Looking back through history, barely a handful of cars have significantly changed the way cars are designed, marketed, engineered or built. Obvious ones that come to mind immediately are the Ford Model T, Willys (Jeep), and the Austin Mini. Fans of the VW Beetle might include it, but apart from a handful of cars (the Corvair), its design was not one that changed things. It's definitely fair to include the original Audi quattro (yes, in lower case) on the list.
As Audi celebrates the 35th anniversary of the introduction of the ur-quattro, as the original model is affectionately called, it's worth looking back at how it came to be and how it has influenced the design and engineering of so many performance cars since 1980.
Prior to then, four-wheel-drive systems were mostly found in trucks and off-road vehicles. And, apart from a handful of vehicles such as the Range Rover and the AMC Eagle, they were part-time systems. Jensen, the low-volume British maker of luxury cars, produced the Jensen FF with a permanent all-wheel-drive system back in 1966, but it only sold a few hundred vehicles.
Audi Goes Rallying
In the mid-1970s, Audi was doing some limited rallying with the FWD Audi 80 (4,000 in the USA), but the company realized it would need something more potent if it were to compete successfully in the WRC. Audi engineers witnessed how well the Audi-designed Iltis, (VW's off-road vehicle for the military) traversed snow and wondered if its AWD system could work in an Audi 80.
One of those engineers happened to be Dr. Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, who already had a track record, having developed the famous Porsche 917 race car. So they began shoehorning parts from the Iltis in some rally cars and conducted secret tests that proved they were on the right track. Piëch and others convinced the Audi and VW bigwigs that a car with AWD would not only make a great sporty luxury car for all seasons but also a formidable rally car. After some lobbying, the FIA modified rules to allow AWD cars to compete in rallies. Since other manufacturers—including Ford, which had tried unsuccessfully to develop AWD cars for rallycross—nobody thought AWD cars would take the sport by storm.
In September 1979, Audi invited Hannu Mikkola, then the top Ford factory driver to try a prototype Audi quattro. He was so impressed that he signed up immediately as an Audi team driver. It was not long after that the rumors began to circulate—Audi was going to compete in the WRC championship with an AWD car with Mikkola. The rally fraternity found this rumor hard to believe. "Why would a front-running WRC driver leave an established team to drive for one with no track record in the WRC?" Ironically, Ford had to confirm that Mikkola was indeed leaving its team before naysayers began to believe the rumors.
Needless to say, when the first production quattro was unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show in 1980, it immediately drew rave reviews. Far from being just a homologation special, which would only require that 500 be built, it was an honest road-going, entry-level, luxury coupe with incredible handling and the ability to traverse roads in bad conditions with aplomb. What's more, unlike other vehicles with four-wheel-drive systems at the time, it was not intended for off-road use.
Essentially, the breakthrough that allowed Audi to build a low-slung road-going AWD car was the ability to use a modified Audi 5000 gearbox without the need for a transfer case. Since the Audi 80 and 5000 used an engine mounted longitudinally, the driveshafts for the front wheels came out of the side of the front of the gearbox. All the engineers had to do was use a hollow output shaft with a secondary shaft running through the center to take drive to the rear wheels, which used a modified front suspension from the 5,000. It was an elegant solution that did not add height and little weight (about 167 pounds) to a regular FWD car.
Instead of building a rally car using the four-door Audi 80, Audi decided to make a distinct coupe, which was styled by Martin Smith who worked alongside J Mays at Audi. At launch, the quattro was powered by a turbocharged 2.1L five-cylinder engine producing 200 hp in European trim or 167 hp with U.S. specs. Although the car was not conventionally handsome, it had a mean look to it, which was well suited to its future role as a halo car that would transform rallying and Audi's image.
Totally Changing the Face of Rallying and Racing
Audi announced its intention to compete in the WRC at the same time it introduced the quattro in 1980. The first year would be regarded as a development year. Initially, the team would have two cars with Mikkola and Arne Hertz in one and Michele Mouton and Fabrizio Pons in the second factory car.
The first win for the quattro actually came early in 1981 during its first outing at a rally in Austria, which was not a round of the WRC. Only a month or so later, Mikkola took a commanding win in the WRC Swedish Rally. Audi's competitors had been served notice. No wonder they all immediately started working on their own AWD rally specials.
Inevitable teething troubles prevented Audi from winning more than three rounds in 1981, but history was made when Michele Mouton won the San Remo rally—the first time a woman had ever won a WRC event.
Everything jelled in 1982 and Audi won the manufacturer's championship with Mouton taking three wins and Mikkola two. The following year, Mikkola won the Driver's championship but Audi had to be content with second place in the Manufacturer's championship. In 1984, Stig Blomqvist won the Driver's championship and Audi took the Manufacturer's laurels for the second time.
By 1984, other manufacturers had built even more specialized mid-engined rally cars with the introduction of the Group B class. They quickly made the original quattro uncompetitive. Rather than build a mid-engine quattro, Audi created the quattro Sport, which had 12.6 inches chopped out of the wheelbase. It featured a special steel/kevlar/fiberglass body with an even more powerful 306hp version of the 2.2L engine. Blomqvist took it to victory in its debut at the Corsica round.
In 1985, Walter Rohrl took the only win for Audi at the San Remo round. It turned out to be the last win for a quattro in the WRC as Audi (and Ford) withdrew from the WRC in 1986 following the fateful Portugal rally. Not long after, the FIA abandoned Group B cars on safety grounds.
