There was a time when Volvo conquered all challengers on the race track winning series like the 1985 European Touring Car Championship and 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship. The Volvo 242 Group-A Turbo did this ahead of much-loved enthusiast cars like the BMW 635 CSi, Alfa Romeo GTV/6, Volkswagen Golf GTI, Toyota AE86, Ford Mustang, Rover SD1, and the V12-powered Jaguar XJ-S Coupé.
In Australia, it even trounced Holden VK Commodores, Mazda RX-7s, and the DR30 Nissan Skyline.
And once I tell you that Volvo was required to produce 500 homologation specials in order to satisfy the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile's Group A rulebook, you'll wonder why the 242 Group-A Turbo isn't a highly sought-after "modern" classic, with the same auction results as the Porsche 911 Turbo or BMW M3.
You may think I'm crazy, but the specs don't lie: Volvo made a 242 with 350+ horsepower in race trim, from a still-bulletproof iron "red" block 2.1-litre 4-cylinder turbocharged, water-injected engine. At its most potent, the car boasted a power-to-weight ratio better than a C5 Chevrolet Corvette—all in a year when Toto won Album of the Year at the Grammys for Toto IV.
Top speed? In excess of 260 km/h (162 mph). Serious business. Of course, this was all done with a minimum of computer control, with no airbags or forward collision alert systems.
What the car did have, however, were perfect-in-the-'80s 11x16 rear wheels. A five-speed manual transmission, from Getrag. AP Racing brakes. A limited slip rear differential. Hell, even centre-lock wheels were an option! It's the most BMW M Division Volvo ever got, and that's saying something. (As an aside, have you heard of Volvo R-Sport? If not, your mind will be blown.)
The only problem, well, the biggest problem was that Volvo is often confused by racing. Whether it was a selfish, loose interpretation of the rule book or a desire to minimize the expense of its racing program, the company decided to comply with FIA Group A homologation rules by building 500 242 Group-A Turbos in Europe in 1983, with one twist.
Five hundred were built, but then shipped to the U.S.
Five hundred street cars, with most to be sold in the U.S., were given homologation VINs and desirable trim and mechanical parts for Group A success, including the more streamlined "flat" hood and B21ET European-spec engine (with intercooler!). Price? More than $18,000 in 1983. A handful among them (between 23-30, depending on the source) returned to Europe and were sold to privateer teams.
The street-specification 1983 "flathood" 242 Turbo is a definite collector's car, if you can find one. There's a detailed inspection involved and a lot of small checks, checks that might just be worth it if you see a 242 Coupé in your area for sale.
Examples deported or shipped or whatever to race teams in Europe were treated to the full Volvo arsenal of performance parts at their disposal, including a four-corner pneumatic jack system. Those 11x16 wheels mentioned above? Magnesium!
When one of the genuine race cars comes up for sale, the price is well north of 100,000 Euros, which makes sense because the car is awesome. It's too obscure to be worth much to big-time collectors, however, which is also awesome.
One you won't be able to get your hands on, however, is the final-final 240RXT, a car that in 1986 had been weaponized to at least 375 horsepower, and fitted with a rudimentary traction control system that improved lap times by a second or two—Volvo kept it.
Giving a generous buffer for inflation and provenance, less than $300,000 Usd. is probably enough today to take home one of the actual race-winning examples—an amount less than what low-mileage Ford GTs were going for in Monterey last month. I know which one I'd rather have, but then again, I am enough of a fanboy to have a 1:18 model of the car on my desk.
If you just want to see the car in action, the only one I know of that regularly competes is German Volvo tuner Heico Sportiv's ex-Works car.
High-performance Volvos don't come around all that often (once every 10 years or so, I kid you not), but if you're looking for a modern-day Volvo with performance to better that of the 242 Group-A, the new Polestar S60 and V60 (wagon!) models should come close. Sadly, their hoods are more "bulge" than "flat". At least there's a racing version of the car…
Note: This story would not be possible without the incredible community of Volvo enthusiasts who have been piecing together the story of this unique car for years, the first two sources especially. There's also a whole lot more to the story, including Volvo being busted for using illegal fuel…