From humble and unlikely beginnings, the Audi Quattro would permanently redefine its maker’s image. Daniel O’Callaghan looks back on the development and influence of this seminal model in the company’s history.
The Audi Quattro owes its existence to the German Army’s urgent need in the late-1970’s to replace its aged DKW Munga four-wheel-drive light utility vehicles with a more modern successor. The Munga had ceased production in 1968 and its outdated two-stroke engined design was overdue for replacement. Its intended successor was the Europa Jeep, a joint-venture project involving a number of European governments that had been in development for a decade before finally collapsing acrimoniously in 1979.
Anticipating this outcome, the German Army instead invited domestic automobile manufacturers to design a replacement for the Munga. Volkswagen passed the project to Audi, who had access to the Munga’s technology and patents via the Auto Union partnership, so was able quickly to produce a new design called the Typ183 or Iltis. This was a simple, utilitarian 4WD vehicle using a combination of the Munga’s platform, Audi 100 suspension components and a 1.7 litre VW engine.
The VW Typ183 Iltis passed the army’s tests and was chosen over the more sophisticated but much more expensive G-Wagen from Mercedes-Benz. An Iltis specially prepared by Audi would go on to win the 1980 Paris-Dakar rally.
Audi engineers involved with the development of the Iltis had realised the potential of the 4WD drivetrain for both road and rallying applications and had built a prototype based on the Audi 80 two-door saloon with the Iltis transmission in 1977. Ferdinand Piëch, then head of Audi’s research and development, was sufficiently impressed by the performance of the prototype to authorise development of a production model. Piëch was, however, sceptical about the scale of the market for such a car so he insisted that as much existing Audi hardware as possible be incorporated into the design to keep costs down.
The new 4WD car would use the body of the B2-generation Audi Coupé, then under development, and was actually launched ahead of the Coupé at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1980. (The lower priced Coupé would be launched a few months later at the Paris Salon.) The Quattro*, as it was called, was distinguished from its lesser sibling by its turbocharged engine, a five-cylinder 2.2 litre unit taken from the Audi 200 5T saloon, but with a turbo intercooler that enabled a 30bhp increase in power to 200bhp. The dead axle rear suspension of the Coupé was simply replaced by the front subframe and struts assembly, turned through 180 degrees.
The Iltis 4WD system, designed primarily for off-road use, was considered too crude for a road-going Audi, so the engineers modified the transmission by including a centre differential installed directly behind the gearbox. This eliminated the jerkiness that had affected the low-speed drive on tarmac. The small centre differential was taken from the contemporary VW Polo and both it and the rear differential were fitted with locks operated manually by switches on the centre console.
Using a small centre differential rather than a traditional heavy transfer box limited the overall increase in weight of the 4WD system to no more than 32kg over an equivalent RWD car, while the losses in mechanical efficiency were more than offset by the lower rolling resistance of having four driven wheels. Audi proved this by removing the rear drive shafts from a prototype Quattro and finding that it was actually slower in a straight line on a dry road (7.8 vs 7.0 seconds from 0 to 100kph) than in production 4WD form.
Visually, the Quattro was distinguished by its flared wheel arches, which added aggression and sporting intent to the neat but rather staid Coupé. In fairness this was because the Coupé was designed to be a comfortable long-distance four-seater in the mould of classic Grand Touring cars, rather than a sports car per se. Martin Smith, who designed the modifications to the Quattro’s body, managed to keep the Cd to a then impressive 0.39, despite the wider wheels, wheel arches and the under-bumper intercooler all adding drag.
Car Magazine journalist Mel Nichols drove a Quattro at launch and his review was published in the April 1980 edition of the magazine. He was amazed by the roadholding and sheer levels of grip afforded by the 4WD drivetrain, which allowed the Quattro to outperform nominally much more powerful cars on twisting roads. He described the handling as extraordinarily neutral in all circumstances, with only very mild, controllable understeer in tight bends at the limit of grip. In summary, Nichols said that the Quattro “…dispenses with the traditional limits, slings away the rulebook and leaves you treading in a new territory of high performance.”
At £14,500 in the UK, the Quattro was around £5,000 cheaper than cars offering similar levels of performance. It was an immediate success, so much so that Audi did not have the capacity to build RHD versions until 1982 and instead exported LHD versions to the British and Irish markets. Driven by Hannu Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist, the Quattro won the 1983 and 1984 World Rally Championships, which further enhanced its appeal. The Quattro remained on the market for eleven years, during which time a total of 11,452 were sold.
Engine capacity, power and torque were increased and a DOHC 20-valve succeeded the SOHC 10-valve unit in 1989. At the same time an automatically locking Torsen differential replaced the manual unit.
External cosmetic upgrades were limited to flush single headlamp units with dual reflectors in 1983, then a further change to a (slightly) sloping front end two years later. Inside, there were only minor trim revisions. A digital LCD instrument display replaced the original analogue dials in 1983, the colour of the LCDs changing from green to orange in 1988.
A limited-run short-wheelbase Sport Quattro was produced in 1984 to homologate this version for Group B rallying. This required a production run of 200 cars, and 224 were actually built. The roadgoing Sport Quattro cost DM203,850 in 1984 (roughly £55,000). The wheelbase was reduced by 320mm and the car used the front half of the body of the Audi 80 two-door saloon with its more upright windscreen, which was mated to a truncated coupé rear end. The Sport Quattro was not, however, successful in rallying against the dominant mid-engined Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 which won the Group B championship in 1985 and 1986.
So, how would one sum up the Audi Quattro? A niche model, developed mainly from existing hardware for what in automotive industry terms was loose change, it transformed the image of Audi from a slightly left-field manufacturer of conservative saloon cars for those who could not quite run to a Mercedes-Benz to the Vorsprung durch Technik powerhouse it is today. Has any other single model ever been so influential in refashioning its maker’s image?
The next time you find an A4 sitting inches behind your back bumper at over 70mph on the motorway, remember the Quattro. For good or ill, that’s where it all started.
* ‘Quattro’ with a capitalised first letter refers to this car, whereas ‘quattro’ with a lower-case ‘q’ refers to the four-wheel drive system fitted to other Audi models.