We Just Saw Audi’s Secret Quattro Rally Car Driven For The First Time
Photography by Simon Childs
A few weeks ago, late on a Friday evening, the great Walter Röhrl comes briskly along a road in a car that was developed in secret three decades ago, hidden away for years—and until this moment in time—has never been seen on a rally stage. I heard the collective gasp of disbelief as the phantom white machine scythed down the country lane. After it departed, the animated chatter of the spectators lingered long in its wake. What Audi is this, anyway?
The fans that attend the Eifel Rallye Festival in Germany are a knowledgeable lot, and it really does take something special to impress them. After all, when the entry list contains one Group B Mazda RX 7, two Toyota Celica TCTs, three MG Metro 6R4s, four Ford RS 200s, five Lancia Delta S4s, an equal number of Peugeot 205 T16s and fourteen Audi Quattros, it’s kind of hard to make a stand out impression.
With its nose pushed low to the ground, faired-in headlights, large curved front screen, compact cabin and huge rear wing, it looks almost like a miniature Le Mans car from the Group C days. Although clearly not a contemporary design, it has the aura of a machine that would have looked fantastically futuristic when it was created.
It is a car without a name, although the four-ring badge on the front at least enables it to be identified as an Audi. There have been rumours of this car’s existence for years, with tales as tall as the mid-engined machine’s rear wing, detailing power outputs as high as 1,000 horsepower. It was supposedly built to comply with regulations for Group S, the class destined to replace Group B as rallying’s top tier by 1988 with more innovative and, crucially, safer cars. But the category was cancelled along with Group B in 1986, and Group S cars never ran.
To find out more, we head to the rally service area in Daun to meet Timo Witt, Audi’s Head of Historical Collection. Witt acknowledges that Audi rally engineers, without the knowledge of the company directors, developed the car in secret in the mid ’80s. But he is keen to point out that what we see today is very far from a finished car.
“Compared with the front-engined Group B Quattro S1 this car is obviously completely different as it has the engine sitting in the middle of the car. It could have evolved into a Group S car, but we cannot say for certain. It was only a concept car, a prototype if you like,” explains Witt.
The car uses a turbocharged five-cylinder engine, similar to that which powered the Quattro S1, but it is mated to a conventional six-speed manual transmission, not the twin-clutch PDK system that Audi used on occasion on the S1. Naturally, the car also deploys Audi’s all-wheel drive quattro technology.
Thirty years after it was built, no one knows how much power the engine now produces. Audi has not put it on a dynamometer to test it, but it is estimated to be in the region of 500 bhp. “But it could have had more,” I suggest. “Yes, and it could have had less,” counters Witt. “No one knows what the eventual outcome would have been, the car could have even been developed with a four-cylinder engine.”
While it’s wonderful to daydream of Röhrl and co-driver Christian Gesitdörfer rocketing to victory in Monte Carlo in 1988 at insane speeds in this winged wonder with maybe 750 horses at their disposal, Witt’s predictions of considerably less power would have been closer to the final outcome. After all, the power output of Group S cars was intended to be capped at 300 bhp. Even so, that would still have been plenty, considering the car’s lightweight fiberglass body.
Anyway, additional power was not what Audi’s rally engineers were trying to achieve. They already had plenty of that; with 480 bhp the S1 E2 was the most powerful car to ever compete in the World Rally Championship. No, the Quattro was never outgunned on a rally stage, but it was, in the end, out handled by its mid-engined rivals.
“It’s clear that the engineers at the time were experimenting to see what they could discover by shifting the weight of the car to the middle,” acknowledges Witt. “But you can see how far from finished it was. You have this great big wing on the back, yet there are no aerodynamic aids on the front.”
Nor was this car the only solution that Audi’s engineers were working on in secret. “There was also a car that looked a little bit like an S1 but with the engine in the middle, which was the stage between the front-engined S1 and this Group S car. Walter Röhrl drove it for one test only, but then it was discovered,” confirms Witt.
Not only was that car discovered, it was also destroyed, allegedly within 48 hours under the orders of Audi Boss Ferdinand Piëch, who is said to have personally witnessed its demise. Also destroyed were all known Group S prototypes.
And yet, somehow, this car survived.
After finally emerging from hiding, it has spent years slowly revolving around the giant paternoster in Audi’s Ingolstadt museum, like a decommissioned weapon forged for a war that was never fought. And yet it is remarkable how easily it has been brought back to life.
“Obviously, we had to check that the suspension was OK and we had to fit new oil hoses and water pipes. But we did not rebuild the engine. It only had 30 km on the odometer and we believe, although we are not certain, that most of those were obtained by pushing the car from place to place over the years,” reveals Witt. “We changed the oil of course, and the belts, and we worked with Bosch to develop a new ECU unit. Then we just pressed the button and it started.”
So what is it like for Röhrl to finally try out the car he never got the chance to drive all those years ago?
“This is not just the first time I have driven the car,” points out the German, “it is the first time anybody has driven it. I drove the mid-engined car that looked like the S1, but never this one.”
“It feels like a very light car, everything is going very, very, perfectly. It turns in perfectly; the only thing I have not tested is the power, because the engineers say I should not turn over 5,000 rpm because it is a handmade prototype. But I am sure that it would be a fantastic basis for a proper racing car.”
“The only thing I can tell you the response of the turbo is of course very bad, but at 5,000 rpm it is incredibly powerful, plus it is running with one bar of turbo pressure less than it could run with. Once I drove a Lancia Delta S4 and it feels like a Lancia Delta S4 from the handling side; for the steering, everything goes very smooth.”
“The gearbox, which usually in the Audis had a long throw, here it is a very, very short throw and nice. I am sure it was better than my S1 in ’85. I am sure that even today, if this car had a development of two or three months it would be fantastic car, even if it is 30 years old.”
And with that, Walter squeezes his tall frame back into the compact confines of the car with no name.
I watch the car come through one more stage. The handbuilt Group S prototype is not yet, of course, being blasted flat out, but it is being driven neatly, tidily and very, very swiftly. As the huge rear wing disappears out of sight, the line used by Britain’s former Prime Minister David Cameron as he walked away from the Parliamentary Dispatch Box for the last time comes to mind: “I was the future, once.”