Camouflage: Audi Sport’s Secret Dakar Rally Test (and Victory) for quattro Before Anyone Knew What It Was

Disguising test mules is common practice in the car industry, but in those late ‘70s years leading up to Audi’s launch of quattro, the idea took on a whole new meaning. In the case of quattro, camouflage was more than just skin deep, and that timeline is most fascinating to recount. While likely no one back then could have imagined how pivotal quattro technology would be for Audi, all indications suggest Ingolstadt knew that the brand’s future rode on its success. As it turns out, that success rode on the wheels of a rather ungainly and most obscure military vehicle bearing a Volkswagen badge.

Those pre-quattro years saw Audi still struggling to remake itself. Most of its factories and assets, located as they were in the Eastern region of Germany, were lost when the Iron Curtain fell following World War 2. Volkswagen had purchased the Audi brand along with Auto Union and NSU from Mercedes in 1965 and had begun repurposing Audi tech as the basis of its shift to front-wheel drive platforms driven by water-cooled engines. The brand of the four rings was being repositioned, with varying degrees of success, as the premium badge in the growing Volkswagen portfolio.

Two things happened in 1975 that play a significant role in this story. First, following a stint at his family company Porsche, Ferdinand Piëch arrived at Audi, taking the seat as management board director in charge of development.

Second, the so-called “Europa-Jeep” project for a pan-European military vehicle was scrapped and the German military turned to Volkswagen for a solution. Busy as they were with their new product like the Golf and diesel engines, VW passed the job to Ingolstadt. Internally, the project was named Type 183, though it would later come to be known as the “Iltis”.

By 1976, VW issued a contract to Audi for the building of ten Type 183 prototypes. Wolfsburg would fund the project, and the resulting vehicle, it was agreed, would be branded Volkswagen. It was planned that Type 183 would use the 1.7-liter Audi 4-cylinder engine, with a gearbox from the Audi 100, independent suspension, and rack and pinion steering. The military approved and by mid-1978 the Iltis was rolling off Audi’s production lines.

During pre-production Finland winter testing in 1977, the Iltis found itself being evaluated alongside other upcoming Audi vehicles. Audi’s then head of technical development department Roland Gumpert found himself driving alone in the Iltis with its drafty canvas top on those cold winter days; other executives choosing the warmer Audi sedans being tested alongside. Gumpert also found that he was keeping up handily with those sedans thanks to the sure-footed all-wheel drive system in the Iltis.

Engineers like Gumpert and Jörg Bensinger naturally compared these vehicles while in Finland, and Bensinger reported back to his boss at Audi, Jürgen Stockmar, who thus reported up to Piëch. The takeaway was that the 75 hp Iltis was as fast over a snowy road as the two-wheel drive cars… and had much better handling. It became quickly apparent to Piëch that all-wheel drive would greatly help Audi’s planned high-performance production cars and solidify it as a credible premium brand amidst the likes of Mercedes and BMW. Even still, Piëch also determined that for the public to accept all-wheel drive, they’d need convincing. That would come, he surmised, with a high-performance model and maybe with motorsport possibilities.

About this same time, the French had also expressed need for a military vehicle and considered entries from 10 companies. Roland Gumpert suggested they consider entering the vehicle in the Paris-Dakar Rally to gain approval from the French. Gumpert would own the project, run as it was out of the test department for Audi technical development that he managed. Whether or not the value of entering the Iltis in Dakar as a learning experience for a rally effort was apparent to Piëch at the time is anyone’s guess, but Gumpert has stated that his reason to pitch Dakar was specifically to woo valuable French military contracts so that Audi could produce more Iltis business.

Meanwhile, the quattro effort was in full swing. By March, a small team was set up under Walter Treser to investigate how the technology might be incorporated into an Audi sedan. The chosen test mule was an Audi 80 B1, and its construction began even before the board had approved the project. The car came together with no center differential, so it was too crude for production but enough to prove the concept internally without time to wait for a suitable center differential to be developed. The car also used an Iltis front suspension at the back, but with a rear differential. Tests were encouraging and the car was fitted with a 160 bhp turbocharged 5-cylinder from the Audi 200. With the extra power, it was clear the car was something special.

By September of ’77, Piëch had gotten approval from the board and project EA282 was green lit, not bound for the planned 1978 Audi 80 sedan, but a fastback coupe that was also in the works. That coupe would have quattro all-wheel drive and turbocharger technology.

Piëch and his engineers also devised a three-year plan for the car’s competition career. For starters, they went rallying with the B1 Audi 80 in Group 1. Though no turbocharger nor quattro were to be had, the car shared many components with the planned quattro and so the team would learn plenty about the endurance of the car, familiarizing themselves with the wear and tear of rallying.

