Twenty-seven years ago, a car that was to change the automobile engineering world went on display for the first time: on March 3, 1980 the first Audi Quattro was shown to the public at the Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland. Before long, the many competition successes achieved by this model established a heritage of success that has remained undimmed by time.

The birth of the first Quattro is a tale of initial driving tests in the snow and of a brilliant piece of technical thinking – the use of a hollow shaft in the gearbox to transmit the drive to the front and rear axles.


With the concept refined by the addition of a centre differential between the axles, later to use the Torsen principle, the first Quattro went on sale in late 1980. This coupe model, with its sharp-edged styling, became an immediate best seller: with its permanent all-wheel drive and 200bhp, five-cylinder turbocharged engine, it was able to offer sporty high performance in a fascinating, revolutionary form.

Between 1982 and 1984 the Quattro gained four World Rally Championship titles, and the exploits of its now legendary drivers have remained unforgotten to this day. Following these successes on loose-surfaced sand and gravel tracks, the manufacturer’s competition department concentrated on circuit racing, and here too the supremacy of the Quattro permanent all-wheel-drive principle was patently obvious as the Audi Quattro drivers collected all the most prestigious trophies in the USA and in Europe.

As the years wore on, the ‘original Quattro’ grew into an entire family of road-going all-wheel-drive models, and today this technology represents one of the brand’s most substantial foundations. In the 25 years up to the end of 2004, Audi built 1,815,396 Quattro vehicles, and the current model programme includes 74 versions with all-wheel drive.

Thanks to thorough technical updating, the reputation of the Quattro all-wheel driveline is today stronger and more active then ever before. ‘Quattro’ stands not just for traction, but also for emotive appeal, safe driving and dynamism. The Quattro models in the Audi range are both a driving force for the brand and an integral element of its innovative technology.

Permanently on course for success

Four rings, seven letters, 25 years: Audi’s Quattro technology is now celebrating a noteworthy anniversary. A quarter of a century ago, on March 3, 1980, the ‘original Quattro’ was the centre of attention at the Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland. This was the birth of a legend which clocked up innumerable motorsport victories and a demonstration of still unsurpassed supremacy on the road.

Michèle Mouton, Stig Blomqvist, Hannu Mikkola and, of course, Walter Röhrl – these were the drivers that wrote a new chapter in rallying history during the 1980s and brought the Audi Quattro four world championship titles. Before long, the cars with permanent all-wheel drive were enjoying equal success in circuit racing.

The Quattro technological principle not only established itself impressively in motorsport, but in road-going cars as well (much as Subaru have done), where Quattro has come to mean not only permanent traction but also exceptional dynamism and fast, safe travel.

The Quattro technological principle has become a major element in the Audi brand’s success with all the market significance that this implies. In 2004, for instance, Audi built 209,469 Quattro vehicles, streets ahead of any other manufacturer of all-wheel-drive models.

The Quattro technical principle

A car that distributes the power from its engine to all four wheels is capable of withstanding higher lateral locating forces than one with only the rear or front wheels driven. Its traction and cornering power are both superior to these more conventional drivelines.

Audi clearly grasped this basic principle of physics with greater clarity and determination than its competitors – it was this awareness that inspired the initial Quattro driveline concept.

The development order for the all-wheel-drive project, bearing the internal company code 262, was issued in the spring of 1977. The basic stimulus came from three young Audi engineers: Jörg Bensinger was manager of the experimental running-gear department, Walter Treser was project leader, and Dr. Ferdinand Piëch the chief technical executive.

A modified Audi 80 with slightly lengthened wheelbase was used as a prototype, powered by the lengthwise installed five-cylinder turbocharged engine that was later to power the Audi 200 model. This transmitted its power to the all-wheel-drive system used on the VW Iltis military off-road vehicle, which Audi had developed. The driven rear axle was a second McPherson front axle turned through 180 degrees.

