Game Changer

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.

1980 Audi Quattro. (c) weilinet

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 The Munga had ceased production in 1968 and its outdated two-stroke engined design was overdue for replacement.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.

Volkswagen Iltis. (c) wheelsage

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.

audi coupe
1980 Audi Coupé. (c) autowp

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.

Sport Quattro. (c) bestcarmag

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?

(c) rsiauto

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

17 thoughts on “Game Changer”

  1. The Quattro materialised at the time when Audi finally seemed to know where they wanted to go on their own instead of merely being an Uber-Opel and Under-BMW.
    Because VAG was going through one of their regular critical financial phases there was not enough money to develop proper solutions for Audi’s needs and so Audi invented the ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ hype for their half-baked makeshift engineering.
    Audi had a five pot engine because they couldn’t afford a V6, they needed turbos because they didn’t have the money to develop larger volume engines and they created over-decorated cornflakes boxes like the 200 because there was no money for a proper model of its own.
    It all culminated in the Quattro which used rally sports as a promotional vehicle where it wasn’t nearly half as successful as Audi want you to believe.
    Don’t forget they used teams of five or six cars where competitors had two, they made a lot of noise about the silly power of the competition cars but couldn’t make them last.
    The result was that Walter Röhrl beat them at will at Monte Carlo, became world champion against them with an Opel Ascona in 1982 and only would have needed one more rally to become champion again with the Lancia Rally in 1983.

    Graham Robson’s ‘Rally Giants’ book on the Quattro states that there were about 160 Sport Quattros made of which several were recycled as Evolution models which clearly was against regulations.

    1. Good morning, Dave, and thanks for your comments. Your description of the original 200 as “over-decorated cornflakes boxes” made me laugh and was on point:

      The complex bumpers and titchy US-spec twin rectangular headlamps was certainly unnecessary tinsel on the C2 generation 100 body. Audi made (a bit) more effort with the second 200:

      The flared wheel arches added a touch of muscularity to the barrel-sided 100 body.

    2. At the time the 200 and Quattro came out a friend was sales manager at a large VAG/Porsche dealer.
      Their Quattro demonstrator had a bug in its ‘check control’ system (or whatever it was called). Every time you went faster than 200 kph you got an error message ‘Gong! Your brake system has failed!’ – very funny.

  2. Here’s a picture of the DKW Munga demonstrating the close relation between it and the Iltis.

    For the money Audi asked for the civilian Iltis you could have bought a BMW Seven.
    And here’s what you’d have got:

    The original Iltis was rwd with switchable fwd and no centre differential. After a series of heavy accidents German army issued an order that they had to be driven in permanent awd mode and no faster than 80 kph.

    1. Thanks for the photos, Dave. Speedometer from a Beetle, steering wheel and ignition lock from a Polo. They didn’t exactly over-spec it for BMW 7 Series prices. It sounds like the German army was no better at procurement than our Ministry of Defence.

  3. Thank you, Daniel, for this (once again) very insightful article! Allow me to add two more thoughts:

    1) From the perspective of a manufacturer entertaining a racing team, perceived success is more important than actual success. Judged by this standard, it seems like Audi is taking the crown. I was always under the impression that the Quattros must have dominated rallying throughout the entire 1980s, which as I now learned was not the case. (I suppose it helped Audi’s case that the unglamorous end of the very glamorous Group B wasn’t exactly the stuff for advertising and hence eventually forgotten…)

    2) I agree with your verdict: The origin of “Vorsprung durch Technik” (a slogan that is nowadays mostly hollow, of course), and a true stroke of genius, considering how existing parts were puzzled together to become something that was quite undeniably much more than their sum. What, I think, elevates the Quattro to true automotive knighthood is that it may have been the first to make the performance of a turbo-charged engine truly usable. This combination of turbos with four wheel drive may have been the last true hurra of the internal combustion engine.

    1. Thank you for you kind works, Lukas, and glad you enjoyed the piece. You and Dave are right to say that there was an element of “smoke and mirrors” to the Quattro, but it was a marketing master stroke. Unlike, say, the Ford Mustang, the Quattro was very much a niche product, but its “halo effect” was unprecedented. Can anyone think of another car that sold in such small numbers yet had such a huge impact on its maker’s reputation?

    2. True stroke of marketing genius: Vorsprung durch Technik and meerkats. Who would have thought either would have been as successful as they both have been?

  4. While I might be completely mistaken on this one, I think the first quattro was the first series-production car ever to use inverted adhesive stickers on a side glass panel (in the lower-rearmost
    part of the rear side glass).

    If the above is viewed in isolation, and considered in conjunction with the undeniably modern (for 1979) visual language of the very font they used for the ‘quattro’ trademark, it seems that this car
    also invented an entirely unseen method of labelling a model,
    which admittedly looks futuristic even in this day and age,
    not to mention in 1979/80.

    Nothing but respect for those gentlemen that developed the low-slung inverted window graphic, managing to make it work,
    in an understated yet proud manner – and standardized it as such.

    1. You probably mean this script – in this case on the rear screen of a later coupé where it was used as a heating element:

      The font looks very HfG inspired which might be because VAG at that time had consulting cooperationw with Otl Aicher and Paolo Nestler.

  5. Cannot help but get the distant impression a more civilian mass-production version of the Iltis would have provided Volkswagen with a suitable and more sophisticated challenger to take on the Lada Niva and Land Rover Defender.

  6. Hello, love the site, been reading for quite a while but this is my first contribution. The inverted logo on the inside of glass was used on the tailgate of the Porsche 924, but only in the first few months following its launch in late 1975. The very earliest models had PORSCHE written across the bottom of the glass hatch, and only a metal ‘924’ badge on the bodywork. By mid 76 it had a plain glass hatch and ‘Porsche 924’ metal badges. It’s very subtle but can be seen on this image of a launch car:

    1. Richard: Thanks for the warm words and welcome below the line. I’m pleased to hear you are enjoying the site. Heavens, wasn’t the original 924 a rather basic looking device? Would Porsche (or anybody for that matter) introduce a car so bereft of fripperies nowadays, this side of Dacia at least?

    2. Isn’t it a blessed relief to be able to take in such a simple and confident design? The 928 as launched was equally clean and uncluttered:

      Welcome to DTW’s commentariat, Richard!

  7. Hi Eoin & Daniel , yes agree with you both and they do still look fab for 45 year old designs. The 924 and 928 were both rather cutting edge for their time, but were still forms one’s eyes can settle on and explore at leisure, unlike current visually tiring ‘dazzle ship’ car design.
    Connecting back to the Audi Quattro, the 924 launched at the same time the 100 Coupe S ceased production leaving a coupe gap in the Audi range for 5 years until the Quattro/Audi Coupe was launched in 1980. If VW had followed through with the launch and not sold it to Porsche at the last minute would it have been sold as the ‘missing’ 1975-80 Audi Coupe I wonder?

    1. Several reports have claimed that there was an effort to turn EA 425 into an Audi before VW ultimately sold the project to Porsche, but if that was the case, nobody told Porsche about it. Also, EA 425 was never intended to be sold as both a Porsche and a VW (which, again, is claimed in numerous reports) – it was only ever engineered and styled as a Volkswagen, just like EA 266 right before it.

    2. I can only agree with Christopher. As far as I can remember what my father (he was involved in the 924 and 928) said about EA 425, the project was exclusively for VW, he never mentioned Audi.

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