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Volvo 850 Turbo

Someone I know suggested that I elaborate on my interest in and involvement with performance cars, which I mentioned in my August 24 update -- possibly to prevent anyone from assuming that by the term “performance cars” I meant gas-gulping Monster Machines. So here’s some info on my current “daily driver,” which started out as a stock 1994 Volvo 850 Turbo four-door sedan, known in Volvo circles as a T5 (turbocharged five-cylinder engine) -- a mid-size, front-wheel-drive, Scandinavian Modern wedge on wheels, the highly aerodynamic shape of which, from its low nose to its high rear deck, had been determined by extensive wind-tunnel testing.

Volvo 850 Turbo

In my opinion, the 850 Turbo (1994-1997) is one of the finest production vehicles ever made -- safe, comfortable, surprisingly roomy, ergonomic, fuel-efficient, reasonably fast, and phenomenally fast-stopping (“…the best dry-road braking performance of any car we’ve tested,” said Consumer Reports, “stopping from 60 mph in only 118 feet. On a wet track, it needed a mere 138 feet.”). Safe is, of course, a relative term. No car is necessarily safe under all circumstances, but some are a lot safer than others. And Volvos are the safest out there.

After most of the below-listed changes I’d planned for this car had been completed, I went to master show-car builder Terry Morris -- who has won 13 car-show awards this year alone, as of September, including one Best of Show and one World Cup of Hot Rodding -- and asked him to repaint the car his way to match the color of its original Volvo Classic Green. After his crew had removed everything from the body, smoothed out all imperfections, and prepared the car, Terry applied a medium green epoxy primer, three coats of semi-transparent dark green acrylic urethane, and a urethane clear coat. The resulting extraordinarily deep color -- almost black in the shade, lighter and greener in the sunlight -- seemed appropriate for the 850, an automobile that had immediately been acclaimed for its “green” design at the 1991 European debut of the initially non-turbocharged vehicle.

As automotive writer Norman S. Mayersohn wrote in part in a 96-page Road & Track special publication report on the 850 published shortly before its 1992 U.S. unveiling:

[T]he Volvo 850 has been designed to make minimal impact on Earth’s welfare. The air-conditioning system, as an example, does not use ozone-depleting Freon as a refrigerant, but instead is charged with R134a. Harmful CFCs have also been removed from the manufacturing of plastic components [including seat and roof-pillar foam, replacing PVC with EMA (Ethylene Methyl Acrylate) for environmental and health reasons]. Asbestos, once common in brake friction materials and cylinder head gaskets, has been eliminated. The manufacturing process has also been adapted to remove harmful solvents from the assembly plant, and glue joints are made with solvent-free epoxy. Even the underbody sealant is a solvent-free, hot-melt compound. Cadmium stabilizers in plastic and mercury used in circuit breakers have both been eliminated from the 850. A few other indicators of Earth consciousness: All plastic components weighing more than100 grams are marked for separation and easier recycling. The fuel system is fitted with one-way valves so that gas lines can be blown clear to prevent spillage when working on them…

At Volvo, engineers [have] devised a system of Environmental Priority Strategies to compare the total environmental load of materials and production methods, from conception to destruction. Calculations take into account the amount and type of materials used as well as the production process; considerations for use of natural resources and emissions into the air, water, and soil are included in the determination.

This “total environmental load” measure is important as the volume of green marketing claims rise. An example: The aluminum for an engine requires far more energy to produce than cast iron, but the comparison means little unless you factor in aluminum’s easy recyclability and the energy saved in lower fuel consumption over the years.

In the automotive world, there are people who believe that fast and safe are mutually exclusive -- but I’m not one of them. Why settle for one of the two when you can have both? Practically speaking, however, it’s much easier to make a safe car fast than it is to make a fast car safe. With a few exceptions, cars designed to be flat-out fast tend to be anything but safe -- for example, the aluminum-shell Aston Martin that a rescue team had to cut away from Mel Blanc's badly-broken body with welding torches when the cartoon-voices master nearly died in a head-on collision in LA’s infamous “Dead Man’s Curve.” Such speed-at-any-sacrifice machines have nothing approaching the 850’s rollcage-like passenger compartment, formed from special high-strength, reduced-weight steel, four times stronger than conventional sheet steel. Or Volvo-engineered “crumple zones,” designed to sacrifice parts of the car rather than the driver and passengers. Or the 850’s Side Impact System, which directs the force of a side impact down along under-seat lateral tubes to an energy-absorbing floor box and a steel-member-reinforced floorpan, and up the extreme strength B-pillars on both sides of the car to the roof arch. Or the impact bars in the doors. Or any of the other thorough crash-survival engineering built into the 850.

