Volvo 850 SE: Gone But Not Forgotten

90s cars General Bunk Volvo
Chris Barker returns to the pages of PetrolBlog to pen a poignant farewell to his trusty Volvo 850 SE. An epic beard meets black steelies. Great combo.

It's been too long since Chris Barker graced the pages of PetrolBlog, but he's back to furnish us with a tale of his Volvo 850 SE and a photo of his enviable beard.

I love the way us mad dogs and Englishmen instantly excuse anything which fails us as ‘characterful’. The implication being that tolerating something that's clearly no longer fit for purpose lends the guilty party an air of eccentricity. As opposed to just being a right royal pain in the derriere. Naturally, it also means that we can't be arsed with addressing these ‘characterful’ traits which blight an otherwise impressive vista.

My former Volvo 850 SE could be described as characterful, on account of its catalogue of age-related nuances. The sort I wilfully turned a blind eye to, and should I ever have been drawn on by semi-concerned onlookers I'd instantaneously brush off as nothing more than irrelevances. Rather than flaws which could – if left untreated – pose more significant problems in the long run. And in the duplicitous process, hoodwinking nobody who speaks fluent Haynes.

That said, I didn't intend keeping my Volvo 850 SE for the long run. Which explains that, as I write this piece for PetrolBlog, I'm looking out upon its replacement. Although replacement is a strong word in car terms and one I've habitually chosen to avoid. There are two things you NEVER replace in life.

The other item being a beloved dog. You simply acquire another breed/species. Which I duly did in the shape of a Jaguar ‘SportsWagon’. Some time between hatching this blog idea and actually knuckling down to pen it.

The Jag being on a shortlist which also included another, more retro-esque station wagon. A low ridin’ Vee-Dubbed example of the genre, with the Passat B4 obviously sporting a little patina somewhere amid the bodywork.

The latter didn't happen though, as I've already pointed out. Instead I ended up deep into Arthur Daley country.

Why did I bid farewell and goodbye to my Volvo 850?

Chris Barker and Volvo 850 SE

So, what was actually wrong with my otherwise trusty Volvo before it departed? The car I ultimately sold on to fund my delayed adulthood and future adventures in responsible motoring. The sort which eventually resulted in diesel and a flurry of impressive mpg figures; and miraculously made my Dad's heart swell with proud. In this, what he considered his eldest son's (one and only) finest hour.

Well, since you ask; here's a comprehensive break-down of the Volvo's key foibles. All of which I courageously overlooked.

The speedo had a mind of its own and worked as routinely as a militant French docker.

This, along with another dashboard instrument reader was peeling from behind the glass in a weird, burning paper fashion. Which under the cover of creeping darkness, helped illuminate the dramatically Scandi noir cabin space.

The radiator had recently developed what I believe could be a minor leak and required occasional topping up with water en route to its destination.

The car, if left for a few days, always started up. Even during the self-imposed exile of lockdown. But then came to an abrupt halt a mile or so down the road. Or when I first encountered a roundabout, set of traffic lights or jam. Whatever instance which demanded me to remove my foot from the gas.

It became a mobile swimming pool if I parked it on a particular elevation in the aftermath of a prolonged period of climatical low pressure. The source of which remained unidentified. Not in a Las Vegas-y, Snoop Dog kinda fashion, either. More a flooded driver's footwell style. Which projects a northern charm all of its own. And necessitated an outpouring of both raw emotion and semi-stagnant pond water via whatever suitable kitchen utensil was to hand.

Turn the headlights on, and it made this strange, slightly eerie clicking noise. Which sounded a bit like a football rattle, if they used football rattles in 70s horror movies. Of course, this soundscape was the forebearer of an impending doom, such as entry-level electrocution in my case. Or so I readily believed for the best part of six months. And which led me to only drive the car during daylight hours, if at all feasible.

Why a Volvo 850 SE in particular?

Volvo 850 SE review

Was it because I'd always hankered after a lump of Swedish automotive architecture which oozed personality? Or was it because it kinda reminded me of the 480 Turbo my (authentically) Swedish art student pal, Nick borrowed from his mum when we attended Withens Lane Art school together back in 1989? Providing I squinted to the point at which my eyes were closed and I could just about make out a Volvo badge?

Actually, none of the above. It cost £320 on Facebook Marketplace. That reputable doyen of car-buying.

My Volvo was always going to be some sort of ‘project’ in inverted commas though. Hashtag, optional. Not least because when I collected my £320 find from an industrial estate in Runcorn, I couldn't fail to notice the smashed headlight and missing indicator lens cover. Which had come to bear sometime between me first viewing the car and later arranging to pick it up. Roughly three days. And casually passed off by the MOT centre selling it 'on behalf' of the previous owner's associate, as merely the result of an unforeseen altercation between a rogue towbar belonging to a nearby vehicle and said frontage of my new acquisition.