In January 1978, when tried out on the steep ‘Turracher Höhe’ mountain pass in the Styrian region of Austria, this prototype vehicle with the licence plate IN-NC 92 convincingly demonstrated its capabilities in the traction area, but on sharp, hard-surfaced corners there were evidently significant trapped stresses in the driveline. This situation arises because the front wheels follow a slightly larger curve than the rear wheels when the vehicle is cornering, and therefore have to be able to revolve slightly faster.


The prototype was unable to cope with this situation, since unlike the Iltis with its driver-engaged drive to the front wheels, its two axles were rigidly connected. The Audi development team, however, held fast to its two main objectives: a permanent all-wheel driveline and the avoidance of a separate centre differential and second propeller shaft – components that were regarded as unavoidable on such vehicles back in the seventies.

It was Franz Tengler, head of the transmission design department, who hit on the brilliantly simple notion of installing a 26.3cm long drilled-out secondary shaft in the gearbox, so that power could flow in both directions. At the rear end, this shaft drove the spider of the manually lockable inter-axle differential; this device was integrated into the gearbox and transmitted 50 % of the power from the engine to the rear axle, which had its own limited-slip differential.

The remaining power flowed along an output shaft inside the hollow shaft to the front-axle differential. For the first time in automobile design history, this hollow-shaft concept permitted an all-wheel drive layout that was light in weight, compact and efficient.

This was the decisive breakthrough, since it yielded a system that was not restricted to off-road vehicles with their high ground clearance, but was ideal for sporty passenger cars.

For the start of the 1987 model year, another important new feature was added to the Quattro concept: the Torsen differential, a self-locking worm and gear unit that took the place of the manual differential lock. As the name (which comes from the term ‘torque sensing’) implies, this device redistributes engine torque steplessly as required for traction purposes, so that in extreme situations the axle with the better traction receives up to 75 % of the available torque.


Thanks to the Torsen differential, which develops its locking action only under load, the vehicle’s anti-lock braking system can still take effect when needed.

Today, modern technologies such as electronically controlled differential locks in the axles and the ESP stabilisation program complement the action of the Torsen differential.

The ‘original Quattro’

“We wanted to create the impression of a car that’s ‘glued to the ground’ – with capability rather than elegance in the foreground. And this formal concept has justified itself as effective, correct and credible.”

These were the terms in which Hartmut Warkuss, who was head of design at that time, later described the first Quattro. Derived from the Audi 80 Coupé, but with sharp-edged body styling, it was presented to journalists on March 3, 1980 at an indoor ice-skating rink close to the exhibition ground at which the Geneva Motor Show was being held.

The new five-seater coupé had a compact 2,524mm wheelbase and an overall length of 4,404mm. It ran on 6-inch forged alloy wheels supplied by the Fuchs company.

Dr. Ferdinand Piëch was well aware of the fact that with this car he was writing a new chapter in automobile engineering. His speech concluded with the words: “Today sees the premiere of all-wheel drive for the road-going passenger car.”

The epoch-making Quattro – the name was Walter Treser’s idea – was enthusiastically received: its revolutionary driveline concept and sporty character convinced the journalists immediately. The five-cylinder turbocharged and charge-air intercooled engine, with a displacement of 2,144 cc, developed 147kW (200bhp) at the maximum boost pressure of 0.85 bar and reached its maximum torque of 285 Nm at an engine speed of 3,500rpm.

The Quattro weighed 1,290 kilograms and could sprint from 0 to 100km/h in 7.1 seconds and reach a top speed of over 220 km/h. Its permanent traction, firm, sporty suspension settings and functional interior design revealed this new model to be an out-and-out ‘driving machine’.

The Quattro took its place at the top of the manufacturer’s programme for that model year - not only in terms of its high performance, but also of its selling price: 49,900 German marks. Despite this considerable sum, sales figures roc keted when the first cars reached the showrooms in November 1980. In the first two full years of the car’s production cycle, almost 2,000 left the N2 individual assembly building in Ingolstadt. The first 400 were needed as evidence that the Group 4 World Rally Championship regulations had been complied with.

The ‘original Quattro’, as its fans now call it, remained in production until 1991; during this period 11,452 cars were built. In the first few production years the interior became steadily more sophisticated in its materials, but there were also a few minor technical changes, for example digital displays and speech-output warnings, the anti-lock braking system and running-gear modifications.

An update was carried out in the autumn of 1987, and bestowed the Torsen centre differential and a slightly larger five-cylinder engine on the Quattro. The new power unit retained the original power output of 147kW (200bhp), but developed greater low-speed torque. In 1989 the power output was raised to 162kW (220bhp) by installing a new four-valve cylinder head; the top speed increased to 230km/h.

A special model in the Quattro programme appeared in 1984, and still enjoys a legendary reputation: this was the Sport Quattro with the wheelbase reduced to a mere 2,204mm and a newly developed four-valve turbocharged engine with an aluminium cylinder block; this had a power output of 225kW (306bhp).

Although nominally a road-going car, extensive use of Kevlar and other weight-saving materials confirmed that this special model was also a serious rally contender. 224 of this ‘short version’, as it was known, were built, and enabled Audi to homologate its rally entries in Group B.

The purchase price, too, was high enough to ensure more than a modicum of exclusivity: 203,850 German marks.

The Quattros in rallying

Group B, with its less strict technical specifications, probably ushered in the most innovative era in rallying: a high-tech arms race, so to speak, in which the participating teams outdid each other in their efforts to speed up development work.


Even during the 1981 season, the first in which Audi participated, the Quattro began to hint at its later superiority. The Finn, Hannu Mikkola, won two events and came third in the drivers’ rankings, despite the teething troubles suffered by the car initially. In San Remo, the Frenchwoman, Michèle Mouton, became the first woman ever to win a world championship rally.

In 1982 the Ingolstadt-based team did justice to the technological lead claimed in the manufacturer’s slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik”. Mikkola, Mouton and their Swedish colleague, Stig Blomqvist, scored seven outright wins in eleven rallies, and finished the season with the manufacturers’ title and the runners-up title for Mouton in the drivers’ championship.

In 1984, the long-awaited double success was achieved: Blomqvist took the driver’s title almost unchallenged, with wins in five rallies. The season had already begun with a sensational 1-2-3 victory in Monte Carlo, with Walter Röhrl, a newcomer to the team, leading his Scandinavian colleagues across the finishing line after a breathtaking duel.

During the season, however, the initially unrivalled Quattro began to encounter new and vigorous competitors, for example the Peugeot 205 T16, the first pure competition car concept with mid-engine to be seen in rallying.

The temptation for Audi to pursue a similar approach was great, and a prototype was in fact built. The idea was, none the less, rejected because it was felt that the rally cars should not be too dissimilar to those sold to the public.

Instead of this, the Sport Quattro, a 331kW (450bhp) front-engined car, made its debut at the end of 1984. The wheelbase was shortened dramatically, by no fewer than 32cm, in an attempt to make the car even lighter and more agile.

The Sport Quattro, as it happened, was fated not to enjoy any great successes, even in its final evolution stage, the S1. Its technical features nonetheless earned a place in rallying history if only because of their extreme character.


The officially quoted power output of the five-cylinder aluminium-block engine was 350kW (476bhp), but with the recirculating air system that kept the turbocharger turning over at a high speed, the true figure was probably in excess of 500bhp at 8,000rpm. Wi th a moderately high final drive ratio, the S1 (which weighed only 1,090 kilograms) could accelerate from a standstill to 100 km/h in 3.1 seconds.  Some of the cars were equipped with a power-shift gearbox – a forerunner of today’s DSG technology.

The car had a lattice-tube structure clad with sheet steel and plastic panels. For the sake of better weight distribution, the radiator, fan and alternator were banished to the rear of the car. Vast wings and spoilers had the task of increasing downthrust on fast sections of the route; the brakes had a water spray cooling system.

In the spring of 1986 came the end for the Group B cars with their boundary-pushing technology. Audi decided not to enter for any further events in the series. Following serious accidents, the international organising body, FISA (now the FIA), resolved to change the rules and permit only near-series production Group A cars to take part.