For that matter, it’s also difficult-to-impossible to make compact or economy cars safe, because there’s not enough structural steel in them to adequately protect anyone. They’re unsafe for the same reason they’re economical on fuel: they’re very light. And if what I’ve seen in wrecking yards and body shops is any indication, vehicles at the opposite end of the weight spectrum -- SUVs and Obese Pickups -- aren’t much safer. They may have heavier metal, but they don’t necessarily have the right kind of structural engineering behind it -- their thick steel sheets may look impressive, but not when one sees how badly they can be bashed in by a car or truck. The most memorable example I’ve seen yet was the damage to a thick-steel Monster Pickup: the partway-folded-in driver’s door had been rammed halfway across what was left of the driver’s seat, and the rest of that side of the cab was pretty brutally bashed, as well. But, getting back to the design of the 850…

To make the 850 series cars more agile and sure-footed than other vehicles of their class, Volvo employed test-track-proven features such as a Volvo-refined MacPherson strut front suspension and a Volvo-patented semi-independent, Delta-link rear suspension engineered to provide a sort of passive four-wheel steering to respond to side forces when cornering. For fast stopping, Volvo utilized a three-channel anti-lock braking system with four-wheel “discs” (rotors) equipped in front with sliding calipers with pistons on just one side to reduce the chance of brake fade from overheated brake fluid. The braking circuit included a valve to automatically adjust and distribute braking pressure front-or-back depending on the severity of braking, incident-by-incident.

The 850s were not intended to be track record setters but to be safer, livelier, better-handling family/sport sedans and wagons. But their brilliant design, very different from anything Volvo had done before -- and, in the case of many 850 innovations such as their compact transmissions, very different from anything any auto manufacturer had done before -- put them far ahead of other production automobiles of their category and time, and made the 850 Turbo a perfect vehicle for the kinds of updating improvements I had in mind.

Fortunately, the great popularity of the 850, 850 Turbo, and T5R (more powerful than the T5, but nowhere near as powerful as I wanted) had inspired a sizable selection of aftermarket performance parts. So I had a wide variety of modification approaches and equipment to choose from.

Visually, I wanted to avoid the Tricked-Out Car look and instead make the vehicle look as if the manufacturer had designed it that way. But I discarded the heavy-handed Volvo nameplate and grille emblem, which to me are on a much lower aesthetic level than the rest of the car. (The 850 grille emblem consists of four design elements jammed together: a long diagonal line, a square, the symbol for iron/Mars/male gender, and the chunky-lettered Volvo nameplate. Compare that visual hodge-podge with the elegant simplicity of the Mercedes-Benz symbol, or the Corvette crossed flags. No contest.)

One might say that I adapted human-potential-movement principles to the practice of automobile modification -- principles such as bring out what’s there rather than impose changes that don’t fit the individual.

For a simple example: I emulated the blend-in character of the factory exhaust tip -- but not its shape, as the exhaust didn’t “sing” well through it -- by removing the big, shiny, double-walled tip from the sport exhaust system I’d had installed and substituting ipd’s “economy” exhaust tip (smaller in diameter but also double-walled), which I then had ceramic-coated in dark gray. Aside from my desire for a subtle appearance -- what a car-mod acquaintance calls “stealth exhaust” -- I’d had a musician’s-ear sort of hunch that the smaller tip would provide a more focused sound than the big one did. The hunch proved accurate. The change brought out what was there, and it fit the rest.

The 850’s designers had made my visual-modification task very easy by creating a great-looking body that, like all great auto bodies, appears to be moving even when standing still.

As this T5 evolved, it went from reasonably fast to Adrenal Energy. For a mid-size, all-around, four-door sedan, the car is fast – with very low emissions and significantly improved gas mileage.

The improvements so far:

Master plan (goals, ideas, product choices, misc. decisions): Benjamin Hoff
Installation work & various mechanical & electrical modifications: HM Motorsports
Engine rebuilding & tuning: ARD Tuning
Body & paint work: Terry’s Kustom Auto
Ceramic coating: Finish Line Coatings
Front end clear film wrap: Apex Auto Spa
Photos by Terry & Laurie Morris and (the last 8) Benjamin Hoff

October 2012
Revised 2013 and 2016

May 30, 2013

After I'd had 465cc injectors (more precise) and a high-capacity fuel pump (more reliable) installed, Volvo-performance genius Robert Arnold of ARD Tuning retuned the ECU for the most efficient air/fuel mix throughout the power curve -- a step often neglected when installing such equipment, the neglect of which results in an engine that runs richer than it needs to -- and tweaked the fuel-consumption display to more accurately register the performance of the new mix. (Incidentally, Volvo engines can safely run leaner than those of other manufacturers, although Volvo doesn't seem to know it. These engines are tough.)

Recently, in three weeks of testing for fuel consumption, I came up with these figures: an average of 27 miles per gallon in town, 38 on the freeway. On long, level stretches of freeway (a rarity around here), the car averaged 41 mpg. The testing was done using regular-grade gasoline. The freeway testing was carried out in light traffic at 65 miles per hour -- the posted speed limit of the freeway I used -- without employing cruise control.

Compare the above numbers with the stock 850's 20/28 -- EPA figures that were matched by the instrument cluster's "Average mpg" fuel-consumption-display figures before the car was modified.

September 9, 2013

Occasionally, amid all the hype and trend-following verbiage in the automotive magazine world, a writer breaks free and says something different, as in the following quotations.

As this phenomenon doesn’t occur very often, I have only two recent examples to present here. I wanted to include them because I was impressed by their authors’ intelligence, integrity, and fad-bucking courage.

The first example is excerpted from an editorial titled "All for the Glory: But where’s the performance?" from the July 2013 issue of MODIFIED, written by Editor-in-Chief Peter Tarach:

...I want a vehicle that can be driven hard without the worry of taking off a front lip or cutting through a tire. I guess my mind-set about cars is a bit different from the trendy stance movement.

Don’t get me wrong, I love how slammed cars look (there’s a very low 350Z in this very issue), but I guess I’m just not sure what the point is. I feel a sense of discomfort seeing Evos, STIs, and FR-Ses slammed so low that their performance -- and these are some of the finest performance machines in our scene -- has been completely compromised.

I’ve always preached, "Do what you like to your car" and "Don’t care what others think or say," but there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach it. You can have a classy, low-slung ride that retains (or even improves upon) its corner-carving ability without having tires stretched over wheels poking out so far that you have to run 6 degrees of negative camber... There is such a thing as too much lip, too much camber, and too much tire stretch.

...If you’ve got the money to buy a second car and assemble it to show-spec status, then the more power to you, but I know most of you are using your car as your primary means of transportation, and that’s where I’d urge you to check your inner stance fanboy at the door and retain some function before you take the form part of the equation too far...

The second example is excerpted from "Innovation, imagination, optimization? Ok: But bring back beauty, too" by Robert Cumberford, from the July/August 2013 issue of the English language / Italian language publication AUTO & DESIGN:

In reporting on the Geneva motor show this year, I was critical of the Lamborghini Veneno prototype, noting that the company had built its reputation on "cars of great beauty and astonishing performance," also saying I thought "it’s time for Lamborghini to reflect, regroup, and re-establish some guiding principles." On reflection, it would have been better to substitute "the industry" for Lamborghini in that phrase, because I find that most companies are making cars without much beauty... and certainly without the engineering integrity of the Italian specialist.

...The American motor industry has been much maligned for its stylistic excesses, but deserves recognition for having created, along with over-chromed multicolored monsters in the Fifties, some all-time design icons, ...intemporal beauties still admired for their elegance and restraint, just as the whole world admires Lamborghinis from the Sixties for those same attributes. I believe that there is still scope for beauty in popular cars, and that the first mass producer to create such a design will benefit enormously. All it takes is the courage to be different from competitors. And design ability, of course.

I’ll add my own suggestion for automotive designers and redesigners: Forget about going for The New Look, because it will soon be old. In the auto world, the latest New Look is old practically as soon as it’s out there, and the aging process is speeding up. Instead, go for Timeless. That approach worked for Audrey Hepburn’s clothing and hair styles. It worked for Scandinavian furniture and lighting. Every now and then -- whenever it’s utilized -- it works for automobiles, too. The '57 Thunderbird, the Avanti (especially the post-Studebaker models), the DeLorean, and almost any Corvette since 1953 -- they look just as good today as they did when they were introduced. That’s because they were designed to be better than and different from the other, now mostly forgotten, cars of their day -- not just designed to be new.

October 19, 2015

Volvo 850 Turbo


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