Although the Audi Quattro revolutionised rallying, it’s hard to point to any single aspect of its design or construction and say that it was groundbreaking. What the engineers behind the Quattro brought to the sport of rallying, and as a result to the wider automotive world, was the combination and refinement of these technologies in a truly virtuoso manner.
In this can be seen the hand of the man who was the guiding light of Audi engineering: Ferdinand Karl Piech, who was instrumental in bringing the programme to life. Only recently, a senior Volkswagen executive said of Piech: ‘He was a great man for solving problems with other people’s ideas. He knew immediately when he saw a good idea, like Picasso seeing an African mask and making it into art.’
The Quattro was undoubtedly Piech’s finest masterpiece.
Whispers from the north
Poke around most major towns in Germany for five minutes and you will find men and women with extraordinary knowledge about engineering motor cars. The streets are thick with experts on paint, metallurgy, fuel, lubricants, suspension, electronics and how to make doors shut with an almost imperceptible ‘clunk’. It has been this way for 100 years.
One such expert, quietly going about his business in Ingolstadt during the mid-1970s, was Jorg Bensinger; a 47-year-old transmission specialist with Audi, the unremarkable large car brand that had recently been attached to Volkswagen.
The transmission needs of Audi’s then-current range of cars, consisting of front-wheeldrive 80 and 100 saloons, were not unduly taxing for a man of Bensinger’s abilities and so he had been given other responsibilities to take care of. One of these was speaking at seminars and to the motoring press, while the other was developing new transmission systems within the Volkswagen group.
In 1976, Bensinger’s presence was required in the snowy wastes of northern Finland, where trials of a new Volkswagen off-road vehicle were being held. A decade earlier, as Europe began the long road towards integration (and prevent potential rogue states like France from backing out), the Merger Treaty brought management of the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Atomic Energy Community and the European Economic Community under one roof. Together, these communities launched a series of collaborative projects between the member nations.
Among these projects, it was decided that the armed forces of Europe needed a new kind of Jeep. The British had their Land Rovers and the Americans were barrelling round in Fords that looked almost identical to their Second World War predecessors, but between Europe’s car makers, it was believed an even better solution could be found.
Numerous prototypes of amphibious offroad vehicles were produced by trinities as unlikely as Fiat (Italy), M.A.N. (Germany) and Saviem (France), and that of Hotchkiss (France), Bussing (Germany) and Lancia (Italy), but in the end nobody could agree on anything except that the prototypes were not very good.
Eventually, the German government got bored of wasting money in this way and pulled out of the ‘Europa Jeep’ idea completely -instead going to Volkswagen with its brief to design an all-terrain vehicle. What came back was the Volkswagen Type 181, an updated version of the wartime Kubelwagen (bucket car), which had used Volkswagen Beetle components on a raised chassis with a boxy body on the top.
There was no argument that the Kubelwagen was a great off-road car – in comparison testing during the war, the Allies discovered that the rear-engine, two-wheel-drive German car was superior to the Jeep in most battlefield conditions – but it was somewhat dated. Visually and mechanically the Type 181 was simply a reworking of the car that had conquered Europe in 1940 – and this design was accepted by the government as an interim measure.
Seeking a longer-term solution, Volkswagen looked to Ingolstadt, home of the four Auto Union brands that it had purchased in 1964. Here the VW engineers found the DKW Munga (named after an Estonian monk!) which was a simple, lightweight four-wheel-drive forestry worker’s car that had been built from 1956 to 1968. The Munga was fitted with more modern suspension, a new four-wheel-drive system based around components from the Audi 100 and a 1.7-litre, four-cylinder Volkswagen engine producing 75 PS (55 kW).
Jorg Bensinger was asked to test drive the result and called the Volkswagen litis (polecat), in the Arctic conditions of Finland, in order to give his opinion on its transmission to the development team. Among the engineers most heavily involved with the litis was a young member of Bensinger’s team who was very excited about the car. His name was Roland Gumpert.
By hooning around the Finnish roads in the Ittis, Gumpert showed Bensinger that putting the power down through all four wheels could make a car – even a narrow, top-heavy brick like this – remarkably sprightly on a normal road. There was a small fleet of Audi 80s on hand and naturally the young engineers had compared their performance to discover that while the litis was left for dead by conventional cars on a straight road, it would catch them up in no time on slippery corners.
This was something that Bensinger had been considering for a long time, particularly with regard to tyre wear on regular two-wheel-drive cars. In Britain, Jensen sports cars had built an extravagant GT with four-wheel drive and in Japan, Subaru had introduced the first mass-produced four-wheel-drive passenger car in 1972, the Leone, which was proving to be a big hit in snowy climes.
Bensinger decided to follow up on Gumpert’s enthusiasm for four-wheel drive. ‘This was very interesting, putting all these things on paper, but we had no possibility to build such a car when I was thinking about such things,’ he later remembered.
‘I wanted to try 4×4 on better surfaces. When I came back from that winter testing I said to Mr Piech that we should do this 4×4 for a higher performance car, like a 100. Mr Piech was not very excited about this, when I told him how good the litis had been. But it was only the next morning when he telephones me and we talk about the idea. He says we must convince the public of the advantages of 4×4 and that we can do it at Audi.’