As it happened, the S1 was able to celebrate one final triumph: in 1987 Walter Röhrl took this car with its 441kW (600bhp) engine up the Pikes Peak hillclimb in Colorado, USA, with its 156 bends and maximum altitude of 4,301 metres.

This victory was emulated in the following two years by Michèle Mouton and Bobby Unser, giving Audi a hat-trick in this imposing American hillclimb event, the “Race to the Clouds”. The best Audi time of 10 minutes 47.85 seconds remained unequalled for many years afterwards.

For the next eight years Audi participated in circuit racing in a range of Quattros, driven by drivers such as Hurley Haywood, Joachim Stuck, Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela.

The Quattro’s emotive appeal

A tyre track in the snow: an elderly Eskimo respectfully points it out to his grandson as “Quattro”. The monsoon season in India: only the German ambassador in his Audi A4 Quattro makes it along the flooded, muddy roads to the Maharajah’s gala dinner. The ski jump that the Audi 100 Quattro climbs by its own efforts – in the past 25 years, Audi has commissioned a whole series of unforgettable TV commercials aimed at maintaining public awareness of the Quattro mystique and the emotive appeal associated with it.

The idea behind the ski jump spot took shape in 1986 at the BBDO advertising agency in Düsseldorf, Germany. When tested on a glacier in the Tyrol, an Audi 100 Quattro proved capable of climbing a 39-degree gradient.

The ski jump that was eventually found in Kaipola, Finland, had a slope angle of 37.5 degrees – or to put it another way, a gradient of 80 percent – a scarcely less difficult challenge. A crane lifted the car onto the ski jump’s take-off platform, where it was carefully secured in three different ways: by a concealed steel cable, a forward-mounted braking system and a safety net under the take-off platform.

In the event, professional rally driver Harald Demuth, who had driven the Quattro during his active career, had no need for any of these safety devices. He drove the Audi effortlessly up the 78-metre long ski jump, despite having only a very restricted view of the proceedings, since the nose of the Audi was of course pointed steeply upwards towards the sky.

This commercial bathed the Audi advertising concept in a warm and approving light from which it still benefits today. The overall strategy was, and still is, concentrated with no frills on the actual products – an approach typical of the Audi brand.

Product credibility is communicated beyond any doubt, the more so since the Quattro models’ motorsport successes have shaped the Audi brand image more strongly than advertising campaigns costing millions could ever have done.


Audi Quattro, built in 1981 (147 kW/200 bhp):

11,452 of the “Ur-Quattro”, as this car is known, were built between 1980 and 1991.

Audi Rallye Quattro, Group 4 rally car, coupé, built in 1981

(237 kW/320 bhp at 6,500 rpm):

From 1981 the Audi Quattro turned the rally world upside down. This Rallye Quattro made its debut appearance with Hannu Mikkola andArne Hertz in October 1981 at the San Remo Rally. In November these two drove this car to victory in the RAC Rally in Great Britain.

Audi Sport Quattro, built in 1984 (225 kW/306 bhp):

A total of 214 Audi Sport Quattro models were produced between 1983 and 1984.

Audi Sport Quattro S1, Group B rally car, built in 1985

(350 kW/476 bhp at 7,500 rpm):

The Sport Quattro S1 was the last evolution version of the Rallye Quattro. The front “snow plough apron” and the mighty rear wing became the S1's trademarks. Walter Röhrl and Christian Geistdörfer won the 1985 San Remo Rally in the Sport Quattro S1.

Audi 200 Quattro “James Bond”, built in 1986 (134 kW/182 bhp):

This car was produced specially for the James Bond film “The Living Daylights” starring Timothy Dalton and could be seen at cinemas in 1987.

Audi 200 Quattro, Group A rally car, built in 1987 (184kW/250 bhp
at 6,000 rpm):

In 1987, the Rally World Championship was only held in Group A. In this year Audi clinched a double win in the challenging Safari Rally with its teams Mikkola/Hertz and Röhrl/Geistdörfer.


This story was originally published in RallySport Magazine, November 2005.

Photos courtesy of Audi, Martin Holmes Rallying, McKlein. 










































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