All hail the mighty quattro – star of stage and screen

| 10 Jul 2013

Every era has its icons, from the Charleston, flappers and wireless broadcasts of the ’20s to ’90s Britpop, combats and Friends. Cars, too, can create sepia-toned memories of times long forgotten – or never experienced the first time around.

A Mini remains quintessential ’60s transport, while nothing sums up the 1970s quite like a brown Ford – be it Bodie’s Capri, Sweeney Consul or vinyl-roofed Cortina. For the 1980s, a decade dominated by cash and flash, the focus shifted upmarket – and few cars conjure images of yuppies, Duran Duran and Charles and Di better than the Audi quattro – no wonder it was the obvious choice as the automotive lead in BBC time-travel drama Ashes to Ashes.

The quattro’s styling follows the boxy ’80s theme – it might not have invented the blistered wheelarch, but it certainly perfected it and the purposeful, practical shape set the template for a new genre of rally-bred performance cars. The model also offers a neat symmetry: at a shade over 10 years, its production run bookends the decade – from 1980 Geneva show launch to demise in ’91. ‘As a child I spent hours watching rallying on Saturday mornings and it was always the quattro that would be tearing up the field,’ wrote actor Philip Glenister (aka Ashes’ DCI Gene Hunt) in The Independent. ‘Everyone agreed: the Audi quattro would be perfect.’

Ah yes, rallying. Pretty crucial when it comes to the Ingolstadt coffers: without Audi Sport’s rally programme we wouldn’t have the quattro, and without the quattro we wouldn’t have Audi as we know it today – a maker of fast, safe, well-built, highly desirable cars. Certainly the new R8 supercar would be floundering without its ancestor’s precedent and worldwide respect.

The history of that first car – known by Audi aficionados by its full Ur-quattro title – begins with the 1962 DKW Munga, Auto Union’s first 4x4. The Munga’s all-wheel-drive technology reappeared in sister brand Volkswagen’s ’76 Iltis, which in turn donated its mechanicals to the first quattro prototype. Ironically, because Audi’s new supercar would be seen as a rival to the contemporary Porsche 911, it was engineering genius Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson, Ferdinand Piëch, who instigated the quattro project.

Audi made an initial foray from the track to the rally stages with the 80GTE from 1978. It managed a sixth in Portugal in ’79 and several wins in the home series, but the quattro was to spearhead Audi’s first proper attack on the WRC. And it began life as just that, a rally weapon that would necessitate 400 roadgoing versions for homologation. Dipping into the VW Group’s extensive range, the project team under Jorg Bensinger and Walter Treser spent three years perfecting the quattro – the name was coined by Treser – using the second-generation (B2) Audi 80 platform, a development of the Iltis 4x4 system with a lockable centre differential, plus an uprated version of the Audi 200 5T’s 2144cc five-cylinder ‘WR’ engine. The result was a 200bhp monster, tamed by permanent four-wheel-drive and housed in a practical four-seater coupé shell penned by Martin Smith, latterly GM and Ford design guru.

It wasn’t the first luxury 4x4 performance coupé – Jensen’s FF came 14 years earlier – but, with 11,452 quattros built to just 318 FFs, Audi can lay claim to being the first to make the formula a commercial success. ‘Whether or not its unique format starts a new trend, the Audi must be considered a milestone in car design simply because it is stunningly good,’ gushed Motor, in a typically reverential test. It’s no surprise that testers were impressed: 0-60mph was reached in 6.5 secs and it hit 138mph flat-out – none too shabby for a near-1300kg four-seater.

