1989 Audi Quattro
1989 Audi Quattro. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Although four-wheel drive was popularized over the last decade by the explosive sales of the sport utility vehicle, which was pioneered by the Jeep, its use in passenger cars has been limited. Recently, however, there has been increased interest in 4WD cars.

In the 1970s and ’80s, as 4WD cars like the Japanese Subaru and the AMC Eagle became available, drivers felt more secure with it, particularly in winter and wet conditions. But while Eagles and Subarus enjoyed some popularity, especially in mountainous areas, 4WD cars were still a limited offering.

That is changing, in part no doubt because SUVs are raising awareness about 4WD, and convincing more motorists that they need it. There is also the practical reason that engineers are wrestling with, transmitting today’s large increases in engine power through two driving wheels, particularly in front-wheel drive applications.

In the early 1970s, some Audi development engineers were testing the Volkswagen Iltis 4WD Jeep-type off-road vehicle in Scandinavia. They were impressed by how the little, low-powered Iltis could outperform large, powerful, front-drive cars in the snow and ice (Iltises would later be used by the Canadian armed forces).

They proposed the idea of a high performance 4WD car to Ferdinand Piech, head of Audi’s development department, who also happened to be the grandson of the Volkswagen creator Ferdinand Porsche. After the Second World War, Ferdinand’s son Ferry had designed a 4WD Cisitalia grand prix car, although it never raced.

Piech was enthusiastic, wanting to enhance Audi’s goal of promoting an image of technical leadership. He sought the approval of Volkswagen management (Volkswagen had purchased Audi from Mercedes-Benz in 1964), and sanction was given, provided the 4WD car used as many Audi parts as possible, and that it was compatible with Volkswagen-Audi’s manufacturing plans.

Prototype building began using a front-wheel drive Audi 4000 car fitted with a new 2.2-litre, overhead cam, inline five-cylinder engine that Audi was developing. Because the engine was longitudinally positioned ahead of the front axle, followed by the differential and transmission, it was an ideal layout for 4WD.

By the ingenuous use of a concentric shaft-within-a-shaft, called a quill shaft, to send the power forward, the driveline was kept low enough that the car’s profile was similar to a regular front-driver.

To facilitate rear-drive, the beam axle was replaced with the Audi 5000’s MacPherson strut front suspension turned around 180 degrees. An Iltis differential (with an aluminum case for lightness) was used at the rear, and the halfshafts were the same as the front. A five-speed manual transmission was fitted.

The driveline was tried without a central differential, but was subject to binding in tight corners, so an Audi 50/VW Fox differential was fitted behind the transaxle. Although all four wheels were driven all the time, which was adequate for most traction conditions, for really slippery going the driver could use a console-mounted lever to lock the intermediate and rear differentials. The front differential was not locked because it would interfere with steering. A lighted diagram informed the driver when the differentials were locked.

The five cylinder engine, based on the Audi 5000 production unit, was turbocharged and intercooled. By using higher boost and other modifications it was increased from the regular 130 horsepower in the 5000 Turbo, to a reliable 200, although for North America it would detuned to 160.

After considerable winter testing on steep European mountain passes, the Audi Quattro, as the new 4WD car was called, was ready for sale. It was based on the Audi four-passenger Coupe, with larger spoilers, and fender flares added to accommodate larger tires.

The Audi Quattro was introduced at the 1980 Geneva Motor Show as a 1981 model. It was a sensation as the first four-wheel drive high performance car since the Jensen Interceptor FF of the early 1970s. It immediately started to be rallied with outstanding results.

Quattro prototypes had finished first, second and fourth in the 1980 Paris-to-Dakar rally. In 1981, Quattros won the British Swedish and San Remo rallies, and in 1982, took the manufacturer’s World Rally Championship. These were only the early wins in what would become an outstanding string of rally victories for the Quattro, including Pikes Peak. It became so dominant that the FIA (International Automobile Federation), governing body of motorsport, banned 4WD cars in 1997.

When the Quattro reached North America it demonstrated its performance. Road & Track (6/82) posted a fast (for that time) zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 8.2 seconds, and a top speed of 206 km/h (128 mph).

The original Audi Quattro was made until 1991, by which time more than 11,000 had been built. Its reputation was so strong that Audi adopted Quattro 4WD for its regular sedans and wagons and promoted it vigorously. Audi has become strongly associated with 4WD or AWD cars, and it’s a rare Audi without Quattro.

Other manufacturers such as BMW, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Volvo and Lexus are following suit, and AWD cars are gaining increasing popularity. The original Audi Quattro can take a great deal of credit for this movement.

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