It was not the last anyone would see of the monstrous quattro Sport, though, as Audi sent one over with Michele Mouton to compete in the Pikes Peak hillclimb in 1985. A year after she had first tackled the event in a regular quattro rally car, she won and broke the record, much to chagrin of the locals. They were much happier the following year when Bobby Unser drove the car to set an even faster time. A year later, it was Walter Rohrl 's turn and he knocked another 20 seconds off the record with the first under-11-minute run up the 12.4-mile dirt road.
Audi's U.S. arm entered the SCCA ProRally series in 1982 just after the road-going quattro was launched in the USA. With accomplished American John Buffum at the wheel, the team took the championship three times in the next five years. In 1988, it decided to tackle the TransAm series with an Audi 5000 quattro with Hans Stuck as driver. The car was so fast in all conditions that Audi won the championship title with ease. The SCCA then promptly banned AWD cars from the series! Undaunted, Audi switched to a 700hp space-framed Audi 4000 and competed in several rounds of the IMSA GTO series with Stuck and Hurley Haywood. They garnered several wins, but mechanical problems and accidents meant the team had to be content with second place in the championship. Audi decide to mothball the program in the USA and instead turn its attention to competing in the DTM series in Germany.
The rest, as they say, is history as road-racing versions of numerous Audis progressed by leaps and bounds, culminating in the dominance shown at Le Mans with 13 wins in the past 15 years. The ur-quattro certainly changed the image of Audi's image and helped transform rallying and racing.
quattro for All Audis
The first generation of the ur-quattro had a 50/50 split of power front/rear wheels with center and rear differentials that needed to be manually locked for maximum traction. In 1988, these were replaced by two Torsen diffs that worked their magic automatically distributing power to opposing wheels, as grip was lost. Since then, there have been several iterations of the quattro system, which have been offered in every Audi model made since 1985.
During its 11-year run from 1980 to 1991, more than 11,000 ur-quattros were sold worldwide. Only about 650 quattros were sold in the USA between 1982 and 1986. To date, Audi has sold more than 6 million Audi models with a quattro system, just under half of all models it has produced. In the USA, about 90 percent of all Audis currently sold are quattro models.
In the summer of 1979, I visited Audi's factory in Ingolstadt in order to test drive the Audi 80 rally car for an article I was writing. A friend of mine who was a journalist with Auto Motor und Sport told me to ask Jurgen Stockmar, who was an engineer in charge of the rally program at the time, about the "Quattro." He would not tell me more. So when I asked Stockman, he said, "Who told you that?" After we'd established that we had a mutual friend, Stockman proceeded to tell me all about the quattro but said I could only write about it as a rumor and not mention the word quattro. Obviously, I was not the only journalist with this privileged information as my rumor matched those of others at the time.
I was not told that the car would be a road-going sports coupe, just that it would be a revolutionary rally car. Imagine my delight when the actual quattro was launched in 1980. I revisited Ingolstadt a few weeks afterward when I was allowed to borrow a quattro for a couple of hours. It turns out that I was one of the very first journalists to try a car on my own. Others had driven it briefly in Geneva but under the watchful eye of Audi engineers and PR folk. My expectations were high, and the reality matched them. Even though I did not get to drive in snow or rain, I was astounded by the car's handling.
In 1981, I went to Greece to see the quattro rally cars in action at the Acropolis Rally. I was lucky enough to have a ride with Michele Mouton on a stage set up for demonstrations. To this day, it remains the most exciting ride I've ever experienced. The way she threw the car through corners was amazing. But watching her feet dance between the three pedals as she drove at near race speeds was even more fascinating.
The next time I drove a quattro was at the media launch of the U.S. version in 1982 in California. We got to drive the cars from Badwater at the bottom of Death Valley with instructions to go as high up Mount Whitney, 135 miles away, as possible. In no time at all, a procession of 12 bright-red Audi quattros was scorching across Death Valley at more than double the 55-mph speed limit. Sadly, by the time we got to the snow level on Mount Whitney, we came to a locked gate. Nevertheless, a few hours later, we were driving the cars in snow at Mammoth.
From there, I drove to Arizona and on one stretch of two-lane highway, I managed to traverse every corner at double the suggest speed, although I admit I chickened out when I came to one with a 55 recommended speed! I let Malcolm Smith and an amateur rally driver try the car and they were both impressed, even though they found the handling characteristics at the limit on dirt took some learning, as the experience was so different from a RWD rally car or off-road racer.
In 1993, I was finally able to drive a Sport quattro, one of a handful privately imported into the USA. The one I drove belonged to Frank Beddor Jr., the founder of the quattro Club, which is now the Audi Club of North America. The Sport was, as I excpected, a handful. Turbo lag meant the revs had to be kept high to obtain maximum performance, and it was so brutal that it was honestly not much fun driving on a highway with other traffic to contend with. But that sound—wow!
Not surprisingly, with my quattro experiences early on, it went on my list of aspirational cars to own. Sadly, I could not afford the then high cost of $35,000 or so for a new one. I had to wait to fulfill my desire 10 years later when I purchased an '83 ur-quattro that I purchased for $10,000. It was in pretty good condition, and I modified it a little during my three years of ownership. It was featured in the December 1993 issue of european car.