But Audis are boring to drive, aren’t they? They haven’t always been, and the recent acclaim achieved by the RS4 and R8 serves only to right the wrongs that began with the demise of the quattro. If you’ve not driven a quattro before – or not for a long time – a sorted example such as Adam Marsden’s late-’81 Diamond Silver car still has the power to drop jaws. Inside it’s a curious mix of hi- and lo-tech, of luxury and austerity – check out the juxtaposition of diff locks in the centre console with lowly VW Polo indicator stalks. There’s surprisingly little instrumentation, but the clear VDO set does include that all-important boost gauge. And the turbocharger dominates the way an early quattro drives: there’s plenty of old-school lag, so off-boost it’s lethargic, but get past 2500rpm, watch the needle hit 1.5bar and feel the accompanying thump of torque. With another 1000rpm that wonderful five-cylinder song chimes in – a delicious mixture of four-banger urgency and six-cylinder refinement – egging you on to the 6500rpm redline.

Then you discover a corner and remember that, in the quattro orchestra, the engine played second fiddle to the ground-breaking chassis. The steering is light – over-light – and a touch artificial, but accurate, the ride surprisingly absorbent. Find a long, sweeping bend, get the car settled on its suspension – there’s a surprising amount of body roll – and it just powers through. It’s perfectly stable, with seemingly limitless grip. Enter a tight corner, however, and the quattro reminds you that 61% of its weight sits over the front wheels. It was a problem that didn’t go unnoticed even amongst the rally elite. ‘Whatever I did, the car would always go straight on,’ wrote two-times World Champion Walter Röhrl of his first snowy quattro experience. ‘I tried and tried, until we hit a telegraph pole... I begged Stig [Blomqvist] to show me how to left-foot brake.’ On the road, however, the quattro’s 
traction, grip and handling were – and still are – outstanding. The fact that it behaved the same in all weathers was a particularly neat party trick.

One of the few reservations in that first Motor test was that the new Audi was only available as a left-hooker, a situation remedied in our Mars Red Ashes to Ashes double. It highlights an unfortunate continuity error in the Beeb’s new drama: it’s set in 1981, well before the Autumn ’82 arrival of its star car’s right-hand drive and one-piece Cibié headlamps. Then again, DCI Hunt won’t be complaining – few coppers at the time could have stumped up the £14,500 a new quattro cost in 1981. And nor are we from behind the wheel. Sadly, the three-piece Recaro buckets of the ’81 cars have gone, but otherwise the experience is much the same. There is a touch more roll, plus a slightly sweeter ride, courtesy of the standard Ronal alloys (instead of wider optional Fuchs rims) and the revised rear suspension – with no anti-roll bar – offered for the 1983 model year.

If that gives the impression that the quattro was going soft, waiting in the wings was a dramatic road-rocket to blow away those misconceptions. Unlike other homologation specials – such as Peugeot’s 206 T16, Lancia’s Delta S4 or Ford’s RS200 – the stumpy Sport quattro was still a proper road car. But it was also a shattering performer, with a sophisticated spec that went far further than the rather obvious 12½in chop between the wheels (which, incidentally, gave it a shorter wheelbase than a Metro). Born of the FIA’s stipulation for 200 ‘production’ cars for Group B homologation, the Sport was a technical tour de force. Beneath its Kevlar-reinforced skin was a thoroughly reworked 2133cc ‘five’ with double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder (an Audi first), housed in a new cast-alloy block.

It wasn’t actually much lighter than a standard car but, with 306bhp, it was a whole lot faster. Despite its exotic spec, the Sport is surprisingly civilised. Its Audi 200-sourced instruments – with a full complement of gauges to monitor that precious engine – sit in a leather-wrapped dash and the driver is hugged by grippy Recaros. Nick Keiller’s Alpine White example is even more special, courtesy of a hand-built 500bhp motor by quattro tuning legend Roland Mayer’s MTM in Wettstetten, Germany.

With ridiculously sticky low-profile Toyos wrapping its non-standard S1-style magnesium alloys, the Sport’s traction is incredible. That same combination also gives it a very hard ride, so when full boost piles in at around 4000rpm you just hang on for dear life. Plant the throttle, there’s a slight squirm and in the next instant the horizon is yanked from windscreen to rear-view mirror. Along a rutted road the stiff shell jumps, skips and scrabbles, but on smooth tarmac it’s devastating, despatching the miles in a blur of five-pot warble and wastegate flutter. A longer nose to accommodate its generous intercooler gave the Sport an even less appetising weight distribution than the Ur-quattro, but the fat tyres, wider track and uprated suspension with extra locating links mean it feels exceptionally agile, with epic grip and no discernible roll.

