Few cars become icons, fewer still earn that status on the road and in motorsport. But Audi's Quattro managed it with aplomb. John Davenport traces its roots 20 years on.
In life, one occasionally learns that one has been present at a momentous event but just hadn't noticed it at the time. Such was the case with the Audi quattro. In the late 1970s, all manufacturers in motorsport convened four times a year in Paris at the Bureau Permanent Internationale des Constructeurs d'Automobiles (BPICA). Here they deliberated on technical and sporting regulations and passed on their thoughts to FISA, the Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile via a delegate. It was at the BPICA Sporting Committee meeting on 4 September 1979 that the Audi delegatejiirgen Stockmar, raised a question about the eligibility rules for the World Rally Championship. At that time, there was a sentence that read: Four-wheel drive cars will not be admitted. His question was whether this could be changed.
To understand how significant this was for rallying, one has to go back to 1976. The Research and Development section of Audi was given the job of designing a new four-wheel drive vehicle to be built at Ingolstadt but badged as a VW. The new vehicle was to be called the Iltis (German for polecat) and was powered by the 75bhp, four-cylinder engine from the 1972 Car of the Year, the Audi 80.
Testing during 1976/77 showed the Iltis handled very well in lowgrip and normal road conditions. Jorg Bensinger, number one chassis engineer, initiated a chain of thought about the advantages of 4WD in a normal road car. He and Walter Treser, the newly-arrived man in charge of Advanced Development Projects, worked up an informal proposition for Ferdinand Piech (the member of the Audi Board responsible for research and development) requesting permission to build a prototype.
It is a measure of his commercial acumen that Piech saw immediately the potential benefit for Audi in terms of building up a brand name for the company with a range of performance 4WD cars.
Together with Dr Wolfgang Habbel, he gave the word to Bensinger and Treser to start work on an Audi 80 fitted up with an Iltis transmission. Of course, it was not quite that simple. For a start, the engine chosen was the 2.1-litre, five-cylinder, turbocharged item.from the as-yet-unannounced front-wheel drive Audi 200. The Iltis' transmission was not sufficient to handle that output, so gearboxes and final drives from bigger Audis were adapted. In doing so, Audi made a fundamental design step that enabled them to have a centre differential and yet avoid the need for a transfer box to split the drive the front and rear of the car. This was a hollow gearbox output shaft that took the power to the centre differential and had, rotating within it, the shaft taking part of that power to the rear axle.
Work on the prototype continued through 1977 and finally it was given an official project number, EA 262 shortly before it was shown to Audi's board of directors in November. They were sufficiently impressed to agree to the continuation of the road car project. About that time, Piech called in Stockmar, a dyedin-the-wool racing enthusiast who was at that time supervising various racing programmes with the Audi 80, and told him he should build up expertise by running 80s in rallies the following year. This showed remarkable foresight considering no one had mentioned rallying at that time. All the focus was on making a high-performance road car, but Piech realised you needed to convince people that permanent 4WD really works in order to sell cars.
The next big step for him was to convince the Volkswagen Supervisory Board, a much harder task. A demonstration was arranged for the men from Wolfsburg in January 1978. The place chosen was the Turracher Hohe in Styria, only some 20 kilometres as the crow flies from the birthplace of the earliest Alpine Trials, the Katschberg. The prototype, looking every bit a normal Audi 80, apart from slightly widened wheel arches, ascended the classic climb on snow using just ordinary road tyres.
The VW board was impressed but sceptical as to whether the company could sell any quantity of these cars. But they gave their assent to further development and testing. This testing included proving the 4WD system had advantages on dry tarmac as well as on ice, snow and wet roads. A test at Hockenhein with Bensinger and Treser driving the prototype back to back with a Porsche 928 (with 50 per cent more horsepower than the Audi) showed there were advantages for sporting drivers. Before the year was halfway through, the detailed project was successfully re-presented to the VW board and this time it had the suffix `quattro'. Alongside approval for the production car, there was also a green light for a world championship rally programme.
In the meantime, Stockmar's rally programme with the 80 had proceeded and, during 1978, Audi rallied a Group 2 version in Germany with Joachim Knollman as well as tackling the 1000 Lakes and RAC rallies with Freddy Kottulinsky. For 1979, they homologated the front-wheel drive 80 into Group 4 to take advantage of bigger brakes and various suspension tweaks. The fuel-injected engine may only have been a 1.6-litre, but it gave 160bhp a similar output to the engine in the quattro prototype at that time and very good torque.
Mikkolas blast from the future
One of the master strokes of the Audi quattro rally programme was to have Hannu Mikkola driving for them from day one. Persuading someone with Ford and Mercedes contracts on the table to jump ships was not an easy job.
"I contacted Mikkola and he was not interested to even look at our car:' says Stockmar,"but I managed to convince him. He flew into Munich late in 1979 and out of the 'plane came a real gentleman in a cashmere coat over a dark suit. Not the rally driver I expected, with a crash helmet under his arm. "Anyway, we went out to a hilly area towards Ingolstadt where I showed him the car. He was a bit disappointed as the car really did not look anything special like a Stratos.We showed him how everything worked, he took off his cashmere coat and jumped in. He drove off and I could hear the car's exhaust echoing round the hills and forests for a while until we could not hear any more.
"He did not come back for half an hour or so. I did not know whether it was a good or bad sign that he had been away so long and I also did not know where he went. He stopped the car and got out. He looked very serious and said to me 'I will join your team'.That was it. No more discussion. He had been so convinced of the capabilities of the car that he could not imagine driving anything else.'
Mikkola went back and signed for Ford and Mercedes for 1980 but made sure that both contracts enabled him to test for another company and left him free for 1981. On the Monte Carlo Rally of that year, he drove the Audi quattro on its WRC debut and after six stages was six minutes ahead of his nearest competitor. Two years later, he was world champion.
