Walter Rohrl driving a Quattro A2 at the 1984 Rally Portugal
Walter Rohrl driving a Quattro A2 at the 1984 Rally PortugalAudi

40 years of the Audi quattro – The story of a legend

From utilitarian beginnings to achieving the pinnacle of motorsport and on to its application in future tech, we recount the milestones of the Quattro platform

The name Quattro is synonymous with Audi today, and stands for the brand’s permanent four-wheel-drive tech integrated into everything from sedans to sportscars and SUVs. Based on this tech, Audi has stamped its legacy across both circuit racing as well as rallies the world over. So as this tech turns 40, we look back to its origins, which surprisingly come from Audi’s sister brand, Volkswagen.

The origins

In the winter of 1976, while testing prototypes in a remote part of Sweden, Audi engineers Jorg Bensinger saw how well their support car, a Volkswagen Iltis, owing to its four-wheel-drive characteristics, performed in the icy conditions. He took inspiration, wanting to replicate this on Audi's roadgoing cars, However, it wouldn’t be easy to replicate a four-wheel-drive system onto a sedan chassis, as the four-wheel-drive technology back then was cumbersome and rudimentary, a far cry from what Audi was looking for as an addition to its luxurious sedans.

The original quattro made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in 1980
The original quattro made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in 1980Audi

After repeated attempts at modifying existing four-wheel-drive configurations for use in a lighter, refined package, Bensinger's team hit upon the idea of hollowing out the primary transmission shaft and running a 10.4-inch-long secondary shaft within it, distributing the engine's power to both axles via a manually-locking central differential. Audi called the system quattro (‘four’ in Italian), and launched the 2.1-litre in-line-five 197bhp Audi 80 quattro B2 at the 1980 Geneva Motor Show.

The first brush with motorsport

The very next year, Audi's motorsport division, Audi Sport, debuted the quattro at the Austria rally, celebrating its first victory with drivers Franz Wittman and Kurt Nestinger. Audi then decided to enter the quattro in the World Rally Championship, kicking off the campaign with the Monte Carlo rally, a daunting challenge to any newcomer. And yet, Hannu Mikkola’s quattro set a time that was a whole minute and ten seconds faster than the next car (albeit before retiring). He then went on to win the Swedish rally – followed by Michelle Mouton’s and co-driver Fabrizia Pons’ maiden victory for an all-women’s team at Rallye San Remo, Italy – before repeating the feat and taking the win at the Great Britain rally as well.

Michele Mouton at the 1982 Rally Portugal
Michele Mouton at the 1982 Rally PortugalAudi

The quattro reigned supreme in the 1982 WRC, with Mouton winning two rallies, followed by Mikkola winning three and Stig Blomqvist winning four. The next year, Audi debuted the A1 and A2 evolutions of the quattro, raising the power from the turbocharged in-line-5 engine to about 350bhp. While the A1 won the Swedish Rally and the Rally Portugal with Mikkola at the wheel, the A2, driven by Blomqvist, Mikkola and Walter Rohrl, won a total of eight rallies, three in 1983 and five in 1984.

Later in 1984, a variant of the quattro, called the Sport quattro S1 was created, comprising a carbon kevlar body shell, wider 200-section tyres, a steeper windscreen rake (for aerodynamics as well as minimising internal reflections) and a 320mm shorter wheelbase. Its 2133cc aluminium in-line-five engine now made close to 440bhp. And along with rallying, the S1 also entered (and won!) the 1985 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb with Michele Mouton at the ’wheel.

The next version, the Quattro S1 E2 was introduced at the end of 1985, and featured a turbocharger with a recirculating air system, aimed at keeping the unit spinning at high rpm, when the driver closed the throttle, either to back off during cornering, or on gearshifts. Though this 2110cc engine was said to make 469bhp, the actual figures were closer to 500bhp, coming in at a lofty 8000rpm. In addition to the improved power output, an aggressive aerodynamic kit was added, featuring wings and spoilers at the front and rear, and the weight reduced to 1090 kg. The S1 E2 could hit 100kmph from standstill in 3.1 seconds, and also got a ‘power-shift gearbox’, a forerunner to today’s DSG 'boxes.

Stig Blomqvist at the 1985 Argentina Rally
Stig Blomqvist at the 1985 Argentina RallyAudi

The S1 E2 made its competitive debut at the 1985 Rally Argentina, with Blomqvist driving, and went on to achieve success with Rohrl and Christian Geistdorfer winning the 1985 Rallye San Remo, along with a modified version of the E2, driven by Mouton. The S1 E2 would become the final rally car produced by Audi, with the works team withdrawing from the Championship following the 1986 rally in Portugal owing to fatal accidents involving spectators (which didn't involve Audi, though).

An African detour, and onto the tarmac route

In 1987, Audi diversified its efforts, with Mikkola and Rohrl netting a one-two win at the eighth edition of the East African Safari Rally, which was not only Audi’s first win at the event, but also the first time a four-wheel-drive car had won the rally. This was followed by another milestone, with Rohrl winning at the Pikes Peak at the wheel of one of the final factory cars, rated at 588bhp, and hitting speeds excess of 190kmph on the steeply inclined gravel roads.

Audi’s Pikes Peak win was followed by a test session punctuated by record attempts at the Nardo track, to prepare the quattro for circuit racing. In its world record version in Nardo, the quattro was good for a top speed of over 400kmph, with an average speed of over 330kmph.

The quattro’s circuit innings started with the Trans-Am, with the team of Hans Struck, Walter Rohrl, and Hurley Haywood. Right off the bat, the Audis appealed both to the spectators and the media, as they were essentially four-door sedans merely adapted for racing, winning against purpose-built Japanese and American sportscars in all tracks from California to Florida, and Texas to Michigan. After 13 events the Audi team had the manufacturer’s title, while Hurley Haywood won the driver’s title. From here, Audi moved on the German Touring Car Championship, proving once and for all there can be no substitute for the four-wheel-drive car, irrespective of the terrain.

The quattro’s success came as a challenge to face the next higher hurdle, so in 1989, Audi entered the next American league, the International Motor Sport Association or IMSA series. The regulations here were more flexible, so Audi could finally build a genuine racing version of the quattro. Enter the Audi 90 quattro, with all the hallmarks of a sportscar, which differed from the usual road version in one way at least: its 710bhp engine.

The regular drivers, Haywood, Struck and Rohrl, were joined by Scott Goodyear, who pressed ahead with track testing, track-prepping the new car for its competitive debut within a scant four months!

Hans Struck piloting an airborne Audi 90 Quattro at the 1989 IMSA series
Hans Struck piloting an airborne Audi 90 Quattro at the 1989 IMSA seriesAudi

The 15 races in the IMSA series are held all over the USA and Canada in constantly changing conditions. One day it’s a street circuit, the next a classic racetrack, while the length of the races varies from a one-hour sprint to a 24-hour marathon. Audi drove to victory in West Virginia, Ohio, Kansas, California, New York, Connecticut, and Laguna Seca – seven times in one season, a record that did wonders for Audi’s popularity all over the continent.

The return to Germany came in 1990, ten years after the quattro revolution. And, as with all proper revolutions, it changed the world – or at least the car world. The Audi team at the German touring car championship, Hewart Kreiner, Dieter Basche and Hans Nowak. The massive Audi V8s saloon was developed once again in record time into a competition car, and got a warm welcome form the spectators, and tough competition from major manufacturers. At the beginning, Hans Struck was the only Audi driver, and was later joined by Frank Biela, Hubert Haupt, Frank Jelenski, and the ever-popular Walter Rohrl, who concentrated mainly on development work.

Despite being a newcomer in the German Touring Car Championship and by no means a favourite, Hans Struck worked himself through the field to an increasing extent, and at the end of the season at the Hockenheimring, there was the most spectacular result that could be imagined. Struck won both heats, with the first three positions going to Audi, and bagged the title of ‘German Champion.’

In 1991, the slogan was: ‘Same procedure as last year.’ With even more entries the advantages of a potent four-wheel-drive saloon were demonstrated to maximum effect. Once again, the season culminated in a crucial final at the Hockenheimring, the only difference this time being that the new German champion from the Audi team was Frank Biela.

Biela also led the Audi team in its next challenge. This time the quattro idea met up with the European concept of an all-embrancing 2-litre championship, the best arena for this being the French Super Tourisme Chambonnet. At all the classic French circuits from Mangy-Cours to Paul Ricard, Bieler, with his French colleague Marc Sourd were up against the best from Alfa Romeo, BMW, Nissan, Opel and Peugeot. During this rapid French campaign, the quattros were again unbeatable, with Biela winning the French Touring Car Championship on his first attempt, while for Audi it was the third title in a row.

Onto the boulevards

As a result of their race-proven pedigree, Audi translated their knowhow to road-going sportscars as well, with some of the technical delicacies of their competition cars, like sequential gearshifts and permanent four-wheel-drive. Significant examples of this were the mid-engined 2.8-litre V6 Quattro and Avus concepts unveiled at the 1991 Frankfurt Auto Show. This super sleek concept attracted tons of attention, but never came to fruition as Audi could not justify the high asking price for such a car. However, this was the start of an idea, which ultimately led to the 2003 Audi Le Mans Quattro concept car, which went to become the super successful R8 sportscar.

Further, it was not until 2012 that an Audi all-wheel-drive race car – the Audi R18 e-tron quattro with a hybrid drive system – once again took to the track. A V6 TDI drove the rear wheels, while a flywheel accumulator supplied recuperated energy to two electric motors on the front axle, allowing for maximum traction during acceleration, employing its temporary quattro drive system during those crucial moments.

2012 Audi R18 TDI
2012 Audi R18 TDIAudi

This collaboration of electric technology brought in the next step in quattro’s journey, which was...

A step towards a sustainable future

Audi’s next stage of development came in the form of electric all-wheel drive, seen in the Audi e-tron S and e-tron S Sportback prototypes, where the quattro system will be accompanied by electric torque vectoring – which involved distributing power between the wheels – a process that takes mere milliseconds. Additionally, owing to the electric powertrain, it can handle (and engage) the high torque, allowing the car to be driven as energetically into curves as a sports car.

Audi e Tron S (left) has a more tradition SUV shape, while the e Tron S Sportback goes the coupe-SUV way
Audi e Tron S (left) has a more tradition SUV shape, while the e Tron S Sportback goes the coupe-SUV wayAudi

With the Audi e-tron and the Audi e-tron Sportback, Audi is entering the age of sustainable transportation. Electric motors drive the front and rear axles in both SUV models. The suspension and drive control units work together to regulate the ideal distribution of drive torque between them – permanently, fully variably and within fractions of a second, a process which happens predictively before slip occurs in icy conditions or during fast cornering, or if the car understeers or oversteers. The result is extremely precise handling that can be adjusted to a large extent via the suspension control systems, from stable to sporty.

The simple idea, of running cars across segments with a four-wheel-drive configuration, and refining the concept in the crucible of motorsport has reaped rich rewards for the brand, a clear testament to its motto of progress through technology, or Vorsprung Durch Technik.

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