How Audi's Quattro system changed the world: CAR+ archive, May 2010

Published: 02 February 2016

► CAR salutes 30 years of the Quattro system
► We talk to the men and women who put it on the map
► Mouten, Röhrl, Blomqvist, Mikkola and other heroes

Imagine you’re a typical man on the street and a MORI pollster approaches with a multiple-choice questionnaire…

‘What do you think,’ they’d ask – let’s just pretend you haven’t walked straight by – ‘when you hear the name Audi Quattro?’ Your options are:

a)  Fire up the Quattro!
b)  Those cool little LED lights
c)  Excellent wet-weather handling
d)  The World Rally Championship.

Now, my bet is that at least 50% of respondents would actually beat the pollster to quoting that TV programme, and a fair proportion of those remaining would go for the flashy LEDS. To be fair, a large amount of people would also latch onto the all-weather handling served up by Quattro’s four-wheel drive system, but, really, how many people actually associate Quattro with rallying these days? That bijou image simply doesn’t gel with the WRC.

Yet when the Quattro story began three decades ago, the road car’s appeal was inextricably bound up with heroic stage times and grubby service parks. This was key to the technology’s credibility. Ferdinand Piëch (then Audi engineering boss) recognised that customers would have to be convinced of the new four-wheel drive car’s merits, and where better to do that than the mud, snow and gravel thrown up by the world rally championship’s notoriously tricky stages?

Drivers Walter Röhrl, Stig Blomqvist, Michele Mouton and Hannu Mikkola were the marketing campaign, and their heroic exploits saw sales go way beyond the 400 units required for Group 4 rally homologation – nearly 2000 sold in the first two years, 6000-plus by 1984 – although the Ur Quattro’s 11,452 sales over 11 years are anaemic compared with the three-million-plus Quattro-badges that Audi has stuck on tailgates since.

Despite its iconic status, the competition Quattro burned brightly for only the shortest period of time. Teething problems meant the rally car didn’t at first fulfil its potential, and, although it won the 1983 and 1984 championships, the rise of Group B regulations that allowed for more specialised mid-engined machinery left Audi trailing with what remained a production-based, front-engined design before the team left in the wake of other drivers’ tragic accidents.

No matter. Quattro’s impact was seismic and, even if its ties with rallying are long since severed, the era remains the defining chapter of its history.

To understand more about the events that shaped the Quattro story, we’ve tracked down the key figures who made the project happen, including engineers, rally drivers, co-drivers and designers. You’ll find their first-hand accounts over the page, together with a timeline which showcases the unfolding of the Quattro legend. It’s quite a story…

Audi Quattro Pikes Peak

Michele Mouton: She won Pikes Peak in a Quattro

‘I was called in 1980 but I can’t remember who it was. English was hard for me then, so I went to Ingolstadt with a translator. I was driving for Fiat, but they let me go to a test in Finland. After the test I signed a contract. The Fiat 131 was like a truck in comparison. The Audi had more power and power steering. I had to learn and adapt and understand how it worked. After Finland I returned to Fiat and drove the 131 on a test. I drove 500 metres then said to the team boss: “The steering is wrong, something is wrong with this car, you try it”. Then he drove the car and said: “Michele, the car is fine. Ah, I wonder if it is because you drove the Quattro…”

I liked the first short-wheelbase Quattro [E1 S1] the best and I really liked the twin-clutch PDK gearbox. The car only became too fast at the end with the second short-wheelbase car [E1 S2] with 530bhp on asphalt. It was really hard to read the limit and, when you found it, the time to react was too short.

I just missed the 1982 world championship. When I lost on the Ivory Coast, my father died at 7am and the race started at 8.30am. My mother said to drive. I was 1hr 20min up on Röhrl, then I lost 1hr 15min on a gearbox change. Yes, I lost the world championship, but I missed my father more.

I helped to set up the Race of Champions to remember Henri Toivonen [who died in a Lancia S4]. Henri was a very good friend, and I had retired two stages before the accident, so I was in the service park when we heard. It was terrible. Terrible.

