Jacob, “The idea was not to build an exact replica but to build something closely following the spirit of the BTCC 850.” Considering the 850 already sported an N/A inline-5 engine, following that spirit wouldn’t be too hard. As is often the case, though, the universe seemingly has other plans.
The world shut down within months of the purchase thanks to the Covid-19 virus. However, all that uncertainty presented the FCP Euro crew and the 850 Project with a couple of opportunities. From the shutdown came a halt to the FCP Euro Motorsports program, leaving the once-busy motorsports garage quiet and empty. In an instant, a TCR-supporting garage and a couple of motorsport engineers were free to support the project. Had Jacob stuck to its initial plan, engineers likely wouldn’t have been necessary, but less than a month before the shutdown, a message from a friend changed the 850’s trajectory.
Touring cars of the mid-nineties are special for many reasons, and central to their character are high-strung, naturally aspirated engines born of motorsport. Engineering an engine to make significant power without forced induction means fine-tuning every component to eke out every last bit of efficiency in the name of power. It’s partly that process that made the BTCC so unique, and it would make following that spirit much more challenging if Jacob wanted to improve engine performance. He’d have to maximize volumetric efficiency by modifying camshaft profiles, port shape and velocity, valve sizes, compression, and displacement. Instead, an engine with all of the proper modifications came up for sale just a few hours away.
A friend, knowing about the BTCC-inspired build, connected Jacob to a fellow Volvo enthusiast from Long Island who’d had an unfortunate collision in his freshly built P2 V70. Under the hood was a B5244S, a 2.4L “RN” inline-5 sporting a CNC-ported cylinder head, ENEM camshafts, and a beefy valvetrain to match. It was built in the high-performance N/A spirit and would “bolt right in,” bringing the project much closer to the wailing 9000rpm monsters from the 1994 season.
Arriving back at FCP Euro HQ with the donor wagon in tow, the 850 Project had just become far more involved than anyone would’ve imagined, needing a full engine swap on top of all of the suspension, brake, and chassis refreshing already planned. “Typical project scope creep,” as Jacob called it, but that wasn’t such a bad thing. A nasty N/A engine is the BTCC spirit, and it added another aspect to the build that would make it much more than simple track prep.
The 850 Project began with a quick trip to the dyno, where it set a surprising baseline power figure, before heading back to FCP Euro HQ for disassembly. Although the engine had become a more prominent focus, the planned chassis upgrades were paramount for getting the worn-out wagon to feel as stiff and agile as a touring car. Out came just about every bushing in the rear and the entirety of the front suspension, all in the name of improvement.
Like many manufacturers, Volvo engineers designed one common suspension architecture for their P80-family of models. Members include the 850 and the first-generation C70 Convertible, among others. The latter model used a unique subframe featuring solid aluminum inserts instead of bushings and a host of underbody chassis bracing. So, with a quick trip to the local pick n’ pull, Jacob robbed the lone C70’ vert of its stiff bits and bolted them into his flexible family hauler. Combined with a set of BC Racing coilovers, it was exactly what the build needed, delivering the grip and body control that a developed track car should.
But all of that development came within the first season, and a lot has happened since then. With Season 2 now wrapped, the 850 Project is as dialed in as ever. It’s been stripped of most of its interior, corner-balanced, aligned, and made reliable. The engine has reached its potential, breathing through BMW S85 individual throttle bodies mated to bespoke, 3D-printed aluminum intake runners and a resin intake box. On the other side is a hand fabricated 5-1 long-tube header, trumpeting the unmistakable bark of an inline-5. It’s now even wrapped in a livery designed in-house to look like a mashup of all of Volvo’s mid-nineties designs in one while carrying FCP Euro and sponsor’s branding.
Getting to that position meant lots of testing on Jacob’s part as each couple of modifications was met with another trip to the dyno and the FCP Euro Proving Grounds. Unlike most automotive shows on cable, the build series wasn’t about slamming the car together as quickly as possible, “the plan was to take things one step at a time and record the results, such as testing different intake manifolds, etc.” Each Group of changes was recorded with a new lap time or dyno pull, highlighting the performance benefits and showing just how far the 850 had come from its baseline figures. Many of those changes were simple bolt-on upgrades, but a key few resulted from highly-skilled friends.
Although the 850 Project was Jacob’s brainchild, it wouldn’t be anywhere near what it’s become without a great number of people on either side of the lens. “It’s definitely been a bumpy road, as most car projects are—things never go exactly to plan—but I’ve enjoyed the process, especially getting to work with so many great people,” said Jacob. “Lots of people throughout the Volvo community have played a part in building this car, and I really love that.” In-house assistance provided by Cory and Nate made the built engine run and got the car as dialed-in as it is, but they weren’t alone in lending support. Engine tuning and general assistance were partially provided by members of the Volvo community, including wiring support from Vast Tuning owner Aaron and exhaust manifold fabrication from 8Eight Fab owner Josh. Both of their expertise was key in developing the car and are a larger part of Jacob’s connection to the build and the Volvo community.
What’s resulted from all of the testing, tuning, fabrication, and head-scratching is a far cry from the tired, nearly three-decade-old Volvo the build started with. Even Jacob didn’t think the end result would be what it is: “I can’t say I expected it to ever feel/drive/sound the way it does, I’ve certainly spent a lot of time imagining it and dreaming about it, but it actually exceeded my expectations.” Now stiffened, lightened, and more powerful, the spirit of the BTCC 850 Wagon is alive and well in the 850 Project.
Going forward, although the bulk of the work is complete, there’ll still be plenty of development. “As I stress the car more with track driving/competition, I’ll likely be upgrading and replacing many components,” Jacob said. “Up first are likely a set of better dampers, control arms, and camber plates with more adjustability, namely caster adjustment. It’s also worth noting the RN’s bottom end has 200k+ miles on it. I plan to assemble an RNC 2.4i short-block with high-compression pistons to swap the cylinder head onto in the future if/when it lets go.”
Whether or not that’ll be captured on camera for all of YouTube to see is up in the air, but the 850 won’t disappear after Season 2. Sharing his Volvo passions with other Connecticut locals is nothing new for Jacob, and he’s quite proud of the overwhelmingly positive response to the project. “It’s always a shock to me when someone recognizes me at a car show, etc. I don’t think about how many people actually watch the series. I just love that people enjoy watching what we enjoy doing.”
The BTCC spirit is generally absent from American shores, but if you’re in the North East keep your eyes and ears open. You may just see the blur of a blue and white $850 Volvo wagon rush by, singing the song of high-strung, normally-aspirated performance.
The 850 Project Episodes
Car and motorsports-obsessed writer/editor for FCP Euro's DIY Blog. Constantly dreaming of competing behind the wheel or searching for another project. Owner of a turbo Subaru Forester and a ratty Porsche 914, neither of which are running.