While only the rally boys and the seriously minted could sample the Sport’s abilities, back in the real world the standard quattro was gradually evolving. In 1984 came Bosch ABS, a digital dash, better rust protection and a facelift. Three years later there was a new engine, the 2226cc ‘MB’ with its flatter torque curve and less laggy delivery, plus a new weapon in the fight against understeer, the innovative torque-sensing Torsen centre differential. As before, in normal conditions drive was split evenly between the front and rear wheels, but the real revelation came when one end began to lose grip and the clever diff was able to distribute up to 75% of the torque to the axle
with more traction.

As the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, over in Ingolstadt there was further headline news with the launch of the final quattro iteration, the glorious 20V. Finally adopting the twin-cam, 20-valve technology developed for the Sport, the 20V’s ‘RR’ engine boasted an undramatic 220bhp, but the big change was that its 228lb ft of torque kicked in at just 1950rpm. ‘Our’ immaculate Mother of Pearl 20V is one of the last, a 1991 French-supplied car that, with a few choice options, feels limo luxurious in comparison with its Ur ancestor. But in some ways it’s less of a thrill: gone is that whizz-bang power delivery, replaced with a smooth, linear response. The sound deadening is generous and the whole experience more refined, but it’s no less charismatic or involving, and there’s no doubt that this is a seriously impressive cross-country tool.

The real revelation comes when you encounter the first tight sequence of bends. The small, fat, three-spoke wheel looks and feels superb, with meatier response and sharper turn-in. It feels like a different car: lower, stiffer and grippier, changing direction with amazing alacrity and resistance to understeer, yet without losing that lovely high-speed ride compliance.

It’s a mighty piece of kit, but by the time the 20V arrived Audi already had a dozen years of quattro development behind it. The real skill, and the reason that original formula survived – massaged, perhaps, but largely unchanged – was its packaging. It would haunt Audi over the following decade, as successive attempts at a performance flagship failed to match the quattro’s inimitable combination of power, grip, comfort and entertainment. Now that’s something worth travelling back in time for.

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In the World Rally Championship, Audi’s new competitor was a revelation, a revolution and a huge controversy. Before the quattro, four-wheel drive had been the preserve of fragile specials that were invariably complicated and difficult to drive. Audi changed all that: the quattro won its first non-WRC foray, Hannu Mikkola led on its WRC debut at the ’81 Rallye Monte-Carlo, and Audi took the manufacturers’ title in its second season. At a stroke, two-wheel drive was obsolete.

Two years after the quattro’s introduction in Group 4, the 370bhp A1 arrived to meet the new Group B regs. The ‘Aluminium 1’ – a reference to its aluminium block – was joined mid-season by the Kevlar-doored ‘A2’, with weight down to 1000kg and capacity to 2109cc (to keep it under the 3-litre limit when the 1.4 turbo multiplication was applied). The result was a drivers’ title in ’83 and the double whammy a year later.

In late 1984, the power race went mad with the Sport S1. The nose-heavy S1 needed every one of its 510bhp to overcome its 1200kg, but it proved difficult to drive so the Evolution 2 arrived a year later. With less weight – 1090kg – and better distribution – 52:48 – plus wild wings giving lots of downforce to put its 550bhp on to the road, the E2 was a serious prospect. Sadly, its promise was extinguished along with Henri Toivonen’s life after his fatal accident in the ’86 Tour de Corse.

To demonstrate how such a mighty dynasty was born, Adam Marsden spent seven years recreating the car that Mikkola and Arne Hertz campaigned in that first WRC outing – the original was scrapped after their Monte adventure came to an abrupt halt against a bridge. Marsden has made a few concessions to usability – fitting a 2226cc ‘MB’ motor with Bosch injection instead of the tricky Pierburg works system – but otherwise it’s exacting, from boot-mounted oil-coolers to standard wheel (with no ‘turbo’ script, as Marsden is at pains to point out).

As if the famous Audi Sport livery wasn’t evocative enough, spotting Mikkola’s name and blood type on the door builds the sense of occasion before you’ve even clambered over the hefty rollcage and dropped into the bucket seat. In addition to looking right, this replica drives as the real deal should, too, with a period-correct 300bhp-plus – and seemingly all of it arriving between 5000 and 7000rpm.

There’s plenty of performance and lots of noise, most of it the chattering of stones on the underside. That’s no surprise, given that where once sat rear seats and carpets is now bare metal. What does surprise is the comfort and ease with which this old stager can be driven: the steering is still power-assisted and the gearbox is – and was – a standard Audi 100 unit because the team couldn’t find anything stronger. Rally drivers never had it so easy.


1981 Mikkola 3rd, wins in Sweden, UK (right); Mouton 8th, win in Italy; Audi 5th

1982 Mouton 2nd, wins in Portugal, Brazil and Greece; Mikkola 3rd, wins in Finland and UK; Blomqvist 4th, wins in Sweden, Italy; Audi champion

1983 Mikkola champ, wins in Sweden/Portugal (A1), plus Argentina/Finland (A2); Blomqvist 4th, win in UK (A2); Audi 2nd

1984 Blomqvist champion, wins in Sweden (above right), Greece, New Zealand, Argentina (A2), plus Ivory Coast (S1); Mikkola 2nd, win in Portugal (A2); Röhrl 11th, win on Monte (A2); Audi champion

1985 Blomqvist 2nd; Röhrl 3rd, win in Italy (E2); Audi 2nd; Mouton wins Pikes Peak (S1); Mikkola wins HK-Beijing Rally (A2) 1986 Unser Snr wins Pikes Peak (S1); Blomqvist wins HK-Beijing (A2) 1987 Röhrl wins Pikes Peak (E2, above)


Despite the quality of its drivetrain, there have been few bespoke quattros. But German coachbuilder Günter Artz did produce a neat ‘Kombi’ (below), with huge side windows and wraparound glass tailgate. Artz also created a practical Q-car, using VW Passat parts to turn the Audi 200 into an estate, sitting on a stretched quattro floorpan.

Pininfarina’s interpretation of the quattro followed a year after the original. The quartz (below left) was a study of lightweight materials – Kevlar, carbonfibre, steel/polypropylene, polycarbonate and parachute fabric. It weighed 90kg less than a standard car, despite gimmickery such as a tyre pressure monitor, computer and four-ringed tailpipes. It never got further than the concept stage, but Pininfarina recycled the design’s projector headlamps and body groove in its front-drive Alfa Spider.

The man best qualified to modify the quattro was Walter Treser. He began with a 250bhp coupé, but his most memorable offering was the 1983 Treser Roadster, complete with fold-away hardtop (C&SC, December ’06).

Most extreme quattro was the 1986 Sport RS 002 (above). When Group B – and its Group S offshoot – ended, this stubby 175mph beastie was mothballed, later reappearning in Audi’s Museum Mobile. It boasted a composite body, tubular spaceframes at each end of the tub and a mid-mounted 500bhp five-pot motor.