The Americans weren’t prepared for us at Pikes Peak – they didn’t know about turbo engines. And I was a woman! When I started to go quickly in practice they made life very difficult for me. The speed limit was quite low and I was over it by a small amount for five miles, and I had to go to the race director. He said Audi would have to pay a fine, plus I would have to run to my car at the start, like an old Le Mans race. I held a press conference to say how dangerous their idea was, and in the end it was decided I had to start with the car out of gear. I still won anyway!’

'It was really hard to read the limit and, when you found it, the time to react was too short' - Michele Mouton

Martin Smith: He designed the first Quattro

‘I was just 27 years old when I joined Audi in 1977 as head of advanced design and special projects. It was not long after that when I started work on the Quattro. The project was very much Ferdinand Piëch’s baby. He was on a crusade to transform Audi from a small Bavarian manufacturer into a proper premium car maker – something that ended up taking 20 years.

Piëch wanted to achieve this with technology and bold styling. He took a lot of interest in the studio, had a good eye for detail and, while he was very direct, he was positive rather than intimidating. 

The design of the coupé that the Quattro was based on was basically finalised when I arrived, so my brief was to make the Quattro look technical, to stress that it was the first 4x4 performance car. I worked with a design model, and changed the fenders, the front end and the rear spoiler. I also came up with the flared arches. 

It wasn’t a particularly stressful experience – just me, a small team of modellers and a couple of guys doing the sketches. We submitted the final model to Toni Schmücker [then Volkswagen board chairman] for approval and I remember it was in metallic white and the Audi rings on the side were in orange.

The car made its debut at the Geneva motor show in March 1980 with wheelarches that were standard coupé arches at the top with the lower bits chopped off and new Quattro wheelarches fitted instead. It was really quite an experience at that age to be pushed onto the stage with five other guys and given credit for designing such a revolutionary car, even if you couldn’t have described it as particularly beautiful at the time.’

Audi Quattro

Roland Gumpert: He suggested four-wheel drive

‘I joined Audi from university as a test engineer in 1969. At the time VW had an offer from the government to design a military off-roader, but VW didn’t want to do it, so they gave it to [then Audi engineering boss] Ferdinand Piëch. I was responsible for pre-development. During a test in Scandinavia we had 30 front-wheel-drive Audis, but I was in the 75bhp off-roader with no roof. It was very cold in the car, and on the straights I found it difficult to keep up, but on the twisty sections it was easy. It was then that I thought four-wheel drive could work very well on our production cars.

That evening I convinced my boss Jorg Bensinger that we should do it, and he went to Piëch and convinced him. In the meantime, the Iltis off-roader was approved, so I moved to pre-production, to get it ready for the road, and Walter Treser took my job in pre-development to work on the road Quattro.

We tried to get orders from different armies, so we decided to participate in the 1980 Paris Dakar to convince them how good the Iltis was. In the end our cars came first, second and fourth. I was driving the service car and I came ninth!

When the board approved the Quattro, they decided to do rally to promote it and, because of Paris Dakar, Piëch asked me to lead the Audi Sport team. That’s what I did until 1986. At first we made lots of mistakes – we didn’t get any mechanics from other rally teams, we took ours from the production line. The other teams were laughing in the beginning – “look how stupid these Germans are,” they’d say – but we kept developing and developing and developing. Hannu Mikkola really helped – he is a fine engineer and a good driver. We made the turbo engine, gearbox and suspension better. And we made the car lighter, then shorter.

I think overall Walter Röhrl was the best driver, but he never went to Finland because he’d have no chance against Mikkola, and in Sweden, where it was flatter, Stig Blomqvist was unbeatable. Michele was as quick as the men, but she was fiery, and there’d always be more chance of her hitting a stone or something.’

Walter Rohrl: He rallied the Quattro 

‘Audi board member Dr Sonnenborn was a critical influence in making me switch to Audi. As I understood it, he had been given an order by Piëch: “Bring in Röhrl. Driving with him is much cheaper than driving against him.

