quattro (always with a lower-case “q” ). It’s difficult to find a word that has meant more to a carmaker than quattro to Audi. But the quattro concept goes beyond Audi and was to re-define the car world from the early 80’s until four-wheel drive became a common feature in all types of cars. So with the days getting shorter and the roads more slippery, and the original Audi quattro (Ur-quattro, as the Germans would say) celebrating its 40th birthday this year, let’s have a closer look at it, its brilliance as a rally car, and also at the genius of the late legend Ferdinand Piëch, without whom the quattro wouldn’t have happened.
To get some perspective we have to wind the clock back to the late 70’s. This wasn’t a very exciting period in the car world in general, and four-wheel drive was at the time something you only found in traditional utility cars like Land Rovers and G-wagons. In Ingolstadt, a bunch of talented Audi engineers under the leadership of Ferdinand Piëch had however started thinking about the possibilities of using four-wheel drive in normal passenger cars, thanks to a room-saving, innovative new differential system.
In parallel there was also talk in the rally world of allowing four-wheel drive on rally cars, which until then had been forbidden. As the visionary he was, Piëch saw the opportunity of developing a new, four-wheel drive sports car and enter it in the world rally championship such as to provide a unique marketing window. This was the first true example of what would become Audi’s long-lived slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik” (something like “head start through technology”). The quattro was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1980 and given the rally rules had been re-written in 1979 to allow for four-wheel drive, the timing was perfect.
Given the Audi quattro was a new concept when it was introduced, Audi weren’t really sure of the demand and modestly estimated it at a few hundred cars. They would be wrong by about 11.000, which was the total number of original Audi quattro’s built between 1980 and 1991! Using the Audi 80 chassis, the quattro also inherited the five-cylinder engine that had so far powered the Audi 100 and 200 (with turbo in the latter). The engine was an engineering tour de force in itself, born out of the need for a smoother engine than a four-cylinder, but in Audi’s case with too little room to fit a front-mounted, longitudinal six-cylinder engine, given the gearbox was placed right behind the engine.
The solution was one of the first mass-produced five-cylinder engines that would come to define Audi over many years almost as much as the quattro concept, and that was said to combine the smoothness of a six-cylinder with the fuel consumption of a four-pot. The first part is true, and it can be added that it does so with a very distinctive sound. The part on the fuel consumption is very much dependent on the driver… In the quattro, the turbo-boosted engine produced 200 hp in the 10-valve version until 1988, which was increased to 220 hp in the 20-valve version for the last three production years.
When you look at the quattro today, the “Vorsprung durch Technik” motto (sorry, sticking to the German version as the translation doesn’t sound as good…) quickly comes to mind. Not that the car is ugly, but it’s certainly not a design masterpiece (then again, neither was the Lancia Delta, the Renault Turbo 2 or other somewhat similar cars from the period). It does however look very purposeful, notably with the the lovely boxed arches that many years later would also come on cars like the Lancia Delta but were very much a first in the early 80’s. They also helped distinguish the quattro from the “standard”, 136 hp Audi Coupé. The interior has that lovely 80’s feel of hard plastic but offers lots of room for four and their luggage, meaning the quattro is a real all-rounder.
When you get behind the wheel, as in most 80’s cars you’re struck not only by the cheap plastic but also by the large windows and the excellent visibility. 200 hp is of course not a lot today, but then again the quattro weighed in at just under 1300 kgs and the turbo character means the car feels rather quick even by today’s standards, helped by an excellent, tight gearbox and, by 80’s standards, precise steering. It also feels solid, obviously not like a modern Audi but more so than many other cars from the period. It’s let down slightly by the breaks that feel soft and not very confidence-inspiring. All in all though, this is a car you can live very well with, knowing that as soon as a twisty back road opens up, the car is ready and will not let you down.
As was so often the case, Ferdinand Piëch had been right about entering Audi in the world rally championship and in the early 80’s the quattro became a true rally legend with a total of 23 race wins and four world championships until 1986, thanks to legendary drivers such as Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomquist, Michèle Mouton and of course Walter Röhrl. However, once other brands caught up, the quattro was soon a victim of the less-then-ideal weight distribution that five-cylinder engine pushed all the way to the front of the car caused. Audi stood no chance against the mid-engine competition from 1986 and onwards, but that’s a different story.
Interestingly, afraid that the “standard” quattro would be too big and heavy for the new Group B class, Audi presented the Sport Quattro in 1983, a 32 cm shortened group B car of which 164 homologation cars were built for road usage. However the Sport quattro was said to be more difficult to handle and never became as successful on the rally scene as the “standard” quattro. At around 200.000 DM the road version of the Sport quattro was Germany’s most expensive car in 1983, twice as expensive as a 911 Turbo. Today, Sport quattros don’t change owners very often but when they do, it’s at around EUR 500.000.
Should you wish to make the original quattro yours, the good news is that you can take off a zero of the Sport quattro price, as good “standard” quattros trade at around EUR 50.000 today. The 20 valve version from 1989 and onwards cost more but are hardly worth it. Ten years ago both could be had for less than half, but even today a good car, meaning one with a known history and a “tight” driving feel still remains a stable investment – and how could it be different, after all it’s an Audi!
PS. In a class that existed only between 1982 and 1986, the group B rally cars were some of the wildest and most powerful in history. Click the link below for a reminder of what it was like deep down in the Finnish forests, when a 550 hp Sport quattro flew by: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDRkHXMHqFo
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