Their best international result was a sixth place for Harald Demuth in Portugal, while Walter Smolej won several German national championship events. But they were gaining experience.
One of those experiences was to discover deep in the world championship regulations that 4WD cars were not allowed. Stockmar recalls: "I had to try and market the idea of changing the regulation within the BPICA. I talked always of our rally plans for the Iltis. Then I talked with Peter Ashcroft of Ford who had experience of 4WD Capris built with the Ferguson system. He told me he had no problem with allowing 4WD because he knew it would not be competitive. This seemed to be the opinion of all BPICA members. Of course, they could only see the Iltis."
Thus the manufacturers agreed to suggest to FISA that 4WD vehicles be allowed to compete in rallies, including those of the World Rally Championship. To FISA members, most of them rally organisers, if this meant more cars then it could not be a bad suggestion. The offending paragraph was dropped from the 1980 sporting regulations and Audi's doubts disappeared. Things were now moving apace. With Treser in charge, a second and a third prototype were built, still utilising the 80's bodyshell but incorporating much new design detail including a 100mm increase in wheelbase. The turbocharged engine now had an intercooler and more than 200bhp, so drivetrain failures were to be expected. The under-bonnet temperatures were rising, too, and the second prototype suffered a fuel line failure next to the turbo while doing high-temperature running in Tunisia.
Most of this work was now firmly associated with the rally car version, but running in parallel was the design and development of the road car. The company launched its turbo version of the 200 with 170bhp from its non-intercooled engine at the Frankfurt Show in September 1979 and the pressure was on to have the quattro ready to show the world six months later at the Geneva Show. But one suspects the prospect of a WRC programme provided all the motivation that Treser, Stockmar and their team needed to get the job done.
It was at this point that Roland Gumpert first came into the quattro equation. During 1979, he was working on the Iltis and Audi 80 projects and Stockmar selected him to manage the entry of four Iltis on the 1980 Paris-Dakar. Kottulinsky and Patrick Zanirolli duly scored an 'his 1-2, while the other two cars finished fourth and ninth, the last of the four actually being the chase car Iltis driven by Gumpert. It was a famous victory that almost went wrong when Kottulinsky tried a short cut on the last rough and twisty section from Bakel to Linguere and broke two driveshafts. Fortunately, Gumpert found him and fixed them in the hands-on style that was to become familiar in later years when he was team manager for the Audi Sport Rally Team.
Finally came the moment at the Geneva Show when the new Audi quattro Coupe was revealed to the public. For certain rally directors, it was analogous to that moment in a poker game when the player you thought had a pair of twos reveals four aces. As order books filled up, Audi had only two problems. The first was to get the rally version developed in time for the 1981 season. The second was how to build the thousands of cars demanded. It is a tribute to Audi manufacturing that, by the end of '81, quattro Coupe production exceeded 2000 can and the initial fears of the VW board about selling enough units were definitively quashed.
For the rally programme, engine development involving the adoption of Pierburg mechanical fuel injection saw engines reach 320bhp without losing too much in the way of driveability. Dampers came from Boge and tyres from Kleber, both companies being exclusive suppliers and thus able to give Audi intense development back-up. In the spare time from his regular rally programme with Ford and Mercedes-Benz, Harlin' Mildcola tested all he could while Demuth, Kottulinsky, and Mikkola's partner for the forthcoming WRC programme, Michele Mouton, joined in a year-long festival of testing. By the time the quattro Coupe was ready for its international rally debut in January 1981, the test cars had already covered more mileage than the works rally cars would in a full season of rallies and recceing. This intensive preparation paid off: the quattro made its debut on Austria's Janner Rally, January 1981, and Franz Wittmann won — by just over 20 minutes. The writing was on the wall.
The path to world rally titles for the Audi quattro and its drivers was never going to be that smooth. But in its five-year run, the quattro did win the manufacturers' title twice (1982 and '84) and had two of its drivers crowned world rally cham pion (Mikkola in 1983 and Stig Blomqvist in '84). It won all the WRC events (except the Safari and Corsica) at least once. It also helped a lady driver, Mouton, to the distinction of winning three WRC events outright But more than all this, the quattro was the car and Audi the company that fired the total-traction revolution and gave us the rallying extravaganza we have today. Along the way, they also gave us some spectacular cars to watch and marvel at, as anyone who ever saw a Sport quattro-E2 in action will testify.
Evolution of a revolution
The original FIA homologation of the Audi quattro Coupe was into Group 4 on the basis of 400 identical cars produced by the company.This was granted as of 1 January 1981. At the beginning of 1982, the FIA introduced Groups A and B to replace the old Groups I to 4. In I 983,the quattro transferred into Group B and Audi took the opportunity to do a bit of 'housekeeping' on the homologation. By this time, the company had manufactured more than 200 quattros with alloy cylinder blocks and, since that was the requisite production number for Group B,the new homologation was for the Audi quattro-Al where the 'A' referred to the cylinder block material.
The capacity of the quattro's engine was reduced from 2145 to 2 I 35cc for the A2 version, and at the same time, the centre differential was dropped from the homologated specification and an electro-hydraulic clutch added.There was recognition for plastic boot lid, bonnet, doors, windows other than the windscreen, and also titanium wishbones and struts. Finally the Sport quattro was homologated on I May 1984 as the Sport-S I and made its debut with all the goodies allowed by an evolution in Group B based on a production of 20 cars (right).The second evolution of that car was granted on 1 July 1985 and titled the Audi Sport quattro-E2.
Audi withdrew from the World Rally Championship after the fatal accident in the 1986 Rally of Portugal.