In 1983 I drove the Quattro in competition for the first time… and it went straight on at every corner. I had heard that left-foot braking could be a solution, but I hadn’t got a clue how to do it. The rally ended on just the second day. There was an 80-metre straight on an icy stage and then the road turned sharp right. I tried steering – nothing. Steering and pushing the throttle – nothing. Braking – nothing either. And then we were already in the corner going too fast and the car flipped onto its roof. That was a great start for me with four-wheel drive. 

I loved the Group B cars and I was very angry when they made it stop. Yes, the deaths were unfortunate, but there was no need for a ban; safety could have been improved. It’s more interesting if you can make mistakes. I remember in testing we had 250 metres between hairpins on a gravel stage and I was hitting 215kph (134mph) in that time!

The situation with the fans was crazy. These days I feel shame when I see the videos of me accelerating flat with fans in the road, but, back then, it was all part of the game. There was no pressure on the organisers to change. I had to do it.

Henri Toivonen’s [Lancia driver] death was terrible. Henri was a little bit crazy. He was fast and always getting faster, like someone in a trance. I could never be faster. He reached the point where it was only a question of time before something went badly wrong.’

Additional quotes in this interview are taken from Walter Röhrl Diary, by Reinhard Klein and Wilfried Müller 

Road car updated, replacing 2144cc engine with 2226cc, higher compression ratio, smaller, faster-spooling turbo and Torsen centre diff

Hannu Mikkola: He won the WRC in 1983

‘In 1979 Audi Sport chief Jurgen Stockmar called me and told me about plans to homologate a 4x4 rally car. I was sceptical, but I thought I should go – I’m a nice guy!

There was only one prototype, and it was just the basic road car, so it was difficult to tell. I drove it and I was quite negative about it. I could see something in the Quattro, but I wasn’t sure if it would work and, although my team, Ford, were pulling out, I had other offers. At first Audi tried to get me to drive the front-wheel drive Audi 200, but I said no. I said the four-wheel-drive car would take a year to develop, so I signed a two-year contract, the first year for me to help develop it. The Quattro was large compared with the Escort, and driving the two cars was like night and day. There were so many new things on the Audi – the first turbo engine, new suspension from Boge, a tyre manufacturer who was new to rally.

The first engines were quite terrible – there was nothing under 4000rpm, and it took us six months to get the car going round bends precisely. Narrow roads were the real problem. We tried a limited-slip diff in the front, but it was too nervous, so it was my idea to try a Ferguson open front diff – it was smoother and it worked better but it was basically three-wheel drive [because power was going to the inner wheel].

My favourite Quattro was the 1983 lwb car. It was the easiest to drive, we had sorted the suspension, had 400+bhp and not much lag. We still had understeer though, and on rallies like Corsica it would heat up the front tyres too much. The Group B cars were beasts to drive – too short and too fast. You could accelerate to 125mph in about nine seconds and it was constant oversteer and understeer and dipping at the front and back under acceleration and braking. On gravel you just steered it on the throttle all the time. We improved it. Dieter Basche made it better with wings, titanium springs helped and the PDK gearbox was fantastic.

The last time I drove a rally Quattro was at Goodwood last year. The turbo lag surprised me. But it was the best time in rallying.’

Peter Birtwhistle: He designed the Sport Quattro 

‘I joined Audi as a designer in 1977 and did some sketches for the long-wheelbase Quattro with Martin Smith, but really that was his thing. I worked on the short wheelbase Sport Quattro.

The rally car had become uncompetitive with the introduction of cars like the 205. Hannu Mikkola said he wanted a more agile car, and a steeper windscreen because reflections from camera flashes were a problem.

A company called Seger and Hoffman was commissioned to build the car – they built Group C racers and had previously supplied carbon parts to us. Motorsport weren’t bothered how it looked, but then Hartmut Warkuss [then head of design] heard about it and asked me to clean it up in autumn 1982. I had two months to make the most out of it, but I was the only designer and had to work entirely on my own.

Seger and Hoffman was based down in Lake Constance in Switzerland. It was a holiday resort, but because it was off-season everything was closed, so they found it hard to even find a hotel room for me.

But eventually I got to work, smoothed out the wheelarches, cleaned up the bumpers, and did the vents on the bonnet. I got the idea for that from the vents on turbocharged Ferrari F1 cars.

