Rallying is a funny old sport. Entirely different to any of its siblings over in the land of tarmac, there’s always been a romance in the dirt tracks, the terrifyingly thronged crowds, and the crackle of gravel in wheel arches. In the past names like Carlos Sainz, Sebastian Loeb, Tommi Mäkinen, and Colin McRae were as resonant with the public as their glamorous, preening Formula 1 counterparts. These days, that’s no longer the case. Even the highest octane petrolheads would struggle to tell you who is competing, where the next race is, or what channel it’s even on. The popular focus is squarely on F1 and increasingly on Formula E. It’s certainly not on rallycross, the FIA’s attempt to introduce a more accessible gateway to ‘proper’ rallying, let alone rallying itself.
And whilst money talks, this is a shame.
Ever watched those old rally onboards? Any mutterings of ‘time trials are boring, I want bumper to bumper action’ disappear as you watch clips of McRae thrashing that legendary Subaru around the rain-soaked highlands or over an unpronounceable Catalonian plain. The talents of the rallying greats seem to combine all the best bits of racing over the ages. The metronomic focus of today’s drivers, wrangling their spaceships to gain hundredths of a second, combined with the chaotic spontaneity of yesteryear, navigating fledgling firebombs across uneven tracks atop granite suspension. You see, there was a time when the rally was king. Perhaps not as high profile as a Grand Prix, but immensely respected, widely followed, and hugely entertaining.
One man to wear the crown, described by Niki Lauda as “a genius on four wheels”, was Walter Röhrl. Today, at 73, the Austrian remains the senior test driver for Porsche, setting numerous Nürburgring records while being trusted as a key contributor to the development of some of the finest cars Porsche has ever produced. He made his name on the dirt, however, back in the 1970s and ‘80s, winning his first World Rally Championship in 1980 with Fiat, a second in 1982 with Opel, and a constructors’ championship with Lancia the following year. He must have been pretty confident, then, in the car for which he left all of those achievements behind. And so he should have been.
It is a testament to the impact of the Audi Quattro that it is described by fans as the ‘Ur-Quattro’ – the ‘original Quattro’ – out of a simple need for clarity. The ‘quattro’ designation has been found on almost every Audi model since that immensely successful original, from A1s all the way through to four-wheel drive A8s. Indeed, up until it was renamed ‘Audi Sport GmbH’ in 2016, Audi’s high performance division (which has given us the R8, RS6, and so much more) was simply called ‘Quattro GmbH’. All this can be traced back to the Ur-Quattro, that 1980’s icon, and its significance not only on the trail, but in making the Audi brand what it is today.
The Quattro’s story is well known. In the 1970s Volkswagen (who had acquired Audi in 1965) were developing an off-road vehicle for the German military, called the Iltis. A senior Audi chassis engineer, one Jörg Bensinger, realised that this light, all-wheel-drive vehicle could outperform theoretically superior vehicles in the snow. Bensinger eventually got permission to slap an Audi 80 body onto a modified version of the Iltis chassis. The result, blessed by none other than Ferdinand Piëch himself, debuted at the 1980 Geneva Motor Show. It was a car that nobody had asked for, and which didn’t seem to fit into any established niche. So you could have been forgiven for putting down Piech’s launch speech to a distinct case of over-confidence; he promised that this car would “be the start of something big”. But you’d also be forgetting Piech’s track record, and his ambition. This was the man responsible for the Porsche 917, after all.
Given this history, we could hardly decline Audi’s kind offer to take one of their own Quattros and see what all the fuss had been about. So on a sunny Autumn day forty years after the launch, we watched an Audi trailer appear to deliver one of – if not the – Ingolstadt icons. The plan was simple: get it out of London as soon as possible and onto the sort of B-road that Carfection suggests the country is littered with. After that, the obligatory accidental trespass to get the perfect shot, a hurried coffee and conflab, and then back to the city. Keys handed over, checklist complete, we were good to go.
