I never understood why there is still such a fierce cult of fascination around the Quattro Audis of the 1980s. Keeping one running is virtually impossible. Fans claw each other for increasingly rare, rusty, temperamental old cars and parts. This weekend I finally drove one and I totally get it now.
Old Audis have one of the strongest reputations in the car world. These are the cars that defined all-wheel drive performance and legendarily dominated the World Rally Championship at the start of the decade. But that’s not what you think of first when you finally get up close with one of these cars.
This 1984 4000 S Quattro in particular does not look like a high-end luxury performance car, as it was marketed back when it was new. It looks so utilitarian it could have been designed by a construction worker.
Much of the interior’s trim has turned brittle and broken off. The passenger door wouldn’t close because the door lock jammed in place. The electric windows struggled to work in the New Hampshire cold. I wondered how many more clicks its switches (mounted in the center console, old-school) could take before they failed. I wondered how many swipes the windshield wipers had left in them.
Most of these Audis have rusted away in the snowy parts of the country, so spare parts are getting rarer and rarer. Team O’Neil Rally School up in New Hampshire, where head rally guru Wyatt Knox let us play for a day, runs what must be the last working collection of these cars in the northeast. Even then, the school has had to start building up a collection of Subarus over the past few years to replace them. Audi parts are getting too hard to find and the cars are getting too difficult to maintain.
Private owners have an even harder time. I know a guy who will pick up the phone no matter what if I happen to find a clean chassis for sale anywhere in the country. Owning and maintaining one of these things requires more than dedication. It’s like a cult.
While all of the electronic systems and trim on these Audis are failing, the drivetrain is super durable. Most of today’s all-wheel drive systems use electronic controls on open, viscous, or clutch-pack differentials. The Audi has locking mechanical diffs center and rear. You would engage them with a gigantic knob on the middle of the dash beside chunky ‘80s graphics. Audis like this may look like any other old car, but basically, they’re built like trucks.
The way you have to drive them is insane.
The classic compromise of these Audis is that for the sake of simplicity and interior space, the engine is mounted fully ahead of the front wheels. And it’s not a small motor; Audi ran inline fives mounted front to back. They extend so far forward, the radiator has to get squeezed into only the left half of the engine bay.
Having this lump of an engine all the way in the nose of the car makes the car only happy when it’s plowing forward in one direction. The moment you first point into a corner, you can tell this car does not want to turn. What you have to do is drive the car in spite of how it handles. You have to absolutely huck it into a turn, lift hard off the gas and tap the brakes to load up the front wheels. Only then does it start to slide out and towards where you want to go. And as you slide, you completely goose the throttle. This is the trick of the locking center and rear diffs; the Audi doesn’t hunt for grip, it just spits all of its power at all the tires. It feels like the car hooks up even while it’s spinning all four of its wheels. The 2.2 liter iron-block engine was only rated at 115 horsepower. It drives like three times that.
It rewards big power, ultra hard driving. You don’t just want to Scandinavian flick it into a corner, lifting off then planting your foot on the throttle, left-foot braking as snow billows behind you. You need to drive like that. That’s the only way it gets anywhere. And it’s so on/off, this Quattro somehow covers up your little mistakes. It feels so fast, so rewarding.
There’s a reason why they don’t build cars like this any more, as head rally guru Wyatt Knox (who let us play with this 4000 S for the day) explained. You have to drive them so hard to get them to work. The commitment and aggression you need is absolute. As Wyatt pointed out, on a closed course, that’s fun. On the street, where you might find yourself facing oncoming traffic, it’s untenable.
Wyatt has owned 13 different old Audis, and he just about sighed when he thought of the old turbocharged big power/more weight 5000 he used to have.
He also looked somewhat scarred when he remembered how his cars used to fall apart, impossible to fix. I never thought I would be so dumb, so foolish, so romantic to think that owning one was worth it.
After having driven one, I’m not so sure.