30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass

2010 marks the 30th anniversary of Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system, as well as the car that first brought it to market. With that in mind, let's take a look back. Airborne UrQ hotness, we salute you!

2010 is the 30th anniversary of Audi's quattro four-wheel-drive and, by extension, the Audi Quattro (the car) itself. In recognition of this, Audi announced today that it will be taking a selection of its classic vehicles to an "unusually large" quantity of motorsport events in an effort to promote the marque's heritage.

30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass

This is a nice gesture, and it's an acknowledgement that Audi owes its modern fortunes to the virtues of all-wheel drive. And while automotive anniversaries seem to come around once every fifteen minutes, we figured a look at the beginning of Ingolstadt's modern history was a nice way to close out the week. And by "modern history" we mean "cool-ass UrQuattro, rally, and IMSA/Trans-Am stuff."

30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass

Quattro owes a large part of its existence to an Audi chassis engineer named Jörg Bensinger. In the late 1970s, Bensinger was testing a Volkswagen Iltis in the middle of a Finnish winter when he discovered the beauty (to coin a phrase) of all-wheel drive. The Iltis, a trucklike off-road vehicle that had been developed for use by the German army and forestry service, was simply untouchable on snow-covered roads — no car or truck of the time, no matter how powerful, could keep up with it.

30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass

Bensinger was enthralled with the idea of a four-wheel-drive road car, and in February of 1977, he proposed the idea to Ferdinand Piech, Audi's director of technical development. Piech signed off on the notion, authorizing a limited testing program built around the Audi 80. The first mule was given the code-name "A1" — allrad, or "all wheel" one — and, like the Iltis, lacked a center differential. Several other prototypes followed, with Piech and his engineers raiding both Audi and Volkswagen parts bins. The most evolved mule used an Audi 100's suspension and transmission, the floorpan and a few running-gear bits from the Audi 80, a turbocharged five-cylinder, and the body of the soon-to-be-released Audi 80 coupe.

30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass

In September of 1977, the whole caboodle gained the approval of Audi's board of management. Following a winter test at Turracher Höhe pass, one of the steepest and highest roads in Europe, the Volkswagen board also gave its approval. (Awesome tidbit: The car that completed the Turracher test climbed a snow-covered, 23-percent grade without snow tires or chains. Try that in your average 1977 road sled.)

The details of the approval and development process are the stuff of legend: A member of VW's board had doubts that the company would recoup the Quattro's high development costs, so Piech got crafty — he doused a grassy slope with water, put the board member in a front-wheel-drive Audi 80, and then gave him a Quattro prototype. (Guess which one made it up the hill.) VW's development director, Ernst Fiala, swiped the car for a weekend and gave it to his wife for a shopping trip; when she complained that the car hopped and jumped in parking lots, Fiala brought it back to work, telling his engineers to slap a center differential in it.

That last bit is where things get interesting — it led to one of the most ingenious packaging solutions of the late 20th century. The Quattro's longitudinal center diff is built into the back of the gearbox, and the gearbox's primary shaft is essentially an extension of the crankshaft. The primary shaft drives a hollow secondary shaft, which then drives the diff.

30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass

But here's the cool part: A third, solid shaft lives inside the hollow secondary, transmitting power to the front axles. This is the much-lauded "shaft within a shaft" that everyone talks about, and it allowed the Quattro to pack a steamer trunk's worth of components into a space barely larger than an overnight bag. (Note: Anyone who makes an Xzibit "Yo dawg, I herd you like all-wheel drive so I put a shaft in your shaft so you can diff while you diff" joke at this point will be shot.)

The car that resulted from all this — essentially a much-tweaked Audi Coupe sporting flared fenders and a whole lot of badass — hit European showrooms in 1980. It sported a 2.1-liter, ten-valve, turbocharged and intercooled I-5 that produced 197 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque. 60 mph came up in just over seven seconds, and wet-weather/dirt/snow performance was mind-boggling. The world went apeshit.

