IAIN ROBERTSON 

Audi and quattro appreciated by Stirling Moss

Audi and quattro appreciated by Stirling Moss

It is astonishing, explains Iain Robertson, how an invented word can become 4×4 synonymous with a German motorcar brand that also formulated a non-translatable expression, ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’, which has also stood the test of time.

As a writer, inevitably I support the contention that the pen is mightier than the sword, because words and language mean everything to me. Even when messing about on social media, I find myself turning into a ‘grammar Nazi’, correcting misspellings, altering split-infinitives and changing tenses. In fact, it can be quite annoying, when listening to TV and radio programmes, to hear me murmuring corrections regularly. It is my sincere belief that we should be proud of our mother tongue, which is a distillation of Greek, Roman, Gallic, Germanic and Nordic and, even with regional variances and accents, is so refined that our Greater Oxford Dictionary is no less than 20 volumes, 21,728 pages and over 301,000 entries in size, consistently updated and now published online.

With almost 250,000 etymologies, or origins of words, contained within its pagination, ‘Vorsprung’ can be translated as an edge, projection, or prominence, while ‘durch’ is German for through and ‘Technik’ is loosely translated as technology. When Audi UK commissioned London-based advertising agency, Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty, with the task of arriving at a suitable advertising tagline, the largely nonsensical ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ was the result. On the other hand, the definition of ‘quattro’ is somewhat more conventional, deriving from the Italian for four. Audi differentiates between a capitalised Quattro for the original 4×4 turbocharged coupe based on the Audi 80 (A4) saloon, dropping it to lower case for other 4×4 models with quattro drivetrains, of which there are many.

Audi and quattro in most extreme S form

Audi and quattro in most extreme S form

Forty years ago, in trendy 1980’s London, the well-known Kensington Roof Gardens became the launch venue for the original Audi Quattro, the first, German-registered example of the flared-arch, Bauhaus-inspired coupe. Sharing space with the real flamingos and ducks residing at the rooftop location, would be stars like Stirling Moss, major VIP customers and the UK motoring media. It was an event that would bring West End traffic to a literal halt.

The Audi Quattro was already turning heads and defying statistics in the world of motorsport. Although Finnish rally driver, Ari Vatanen, co-driven by Dave Richards of later Prodrive fame, would win the World Rally Championship in 1981, in a Ford Escort RS1800 Mark Two, it would be a swansong victory and the last for a while for a two-wheel drive car. With the characteristic off-beat, five-cylinder bark of its 2.2-litre highly-tuned engine resounding off trees and hills, exhaust flaming and popping like an Army issue sten-gun, the ‘big-Q’, as it became known, was earning a winning reputation very quickly.

As the Group 4 and then B category of virtually unrestricted over-500bhp rally cars developed through the 1980s, Quattro went through several transformations, gaining aerodynamic addenda, improving the drivetrain, obtaining an automated transmission and, in its ultimate form, creating a short-wheelbase variant. I can recall vividly, viewing from a snowy and remote spot on the 1985 Swedish Rally, the growing cacophony of roaring engine, shrieking superheated brakes, warbling turbocharger wastegate and, when Stig Blomqvist appeared finally in a spectacular, 100mph sideways drift, the near terror that a flaming, yellow-hot disc braked Quattro could infer and there were three works’ entries on that event.

Audi and quattro a winning combo

Audi and quattro a winning combo

The impact of quattro was sudden but durable. In the rally scene, employing big wings and shovel spoilers were some of the tactics used to control the Quattros in several of their iterations. It was the glory era of rallying. Yet, despite the addenda, the drivers, who included Finn Hannu Mikkola, the remarkable French Michele Mouton and Germanic Walter Rohrl, would arrive at rest and service halts in various states of exhaustion, often requiring help to recover from the team’s physical therapist. While Audi had it all mostly under its control, its rivals were catching up and the demands were increasing, in a sport that was becoming increasingly dangerous.

I can recall the first time that I drove a Quattro Coupe in 1981. From its plush velour driver’s seat, it felt like many German sporting cars of the era. Yet, apart from the engaging, subdued engine burble and the slightly ‘sticky’ manual gearshift, it tracked true but seldom felt as rapid as its 0-60mph in 6.7s, or 144mph top speed suggested. If anything, it lacked vigour and only scanning the digital dashboard would reveal its nearly true velocity. It was quick but totally undramatic.

Moving on to the mid-1990s, quattro technology had become second nature to Audi and its RS line-up, having made an impression with the RS2 model that had involved Porsche in many of its detail developments. However, the RS6 Avant was something else, with the ‘quattro’ text emblazoned across the lower front grille. With its speed restrictor removed, this 450bhp car was capable of topping 200mph. Yet, it earned its stripes with unerringly sound chassis dynamics that gifted the car a safety edge, even in the most torrid of climatic conditions. The prospect of transporting safely a driver, wife, two children, granny and the family dog to Val d’Isere for the annual ski vacation was evident.

Audi RS

Audi RS

However, while quattro is synonymous with high-performance, Audi transformed the new car scene with broader applications of the technology across its more mundane models too. Its popularity for the average family car has accounted for almost 50% of all Audi sales being four-wheel drive, as much by personal choice, en-route to building upmarket brand relevance to a level at which Audi A4 sales outnumber the sometime market leading Ford Mondeo. Although the technology has been improved and even simplified for some applications, the forty-year-old quattro has proven its relevance many times over, refined by motorsport commitment, admired by safety organisations and end-users.

Conclusion:       Most observers perceive Audi as a 4×4 brand (which it isn’t), as a direct result of its association with quattro technology, a factor that enabled its mid-1980’s separation from VW dealerships. The synergy of the 1980s is a vital component of Audi today.

Audi and quattro hoisted above Kensignton streets

Audi and quattro hoisted above Kensington streets