This Audi Prototype Was Meant To Replace The Mighty Group B Quattros
Photography: Studio by Audi Tradition / Walter Röhrl by Eifel Rallye Festival / Remaining by Robb Pritchard
I have fond memories of freezing half to death in Welsh forests in the mid-’80s, getting covered in mud and gravel as the fire-spitting Group B cars powered past. Thirty year later, now an auto journalist, I’ve had the opportunities to play with some of the cars I had posters of in my bedroom and meet the men (and one woman) who drove them. Nothing though could prepare me for the mental dissonance and excitement as the trailer I just happened to be standing next to opened to reveal… this.
Seeing a classic car driven for the very first time is a pretty unique experience, especially a prototype for a class of rallying that never ran (the evolution of the legendary Group B cars, no less), and a few years ago at the Eifel Rallye Festival I had the chance to see just that.
Audi had pulled out of rallying after Portugal in 1986 citing safety concerns in regards to both the cars and spectator control, but the rumor was that it also had a lot to do with the S2’s competitiveness against its new mid-engined rivals. With the domination of Peugeot’s 205 T16, Lancia’s S4, plus the impression that the Ford RS200 made in the three rallies it did, it was obvious that a mid-engine configuration was what was needed, and the Group S rules—mooted for 1987—would have allowed that, with possibly less than just twenty cars needing to be made for homologation.
However, the director of the VW group, Dr. Carl Hahn, thought that attempting a similar concept would have been an admission that their front-engined road cars were less than optimal, and that would have had a detrimental effect on Audi’s public perception. Apparently.
So, away from the disapproving eyes of Audi’s top brass, engineers from the motorsport division secretly put together a couple of mid-engined Sport Quattros as a feasibility project. Such was the level of secrecy that the tests were carried out far from prying eyes over the border in the Czech Republic, which in the mid-‘80s was still behind the Iron Curtain.
By reports the initial tests were all positive. With engines positioned way forward over the front axle, Audi’s then-current rally cars had a tendency to understeer and then oversteer upon lifting off the throttle, and the mid-engined cars had a massive advantage in handling. The new prototype corrected that. A couple of photos of the rather strange-looking long wheelbase versions of the short sport body still exist, but sadly the cars don’t.
With the new cars set up and working properly, it was time to invite Audi’s main driver—Walter Röhrl, also sworn to secrecy—to another top-secret test, this time in Austria. Unfortunately details of the location got out this time, and the press was ready and waiting for the car so a new location in Germany was hastily swapped in place of the compromised spot in Austria, but this time it was on normal public roads. Walter did a few kilometers in the car and was immediately impressed with the improvement the new configuration gave… Unfortunately though, a lone and very opportune photographer saw it and the photo got published in an Austrian magazine… they may have had their exclusive story, but it was this that helped spell the end of the project.
See, when the Audi executives found out what had been going on behind their backs they were furious and ordered that the cars be destroyed. Apparently they were pulled apart with Audi director Ferdinand Piëch watching.
This is what happened to the official unofficial cars. However, this example of the concept, this lightweight and high downforce be-winged beauty hadn’t yet turned a wheel, so its existence was still completely unknown outside of the workshop.
Fortunately the employees who’d worked on it had the foresight to store it safely away, either in hopes that the project would soon get the green light again, or for posterity alone. For whatever reason, it remained under a sheet in the back of some storage unit until a few years ago, when interest in such mythical cars meant that when its existence was finally admitted it wasn’t going to get chopped up and thrown away. It was a static exhibit in Audi’s museum for a time until the current generation of mechanics set themselves the task of getting it running again.
A few years ago, all the belts and oils were changed, so too any hoses, wires, and pipes that showed any signs of corrosion. Somehow nothing too extensive needed doing, although the engine management system proved to be a difficult job. At some point in the intervening three decades between then and now all the plans for the electrical systems had been lost, so technicians from Bosch had the complicated task of reverse-engineering its ECU. The engine behind the driver’s head is essentially a de-tuned and de-boosted straight-five out of a Group B S1 E2… complete with the distinctive waste gate chatter from the KKK turbo.
The turbos of the day weren’t wound up anywhere near full boost as the rest of the transmission components would have been instantly ripped to pieces on the rough stages, and some say that the region of 1,000bhp was theoretically possible with this engine.
With its sleek aerodynamic profile and huge rear wing it bears absolutely no resemblance to any road car, and the unnamed test machine (referred to commonly as the “Group S”) would look more at home at Le Mans than the snowy mountain lanes of the Monte Carlo Rally. No one knows exactly why they put this body on it: there was a rumor that Group S was going to be a purely prototype class, similar to the circuit racing Group C cars, so perhaps the designer went the route of ultimate competition car rather than anything based around a road version.
With an engine easily capable of well over 500bhp, weighing just 750kg, and with four-wheel drive traction, it would have been a truly formidable machine… if FIA hadn’t banned Group B and cancelled Group S for the production-based Group A. After one Parisian boardroom meeting the now-mythical cars like the Lancia ECV, Vauxhall Astra 4S, Toyota 222D all became stillborn beasts never to run a rally stage in anger.
For the Audi’s very first public outing in Duan, Germany in 2016, there was of course no one better suited to be behind the wheel than Audi legend and two-time world rally champion Walter Röhrl. I had a chance to catch him for his thoughts on the car:
“I’d heard of this car but I never saw it in period, so it’s almost a surprise for me to see it just like everyone else. No one told me anything about the car, just to be careful with it because they wanted it back in one piece,” he says. “The first impression I had was how well it turned into corners. The S1 had the engine really far over the front axle so it understeered a lot. This one felt really light and when the engineers told me it was just 750kg I was really impressed… but actually I don’t think the FIA would have allowed such a light car to compete.”
Inside it is as spartan as any Group B car, stripped out to the bare essentials. There clock read just 18km before it was pushed out of the transport truck, but Walter thinks that it’s simply because the odometer came from another car. With the huge windscreen it has more of the feel of a 917 Porsche that any Group B car I’ve sat in, but it does seem incredibly flimsy. 200mph down an Armco-lined straight is one thing, but sideways and airborne through the trees would be utterly insane in this. Walter wasn’t particularly bothered by the apparent safety issues though…
“I would have driven it because for me a very fast car is always better. If you are a driver who needs to rely on information from the co-driver it’s not such a good thing but I have an almost photographic memory so can remember the stages exactly. That’s how I could set the car up in the corner before in a much better way than listening to the co-driver telling me what’s coming.”
“But it would have taken quite a lot of work to get this car to go fast. On one stage there was a narrow corner which I took at 160 kmh over a dip I didn’t see and the suspension settings were all wrong so the car jumped around in a really unexpected way. Right now it is dangerous at high speeds. Also the styling couldn’t be like this for rallying at all. It’s so ugly! Maybe one reason they made it like this is because they wanted a very short overhang at the front because that was another issue the S1 had. The big window is good for visibility but they would have had needed to put an Audi face on at least!”
The car generated such interest that it will definitely been seen at more classic events in the future and as Walter says, the better it gets set up the faster it can be driven!