Bricked In - 1983 Volvo 760 Turbo Group A Prototype

In 1982, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile rolled out a completely new set of class structures for sportscar, grand touring, touring car and rally racing. Abandoning the traditional number-based naming scheme (Group 1,2,3,4,5,6,7), the governing body opted to use the designations Group A (Rally/Touring Cars), Group B (Rally/Grand Touring) and Group C (Sportscars).

The rigors of the late 1970’s and its two successive oil crises had forced the FIA to adapt its class structure to the changing times. In Group C this initiative lead to the introduction of a fuel limit intended to slow the incredibly powerful turbocharged monsters of sportscar racing. In Group A and B, it lead to more stringent homologation requirements.

The fuel shortages of the 1970's forced the FIA to act.

The fuel shortages of the 1970's forced the FIA to act.

Despite the dramatic fuel shortages and a persistent economic downturn, the past decade had seen purpose-built Group 5 silhouettes like the Porsche 935 become dangerously fast to the point of competing with top-level sportscars. To preserve the fragile FIA hierarchy a cull was desperately needed. Strict rules governing the use of mostly stock-bodied machines would see to it that the creation of such bio-engineered mutants was made nearly impossible.

In addition, the distinction between GT-machines and touring cars was made more clear. According to the new Group A rules, any manufacturer wanting to participate had to sell at least 2500 examples of their stripped out race-spec car, and a grand total of at least 25.000 units of the base models. Faster Evolution-spec models were also allowed, of which at least 500 had to be sold. Furthermore, the car’s bodywork was not allowed to be modified from the showroom model in any significant way, effectively banning any and all radical aerodynamic spoilers.

Group 5 racing had spiraled out of control.

Group 5 racing had spiraled out of control.

Through these incredibly strict regulations, the FIA hoped to reduce costs as few modifications were permitted. Revitalizing interest in racing was also a key factor, as the difficult times had seen the sport fall out of favor with the general public. As a result major manufacturers were hesitant to enter any series that did not provide clear marketing potential.

Realizing this, the FIA effectively wrote the Group A rulebook for these indecisive car companies. The vast numbers required for homologation excluded specialty racing firms, and the technical restrictions kept the cars as close to stock as possible. The more they looked like the car the neighbors drove, the more attractive the series would become. With this formula, in theory at least, young kids would be able to see their dad’s family runabout in a fierce battle for the lead with their uncle’s grocery-getter. This proposition made many an automotive official giddy with excitement.

Volvo's reputation was a bit square and wooden back in the early 1980's.

Volvo's reputation was a bit square and wooden back in the early 1980's.

One such manufacturer was the world’s biggest manufacturer of domestic military vehicles: Volvo. Over the years the deadly serious Swedes had churned out one thick steel box after another, each one bigger, comfier and safer than the last. Because of this their image around the world profiled them as a maker of sturdy, dependable, safe, spacious, no-nonsense and vaguely beige sedans and wagons for well paid, intelligent and incredibly boring people.

Although this was by no means a terrible image to have, Volvo was beginning to get fed up with the inane dustiness of it. The company wanted to move away from the “doctor’s car” label and into the hearts and minds of fans of speed, power and excitement. Naturally, the recently announced Group A touring car category presented an ideal opportunity to do just that in a big way.

Volvo decided the 760 land-yacht would be their best bet at conquering Group A

Volvo decided the 760 land-yacht would be their best bet at conquering Group A

Volvo hadn’t seen a factory supported international racing program since the 1960’s, when the 123GT Amazon carried out its successful assault on the European rally stage. As such the company had little to no experience in the frantic world of touring car racing. This relative lack of know-how resulted in open minds, fresh views, and possibly mild temporary insanity.

Seemingly against all better judgement, Volvo selected the enormous 760 Turbo sedan as their weapon of choice. Although this decision looked like a questionable idea at best, Volvo could easily rationalize it. The 760 was to be the company’s luxury flagship, breaking new ground into a higher market segment Volvo hadn’t been associated with before.

As their bona fide halo car and the replacement for their popular 240-series, the 700-series was a very logical attempt at a two pronged attack. Hopefully, the car would instantaneously make the brand both more sporty and more prestigious. But meticulous and sensible as they were, the Swedes simultaneously developed a racing version of the smaller 240.

Volvo's first turbocharged and intercooled B21ET engine.

Volvo's first turbocharged and intercooled B21ET engine.

A major key in the development of the new racer was the engine. Volvo had been hard at work designing a turbocharged ánd intercooled version of their famed four cylinder powerplant, which would elevate the 760 to the performance level it needed to compete with the dreaded German luxury contingent. On the street the 2.3L B23ET version released an impressive 173 horsepower, more than enough to give a contemporary Corvette a good pants-wetting scare.

For the racing version Volvo opted to use a smaller B21ET 2.1L unit. In Group A turbocharged engines were subject to an equivalency formula, which made it easier for naturally aspirated engine designs to compete. This factor was set at x1.4, meaning the stock 2.3L displacement would have been multiplied to 3.22L. Because this would only just break the 3.0L limit, the car would have been forced to carry more weight.

