How a humble VW army truck became the greatest rally car of all time
Nowadays the word quattro (always with a lower case Q) is known as Audi’s trademark for its four-wheel drive system, a badge borne proudly on all Audi vehicles in that distinctive typeface that’s remained nearly unchanged since its inception.
But originally, the name belonged to the Audi Quattro, the first proper passenger car with proper four-wheel drive, and one of the most revolutionary vehicles of all time.
Known primarily for its all-conquering rally abilities, as well as for its famous stint on Ashes to Ashes, it’s almost impossible to exaggerate the effect that the original Audi Quattro had on the car world. With no Quattro, it’s entirely likely there would be no STi, no xDrive, no Jaguar AWD, no nothing.
But as incredible as the legacy of the Quattro has been, the story of its origin is even more incredible, and it all began with a humble Volkswagen army truck.
Audi’s original Quattro and the four-wheel drive system which now bears its name owes its existence to Volkswagen Type 183, a small military truck built for the German army.
Better known as the Iltis, the truck had been created on the underpinnings of the old Munga jeep, a military off-roader built by DKW, a company which Volkswagen would later dissolve and merge into Audi.
Volkswagen’s prototype used a unique four-wheel drive system, which had been cobbled together using parts from an old Audi 100 saloon. An Audi chassis engineer named Jörg Bensinger was put in charge of testing the Iltis, and it was during one testing session in the middle of a Finnish winter that he discovered the remarkable abilities of four-wheel drive.
Despite being simple in construction and packing a mere 75 horsepower, Bensinger found that the Iltis was absolutely untouchable on the snow, with no other car or truck at the time able to keep up with the small vehicle no matter how powerful.
As a result of the Iltis’ abilities, Bensinger became obsessed with the idea of creating a four-wheel drive road car. Cars with all four wheels driven had been made in the past - the first was the Spyker 60 made as far back as 1903 - but were always deemed too heavy and too complex to be of any real value.
Nonetheless, in 1977 Bensinger pitched his idea to Ferdinand Piech, Audi’s technical director at the time, and Piech allowed him to go forward with a limited testing program built around the existing Audi 80 saloon.
The first development cars were given the codename ‘A1’, which stood for allrad or all-wheel, while later prototypes robbed various other components from Audi and Volkswagen’s vehicles. Eventually, the engineers settled on a design that used the suspension and transmission from the Audi 100, running gear from the Audi 80 and an all-new turbocharged five-cylinder engine.
It was to be this prototype which gained the overwhelming approval of Audi’s board of management following a winter test at the famous Turracher Höhe Pass in the Austrian Alps. One of the steepest, highest and most treacherous roads in Europe, the Audi test mule was able to climb a 23-degree hill covered in snow, without the need for either snow tyres or chains. An impressive feat even today, in 1977 it was revolutionary.
Yet although Audi’s heads were impressed, it would take a lot more for the manufacturer’s parent company Volkswagen to sign off on the idea. To seal the deal, Piech got crafty and the story of how he convinced VW to approve the car is now almost as legendary as the car itself.
Piech took Volkswagen’s development director at the time, Ernst Fiala, to a grassy slope which he had doused in water and ordered the VW board member to attempt to climb the hill in a front-wheel drive Audi 80. After Fiala unsuccessfully tried to scrabble up the hill, Piech then asked him to try again, this time in the Audi prototype.
Fiala was suitably impressed, so much so that he took the prototype home with him for a weekend. After his wife complained that the car was driving erratically, Fiala suggested that Audi’s engineers should put a centre differential into it, and the final piece of the quattro puzzle was in place.
This last bit led to one of the most ingenious engineering solutions of the late 20th century. One of the major problems with four-wheel drive cars at the time was that the four-wheel drive system added so much bulk to the vehicles that they became almost unfeasibly big just to fit it all in.
However, Audi engineered a longitudinally-mounted centre differential built into the back of the gearbox, which fit the two shafts necessary to drive the front and back wheels inside each other. As a result, the final prototype could fit a whole host of components into a space no larger than an overnight bag.
The car that resulted was a sleek coupe based on the Audi 80 and with large, flared wheel arches designed by Martin Smith, the designer who went on to pen many of Ford’s cars in the mid-2000s.
Named the Quattro as a tip of the hat to its revolutionary four-wheel drive system, it hit showrooms in 1980 and sported a 2.1-litre turbocharged inline-five engine that produced 197bhp. It could hit 62mph in a shade over seven seconds, and thanks to the fact that all four of its wheels were driven it was indomitable come rain, shine, mud or snow.
The world went nuts.
Particularly in rally, the Quattro utterly dominated from the get-go. The FIA, which governs rallying’s rules, made four-wheel drive legal in the late 1970s, but nobody had taken advantage of it due to the fact that four-wheel drive cars were still seen as too heavy and too clunky to keep up.
The furthest a four-wheel drive car had gotten in rally was when a pair of Jeep Wagoneers won the first two years of the internationally-recognised Sno*Drift rally in the US, but the manufacturer was reportedly asked not to come back.
At the time of the Quattro’s debut, rally cars were generally all rear-wheel drive. The Quattro’s unique packaging meant that the car could be the same size and weight as rear-wheel drive cars, but the fact that all four of its wheels were driven meant it gained unshakeable traction in the sort of low-grip environments rally drivers are often faced with.
