The Ur-quattro Was Audi’s Engineering Dream
Before Quattro was a household name, before it was fitted as standard to slews of crossovers and staid, automatic sedans, before the mighty R8 reinvented the entry-level supercar, and long before the current era of AWD, turbo dominance in WRC, there was the “Ur”.
Ur translates roughly from German as “the first”, or “the origin”. Though officially called simply “Quattro”, fans of the car have given it this nickname in order to distinguish it from its lesser, younger siblings.
It all started sometime in the late seventies, when Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Dr. Porsche and the man behind the Le Mans-winning 917, challenged Audi’s best engineers to build a new car, its only design requirements that it be the embodiment of their collective dream drive. Enter chassis engineer Jörg Bensinger, who proposed the basic Quattro formula after being inspired by his discovery that nothing could out-perform a VW Iltis (sort of a light Jeep used by German military) on snow, regardless of power.
Released in 1980, the Quattro was not only the first AWD and turbocharged passenger car, it was also the first rally car to take advantage of this new layout, only recently allowed through WRC rules changes. Across several different iterations and formulas, the Quattro was nearly undefeatable, making Michèle Mouton, Stig Blomqvist, Hannu Mikkola and Walter Röhrl among the most famous rally pilots of all-time. So utterly dominant was the boxy new LWB hatch that soon after its competition debut, all major manufacturers competing in international rally racing abandoned their RWD, naturally aspirated machines completely, instead adopting Audi’s revolutionary new recipe for all-road, all-condition traction and agility.
Hanging way out over the front axle (nearly touching the grill!) the Ur’s turbocharged inline five churned out anywhere from 200 to 217 HP in its lifetime, the higher figure from later cars which supplanted the original’s SOHC, 10-valve head for one with double the cams and valves. Inside, the Quattro was all-business, with typical German austerity to the layout of things, meaning lots of dark-colored plastics and simple, but effective ergonomics—the highlight of which were center-console mounted differential controls. The heated Recaros were pretty awesome, too, though the red-on-red digital instruments of later cars are a bit more controversial—personally, I love ‘em. Nothing says 1980s like big red LCDs.
Known for their resolutely neutral balance, the Quattro displayed little or none of the chronic understeer later performance-oriented AWD cars show (are you paying attention, Subaru?). Combined with unbeatable traction in nearly any kind of weather, a well-controlled and compliant ride, strong four-wheel discs and a comfy, well-equipped cabin, it was a new kind of GT. There was simply no faster way of covering ground in comfort than in a well-driven Quattro, which goes a long way towards explaining its popularity among Skiers and residents of mountain towns.
In total, Quattro production reached only 11,452 cars between 1980 and 1991, ensuring their mystique, and prices, remain high. Today, the Ur’s legacy lives on in unexpected places. Lamborghini and Bugatti, for instance, equip every car they make with AWD systems honed with knowledge gained through decades of Audi experience, allowing previously unimaginable amounts of power and torque to be harnessed in a way that allows mere mortals to drive cars capable of speeds unattainable even in Formula 1—and it all began back in the dying days of disco with a magical, unmistakable five cylinder warble.