With the smaller 2.1L block the total would be 2.94, neatly settling into the 3.0L category. With the parameters set the engine was given a complete overhaul. The engineering team’s long hours paid off however, resulting in a very healthy 310 horsepower. This extra grunt would be provided to the rear wheels by a Getrag M51 5-speed manual gearbox.

The aggressive aero pack would have been standard on the road car.

The aggressive aero pack would have been standard on the road car.

Naturally the 760’s shell was completely stripped of its lavish interior fittings, and fitted with a very impractical sidepipe exiting in front of the right rear wheel. This wheel was a for the time massive 18 inch example, made as wide as the rules would allow. The only limiting factor in this was the available space inside the stock wheel well. An FIA-ban on big wheel arch extensions prevented the use of the overblown slabs of rubber seen in the 1970’s.

Additionally Volvo’s engineers worked to faintly improve the big black brick’s aerodynamic properties. At the front a big air-dam provided a modicum of downforce at the front and supplied cold air to the brakes. At the back, a large distinctive spoiler supported by two struts was found. It received incoming air directed to it be a carefully sculpted roof spoiler. Due to Group A’s incredibly strict homologation regime, the car would have to be sold in exactly this body style, because the racing car was not allowed to deviate from the production car. This meant 2500 clueless doctors, accountants, teachers and dentists would have to buy a proper civilized Volvo with a spectacularly vulgar aero pack.

Eje Elge testing the 760 Turbo in front of Volvo's top management.

Eje Elge testing the 760 Turbo in front of Volvo's top management.

The finished car was then given to Japanese F3000 racer Eje Elgh (SWE) and dedicated Volvo Motorsport driver Ulf Granberg (SWE) to test its capabilities. Elgh and Granberg diligently racked up the miles with the car, gaining more and more confidence in it. For all intents and purposes, the 760 was doing rather well. There was however one small but very annoying problem, the pesky old 240.

Ulf Granberg during testing.

Ulf Granberg during testing.

Like any annoying older brother, everything the 760 could do, the 240 could do better. It accelerated faster, braked later, cornered more neutrally and was easier on brakes and tires. A big part of this was one major issue: weight. Simply put, the 760 had too much of it. In stock form, the 760 Turbo weighed a substantial 1325 kg (2921 lbs). The 240 on the other hand tipped the scales at 1280 (2821). The extra weight was one of many flaws inherent in its luxo-barge design. Aside from being heavier, the 760’s body was also far less rigid. The 240 was a two-door model, which was simply far stiffer than the 760’s four door design.

Another disadvantage of the 760 was its sheer size. A longer and wider car worked great on the long straights of Spa Francorchamps or Le Mans, but on the predominantly tight and twisty touring car circuits its was severely handicapped. As testing progressed it was becoming increasingly apparent the big brick was losing out to its predecessor, which was also still selling strong. Conceding its defeat, Volvo put a stop to the 760 Turbo’s development, and decided to enter the 240 Turbo instead.

With that conclusion the 760 Turbo was robbed of its chance to compete, as its smaller sibling went to take all the honors. Still, like any good Volvo, the car refused to die in spirit. Five years after its rejection and three years after the 240T’s 1985 ETCC title win, Belgian privateers VTR were championing a surprise revival of the angular turbo titan.

Promotional photo of the VTR 760 Turbo.

Promotional photo of the VTR 760 Turbo.

The team even petitioned Volvo to produce an evolution version using the newer B204FT 16-valve engine. The exclusively Italian-market design was needed because the FIA had upped the displacement equivalency formula from x1.4 to x1.7. This would have made the original 2.1L block have an effective displacement of 3.57 liters, again forcing it to carry more weight for breaking the 3.0L barrier. The smaller displacement Italian 2L engine would handily circumvent the weight penalty.

Not content with simply replacing the engine, VTR went on to make a sizable wish list. They proposed a new Getrag gearbox, an independent multi-link rear axle, a different rear wing, upgraded rear and front suspension, uprated turbo, exhaust manifold and an F1-style flat floor.

VTR's 760 Turbo picked up were Volvo left off in the most beige place of all, Belgium.

VTR's 760 Turbo picked up were Volvo left off in the most beige place of all, Belgium.

Sadly Volvo was less than enthusiastic about the Belgian plans, and refused to cooperate. But VTR remained determined to give the big square a chance. The team resorted to homologating the car on a national level, which did not require big production figures.

Eventually, the VTR 760 grew to become a winner in the Belgian Touring Car Championship. In a neutered, low budget form the stubborn machine had still managed to prove its worth. The car remained in the BTCC until the demise of Group A in 1992.

The Volvo 760 Turbo was a big brick trying to fly through a small window. It represented all of Volvo’s hopes and aspirations of expanding their brand to new heights, but sadly fell short in doing so. Its sheer size, weight and practical but flimsy body simply left it without a fighting chance against its older brother. Initially the 700-series was meant to replace the ageing 200-series, but the older tank’s inexplicable continued popularity eventually lead to it outliving its younger sibling by a full year.

The 760 Turbo at Volvo's Gothenburg museum.

The 760 Turbo at Volvo's Gothenburg museum.

After its lost battle against the 240T, the 760 Turbo Prototype became a permanent exhibit at Volvo’s Gothenburg museum. It remains there to this day, plotting its revenge against that blasted older brother in silent frustration.