Yes, a good 50 per cent of the above paragraph should have set alarm bells ringing, when considering the appearance of words like ‘£320, industrial estate, Runcorn, MOT centre, selling on behalf of’ and my personal favourite; ‘previous owner's associate’. But I'm nothing if not an eternal optimist who chooses not to be swayed by societal algorithms and conditioning.

850 + 320 / desperation = rudimentary Bangernomics

Fast forward one new/old car journey home, and I found myself basking in the radiance of this magnificent slab of Scandinavian automotive real estate I'd just parted with 320 sheets in exchange for. With its onyx-like weight, erstwhile aesthetic and unbending presence. Save for the broken headlamp and missing indicator lens cover. Both of which were replaced a few weeks later, courtesy of a trio of incredibly benevolent geezers from that there Twitter. Long-time fellow car chin-waggers, who wanted to help out a like-minded petrolhead who was a bit skint at the time and in recovery from losing his religion. Instantly restoring my faith in the human race, whilst also ensuring my 850 SE was now road legal in the eyes of the law.

Armed with a list as long as, well, my arm, my vision for this old skool Swedish sedan, I immediately started browsing eBay for suitable accoutrements. The like of which could only add further style to my otherwise stylish old skool Swedish sedan.

Pimping my 850. As you don't.

Volo 850 SE interior

For example, wire roof rack, giant Cibie rally headlamps, window-secured wind deflectors, yellow spray paint for the headlamps, lowering springs, a spare wheel attached to the boot, Ferrari's prancing horse-mocking moose emblems. Mercifully I stopped just short of envisaging jerry cans tied to the flanks and/or a snorkel to the roof, as if I was somehow planning on entering my Volvo 850 SE in the Paris-Dakar Rally. That said, it had just successfully completed the Runcorn-Wirral Rally. Which while also being virtually impossible for me to say on account of my cute speech impediment, was probably as tough an ask for a leggy Volvo as the wider regarded France-Africa alternative.

In all honesty, my imagined mod list would be more in-keeping with participating in the Cannonball Run. Only the terrible ones inspired by the original, that inevitably see people purchase old Nissan Almeras for £50, then driving as far as Calais before something instrumental to the vehicle's wellbeing parts company with said vehicle. Scumball Rally, or whatever they're quasi-comically called.

Did I achieve any of the above?

Nah. I meant to, But I met a gurl you see. So, what limited funds I had originally set aside for Kiki Gao were realigned so that I could climb every mountain with my lovely Jilly Von Trapp. With a regular 65-mile gap between Jilly and myself, a certain northerly section of the M6 quickly became Kiki's habitual playground. Week in, week out. Yet never once did it falter or let me down. And naturally the one time it did, I quickly removed its thermostat and went on my way.

Oh yeah, the name. K141 lent itself to the name Kiki. The surname continuing the Costa Del Crap waiter connotation by being the last three letters of the registration plate. The name stuck. As sometimes did the needle on the MPH-informing part of the unswervingly early 90s instrumentation panel.

In terms of what I did add to the 850 SE party, then aside from the headlamp and indicator lens cover thing, I festooned it with interior tat. Fluffy dice (in a post-ironic, modernistic fashion, obvs). We're talking Stormtrooper, a Mickey Mouse drift charm (rescued from my Mazda MX-5 drift car which preceded my Scandi acquisition), Batty, a magic/evil eye and this tiny, unidentified creature Jilly gifted me from a charity shop haul. Along with a glovebox-adhered Jack Skeleton sticker and a boot-mounted alien decal. And chrome dice tyre valve dust covers. You know. Because that's just how I generally roll.

Am I missing Kiki?

Volvo 850 SE car park

Yes. Terribly. It was with a heavy heart that I arrived at my decision to sell up. Coupled with a need for something more waterproof and longer out the back. Hence the X-Type load-lugger which usurped Kiki. Who I've yet to christen because Jilly thinks affording cars names is a bit juvenile. Despite the underlying fact that she dreamt up the Kiki moniker, truth be told.

Will I have another pensioner-spec Volvo?

Without doubt. Probably an old 740 GLE saloon because I love the blue velour interior you find in some and the sharp, rakish lines of the rear window and the way it meets with the boot lid. However, I still hanker after a 480 Turbo. As I've done periodically ever since my aforementioned art student days.

Yet for the time being I'm all about the Jag. Which doesn't seem to want to accommodate all the abovementioned tat within the bowels of its passenger-friendly interior. On account of it having ideas above its modest Mondeo-derived station, I reckon. Although I'm already imagining what a retro alpine ski resort sticker might look like on the boot lid of my Jag. You know. Pretending I relinquished it from the steely grip of a posh early-retired couple who used to take their brood to Klosters every winter for their annual ski-ing sojourn.

Am I really an idiot (please see/read above)?

God, I'm such an idiot. An idiot who remains eternally indebted to his Volvo 850 SE for reliably – and stylishly – transporting him hither and thither past Charnock Richard services thrice weekly in the name/pursuit of romance.

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