About the 1981 Audi Coupe Quattro and the Sometimes Bitter Taste of Supremacy

1981 Audi Quattro 23 photos
Photo: Alex Sincan
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Let’s go beyond the glittering message of the ads. For decades, Audi has relied heavily on the impact of Quattro to promote its products. And it was not something without real support: the Quattro all-wheel-drive system has propelled the Ingolstadt brand's thundering rise in motorsport. However, there is still a lot to tell about the subject. Time for a fast journey through the past, Quattro style.
Something everybody knows: four-wheel-drive is absolutely necessary for driving off-road and two-wheel-drive is definitely enough for driving on tarmac. Now, let’s have a look somewhere in Germany during the second part of the seventies: it hadn't been long since the VW group had resurrected the Audi brand.

Things went well right from the start and the people from Audi were working hard to restore the brand’s pre-war brilliance.

Among other ideas for achieving this, the experimental fitting of a four-wheel-drive system on a road car was not exactly the most promising. Yet, two engineers, Jörg Bensinger and Roland Gumpert, convinced the R&D executive Ferdinand Piëch to give it try, even if it seemed pointless to burden a street car with a four-wheel-drive system. Then, some very nice surprises followed concerning the dynamic abilities of the A1 prototype (a two-door sedan with a body borrowed from the Audi 80 series).

That brings me to my own experience with an Audi Coupe Quattro, also known nowadays under the nickname Ur-Quattro. More than 40 years have gone since its debut. Back then, the 1981 Audi Coupe Quattro had its premiere at the 1980 Geneva International Motor Show. The audience noticed the coupe at the Audi stand, yet nobody could understand the full significance of its apparition. And it was not the sleekest kind of coupe, by the way. Its dimensions were close to those of the Audi 80 and, even if its proportions were nicely balanced, the design had no special subtility. A minimalist approach, if you want.

1981 Audi Coupe Quattro
Photo: Alex Sincan
The four squared headlamps make the Audi Coupe Quattro look like a kind of fat DeLorean DMC-12 (Giugiaro designed). Not a bad style, after all. That’s what I was thinking about in 2005, right after signing a protocol with Frank Thomas (Audi Tradition) and getting the keys of a standard 1981 Audi Coupe Quattro for a few days.

The next day, me and Jiri Steiger (we were both automotive journalists working for Motor Presse Eastern Europe) were supposed to take the start in the 2005 edition of the Silvretta Classic Rallye (see us in the enclosed photo, we look a bit like Han Solo and Chewie near the Millenium Falcon – sorry, Jiri, it happens when you’re that tall).

Coming back to the day before the rally, because I had the keys and Jiri was not there yet, I drove around the Silvretta Hochalpenstrasse for a kind of first contact session with the car. We're talking about the 5-cylinder turbo, 2.2 liters, 225 hp, 5-speed manual gearbox Audi Coupe Quattro with lockable center and rear differentials. As expected, because the longitudinally mounted engine was almost completely situated in the front overhang, the car had a pronounced understeering character.

1981 Audi Coupe Quattro
Photo: Alex Sincan
Yet, after learning to approach the turns with the right speed and to put a bit more vertical pressure on the front wheels when braking late, the Ur-Quattro showed me a more cooperant attitude. And the best was yet to come: after convincing the car to properly follow the direction of the front wheels, pushing the gas pedal during the second part of the turn gave me either the opportunity to leave the corner 'full steam' in perfect stability conditions, or to play a bit of drifting with the rear wheels, insisting more on the gas. Anything goes, depending on the mood of the driver!

The significant turbo lag was rather preventing the car from being destabilized by an eventually too sudden or unexpectedly violent response in acceleration, than really slowing it. During its competition days it rained hard – an additional reason for the Coupe Quattro's four-wheel-drive advantage to stand out. In 2005, the Audi Coupe Quattro of the Motor Presse Eastern Europe team was the most advanced car in that edition of the Silvretta Classic Rallye.

Soon, I noticed I could easily be as fast or even faster than almost all of the classic Porsches, Jaguars, Alfas and Ferraris on these alpine roads. After the official stages, I took the habit to drive together with Jiri (he was holding the camera) through the area, photo hunting for other classic cars. Many of them tried to lose us on the alpine roads, yet they were not really able to do it with only 2WD cars. Only a guy with a Lamborghini Miura – he was exceptionally good at driving it – managed to keep us at a distance on dry road. What we were doing there, after the business hours ended, seemed somehow like going in the air to take snapshots of some WWII classic warbirds with a jet figher.

1981 Audi Coupe Quattro
Photo: Alex Sincan
The competition included a couple of Sport Quattros (you may see them in the atached photo gallery). They proved hard to drive accurately in rainy conditions due to their higher power and short wheelbase. Once more I understood how important is the correct dosage of everything for a safe street sportscar, built for the pure satisfaction of driving, not for any kind of extreme attempts.

Our results in the race? Nothing special. We were new to the math of this kind of regularity rally, so we did rather badly. Anyway, soon I noticed we were regarded by the others with boredom or antipathy, something like 'Oh, no! Not these smart dudes with their Audi Quattro again!' I wonder, did Walter Röhrl, Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist or Michèle Mouton feel this kind of negative cheer coming around during their countless victorious races in the world rally championships of the eighties?
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