John Buffum behind the wheel of Michelle Mouton and Fabrizia Pons quattro rally car; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge
By Paul Williams
John Buffum/quattro rally car
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario – Although Audi’s 2008 Winter Test Drive in Niagara focused mainly on the company’s TDI diesel fleet and its upcoming introduction to the North American market, the attention of journalists was frequently distracted by the presence of a certain bright yellow, tricked-out vintage Audi quattro and its well-known guest driver.
Apparently someone at Audi thought it would be a good idea to bring a 1980s Quattro rally car from the Audi museum in Germany to this international event, and offer rides to the attending press. Give that person a raise!
The Mouton/Pons quattro rally car; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge
The chosen car was none other than the ex-Michelle Mouton/Fabrizia Pons Monte Carlo Rally Quattro. While Ms. Mouton was unfortunately not behind the wheel (some suggest she is the most successful female race car driver in history, winner of several international rallies, and the Pikes Peak Hillclimb in 1985), the driver’s seat was ably filled by American rally legend John Buffum.
Just getting a close look at this car was a rare treat. Audi Quattros from this era brought World Championships and global recognition to the Audi brand, spreading the “quattro” name far and wide. Indeed, just as diesel has come to dominate the European market – with Audi’s Q7 SUV and A4 sedan powered by clean TDI engines readying for shipment here in 2009 — the notion of permanent all-wheel drive in passenger cars was equally radical 25 years ago.
The Mouton/Pons quattro rally car; photo by Heinrich Heulser. Click image to enlarge
What better way to demonstrate the superiority and viability of this drivetrain by entering, and winning, grueling internationally rally events? Subsequently many manufacturers (notably Subaru) have taken a page out of that book.
The car at the Niagara Drive Centre base of operations was an early Quattro making about 350 horsepower from its turbocharged five-cylinder engine. Later versions (the Quattro Sport and S1) ran on a shortened wheelbase with engines that could exceed 600 hp.
The Mouton/Pons quattro rally car; photos by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge
In the absence of Ms. Mouton (who will campaign in the 2008 Dunlop Otago Classic Rally in New Zealand), John Buffum was a perfect alternative. He raced for Audi between 1982-1987 and still owns one of the Quattro rally cars he piloted then. Over the years, Mr.Buffum has competed in numerous vehicles – Mini, Triumph TR7 and TR8, Porsche, Hyundai to name a few – and is the only American driver to win a European rally championship event (West German 1983 Sachs Rally, and 1984 ERC Rally in Cyprus, both behind the wheel of an Audi Quattro). He is the 11-time U.S. national rally champion (SCCA PRO Rally), winning 117 events, and is working with the current Canadian rally champion, Antoine L’Estage, as his career develops.
Such a rich career is the stuff of a book, rather than a short homage (indeed one was published in 1994, written by co-driver Tom Grimshaw).
Suffice it to say that the crowd around the old Audi, and its veteran driver was persistent and fascinated, and the ride on a short course that covered ice on one-half, and dirt on the other was suitably instructive.
Even 25-year old Audi Quattros, it turns out, can take a severe thrashing without complaint, and retired rally drivers seem just as enthusiastic and competent behind the wheel as ever.