I’d imagine ‘80s icon and daytime TV favourite David Hasselhoff had his Quattro in Champagne White, like our one. Nena probably briefly considered only having one Champagner-Weisser Luftballon in her iconic anti-war ballad. Because it’s just so perfect. The Quattro’s get-up briefly lures you into a wry smile, a muttered comment about German design being oh-so-functional; of course it’s white, what else could it possibly be. And then you walk up to it, see the light catch the bodywork, and notice that there’s a subtle creaminess to the colour. And it’s a subtlety that sets the tone throughout. There’s a spoiler, but it’s not silly. The rims, especially by modern standards, are beer mats; the interior is an array of solid, functional, uninspiring plastics and fabrics. But when you look closer there’s so much more, like the charmingly wonky Audi Sport logo on the steering wheel, the faded white ‘quattro’ patterned seats, and a glowing orange Tron dashboard, replete with “Dark Mode” for the not-so-multi-tasker.
On the road, more subtlety. The power steering is neither too light nor too heavy, surprisingly direct and poised. The throttle and brakes even now allow for proper modulation without ever feeling sluggish or scary. The gearbox is similarly accessible, not as notchy as feared, or as spongy as expected, with just the right amount of travel (although let’s not mention finding reverse, which took us an embarrassing while). The ratios between second and third, and fourth and fifth, are a little long, and the car felt almost wheezy at the top end – but that can be forgiven after a solid 29 years on the road.
That sense of forgiveness introduces another attribute of the Quattro: temperance. Yes, I hear you all baying at your screens. It’s an odd choice of word for the bloodstock of a rallying legend, the origin of Audi’s modern motorsports prowess, and Walter Röhrl’s weapon of choice. So let me ask you: have you heard of Andre Lotterer? This three-time Le Mans winner drives a Quattro as his daily. And why would he, a 30-something, adrenaline junkie motor racing legend drive this car from the ‘80’s without any of the high-tech innovations that pervade today’s cars? Quite simply, because it’s fun.
The reason the Quattro is so much fun is because it’s not about to kill you. It’s reassuringly unable to terrify you into a mangled wreck because you stumped up the courage to hit the redline in second – because you’ll do that on the Shepherd’s Bush roundabout. And that’s entirely ok, because there will be anything but subtlety or temperance in the enormous grin plastered over your face as you revel in your complete control over this glorious machine and its four-cylinder soundtrack.
In hindsight, it’s hardly a surprise that our meticulously planned day of testing, analysis, photography and discussion rapidly turned into something very different – a drive. The initial buzz of comparing notes about the handling, the car’s history and its design all fell away as we found ourselves just enjoying it. Lunch had meant to be a wolfed sandwich and a coffee; it turned into a three hour affair including the Italian Grand Prix, and the hunt for the perfect driving road turned into simply seeing where we ended up. The Quattro is so straightforward that it becomes a truly involving experience – not in the “did I remember to write the will?” way an F8 Tributo will involve you, or the relationship-ending involvement a Caterham puts its passenger through, but an almost symbiotic level of engagement between driver and machine. It never scares you to distraction, or coddles you into disengagement, which is a very, very difficult sweet spot to find for any car.
Piech was right: the Quattro was the turning point for Audi – not because it was a rallying sensation, but because it single-handedly moved the marque away from uninspiring, overpriced Volkswagen re-skins, to a charismatic, athletic, bona-fide Mercedes & BMW competitor. Difficult to believe these days, but Audi really was a mess back then, and the Quattro lit the touch-paper for the marque we see today. It may not have sold a huge amount – just short of 12,000 over its 11 year run from 1980 to 1991 – and its rallying successes may have been all too brief, but the Quattro gave Audi its modern identity.
It is the most Quattro quirk of all that this car isn’t really celebrated for its true, fundamental, contribution to Audi – the one that saved jobs and created new ones, that made a modern automotive powerhouse. Nor does it seem to shout about its rallying history. Instead it sits there, subtle and moderate, patiently waiting for you to hop in and immediately forget that you’re driving anything at all. And isn’t that just glorious?