Story by Budd Stanley, photos courtesy Audi Canada
The year was 1980 and Finnish rally driver Hannu Mikkola was sitting on the starting line of the Janner Rally in Austria, at the wheel of a car that would change the face of both motorsport and the performance car – the Audi Quattro. This was the first time an AWD car would be associated with a motorsport event, as part of a series of developmental competitions Audi planned to develop the Quattro. However, Mikkola was not racing in the rally, he was driving the course-opening vehicle that would clear the stages for the competitors to follow.
The appearance of the Quattro on this start line came as no surprise to the rally world. Everyone knew that the German brand was looking to compete for the first time with an AWD drivetrain. Up until this time, all rally cars had slid through stages around the world, powered by only two driven wheels. The thought of a heavy, cumbersome and over-complicated AWD system powering a rally car had all but the Audi Sport team laughing at the thought that such a car could be competitive. By the end of the rally, had Mikkola’s times been counted, the Quattro would have won the event by nine minutes. The critics were silenced with authority and a new era had begun.
Before the Quattro, 4WD drivetrains had been confined to military and farming vehicles, where the need for traction was great, but where performance did not play a factor. These systems utilized large bulky transfer cases and solid front and rear axles, anything but sporty. Back in Ingolstadt, Germany, 12 engineers started working after hours, unofficially, to change the way power was directed to all four corners of a vehicle.
Front-wheel drive Audis of the day utilized a longitudinally-mounted engine and gearbox much like a RWD car, but the differential to the front axles was mounted in the bell-housing. So power from the engine was directed to the input shaft of the gearbox, transferred through the selected gear to the out shaft below which then directed the power 180-degrees back toward the bell-housing and the differential. In order to utilize these common parts and save weight while increasing the performance and efficiency of driving four wheels, these engineers did something very ingenious. They hollowed out the lower output shaft in the gearbox so that a second output shaft facing rearward could be inserted inside of it. So, with a secondary driveshaft exiting out the rear of the gearbox, a centre differential could be mounted which dictated the amount of torque directed to the rear differential, which in turn, fed the rear wheels with power.
It was a ground-breaking design that changed the delivery of power to the four wheels, creating the AWD-powered car, rather than the 4WD-powered truck. Audi quickly saw the inherent marketability of such technology, so Audi Sport was born and the plan to take the Quattro rallying was the initiative.
1981 would be the team’s first real attack on the World Rally Championship. Despite the dominating display in Austria the year before, the next two years were still considered developmental years. They would now be up against the best drivers piloting the fastest machinery. However, no one else had taken advantage of the new Group 4 rules which allowed turbos and AWD. At the first rally, Rallye Monte Carlo, the Audis were passing these top-level teams in the stages, an impressive feat. The very next rally in Sweden, Mikkola’s Quattro reigned supreme, soundly beating the championship regulars.
Suddenly, everything every rally team and manufacturer knew became obsolete overnight. Audi would again make history in 1981 with French driver Michèle Mouton becoming the first woman to win a World Championship Rally in San Remo. Soon, the race and titles began to pile up to effectively split rallying history in half; there was before Quattro, then there was after. It was a milestone so great that no other car since has ever won the world championship without the same recipe for success – AWD powered by a turbocharged engine.
However, Quattro wasn’t just about racing. The road-going Quattro offered Joe Public the chance to own a car with substantially increased technology, grip and performance over anything else in its class. Canadians were treated to the civilian Quattro in 1983, which featured a 2,144-cc, 200-hp turbocharged inline 5-cylinder engine mounted longitudinally in the engine compartment. While the rally-equipped car was the first to bring AWD to the sport of rallying, the calmed down version was the first to give the performance enthusiast AWD in a car-based vehicle.
Some argued that the Quattro was a bit of an ugly duckling. Even the engineers themselves freely admit that their major focus was to build as fast a car as possible, and looks were not of major concern. However, the Quattro’s bulging wheel arches and a muscular shape would inspire such great performance iterations as the BMW M3 and Lancia Delta Integrale. It was a look that let all know that this four-ringed coupe was not to be messed with, and still enticed a great amount of admiration.
1991 would be the final year of the iconic Quattro, finally succeeded by the much more civilized Audi S2 which was a high-performance version of the Audi 80. But before the Quattro left us, Audi commissioned a limited number of Sport Quattros, production versions of the short-wheelbase rally car for the street. This special edition featured Audi’s first all-aluminum, cross-flow engine with 4 valves per cylinder, all helping to pump out 306 hp. The Sport Quattro also featured ABS braking and locking differentials, a first in a road car. Today, the Sport Quattro is one of the most highly sought-after low production Audis of all time, with good examples having fetched over $100,000 at auction.
Without the Quattro, we never would have had the Mitsubishi Evo or Subaru Impreza, and Europeans would likely not have seen the Lancia Delta Integrale, Ford Escort Cosworth or GT4. It was the grandfather that brought supercar-beating performance to the common man, while ushering in a new age of AWD vehicles. In the early ‘80s, there was only the Quattro; today, nearly every manufacturer boasts of the inherent benefits of their own AWD-equipped cars. The Audi Quattro would go on to sell 11,452 units in its eleven-year run. This leap in technology would also be implemented into the rest of the Audi vehicle range, as even today, all-wheel-driven Audis display the quattro badge in honour of the Quattro, spelt with a lower case “q” to identify it as the name of the AWD system and not the name of the car.