30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass

It is virtually impossible to overstate the impact that the Quattro had upon the rally world, nor the public-relations gold mine that came out of it. When Audi entered the car into the World Rally Championship in 1981, all-wheel-drive rally cars didn't exist. The technology had only made a prior few appearances in the sport (Jeep Cherokees won the first two years of Michigan's internationally recognized Sno*Drift rally but were reportedly asked not to come back), and for the most part, it wasn't on anyone's radar. This commercial, from Audi's 25th anniversary celebrations five years ago, nicely captures the feeling:

Audi's WRC entry was nothing short of monstrous, and the Quattro all but dominated its first few years on the scene. The car turned driver Michele Mouton into an international sensation — she became the first woman to win a WRC event and was mobbed on street and starting line alike — and gave Audi multiple run-away-with-it rally championships in the hands of Stig Blomqvist and Hannu Mikkola.

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Still, the coolest part was yet to come. As the WRC evolved and turbocharged, all-wheel-drive cars became the norm, Audi went even further. The essentially unlimited Group B class reached its height in the early 1980s, and while the cars that Ingolstadt crafted to compete in it — the short-wheelbase Sport Quattro and Sport Quattro S1 — weren't as all-conquering as their predecessor, they were still cool as all get-out. (For reference, this is how you build a Sport Quattro S1 from an ordinary Quattro coupe: Throw away almost everything, give the car a carbon-kevlar body, chop a few hundred feet out of the wheelbase, stuff in an aluminum-block, antilag-equipped five good for around 500 hp, and toss in steeply raked windshield to shut up drivers complaining about dash reflections. Recipe equals 2400 pounds; serves everybody.) Guys like Blomqvist and American rally star John Buffum got scared but won anyway.

30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass

When Audi pulled out of Group B rallying in 1986, Ingolstadt's motorsport department got antsy. The 1988 Audi 200 Trans-Am cars that resulted were massive, all-wheel-drive beasts, so quick and all-conquering that they were banned by the SCCA within a year of their arrival. The 720-hp IMSA 90s that followed in 1989 were more technically advanced, essentially turning this:

30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass

...into this:

30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass

...by way of a much-modified Group B five-cylinder, a complex tube frame, and a carbon silhouette shell. They looked like Audi 90 Quattros that had been to the gym, done a lot of muscle-building drugs, and hung out under a few overpasses guzzling Jagermeister and listening to Scorpions with the volume turned up to eleven. They weren't banned, and they weren't quite as successful as the Trans-Am cars, but they did incredibly well and were given a lot of very dirty looks. After one incomplete season and a record-breaking seven wins, Audi pulled the plug, moving to the DTM. This video gives a pretty nice wrap-up and some cool period track footage:

And that, as the saying goes, was that. There is, of course, more to Ingolstadt's modern quattro history; the company's motorsport successes tapered off significantly following the IMSA efforts, but they did not disappear. But that's fodder for another day. In the meantime, lift a glass to the folks who gave us all-wheel-drive rallying and one of Germany's coolest homologation specials. The UrQuattro and its immediate kin are as Jalopnik as Audis get, and thirty years on, we can't get enough.

30 Years Of Audi Quattro: Vorsprung Durch Badass



Addendum: Just because we can, we've added a heaping dose of video. Happy Friday!

Four and a half minutes of five-pot snarl coupled with spectators yelling and getting all "Aww! Yeah!" on the sidelines:

Annoying British announcer, amazing footage. Pay close attention to where the former rally driver talks about house-pulling torque and being scared out of his pants:

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Audi Quattro - Remastered Vintage Footage - HQ - The most popular videos are a click away

Walter Röhrl absolutely dominating at Pike's Peak in 1987, one of the last times a Group B car was run in serious, factory-sponsored anger:

And finally, just because we like it, the original ski-jump ad: