By Richard Russell
San Cassiano, Italy – In 1973, Ferdinand Piech, the Audi board member responsible for technical development, established a personal objective to alter the Audi image through the introduction of new and innovative technology. Four years later, in February 1977, Audi’s chief chassis engineer Jorg Bensinger contacted Piech with an idea that would become the brand’s defining image.
Bensinger had just returned from some cold weather testing in Finland with the company’s new 75 horsepower Iltis offroader. This strange little vehicle had easily and repeatedly out-performed everything else brought along for evaluation, including a range of mid-priced cars and some prototypes. So impressed was he by the superior handling and traction of the Iltis, Bensinger came up with the notion of implementing a comparable driveline concept for Audi’s car range as part of the company’s desire to join BMW and Mercedes at the upper end of the market.
Bensinger, with support from Walter Treser, then Audi’s Director of Pre-Development, went to Piech with the request to start tests on such a vehicle based on the Audi 80. Piech, an engineer himself and a visionary who would later be criticized for his far-reaching goals while at the helm of VW, saw a much more ambitious role for all-wheel-drive. Piech and Audi’s Board of Management wanted to build a sophisticated, high-performance sports coupe with permanent all-wheel-drive as an announcement of Audi’s intention to play in the big leagues. They envisioned a car that would leave the opposition in the dust not only on the road, but in competition, putting the Audi name forward to the world in dramatic fashion.
Piech had laid the groundwork for such a vehicle. After all, he had more than a little background in the concept of distributing power to four wheels. His grandfather Ferdinand Porsche (recognize that name?) had built four-wheel-drive tow vehicles for the Austrian Army, electric cars with a motor at each wheel hub and, as the crowning achievement in this development, the Cisitalia racing car.
Bensinger had the unofficial go-ahead, but practically no money. Using existing budgets and components based on the Iltis, his hand-picked team, operating under strict security, set out to produce a homologation special. It was to be built in extremely small quantities to compete in rally racing, where the perceived advantages of the new technology could be showcased. The Iltis components were placed in a red two-door Audi 80 carrying the internal code A1, for All-Wheel-Drive 1.
The engine and transmission were left in the same location as the production front-drive Audi 80. Hans Nedvidek, the mechanic who had built gearboxes for the Grand Prix cars of Stirling Moss and Juan Manual Fangio, was charged with coming up with a system of transmitting power to the rear axle as well. He replaced the 80’s live rear axle with a second Iltis differential housing, turned around 180 degrees and with no centre differential. A 160 horsepower engine destined for the future Audi 200 was “borrowed” for the purpose and in September 1977, mere months from that original conversation with Piech, Quattro got the green light from the Board of Management with the identification code EA-262. Two months later, the prototype of a production vehicle was cleared for testing on public roads.
The next and largest hurdle was gaining approval for actual volume production. At that time, Audi was a division within the Volkswagen group. VW held total responsibility to sales and marketing and held approval rights for all projects. In a sneaky way of getting past the politics and marketing manoeuvring of the boardroom, Audi invited key decision makers to a “tire test” in January 1978. It took place at Turracher Hohe, a location used by all German car makers at the time. The steepest road in Europe and snowbound at that time of year, Turracher Hohe was the ideal spot to demonstrate this new all-wheel-drive concept. Board members were impressed, but doubted there would be a market for 400 of these strange vehicles. Bensinger stepped up, promising to assume responsibility for Quattro sales personally. That turned the tide.
A minor issue occurred a few months later when one of the board members gave the test vehicle to his wife to drive in Vienna for a weekend. She complained that it “jumped around” a lot at slow speeds when parking and in tight turns. The team was urged to come up with a centre differential to eliminate the axle wind-up. Nedvidek to the rescue again, this time fitting the differential from an Audi 80 behind the transmission, driving this centre differential with a hollow shaft through which another shaft passed to drive the front differential and wheels. A shaft from the rear of this centre differential took power to the rear wheels. After a single short test, a budget of three million deutschmarks was approved for further development of Quattro, Audi’s high-speed all-wheel-drive system.
And that’s how we got here, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Quattro.