Something rotten in […] Denmark: 1989 Audi 80

It’s not really rotten at all, it must be said. Why is it here today?

1989 Audi 80 1.8
1989 Audi 80 1.8:

Walter de Silva is retiring from his position as head of VAG design. This made me wonder a bit about his time there and then the time before his time. That made me think of Audi which led me to this. J Mays is credited with this car, I was surprised to learn. And to be frank, like the 100 of the same period, it doesn’t look like it’s a mid-80s design or it’s distinctly different. I suppose to anyone under 30 it looks ancient but to me it looks timeless and yet also rather aloof and glacially cool. Walter de Silva jumped ship from Alfa, recruited to VAG to make cars this fascinating and emotionally engaging.

J Mays left VAG in 1998 and went to Ford while the following year de Silva went from AR to VAG. Curiously, both fellows didn’t really achieve anything in their big, final jobs compared to the work they did beforehand. I think the paychecks got a lot bigger.

Just for balance, here’s the 1997 Alfa Romeo 156 which you could call de Silva’s masterpiece:

1997 Alfa Romeo 156:
1997 Alfa Romeo 156:

They never did something as good after this (though the GT is a jewel).

Back to the car in question. This Audi 80 comes with a charming warm grey metallic coating and a warm grey interior, which is as cosy as Audi ever really did. The car looks to be utterly flawless and has only 155,000 km on the clock. You would have to live with the underpowered engine but that is not so hard as the speed limits in Denmark are very low and stringently enforced. What you do have is a car you can gaze at in wonder, asking yourself how did people in the early 80s conceive of an object that could retain its freshness after 25 years. In 1989 BMW were still selling this 3-series…

1989 BMW 320i:
1989 BMW 320i:

…which looks rather good as well, more solid in a way than the Audi. It might be the bright-work on the door frames and the stance. Well, it’s not bad. In 1989 it probably seemed really dated whereas now many will find its rectangular shape and robust build very attractive.

Let’s have a look at the Audi interior:

1989 Audi 80 1.8S interior:
1989 Audi 80 1.8S interior:

The price for this which looks like a stellar example of ‘old man’s final car’ is just 20,000 kr or about €2600, a snip for a Danish-market car though in Germany I expect €600 would be the more likely price.

What I get out of this exercise is the realisation that by the time 1998 rolled around, both J Mays and Walter de Silva’s best days were behind them. They had made their creative names with cars like this Audi and the 156 and the rest of their careers was spent in meetings and asking studio managers to change details or scrap fruitless themes. Or  talking up those roads to nowhere that are showcars.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

13 thoughts on “Something rotten in […] Denmark: 1989 Audi 80”

  1. I remember well when this and the earlier 100 of similar mien hit the roads. They looked so sleek, cool, elegant, modern. You are right, it still looks like a modern car to my eyes, it is timeless. I like the interior too – solid, bullet-proof, refined, restrained, classy, beautifully built. My step-father had one of these. I never liked the way it rode, but the engine was super-serene, a 2.0S version (i.e. carb-fed, not injected) and at 90 mph it would be doing less than 2.500 rpm. But, it was a car to be proud of. I wonder where they have all gone, as it’s a rare treat to see one today. This car really shows how the A4 has not really progressed design-wise, although I still like it – maybe that’s a sign that this version was just so right.

  2. Richard, I can understand the car’s appeal to your eyes, but at the same time, I must voice my dissent. While admittedly more advanced than the E30 in a lot of ways, I never got around its stance and somewhat bloated appearance. Please don’t get me wrong – I don’t need low-profile 23 inch wheels on each any car at all, but the 80 always appear to me as though it was wearing shoes at least two sizes too small. And despite the copious amounts of glazing, its lower body always seemed quite a bit too heavy, stylistically.

    But credit where it’s due, even from my skeptic’s side: the 80’s soft surfacing was truly groundbreaking for its time, as was the interior architecture (unlike the Procon-Ten systemm that is).

