Believe it or not, when a group of engineers proposed that Audi produce not a military truck but a high-performance automobile with all four of its wheels driven by the powertrain, the original thought was to produce just the 400 customer cars needed for this new technology to be eligible to compete for the World Rally Championship.
At the time, Werner Schmidt was on the Volkswagen board of directors and expressed strong doubts that even 400 such cars could be sold.
These decades later, try to think “Audi” without thinking “quattro.”
The Audi quattro — yes, those words almost seem redundant to modern minds — its creation and its rally and racing history is the subject of Jeremy Walton’s book, quattro: The Rally and Race Story 1980-2004, produced right at the end of 2020 by Evro Publishing of Great Britain and distributed in the US by Quarto, parent of Motorbooks.
By the way, at first quattro was spelled with a capital Q, but when the first of the breed was displayed at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1980, the word on the car’s right-rear flank and license plate was done in all lower-case letters and has become the official name.
Speaking of the name, Walton reports that as late as November 1979 the name for this new technology had not yet been determined, and many within the company favored either Quadro or Carat, the later short for Coupe All Wheel Drive Turbo.
Speaking still of the name, you may have seen it written as Ur-quattro or (Ur) quattro. Ur is German for “the original” or “the first of its kind” and is used as a specific reference to the earliest examples of this new model.
Walton writes that Audi never claimed to have invented four-wheel drive, but engineers such as Walter Treser and Jorg Bensinger were convinced that powering all four wheels could provide performance not matched by cars powered only by their front or rear wheels, and they found support from Ferdinand Piech, former head of racing at Porsche before becoming head of engineering and then product development at Audi.
The quattro received a project number (262) in March 1977 and the first prototype (A1) was running — officially — that November.
We write “officially” because Walton quotes Bensinger as admitting the car was built before the project actually had been approved.
Even after gaining approval, there were strong doubts internally, at least until Treser recruited a fire brigade to ice down a steep grass-covered slope so Audi chairman Wolfgang Habbel could experience vehicles with front- and rear-drive, and then compare the difference quattro made. Soon thereafter, a budget was approved for the development of a high-speed all-wheel-drive system.
Walton’s book, which includes more than 330 photographs, goes into the technical details of the system, explains how a woman racer from France because a key part of the Audi rally team, and then traces the history of quattro not only through its success in rallying but at Pikes Peak, in the SCCA Trans Am and IMSA GTO series, in the DTM, the Germany touring car championships, and on its influence in making Audi a successful and global brand, with sales of more than 10.5 million quattro-equipped vehicles.
quattro: The Rally and Race Story 1980-2004
By Jeremy Walton
Evro Publishing, 2020
Hardcover, 304 pages