Almost every successful car company has a single model it can point to as its most important. For Porsche, it was undoubtedly the 911. For Mercedes-Benz the glamorous 300SL Gullwing set the company's future direction. Land Rover would still be building off-road implements if it weren't for the Range Rover. Saab had its 99 model to move it from the mainstream and away from its two-stroke roots, and Volvo had the 142 to set that boxy look we know as Volvo. BMW had the incomparable 2002, a car that made a car company. A few lucky companies get to have two icons. Volkswagen, for example, first with its Beetle and then with its Rabbit/Golf. What makes each of these landmark cars special is an elusive thing, yet each provides a fundamental statement about the people who built them. For Audi, the pivotal point and defining vehicle was the revolutionary Coupe Quattro.
An old companyAudi was founded in 1909 by August Horch, creator of the pre-war luxury cars that bore his name. The company became part of the Auto-Union group in 1932 and was nationalized in 1945. The Audi name lay dormant until 1965 when Auto-Union was sold to Volkswagen by Mercedes-Benz. The new Audis were front-wheel drive sedans that competed with Opel for the middle part of the German marketplace. They were comfortable and technically advanced, but not exactly sporting in their pretensions.
New ideasAuto-Union had been involved in motorsports before the war of course, with its fabulous Porsche-designed Grand Prix racing machines. After the war the company's Auto-Union and DKW models were well known on the rally circuits through the early 1960s. When Audi started a modest rally program with the front-wheel drive Audi 80 in 1978, nobody paid much attention. Meanwhile, Ferdinand Piech, Ferry Porsche's nephew, had moved from the head of research and development for Porsche to technical director at Audi. He brought with him an interest in four-wheel drive. His engineers began adapting the four-wheel drive system from the VW-Audi Iltis military vehicle to the Audi 80 platform. There was a center differential that split torque 50/50 to the front and rear axles and a higher center tunnel for the extra front-to-rear driveshaft. They chose the new Audi Coupe as the body for their Frankenstein creation and bulged the fenders out to accept larger 15-inch wheels and tires. The new car, called the Audi Coupe Quattro, or simply the Quattro, made its debut at the Geneva auto show in March of 1980. Production of the largely hand-built car began at Audi's Ingolstadt factory and remarkably, the first customers in Europe had their cars before the end of the year.
Motorsport machinesMeanwhile, behind the scenes, the Germans had successfully lobbied the FIA to remove their ban on four-wheel drive. The new car was accepted by the FIA for competition in January 1981 and immediately Hannu Mikkola took the Audi Quattro to victory in Sweden. The team had a few teething problems however, and it wasn't until Michele Mouton won the San Remo rally (the first ever victory in a World Rally Championship event by a woman) and Mikkola finished up the season with a win at the Lombard-RAC rally in Britain that the Quattro showed its mettle. 1982 was a banner year for Audi, with seven World Rally Championship victories. Suddenly, you had to have all-wheel drive if you wanted to build a competitive rally car for the world championship.
The U.S. market carsThe Audi Coupe Quattro arrived in America in 1982 as a 1983 model. It was a heavy car at 2,838 pounds, but its turbocharged and intercooled five-cylinder engine made 156 hp at 5500 rpm and 181 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm and could push the car from zero to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, and to a top speed of 128 mph. Although these numbers seem modest today, they were supercar territory in the early 1980s. When driven hard, the Quattro's distinctive drumming five-cylinder exhaust note was unusual, and anyone who has ever heard a competition Audi Quattro charging through a rally stage will never forget it. But most importantly, the Audi Quattro came with an unprecedented level of cornering grip and surefootedness, thanks to its innovative all-wheel-drive system. Sixteen-spoke 15-inch Ronal alloy wheels with 205/60 VR15 tires helped too, as did anti-lock, four-wheel disc brakes. The Audi Coupe Quattro only was sold for three years in the States, with a total of 664 cars coming to this country. That's not a lot for a car that broke all the molds and sent the competition back to the drawing boards to come up with their own all-wheel drive systems.
While the Audi Coupe Quattro was fast and exotic, it was also expensive. The price in 1984 was around $35,000, which was more than the price of a new Porsche 911. But if sales of the car itself were limited, the idea caught on as Audi adapted the Quattro all-wheel drive system to nearly all of its sedans and wagons. With so many Quattro systems on so many cars, fans of the first Coupe Quattros have begun calling their cars "Ur-Quattros" (the word "ur" being frequently used in German to mean "original").