Audi Ur-quattro
Sold/number built 1980-‘91/11,452 (all quattros) Construction steel monocoque
front-mounted, longitudinal, iron-block, alloy-head sohc 2144cc ‘five’,
with two valves per cylinder, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection and KKK
turbocharger with intercooler
Max power 200bhp @ 5500rpm
Max torque 210lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission five-speed manual with integral centre differential, driving all four wheels
Suspension: front and rear MacPherson struts, anti-roll bars (front only from 1982)
Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes 11in (280mm) vented front discs, 
9 n (244mm) solid rears, with servo
Wheels & tyres 6J x 15 Ronal alloy (7J Fuchs optional), 205/60 VR15
Length 14ft 5 n (4404mm) Width 5ft 7in (1723mm) Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 3 n (2524mm)
Front track 4ft 7in (1422mm)
Rear track 4ft 8 n (1455mm)
Weight 2844lb (1290kg)
0-60mph 6.5 secs
Top speed 138mph Mpg 19.9
Price new £14,500 (1981)

Audi Sport quattroSold/number built 1984-’86/224Construction steel monocoque with Kevlar reinforced glassfibre panels Engine
front-mounted, longitudinal, all-alloy dohc 2134cc ‘five’, with four
valves per cylinder, Bosch LH-Jetronic fuel injection and KKK
turbocharger with intercooler (iron-block 2226cc on this car)Max power 306bhp @ 6700rpmMax torque 258lb ft @ 3700rpmTransmission five-speed manual transaxle with integral centre diff, driving all four wheelsSuspension: front and rear MacPherson struts, anti-roll bars Steering power-assisted rack and pinion Brakes 11in (280mm) vented discs, with servo and Bosch anti-lockWheels & tyres 9J x 15 Ronal alloy, 225/40 or 235/40 VR15 (16in magnesium on this car with 245/35 ZR16 tyres) Length 13ft 7in (4160mm) Width 5ft 10in (1780mm) Height 4ft 5in (1345mm) Wheelbase 7ft 3 n (2224mm) Front track 4ft 10 n (1487mm) Rear track 4ft 10 n (1485mm)Weight 2807lb (1273kg) 0-60mph 4.8 secsTop speed 154mph Mpg 15.3Price new £51,282 (1985)

Audi quattro 20vSold/number built 1988-‘91/see Ur-quattro

Construction steel monocoque Engine
front-mounted, longitudinal, iron-block, alloy-head dohc 2226cc ‘five’,
with four valves per cylinder, fuel injection and turbocharger with
intercooler Max power 220bhp @ 5900rpm Max torque 228lb ft @ 1950rpm Transmission five-speed manual, driving all four wheels via Torsen centre diff Suspension MacPherson struts, anti-roll bars Steering power-assisted rack and pinion Brakes 11in (276mm) vented front discs, 9 n (245mm) solid rears, with servo and ABS Wheels/tyres 8J x 15 Ronal alloy, 215/50 R15 Length 14ft 5 n (4404mm) Width 5ft 7in (1723mm) 
Height 4ft 5in (1344mm) Wheelbase 8ft 3 n (2524mm) Front track 4ft 9 n (1461mm) Rear track 4ft 10in (1494mm) Weight 3069lb (1395kg) 0-60mph 6.3 secs 
Top speed 141mph Mpg 19.1 Price new £33,452 (1990)

Audi quattro rally car

Produced 1981, for Rallye Monte-Carlo
Construction steel monocoque with aluminium rollcage, bonnet and front wings
front-mounted, longitudinal, iron-block, alloy-head sohc 2144cc ‘five’,
with dry sump, two valves per cylinder, Pierburg fuel injection and KKK
turbocharger (2226cc block in replica)
Max power 300-360bhp @ 6300rpm
Max torque 325lb ft @ 4000rpm
five-speed manual with locked centre differential, free front diff and
limited-slip rear diff, driving all four wheels
Suspension MacPherson struts, anti-roll bars
Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes 11in (280mm) AP vented discs, with alloy calipers and adjustable balance
Wheels/tyres 6J Fuchs alloy, 195/65 R15 M+S
14ft 5 n (4404mm) Width 5ft 8 n (1733mm) Height 4ft 5in (1344mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 3 n (2524mm) Front track 4ft 9in (1465mm) Rear track 4ft
11 n (1502mm) Weight 2619lb (1188kg, inc crew)
0-60mph 4.9 secs Top speed 160mph

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.