Audi originally entered the Quattro’s pre-production prototype into Austria’s Janner Rally in 1980 to test the technology, where the car took first place a full minute and a half ahead of its closest rival. Such was the success of the prototype that Audi entered the Quattro into the 1981 World Rally Championship, with world-changing results.
Piloted by Hannu Mikkola and Michele Mouton, the first female driver to win a WRC event, the Quattro took three wins in its debut season and became a superstar in its own right, with each subsequent year bringing ever more refined technology and increased power.
In terms of technical progress, Audi was lightyears ahead of the competition for many years, and with the addition of other star drivers Stig Blomqvist and Walter Rohrl won 23 WRC victories in total, including drivers’ titles for Blomqvist and Mikkola, along with two manufacturer’s titles.
The original rally-spec Quattro made approximately 304bhp, with power increases over subsequent years boosting output first to 355bhp, then to 444bhp. The later versions made an official 507bhp, but the final factory machines were rated to have as much as 600bhp, making them faster than the Formula One cars of their era.
As the WRC evolved, the other manufacturers realised pretty quickly that they would have to switch to four-wheel drive to keep up with the Quattro, and so rallying in the mid-1980s became a vicious showdown between the progenitor of four-wheel drive cars and its most ambitious imitators.
The FIA changed the rulebook in 1982 to further accommodate the development of new, exciting and powerful four-wheel drive cars, a move that was precipitated by the advent of the Quattro. These new rules were known as Group B, and opened the door for some of the most monstrous cars ever designed.
Essentially, the Group B class allowed manufacturers near-unlimited control over how much power their cars could make and the type of materials used. To keep up with the Quattro, manufacturers like Lancia, Peugeot and Austin Metro adopted four-wheel drive, lightweight Kevlar construction and huge power levels, giving birth to cars like the Delta S4, the 205 T16 and the MG Metro 6R4.
Audi responded in kind, first shortening the wheelbase of the Quattro to increase its agility and creating carbon-kevlar bodies for the cars to reduce as much weight as possible. The cars got so powerful and so unruly that their drivers struggled to control them, but the crowds loved them.
By 1985, the Evolution version of the Quattro - the Sport Quattro S1 E2 - was developed, which introduced one of the first anti-lag systems to rallying to keep the turbocharger’s turbine spinning and maintain boost even when off the throttle.
Previously, the drivers had to maintain boost manually by keeping the accelerator floored while braking simultaneously, and with the anti-lag system engaged the S1 E2’s power figure well exceeded 500bhp despite the fact that Audi officially quoted it at 470bhp.
In addition to the much improved power output, the Evolution model was given a prototype Porsche-engineered dual-clutch gearbox and a hugely aggressive aerodynamic kit which remains, to this day, still the most advanced aero setup ever put on a rally car. The huge front overhangs directed cold air to cool the brakes, while the gargantuan rear wing created downforce for better stability at speed.
Most unusual about the E2’s body kit was that it was designed specifically to force air underneath the car. That meant that when the car became airborne after going over a crest, it would ride a cushion of air and maintain perfectly level mid-jump, while rivals tended to nosedive back to earth.
It was immediately successful, winning the 1985 San Remo Rally when driven by Walter Röhrl, but all the same by the time that Group B ended in 1986, the Quattro had become less dominant than it originally was. While Audi was determined to stick as close to the road car’s layout as possible to make the production car more appealing to buyers, other manufacturers chose to adopt mid-engined layouts.
In contrast to these new and extremely nimble cars, the Quattro looked heavy and was prone to lethal doses of understeer thanks to the large five-cylinder engine that sat nestled beyond its front axle, and so its success started to dwindle. When Group B was banned and Audi immediately pulled its cars out of the WRC, it probably came as something of a relief.
Still, there was no denying the effectiveness of the Quattro’s four-wheel drive in motorsport, and although the car was pulled out of rallying Audi continued with various other sporting ventures, most famously the prestigious Pikes Peak hillclimb event.
Starting from 1982, Audi entered the event - which requires drivers to drive the legendary 4,301-metre Pikes Peak three times in succession to set the best time - with American drivers John Buffum and Bobby Unser, along with Michele Mouton, setting consecutive records from 1982 through to 1986.
It would arguably be Walter Röhrl’s run up the hillclimb in 1987, behind the wheel of a 600bhp version of the Sport Quattro S1 E2, that’s the most iconic. The most powerful Quattro ever made, and also the last to tackle the hillclimb, Röhrl’s E2 model still what Audi calls an “eternal record” given that the hillclimb’s route was changed the following year.
The road-going version of the Quattro proved to be immensely popular among buyers as well, racking up more than 11,452 sales in the 11 years that it was produced despite the fact that Audi expected to sell only 400 originally. Although a few minor updates were made to the looks and the engine throughout that period, the customer car stayed more or less the same for its entire production period.
The original Quattro also opened the gateway for Audi’s future performance models, including the rabid RS-badged cars, and the quattro four-wheel drive system next appeared on the Audi 100, followed by the S4 and the A6, along with its S6 variant.
Nowadays, quattro is available on nearly every single Audi on sale, from the A1 hatchback to the TT roadster and the R8 supercar. Thanks to the Quattro, four-wheel drive is still a prerequisite in top-level rallying and it’s laid down the blueprint for modern cars as diverse as the Subaru Impreza WRX STi, the MINI All4 Countryman and the new Ford Focus RS.
Yet even Audi owes its success to an entirely different breed of vehicle, namely the humble Volkswagen Iltis, without which the whole idea of the four-wheel drive sports car simply wouldn’t exist.