When the Audi Quattro was unveiled at the Geneva motor show 40 years ago, not even Ferdiand Piech, one of the all-time great leaders of the automotive industry, could have foreseen the impact the car would have on Audi, on motorsport and on the automotive sector as a whole.
Among many other things, Piech was a visionary. While CEO of Volkswagen he oversaw the takeovers of Bugatti, Lamborghini and Bentley; he led the development of Porsche’s most famous racing car, the 917; and it was he who gave the green light to ambitious engineering feats like the Bugatti Veyron and Volkswagen Phaeton.
JORGE BENGINGER: THE MAN BEHIND QUATTRO
But what about the Quattro? As the story goes, the Quattro was the brainchild of Audi engineer Jorge Bensinger. While winter testing in Finland in 1977, he observed how much more effective in snow and ice a Volkswagen 4x4 military vehicle was than any Audi, all of which to that point had been two-wheel drive. Bensinger wondered if that technology could be applied to a sporty, luxurious coupe, and in his mind he unwittingly began plotting one of the most influential sports cars ever produced.
Until the Quattro and with very few exceptions, four-wheel drive vehicles had been rough-and-ready machines built for the military or for agriculture. An Audi UK press release dated March 1981 reads: ‘The Quattro is intended as a luxurious, high performance road car not as an off-road vehicle’. Why clarify that point? Because four decades ago, only clunky workhorses drove all four wheels. The very notion of a high-end sports coupe that sent power to every corner was almost unheard of.
QUATTTRO AND RALLYING
The Quattro’s impact was seen most immediately in the World Rally Championship. Making its debut in 1981 as the first four-wheel drive rally car, the Quattro became a WRC rally winner on only its second outing. In the hands of Hannu Mikkola, the Quattro outpaced the rear-wheel drive Ford Escort of Ari Vatanen on the snowy stages of Rally Sweden in what would prove to be a precise foretelling of the shape of things to come. The Quattro won two further rallies that season, the first of a string of WRC titles the year after and, since then, the championship has been won by a two-wheel drive car only once.
Though it’s known best for pioneering four-wheel drive technology, the Quattro was at the forefront of turbocharging as well. European manufacturers only began toying with turbos in the early to mid-Seventies and when the Quattro arrived at the turn of the decade, turbocharging was still a novelty (enough of a novelty, in fact, that the emblem on the steering wheel depicts the Audi logo with the word ‘turbo’ emblazoned across it).
AHEAD OF ITS TIME
In more ways than one, the Audi Quattro was a car ahead of its time. How that manifests today is an uncanny impression of modernity; a kind of cognitive dissonance between how old you know the car to be and how it feels to drive. There aren’t too many cars designed and engineered in the late Seventies that stand up to a full day of driving – with no mercy shown – on punishing Welsh B-roads. On a video shoot earlier this year, though, a 1981 UK car with 75,000 miles on the clock did exactly that.
I spent a full day at the wheel of that particular Quattro, driving it back and forth for the camera, thrashing it along the kind of bumpy, uneven blacktop that would shake a lesser classic car to pieces. Despite the infancy of turbocharging at the time the car was built, I noticed no particular turbo lag during my time at wheel and nor did I have to drive around a very high boost threshold. The turbocharging was seamless. The four-wheel drive system, meanwhile, meant the car felt nailed into the (very greasy) tarmac at all times, feeling so stable and surefooted in bends that I completely forgot about the total lack of driver aids (even ABS only arrived later in the Quattro’s life).
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
Although I hadn’t driven a Quattro before then, the way it addressed a tricky ribbon of tarmac was familiar to me from all the more recent high-performance Audis I have tested. Not the very lissom, loose-limbed way of dealing with bumps and undulations in the road surface; that wasn’t familiar to me from other Audis at all. But the enormous stability in corners, the massive traction on the way out of a tight bend, the steadfast refusal to step out of line even under my most enthusiastic provocation…all of that was familiar. So too were the luxurious driving environment and the handsome, understated styling.
The thing about the Audi Quattro is that it set the blueprint for high-performance Audis in a way that’s still relevant 40 years later. Apart from the anomalous R8 supercar, every Audi performance machine I can think of behaves in fundamentally the same way on the road as the Quattro. How incredible is that? For all his foresight and intuition, Ferdinand Piech couldn’t possibly have known the Quattro would comprehensively change the fabric of Audi for the rest of time.
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