In 2015, Audi's revolutionary quattro permanent all-wheel drive system celebrates its 35th anniversary.
30 October, 2015
It’s difficult to separate Audi and quattro. The two together just roll off the tongue to such an extent that many people consider quattro an Audi model, rather than an automotive technology available across the entire range of Audi vehicles – a technology that 35 years ago changed the face of motorsport and ultimately changed the way people viewed vehicle handling and raised the stakes and standards forever.
The car that turned world rallying on its ear in the early 1980s, the Audi quattro, was largely the idea of a chassis engineer named Jörg Bensinger. In the late 1970s, Bensinger was snow testing a Volkswagen army off-road vehicle in the middle of a pitiless frozen Finnish winter when he chanced on the magical grip of all-wheel drive.
Convinced of the value of an all-wheel-drive road car, Bensinger put the idea to Ferdinand Piech, Audi’s director of technical development. The hard-nosed Piech was won over, and a testing program fast tracked.
Everything happened with surprising speed. There were mules and then prototypes, with canny engineers looking for appropriate components currently available to Audi to bring this new system to life.
Moving closer to reality, the evolved mule used an Audi 100’s suspension and transmission, the floorpan and some running-gear components from the Audi 80, a turbocharged five-cylinder engine and the body of the soon-to-be-released Audi 80 coupe.
After some lurid hands-on trials to illustrate the advantages of quattro, the board eagerly went for the proposal.
The machine that emerged – an unapologetically muscled-up Audi Coupe with flared fenders and serious attitude – hit European showrooms in 1980. It offered a 2.1-litre, 10-valve, turbocharged and intercooled in-line five-cylinder with 147kW…well…it was a lot of power back then and eye-opening technology. It did zero to 100km/h in 7.1 seconds (and that was mighty quick in 1980) but the world was more stirred and shaken by its unheard of performance on slippery surfaces.
The rally car followed. Until Audi entered the ‘Quattro’, sometimes known as ur-quattro (meaning original quattro) into the World Rally Championship in 1981, all-wheel drive rally cars were non-existent.
With its unmatched power-down acceleration, the quattro changed the face of rallying in one season and evolving iterations won on snow, ice, gravel and tarmac in a few years of utter domination. Audi driver Michelle Mouton was the first female to win a WRC event and very nearly won the world championship.
With more grip available, the rally cars could cope with more power, and so the FIA introduced more open rules which fostered the brutally fast Group B cars between 1982 and 1986. Hannu Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist won world titles for Audi in 1983 and 1984 driving the Audi quattro A1/A2 and the Audi A2/Sport quattro respectively in their championship years.
Group B cars were the most powerful and sophisticated rally monsters ever seen and heard to that point. They were also the fastest. Scarily fast. Spectators loved them.
Audi pulled out of Group B rallying in 1986 and Ingolstadt’s motorsport department put its energies into the 1988 Audi 200 Trans-Am cars, big, manic all-wheel-drive beasts, and so dominant they were quickly banned by the American controlling body SCCA within a year of their arrival. The locals were already feeling a little inadequate after Walter Röhrl absolutely blitzed the Pike’s Peak hillclimb in 1987, in a curtain call for the ferocious Group B Audi quattro S1 rally car.
The stuff of motorsport legend
Audi then switched to a lighter, more technically advanced IMSA GTO silhouette turbo five-cylinder 90 model – all-wheel drive, of course. It was again very competitive without butchering American egos quite as badly.
But there was some ill feeling so Audi withdrew strategically, and headed to the DTM where if there was jingoism to deal with, at least it was German jingoism.
Australia did not miss the Audi all-wheel drive racetrack onslaught either, with Brad Jones winning the national super touring title in 1996 and 1998, driving an A4 quattro.
Audi’s successes in rallying and touring cars clearly showed consumers the benefits in adhesion and composure of having all four wheels sharing the power and torque, especially when managed by increasingly clever Torsen or Haldex systems.
Today, two out of every three Audis bought here are all-wheel drive quattro models, the revolutionary system continuing to evolve to manage ever-increasing power outputs from Audi engines. The name quattro and its reputation for grip and handling though, still very much the gold standard in all-wheel drive world wide.
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