By BRENDAN MCALEER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, March 9, 2018
NORTH VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Ur: original, the first, primeval. Quattro: four.
Combine them and you have this box-flared, turbocharged, squared-off wedge of 1980s excellence. Officially, this is a coupe version of the Audi 80, but everyone knows it as the UrQuattro. It changed the world.
In modern times, and especially in the Canadian market, no luxury brand would dream of doing without an all-wheel-drive system. BMW has its xDrive, Mercedes-Benz has its 4Matic and Porsche moves plenty of 911s that drive all four wheels. Even discounting the importance of crossovers, all-wheel drive is a selling feature that well-heeled buyers both expect and demand.
Somebody had to be the first to provide it. This is one of those first cars, a 1985 Audi Quattro coupe, restored to collector-plate condition. It's one of a handful of Canadian models - just 99 were delivered - and has been brought to the European specs with 200 horsepower from its turbocharged straight-five engine.
Generally speaking, classic cars do not come out of the garage when there's sleet and snow in the forecast. Old Audis, on the other hand, don't have any such issues. At least when they've decided to start.
Owner Alan Pemberton, who's had the car for more than two decades, pops the hood to let the inline-five cool a bit. Despite the Audi's long nose, all the plumbing for the early turbocharged system and the long engine block make for cramped quarters. Vapour lock when hot is a known issue, but after less than a minute of waiting, the UrQuattro clears its throat and makes for the rainslicked curves of the old Sea To Sky Highway on the B.C. coast.
In the mid-1970s, Audi conducted much of its cold-weather testing in Sweden. Engineers arrived to shake down their cars in the cold, drink avkvavit and listen to ABBA. By way of support crew, they often brought along something from their parent company, Volkswagen, and one year they brought an Iltis.
The Iltis was a funny little donkey of a military vehicle, with all of 74 horsepower and a canvas top. Bombardier built thousands of them for the Canadian military and while it was slow and noisy, it was remarkably sure-footed. The more powerful Audi prototypes spun their front wheels in the snow, while the Iltis basically romped about like a lunatic Jack Russell terrier.
The performance inspired one of Audi's chassis engineers, Joerg Bensinger. What if the all-wheeldrive prowess of the Iltis was combined with a more powerful engine, making a sort of allweather sports car? In February of 1977, Bensinger pitched the idea to Ferdinand Pieech, then the head of Audi technical development.
When Pieech gets the bit between his teeth, things end up happening; later in his career, he would aggressively push Porsche to the heights of endurance racing and go on to be the driving force behind the creation of the all-conquering Bugatti Veyron.
When a board member voiced dissent, complaining over quattro's high development costs, Pieech arranged a demonstration.
Wetting down a grassy hill, he had the executive make a first attempt in a normal front-wheel-drive Audi and then again in a tan UrQuattro.
The car climbed like a goat, the point was made. First though, a solution was needed for a problem faced by many contemporary four-wheel-drive vehicles. Engaging four-wheel-drive in a Jeep or Land Rover at the time on dry pavement caused the vehicle to lurch and buck when turning. A centre differential was needed to let the front and rear axles turn at different rates.
Audi's genius solution was a hollow shaft containing another drive shaft, which shrank down the packaging of the longitudinally mounted central differential to a size that would fit in a car. The torque split was usually 50:50, front and rear, and the differential could be manually locked for better grip in the snow. When it debuted in 1980, the UrQuattro promptly left the competition stuck up to their axles.
Quattro's arrival in world rallying competition sent everyone else back to the proverbial drawing board. The combination of turbocharged power and the traction to put that power down made Audis nearly unbeatable. Up until now, rear-wheel-drive machines had surfed along happily in a cloud of gravel, looking dramatic and getting sideways. The quattro-equipped rally cars did much the same, but when the driver when foot-down on corner exit, the car dug in and shot forward to victory.
The road cars were the same way. Compared with contemporary BMWs, Audis have always been a bit woolly in the steering department. However, because it's an older car and, therefore, unblunted by the likes of modern electric power steering, Pemberton's UrQuattro has plenty of feel and the turbocharger whistles like a kettle as it comes on boost.
The grip is impressive today and by 1985, standards must have been an absolute revelation.
Many of these cars became ski-hill warriors or ended up getting used in rallying exploits. Survivor rates are, therefore, quite low, but the UrQuattro had made its mark.
Soon, quattro was enough of a byword for victory that Audi set it up as a specific performance brand. Note the lack of capitalization: in Audi's world, quattro the brand doesn't get a capital-q, even if the car does. Founded in Neckarsulm, not far from Stuttgart, quattro GmbH produced the hottest Audis on the road for decades.
The UrQuattro was built until 1991 and its high-performance replacement was the RS2. First of the RS (for RennSport, literally "Racing Sport"), the RS2 was unusual for two reasons. First, it was a wagon, and second, it was mostly a Porsche.
Porsche built the RS2 on the line that had formerly produced the 959 supercar, another allwheel-drive hero. The inline-five was boosted up to 315 hp, the suspension was reworked for carving the corners and quattro was there to keep a grip on the tarmac.
Canadians never officially got the RS2, but a few have leaked into the country through our 15year grey market. To drive, it's a little like an early WRX wagon, mixed with a hint of VW GTI. The RS2 is fast now and was simply a rocket in-period.
Audi renamed quattro to Audi Sport in 2016, which is a bit of a shame, really. However, even today, the best and fastest Audis still display the quattro badging proudly on their front grille. Audi Canada now offers an RS3, RS5, RS7 and the TT RS, and each carries a little of that original quattro spirit with them.
They've got the power. They've got the grip. And when snow starts flying, the fun's just getting started.
The combination of turbocharged power and the traction to put that power down made Audis, including this 1985 Quattro, nearly unbeatable in terms of grip.
PHOTOS BY BRENDAN McALEER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL