Get to Know the Turbo Legend from the Nordics
If you’re a car enthusiast, you probably know that there are good engines and then there are GOOD engines. Every brand has their own bulletproof motor fondly remembered by the entire automotive industry. BMW had created history with the m54. On the other hand, Toyota had basically cornered the tuner market with the beastly 2Jz. The list of engines goes on and on until you get to the end of the line where the cool but quiet kids hang. Right there in the shadows of the automotive ‘Breakfast Club’ lies the Volvo B230FT “Redblock“ in all of its glory!
The Beating Heart of a Proper Turbobrick
Volvo enthusiasts are a small bunch of very loud diehard fans. They’re special in every way imaginable, especially the purists who have fully embraced the blocky design of older Volvos. At the very center of this group’s altar lies a single engine. You’ve guessed it – the B230FT “Redblock.”
For the turbo brickers, as they like to call themselves, the B230FT is the alpha and omega of tuning. It is the Swedish equivalent of a small block V8. This 2.3-liter engine became so popular all over the world that people started doing the craziest swaps. As a result, you could find this Swedish multitool in just about anything that had enough room to accept it.
So what made it so famous in the first place?
The Trademark Volvo Simplicity
To say that Volvos of the era stood out would be an understatement. This company has more or less forged their aesthetic ideal in the ‘80s, changing pretty much nothing throughout the ‘90s. Those who wanted to drive a Volvo had to accept the fact that sleek aerodynamics was simply not on the menu despite the entire industry slowly shifting from straight edges to curves.
The automotive industry could go where ever it wanted, but Volvo was to remain rectangular and unequivocally Swedish. And so it did. Such a decision had several implications.
For one, the company had let everyone know that simplicity is the name of the game. Volvo was to make utilitarian cars, and that policy went way past the exterior design. It went all the way down to the engine.
One quick look at the blown-up image of the B230FT “Redblock“ reveals just how elegantly simple it is once you go down to the bare metal. The Swedes took great care to design a motor that was easy to pack, easy to work on, and generally useful.
Innards Designed to Produce Horsepower
A glance on the cylinder head reveals the obvious slant 4 format that makes routing the intake and exhaust manifolds very easy. The engine block is made of cast iron and has a solid, sturdy closed deck. Overall, the entire package is made to be efficient.
However, this Swedish car efficiency isn’t like the German one. There’s something fairly savage about the way things get done as you get closer to the arctic circle, at least when it comes to the mid-80s, early 90s automotive engineering. For all the safety innovations and general kumbaya attitude we’re used to seeing from the Swedes, they know how to make a motor that is ready to pillage and plunder if you point it in the right direction.
The B230FT comes with a crossflow aluminum cylinder head that packs 8 valves, a single belt-driven camshaft with 2 sodium-filled valves per cylinder. This configuration is known as the 530 head. There’s also the 531 head that Volvo introduced on similar engines. The 531 was never shipped on the B230FT, but it soon became the head of choice for B230FT tuners.
Moving deeper into the engine, we run into dished pistons. Volvo had decided to dish the pistons to lower the compression. This was done to facilitate the needs of a hefty Mitsubishi TD05 or a Garrett TB254 turbocharger. The F in this engine’s designation marks the dished pistons while the T stands for ‘turbocharger.’ Simple, elegant, and to the point.
B230FT – The First of the Low Friction Gas Guzzlers
The B230FT was introduced in 1985 and marked one of the first of the so-called “Low Friction” engines that Volvo rolled out that year. Introduced to replace the also legendary B21 and B23, the B230FT had big shoes to fill. One of the main changes the new engine brought to the table were shorter pistons, smaller main bearings, longer connecting rods, and more counterweights on the crankshaft compared to its predecessors.
To accommodate the different rod, they’ve moved the wrist pin slightly higher. By doing so, Volvo had created all the conditions necessary to induce what is now known as a “piston slap.” In other words, the piston would teeter back and forth on the higher wrist pin, ‘slapping’ the cylinder walls and causing damage over time.
Since this issue took some time to manifest, it wasn’t until 1989 that Volvo addressed it with the ‘K’ engine update. In that standard Volvo fashion, they’ve rolled out this technical update somewhere in the middle of the year, making it hard to pinpoint when the first ‘K’ engines appeared. Either way, the piston slapping issue was considered to be pretty rare, even on the early engines.
The ‘K’ Engine Update
Some would even say that piston slapping wasn’t all that big of a deal. They’d cite reports of people driving their slapping B230FTs for 100k miles with engine noise being the only real side effect. However, the ‘K’ update brought a number of welcomed improvements.
Volvo had decided to use larger main bearings that were no longer 55mm, but 63mm. The main bearings were also moved from #3 journal to the #5 journal. Then there’s the thrust bearing that was also moved to the #5 journal. Lastly, they’ve introduced a larger PCV oil separator.
Then, in the early ’90s, Volvo introduced a whole bunch of other upgrades to this engine. Things such as longer piston skirts, fatter connecting rods became standard while they’ve also added oil squirters.
As a result, there was an emerging trend of taking these newer engines and installing them in older cars. Despite being through two cycles of upgrades, the mid- ’90s B230FT “Redblock” would still bolt right into an older gen car. It was a perfect swap. The only more popular swap was the 16v Penta marine variation, but that’s a story for another time.
Unlocking the Hidden Boost
Out of the box, B230FT wasn’t all that impressive in terms of power. Factory figures stated some 165hp, which allowed the 200/700/900 series cars to hit sixty in just under 10 seconds. What quickly became evident was that you could take this somewhat asthmatic engine and squeeze much more power out of it through fairly basic tuning.
Today, it’s not unusual to see a pieced together B230FT that delivers over 300hp at the wheels. If you’re interested in seeing what such madness looks like, check out Mike Kornely’s outrageously cool 242 that we have the pleasure of seeing at eEuroFest every year. You can learn more about that build here.
When the B230FT first appeared, it had raised quite a few eyebrows. Volvo purists and B23 diehard fans had a hard time accepting the new kid on the block. Why? Because the good ole’ B23 had forged pistons, a forged crankshaft, and forged con-rods post-1980.
This new engine showed up with skinny con-rods, different pistons, and a cast crankshaft. The old school turbo brickers were none too pleased. However, as time went by, the B230FT slowly started winning the hearts and minds of the community.
A Workhorse that Keeps on Giving
The Penta engine we’ve mentioned earlier added towards this reconciliation between the old school and new school. Designed for use in boats, Penta had 16 valves and a forged crankshaft – a real treat for anyone who was into tuning.
The B230FT is a stark contrast to the S55 detailed in the last Get To Know An Engine piece we did. Compared to the S55, the B230FT “Redblock” is a simple machine, a real workhorse that pushes on through thick and thin thanks to its low tolerances and overall utilitarian engineering.
Being surrounded by modern engines that use complex electronics to achieve optimal performance both in terms of power and fuel economy puts something like the B230FT into perspective. It was one of the last engines of its kind – a flexible powerhouse that you could play with endlessly. Compared to modern motors, the B230FT was savage but easily tamed.
Still Alive and Kicking
It’s no wonder that we‘re still seeing these beasts eating tarmac all over the world. Turbobrickers are still very much alive and well, still enjoying these engines as well as their predecessors. Despite having hundreds of thousands of miles on the clock, most of these cars are still going strong.
Seeing how the world is slowly turning away from the gas-guzzling fun, we can only hope that these Volvo beasts keep resisting and reminding us what turbo fun used to be all about.