Flying Brick - 1985 Volvo 240T Group A

 

The Volvo 240T is often overshadowed by other Group A machinery like the Ford Sierra RS500, BMW M3 and Nissan Skyline GTR R32. Imported from Belgium to New Zealand in early 1985, It was one of the first new entrants in the Group A era  of the Australian Touing Car Championship. The Volvo was ridiculed for its styling, widely referred to as the Flying Brick, or the Swedish Valiant by Dick Johnson.

New Zealand businessman and racing driver Mark Petch had had made his fortune in industrial seals, used it to go racing in his native New Zealand. In 1984, he decided it was time have a go at running a professional touring car team.  initially he  tried to secure a Walkinshaw Rover Vitesse in a 1984. Failing that, he has heard of a works Volvo that might be available. Having to run Volvos instead of Rovers was no bad thing. Despite its dull, not even vaguely sporty image, the 240T had proven to be a formidable package in Europe. It was big, heavy and  didn't handle well, but was fast in a straight line. In 1985, Swedish driver Thomas Lindstrom won the European Touring Car Championship in an Eggenberger 240T.

The car acquired by Petch was chassis number 240A 405. It was a left-hand drive, built and prepared by Guy Trigaux Motors Engineering for the Belgian Volvo Dealer Team to run in the 1984 European Touring Car Championship. Petch purchased it at the end of the 1984 season and brought it to New Zealand just in time for its Australasian debut.

Francevic's car was an ex-Belgian Volvo Dealer Team car

Francevic's car was an ex-Belgian Volvo Dealer Team car

It actually arrived late to the 1985 Wellington 400. It missed the opening practice. Petch initially intended to drive the car himself alongside Michele Delcourt, who had raced the car in Belgium. Petch instead elected to step aside and hired Robbie Francevic. Despite starting last, Delcourt and Francevic won by a lap.

It then made its Australian debut at the second round of the ATCC at Sandown. Francevic was on driving duties again and finished sixth. In round three at Symmons Plains, Francevic recorded the Volvo’s first win in Australia. It was only the second time a turbo car had won an ATCC race. From there things didn’t go so well. Incorrectly setting a small baffle in the turbocharger caused the car to run too lean at high rpm and too rich at low rpm, or vice versa. The result was a run of unreliability, with blown turbos and head gaskets, overheating and pre--detonation.

A solution to the problem was provided by Thomas Lindstrom. Lindstrom was Francevic’s co driver for the New Zealand endurance races at Pukekohe and Wellington. Testing at Manfield, he completed one lap, before pulling into the pits, lifting the bonnet and turning a screw five times. This small change made a huge improvement to the Volvo’s performance.

Francevic won again at the final round at Oran Park, for a championship result of fifth. At Sandown and Bathurst, Francevic was joined by twice Australian Drivers Champion John Bowe. It was Bowe’s first time in a touring car. Francevic qualified the car fifth at both races, but a seized crown and pinion at Sandown and electrical dramas at Bathurst prevented them from finishing either.

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From round four of the 1986 ATCC onwards, the Volvo Dealer Team ran a second car for  Bowe. Petch sold the team to former Holden Dealer Team manager John Sheppard, who formed the factory backed Volvo Dealer Team.

Bowe’s car was Lindstrom’s spare car from 1984. In 1985 it was used by Eggenberger as test car  in 1985 before being handed onto RAS Nordica in Belgium, where it was converted to right hand drive. When Petch and Sheppard purchased it, it was returned to Volvo to be rebuilt, before arriving in Australia for the 1986 championship.

Despite fearing that they might have missed an opportunity for an easy championship win in 1985 before the Australian teams caught up in 86, the Volvo team had a great start. Francevic won both round one at Amaroo Park and Symmons Plains. From there the Volvos started to slip behind the Gibson Motorsport Nissans in performance. Francevic blamed Sheppard’s risk-averse by the rules management style. Francevic still managed to win at Adelaide, and with two seconds and two thirds, clinched the championship by five points over George Fury.

Francevic’s championship was the first for a turbocharged car, and because he continued to live in Auckland, the first for a Non-Australian resident. To this day he is the only champion to not have taken up residence in Australia while competing in the ATCC.  

Following the 1986 ATCC, a third car, chassis 2428A1168048, was prepared in Australia in 1986 from a 242GT road car. It was completed on the friday before the Sandown 500, where it would be driven by John Bowe and Alfredo Costanzo. Both Volvos made it to Sandown on Friday afternoon. Because they missed qualifying, they were forced to start the race on Sunday from the back of the grid. Francevic, already frustrated with Sheppard’s management style, refused to drive the car because he felt he couldn’t compete. In the race, Bowe and Costanzo proved him wrong by setting the same fastest lap time as the winning Nissan. Francevic was fired immediately after Sandown,

Bowe at Sandown in 1986

Bowe at Sandown in 1986

Neville Crichton was drafted in at Bathurst to replace Francevic, sharing the second car with Graham McRae. Bowe qualified the lead Volvo fifth, but it had retired by lap 113. Bowe then moved to the second car with Crichton and McRae, finishing 11th. Francevic had got himself a Bathurst entry alongside Leo Leonard in a Ford Sierra, but his race ended early with a rocker failure.

Shortly after Bathurst, Volvo pulled out of touring car racing due to an FIA Group A rule change increasing the turbocharger engine capacity multiplier from 1.4 to 1.7. That would have put it in the over 3.0 litre class where it couldn't compete.

The team was unable to continue without support from Volvo and disbanded at the end of 1986. The third car had only raced twice in Australia, before it was shipped to Japan. Francevic was left without a drive for the 1987 ATCC, but returned for Sandown and Bathurst in a JPS Team BMW M3 with Frank Gardner. He would never compete in the ATCC full time again. Bowe was also forced to sit out of the ATCC in 1988, but picked up an endurance drive alongside Glenn Seton at Gibson Motorsport. He joined Dick Johnson Racing in 1988.

In 1987, all three cars were purchased by Söderqvist Racing Services in Sweden, who leased the Petch car to Volvo Finland. Leif Wiik won the 1987 Finnish Touring Car Championship. It was then bought and rebuilt by Anders Lindberg, who contested  the Swedish Touring Car Championship with Steffansson Automotive and finished second  in 1989. The Petch car is now part of a collection in Germany. 

The third car, Bowe's endurance car, went on to win the 1987 STCC with Per-Gunnar Andersson. It then passed through a string of Danish drivers before disappearing in Spain and re-emerging at a Spanish used car dealership. It was recognised by eagle eyed Norwegian enthusiast Thor Rustard, who brought it to Norway and comprehensively restored it.  Bowe's second car eventually made it back to Petch, who still races it today. 

The Volvo 240T was fast but temperamental, and it’s racing career in Australia was short lived. Similar the S60 that raced in Supercars for 2014 to 16. It was an unlikely champion, but it got there and deserves more recognition.