The Sport Quattro had been modelled in body filler, so I had to work in that too – once it had set you had to file it to shape.

Warkuss came down with some senior managers and gave it approval and Piëch signed it off, although I can’t remember him being there when I was around. None of my work was changed.

At the time, I did realise what a special car the Sport Quattro was, but I just thought it was pug-ugly. These days I’m not sure if I’m proud to say I worked on it or not!’

Audi Quattro

Phil Short: He co-drove with Walter Röhrl 

‘I was contracted to Ford in 1982 and we were testing the RS1700T – Ford’s abortive take on Group B – in Portugal with Ari Vatanen and Pentti Airikkala. Then I was asked to co-drive for Bjorn Waldegaard in the Audi UK car on the Welsh Rally. Peter Ashcroft, Ford’s competitions manager, released me for that, so long as I told him how the RS1700T stacked up in comparison with the Quattro.

Bjorn and I won the Welsh, ahead of Henri Toivonen and Stig Blomqvist. This car was something else compared with the 2wd stuff, and Bjorn was very talented. I reported back that the RS1700T was well behind the Quattro in many areas. Sometime later, Stuart Turner arrived, cancelled the RS1700T project and began the RS200.

In 1984 I signed up to co-ordinate Audi UK’s programme, and I co-drove for Hannu Mikkola on the Scottish. We won from Jimmy McRae and Russell Brookes. Hannu was my favourite driver; so smooth, so blindingly fast, so understanding of the car. A real star. In 1985 the factory ran Walter Röhrl in a Sport E2, with 550+bhp and the PDK gearbox. Walter didn’t want to do Rally GB (there were some events he didn’t like) and protested that as his regular co-driver didn’t know the UK forests, there wasn’t much point! Audi’s response was to get me to co-drive. It didn’t go well. Walter hadn’t tested the car, he didn’t like its changed balance (an extra 30kg over the nose thanks to PDK), and we had a few gremlins in the gearbox. But hell, that car was fast!

In Resolven Forest we got caught out by a long right-hander and when the left rear wheel dropped in a ditch, the car turned sharp left and over the edge. It rolled 80 metres down, shedding all the plastic bits along the way. We were unhurt, and the car ended up on its wheels, amazingly with the engine still running. Walter turned to me and said: “I think our rally is over”! 

In ’87 I co-drove for David Llewellin in the non-turbo Quattro and in ’88 we switched to the 200 Quattro – probably the worst rally car I ever sat in. And that was pretty much the end of it with Audi. They had made their point and moved on.’

Stig Blomqvist: He won the WRC in 1984

‘I first did some rallying in a Quattro for the Swedish Audi importer in 1982, and I went to Ingolstadt at the end of 1981 because we were building that car. That was the first time I took the car for a ride. At first it was difficult to understand the amount of traction it had out of corners – it was amazing. Some people complained about understeer, but I had come from front-wheel drive cars and it was the same problem there.

Reinhard Rode was team manager at Audi Sport [replacing Walter Treser, later succeeded by Roland Gumpert] and he asked me to drive for the works team in 1982. It was quite a new team and the mechanics were young and didn’t understand everything, but they were enthusiastic and I had a fantastic relationship with everyone.

My favourite Quattro was the later long-wheelbase car. It was good fun and easy to drive. I didn’t have any special set-up particularly – Audi had set it up very well, the engineer did a good job. The short-wheelbase car was more like a racing car – it was trickier to drive – but I didn’t think it was any faster around corners.

I had to fight hard for my 1984 world championship, especially against Lanica and my teammates. I stuck mostly with the long-wheelbase car because it was very strong by then, I trusted it and I didn’t want a DNF [it had failed to finish every previous event, often – although not always – due to mechanical failure], but I used it in Africa [the penultimate rally and the Sport’s first win] and it was very quick.

I didn’t think the Group B cars were too fast. They were quick in-between corners, but the brakes and tyres weren’t as good as they are now – the latest cars are faster in corners and I think it’s more dangerous today than it was back then.’

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator