By the time this piece gets published, I’ll be headed a bit south and west of home in a 2020 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, with a cheap old Volvo strapped to a trailer behind me. Last year, Out Motorsports hosted a Top Gear-style challenge, in which we took $1,500 all-wheel-drive vehicles off-roading. This year, we’re hosting another challenge with the same budget, but we’re taking “cars your grandparents love” to two days of rallycross.
In true Top Gear style, participants have been instructed to keep quiet about their cheap Grandma-car purchases until we all arrive at the event. Some of us purchased cars as early as February, and it’s been massively difficult to keep everything under wraps. But with just a few hours to go, and my competitors all on the road, I figured I could let everyone else in on my purchase.
Finding my 1998 Volvo S70 T5M
I wasn’t looking for a Volvo when I went Craigslist-shopping earlier this year. Truthfully, I wanted an early-1990s Lincoln Town Car like what my one grandma actually owned. Unfortunately, finding a car listed on the internet that’s in “as advertised” condition and presented by a seller who can communicate is rare. So, I expanded my reach to “anything except a BMW.” I brought a 2001 BMW X5 to last year’s challenge and figured that, after 12 BMWs, I should branch out and try owning something else.
In any case, I found this car on my local Craigslist, about ten minutes from my home. I am not an expert on Volvos, but I came across the listing while paying full attention to a conference call and saw three magic words: Volvo. Turbo. Manual. I texted the seller as the call ended and I basically sprinted to the Hyundai Venue I was reviewing that week, pointing it in the vague direction of Tyson’s Corner, where the car was listed. The seller was wishy-washy at first, claiming he had others who were interested. I texted him from a red light. “I am literally on the way now with cash, can you meet me at the Trader Joe’s?”
That text convinced the seller, and minutes later, I met Fraser and his pewter-colored 1998 Volvo S70.
“I’m Not Making it a Racecar. Well, Maybe a Little.”
Fraser was a delight to chat with, and as we stood apart with masks donned in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I learned all about his Volvo S70 and lengthy ownership. Fraser went car shopping in 1999 and, for whatever reason, sought out this exact car. He wanted a Pewter Metallic Volvo S70 sedan with the high-pressure “T5” turbocharged five-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission. He found this car, “the one,” in Northern Virginia. The first owner sold it after about 18 months and 25,000 miles of driving.
The Volvo found its way to Fraser’s garage in mid-1999 and stayed there until he and I met at Trader Joe’s, 21 years and 270,000 miles later. Even when Fraser had married and had kids, the Volvo stuck around. He and his wife both had other cars to drive for “kid duty,” and the Volvo stuck around as a third “fun car” of sorts. Fraser’s kids grew up and moved out, and the Volvo endured. Fraser’s career grew and he purchased a string of newer BMW sedans to drive, but he could never bother to sell his trusty companion. He’d spared little expense over the years, and showed me a manilla folder with receipts for parts and repair, starting with the car’s pre-delivery inspection at Don Beyer Volvo with just one mile on the odometer.
With all that said, Fraser wanted to ensure his old friend went to another good home. I told him of my racing hobby, and he asked if I’d be stripping the Volvo down to become a full-on racecar. “Well, not quite,” I said, “but I’m doing this thing with some friends and this is a perfect car for the job.” Fraser called off the other interested buyers, satisfied that I was an acceptable choice, and about twelve hours later, we met again to exchange money, keys, and the Volvo’s title.
Discovering the Rarity of my Manual-Transmission Volvo S70 T5
While waiting to transfer registration into my name, I started researching the car I’d excitedly purchased on most-of-a-whim. The enthusiasts over at SwedeSpeed welcomed me and informed me that I’d purchased an incredibly rare car. Volvo imported just 633 S70s with a manual transmission over three model years. All manual-transmission S70s that made it to the States had the T5 engine and front-wheel-drive. My 1998 Volvo S70 T5 is one of 361 imported for the 1998 model year. The 1998 S70s are allegedly sought after more than the ’99 and ’00 “T5M” models as 1998 was the final model year with a throttle cable, instead of a troublesome electronic throttle module.
As I marveled in the rarity of my handsome but rather staid rallycross machine, I organized the repair records and understood just how much it had been cared for over its lifetime. Though the rallycross challenge is all about cheap cars, I decided to use quality parts to repair anything needed as I prepared the Volvo for our adventure. Whether I keep the car or sell it to a fellow enthusiast, it’s worth carrying on the level of dedication Fraser started so long ago.
For those who don’t speak Volvo, the Volvo S70 (and wagon cousin, V70) are the facelifted version of the Volvo 850, which was the brand’s first front-wheel-drive car. Every S70 came with an inline five-cylinder engine, with base cars using a naturally-aspirated variant and mid-trim GLT using a low-pressure turbo bolted to the 2.4 liter engine.
My S70 T5 uses a hotted-up 2.3 liter version of the “white block” 20-valve inline-five. With a high-pressure turbocharger, the T5 pushes out 236 horsepower and 244 lb-ft of torque. Those were pretty impressive numbers for 1998 and they still hold up today! Most S70 T5s, like I mentioned, came with a four-speed automatic transmission, though mine has the cable-shifted manual instead.
Preparing the 295,000 Mile Volvo S70 T5M for Rallycross
With the odometer headed for 296,000 miles, I figured my “new” Volvo S70 T5M would need some work. I dropped it off where its life in the States began in late 1997 – Don Beyer Volvo in Falls Church, Virginia. My friend Matt is a service advisor at the dealership and took the car in for a post-purchase inspection, state safety inspection, and passenger airbag recall that was somehow still open. I braced for bad news, figuring I’d get a call informing me the subframe was cracked in half or something else ridiculous.
Matt called me a few hours after I dropped the car off. “It’s really nice, it needs a radiator and CV boots and brake pads but otherwise you’re good.” What a relief! I asked that the shop tackle the radiator and CV boot replacement, and I went to a friend’s house to take care of the rest.
Ultimately, I ended up replacing brake pads and rotors on all corners, the sway bar end links front and rear, the struts and shocks, and their related top mounts. My brake pads were worn almost to the backing plates, and the upgraded Koni Yellow shock absorbers (installed 120,000 miles ago in 2011) were leaking fluid while their bodies rusted away.
After that work, I had the car re-aligned and decided it was ready for competition. It’s sitting on new Riken Raptor tires (the finest performance tire available from Walmart) and with Volvo’s TRACS traction control system switched off, will undoubtedly provide some sort of experience this weekend, from mediocre to huh-pretty-good.
Following Along on Our Adventures
We’ll be posting a full recap of our challenge on YouTube, so take a minute to subscribe to the channel! If you’ve got nothing better to do this weekend than watch a handful of worn-out luxury cars be thrashed in the dirt, we’ll be posting on our Instagram throughout the event.