  3. This Audi 80 was made to last – the 80ies were in general a century of very durable german cars in this class (the Mercedes W201 was a masterpiece in terms of quality).
    And i like the clean and sober design of this Audi – a typical german industrial design. Including very good aerodynamics to reduce fuel consumption. Actually, the car is not really as practical as it looks. The boot has a disappointing luggage capacity and a ridiculous shape (his successor – the Audi 80B4 did a much better job – it still is the best Audi 80 / A4 ever built- in my opinion.

    Was not the Audi 90 the car that shoulld compete with the Mercedes 190 and the BMW 3-series?
    The 80ies were just the beginning of Audi´s career towards a premium brand.

    1. Correct – the boot is plain bizarre. Perhaps only Pontiac’s Solstice is much worse. I’d agree that the next car was probably the zenith of this approach.

    2. I remember having a laugh attack when I saw that boot. That’s also one of the reasons why they quite quickly came with the successor which was really a very thorough overhaul of this car. The Audi 90 of around 1990 was my driving school car, by the way. Quite refined and, yes built to last. But guessing the ends of the car was a nightmare – high waistline and very rounded body took their toll. At least it had a rear spoiler as a little help.

  4. I wrote a piece about Audi in June 2014 in which I said that, at one point, Audi seemed a cerebral choice of car. I still stand by that but, considering the 80s boot, as well as my Dad’s 100 C3 Avant’s ridiculously sloping tailgate (it didn’t please his two big dogs) it’s clear that, even then, a lot of that logical design image was marketing more than reality. I remember the 80 had a ridiculously engineered hinge to make the bootlid clear the rear screen.

    1. What is a cerebral car?
      Maybe there’s a difference in perception between engineering and design. I’d argue that, even during the 80s, Saab or Volvo were never essentially sounder than, say, VW or Peugeot of the same period. But their design suggested otherwise, therefore they became the obvious choice for architects and physicians.
      Nowadays maybe Dacia would be the truly cerebral choice, but then, we love cars, don’t we?

    2. I meant one that you choose for logical reasons, because it does well the primary things a car is meant to do, rather than the secondary ones, like impressing the neighbours. You could argue that there’s nothing wrong with doing both, which might be what Audi does now. But you’re certainly right that, in a world where you can do so many more useful things with your money, spending more that the price of a Dacia on a car is foolish. Welcome to the Land Of Fools.

  5. If Mays and De Silva moved into management roles it’s a bit unfair to say their best years were behind them isn’t it? Look how many notable Fords and VW group cars came out during their respective tenures. Did they design and approve the mk2 Focus & Mondeo, the 2004 Mustang, Gerry ‘I’m Gerry McGovern, that’s my name’ McGovern’s PAG Lincoln concepts etc while Mays was on annual leave or something? I know that doesn’t excuse the Ford Five Hundred or disappearing Chris Bird but still.

    1. I suppose I’m speaking personally, since I spend much of my own work time guiding other people to do work that I once did myself. As such, I’d say that directing design is a worthwhile skill where you can judge things both objectively, from a client’s view, and subjectively, from a designer’s view. A designer working on their own often gets too immersed to do this. But, in a large company, these positions often end up being immersed in petty politics from myriad factions and, I suspect, Mays (for all his bluster) and Da Silva might look back and wished it had turned out a bit differently.

  6. I loved the E30, but I clearly remember parking mine next to a W201 one day and looking at the two together. The Merc seemed so much more cutting edge. Then of course the 80 came along and made them both look archaic. A lovely car, one that forged its own way rather than following the herd.

    1. What´s noticeable about the E30 and W201 is that they are clearly not dimensional clones of one another. The E30 is an important bit smaller than the W201, as if they planned the BMW to be the closest thing to a sports car a two-door saloon could be. The W201 is more obviously a scaled down version of the E-class and noteably never sold as a a two-door. The next generation of cars saw more convergences. The Audi 80 is again it´s own kind of car. In style it´s more pared down than either of them though the BMW is the outlier, with its subtly formed surfaces and carefully applied and detailed brightwork. I don´t know which car is actually more durable but the BMW looks indestructable and beautifully finished. The Audi seems to combine Ford´s simplicity with a level of formal refinement Ford never got close to in those days. The Mercedes is really mechanical whereas the Audi tries to smooth away the technical aspects. They are three very different cars. I don´t like the Mercedes much. The Audi I respect but it´s the BMW I´d want to own.

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