Forty years ago, in March 1980, the Audi Quattro made its public debut at the Geneva motor show.
It may be that there has never been a more important launch of a new Audi before or since. The car almost immediately became a motoring icon, achieved devastating success in motorsport and established Audi as a leader of a technology few other manufacturers had taken seriously.
That technology was four-wheel drive, so inherent to the car that it was included in its name: quattro is the Italian word for ‘four’. In German, it’s vier, pronounced ‘fear’, a word which could describe what it inspired in drivers of rival models and occasionally its own.
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In the winter of 1976/77, Audi employees spent some time doing winter testing in Sweden. They took along a military vehicle called the Volkswagen Iltis (pictured), also sold, with a different engine, as the Citroën C-44.
Despite having what would now be regarded as a very primitive 4x4 system, the Iltis was far more capable in snow than any of the front-wheel drive Audis present. This led to the introduction of the Quattro three years later. Key figures in the process included project leader Jörg Bensinger and future Volkswagen CEO Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche.
Derived from the 80
Rather than design a completely new car, Audi used the coupe version of the existing 80 (4000 in North America) as the basis of the Quattro. Like many other Audis at the time and for several years afterwards, the 80 had its engine mounted lengthways ahead of the front axle.
From a dynamic point of view this was a terrible idea, but four-wheel drive helped compensate for it. Four-wheel drive does not provide extra traction, but it does mean that a car fitted with it is less likely to lose traction because relatively little power is transferred to each wheel.
The 4x4 system
In early Quattros, engine power was sent to the front and rear wheels on a more or less 50/50 basis. Power transfer was limited by a lack of grip at either end, though the driver could overcome this by manually locking the centre and rear differentials, which caused interesting handling if done at the wrong time.
Audi would later develop a Torsen (torque-sensing) differential which could send up to 75% of the power to the axle with better traction. Modern Audis have a still more sophisticated system.
The engine of the Quattro was not used at this time in the 80/4000. It was a 197bhp 2144cc turbocharged unit available in the larger 200. Unusually for other manufacturers, though not for Audi which had been doing this sort of thing since 1976, it had five cylinders and a very distinctive sound.
In rallying, which soon became an important part of the Quattro story, turbocharged engines were assumed to be 40% larger than they actually were. 2144cc plus 40% equals 3002cc, slightly over a three-litre limit introduced in the 1980s, so later rally Quattro engines were reduced to 2133cc.
The state of rallying
In 1979, while the Quattro was still in development, the regulations of the World Rally Championship were altered to permit four-wheel drive for the first time.
Competing manufacturers paid no attention to this and continued to use rear-wheel drive models. In 1979 the most successful car was the Ford Escort RS1800 (pictured), while Fiat dominated the following season with its 131 Abarth.
On sale in Europe
Mainland European customers were able to buy a Quattro from late 1980. The intention had been for it to be a low-volume model, but demand was so high that it went into full-scale production, remaining on the market for eleven years.
To begin with, every Quattro was left-hand drive, an inconvenience for the UK market which did not stop Autocar describing it in May 1981 as “vastly satisfying and enjoyable”. Audi began producing right-hand drive versions in late 1982.
World Rally debut
Audi introduced the Quattro to top-level rallying in 1981, its first year in production. Considering what was to come, it was a modest debut. Rear-wheel drive cars continued to dominate, with Ari Vatanen winning the Drivers title in his privately-entered Ford Escort and Talbot securing the Manufacturers Championship after a good run with its Sunbeam Lotus.
However, with more power and better grip, the Audis were immediately competitive. Hannu Mikkola took victory in Sweden and Great Britain, while Michèle Mouton won the Italian round.
Although Walter Röhrl (later to become an Audi exponent himself) was the most successful driver in the 1982 WRC with his Opel Ascona, consistent performances by Mikkola and Mouton gave Audi its first Manufacturers title.
Mikkola became Drivers champion in 1983, though this time it was Lancia which showed the greatest consistency among the manufacturers, beating Audi by just two points out of over 100. Since then, World Rally Championships have only ever been won by four-wheel drive cars.
While all this was going on, Audi introduced the Quattro to North American markets in 1982 for the 1983 model year. Very similar to the ones offered in Europe, these cars sold in small numbers and were discontinued in 1986.
The market for four-wheel drive passenger cars in the US and Canada was limited. Before the Quattro came along, the only option was the AMC Eagle, which went out of production in December 1987.
Once the Quattro was well established and creating enormous publicity through the competition programme, Audi began to add four-wheel drive to its other model ranges. The word quattro (with a small ‘q’) has always been applied to these, as in the saloon-bodied non-turbo 80 quattro pictured above.
It was a neat piece of marketing. Every 4x4 Audi was associated, at least in name, with the cars people could watch on television hurtling through rally stages around the world.
1984 was the Quattro’s best year in World rallying. Audi used ten drivers including Mikkola, Mouton and new signing Röhrl, and began the season in spectacular fashion by locking out the podium in Monte Carlo and Sweden.
With five wins from twelve rounds, Stig Blomqvist comfortably won the Drivers title in the new Quattro A2, and Audi completed the double by beating Lancia to the Manufacturers Championship.
The ‘short’ Quattro
The most dramatic road-going Quattro of all was the Sport, built in very small numbers – just over 200 - in 1983 and 1984. The most obvious difference between this and other Quattros was the fact that this one had a much shorter wheelbase, the latest way of persuading a notoriously nose-heavy car to turn into corners. Its engine produced 306bhp in standard form, and the 0-60mph time was under five seconds.
There was only one reason for Audi to put this car on sale, and that was to allow it to remain competitive in rallying. As we’re about to find out, it worked, up to a point.
Even more extreme
The Sport Quattro led to a 1985 rally variant known as the S1 E2, which was even more extreme and reputedly produced around 600bhp in some forms, more than double what could be expected of a competitive rally car just five years earlier.
Although it was one of the dramatic cars ever seen in the sport, it had trouble keeping up with the mid-engined, four-wheel drive Peugeot 205 T16, which had almost nothing to do with the regular 205 hatchback. Although Audi built a Quattro-based mid-engined rival, it pulled out of rallying before that car had a chance to compete.
Audi’s involvement with the annual Pikes Peak hillclimb in Colorado began in 1985, when Michèle Mouton took overall victory in a Quattro. Local hero Bobby Unser repeated the feat the following year, and in 1987 – after Audi had withdrawn from rallying - Walter Röhrl became the first driver to climb the hill in under eleven minutes.
Peugeot won in the following two years with its 405 T16, but its best time, set by Ari Vatanen on his famous Climb Dance run in 1988, was only 0.63 seconds faster than Röhrl’s.
The Quattro 20v
Apart from a small increase in size to 2.2 litres, the engine in standard production Quattros remained more or less the same throughout the 1980s. The only major change came when Audi went from two valves per cylinder (one inlet, one exhaust) to four (two inlet, two exhaust), making 20 in all.
The 20-valve Quattro, known as the 20v, produced a maximum of 220bhp and was considerably quicker than the older 10-valve models.
Last of the line
Other than the 20-valve engine and a few styling upgrades, the Quattro remained in more or less original form throughout its life. Production finally came to an end after eleven years in May 1991. 11,452 examples had been built, but this relatively small number massively undercounts the impact that the car had on Audi’s image. Before Quattro, Audi was an expensive way to buy a Volkswagen. After it, it became a genuine rival for BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and a primary source of profits for the parent Volkswagen group.
A red Quattro had a starring role in the BBC television drama Ashes To Ashes, broadcast in three series in 2008-2010. The fact that it was right-hand drive was an anachronism, since the series was set in 1981, when all Quattros were left-hand drive. The car used for filming was actually built in 1983.
Another important legacy of the Audi Quattro its use of four-wheel drive. Nearly every Audi currently on sale has it as an option, and total small-q quattro production broke the eight-million mark in early 2017.
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