Later in the season, they’d switch to the front-wheel drive B2 that shared even more with the quattro. Seeking to step up their competition, they signed on established rally driver Freddy Kottulinsky.

Both projects continued throughout 1978. Reports suggest Audi was benchmarking its 160 hp turbocharged quattro prototype B2 sedan in a secret test against a Porsche 928 at Hockenheim. By November, General Reichenberger, Inspector of the German Army, took receipt of the first 200 units of the Iltis.

For 1979, the rally program was expanded with Kottulinsky on for the full season, and also added Harald Demuth as a second driver. In the meantime, Treser’s development team began testing a prototype off-road in rally conditions, logging all-night stints at a remote quarry outside Nürburg. It was clear to all involved that the car would be perfect for rallying… perfect except for the fact that all-wheel drive simply wasn’t allowed in rallying at the time.

At an FIA meeting in September 1979, Audi’s Jürgen Stockmar posed the question that would revolutionize the rallying world. “Would any other manufacturers object to the removal of this restriction?”

The brands that made up rally establishment knew Audi was working on the Iltis and had entered several examples of the car in the next Paris-to-Dakar in January. They didn’t perceive the Iltis as a threat, and unanimously requested the ban be lifted. The 1980 regulations were published later that fall, just weeks before the Dakar Iltis showed up in Paris.

By that point, roughly 2,000 Iltis vehicles were in service in the German Army. Volkswagen also introduced a civilian version, offered with luxurious options like carpet and the 12-volt electric system (military used 24-volt).

With the ban out of the way, Audi could begin testing outside their hidden quarry. At the same time, the start of the Paris-Dakar was imminent. 1980 marked the second-ever running of the incredible rally-raid race contested by motorcycles, light vehicles, and heavy trucks through the then French-colonial portions of Northern Africa. The brainchild of French motorcycle adventurer Thierry Sabine in 1979, the race had grown a huge following in France and beyond for its New Year’s Day dash from Paris south to the Mediterranean where boats took competitors first to Morocco, picking up there to blast across the grueling Sahara Desert to the beaches of Senegal’s capital of Dakar.

Gumpert prepared five Iltis in total for Dakar, plus a 6-wheel drive truck from MAN as further team support. Modifications to the race Iltis weren’t significant as Dakar entries were quite close to production versions in those early years. Fortunately for the Iltis, its production version was designed for the military. The VWs wouldn’t be the fastest in the race, pitted as they were against contemporaries like the Renault 4 and Range Rover, but they were tough and reliable.

Engine power was up, rated at 110 PS through use of a 2-barrel carburetor. That made it capable of 130 km/h. The running gear was also reinforced, underbody protection added, auxiliary instruments, a roll cage, sport seats, rally lights, a 90-liter reserve fuel tank, trip master rally computers, and radios.

Other production details helped the Iltis’ technical prowess, including ventilated clutch, multiple drive shaft seals, vapor separator in the fuel system and a centrifuge for the dry air filter that was capable of filtering the fine sand particles. There was also the all-wheel drive system that could be engaged on the fly via differential locks on both axles and a synchronized four-speed transmission with reduced gearing for off-road. Interestingly, Gumpert also planned a 5-cylinder version pushing 137 hp.

Iltis #136 was driven by Patrick Zaniroli with co-driver Philipppe Colesse. The second Iltis, #137 would be driven by Kottulinsky who’d been racing for Audi, and co-driver Gerd Löffelmann. Next came the 5-cylinder Iltis wearing #138 driven by Jean Ragnotti and co-driven by Georges Vails. The fourth Iltis #139 would be driven by Roland Gumpert and carry an extra 300 kg in spare parts for fleet service. Finally, there was the fourth Iltis piloted by a team of journalists and wearing the word “Presse” stenciled on its top instead of a competitor number.

The 1980 race would take 22 days and cover some 4,315 kilometers. Kottulinsky won outright, marking the first-ever win for a factory team at Dakar. Zaniroli would finish second place, and Ragnotti fourth in the 5-cylinder Iltis. Even the support Iltis of Roland Gumpert finished in an impressive 9th. The race marked a notably dominant showing for the Iltis, and likely an eye opener for any of the competitive rallying brands who may have been paying attention.

Audi would pull the covers off the first production quattro about six weeks later at the Geneva Motor show. Cat out of the bag, the team could test even more in the open. The quattro rally cars even took part in a few rallies in 1980 as exhibition cars. In those years leading up, rallying had gotten predictable, but Audi was about to change all of that.

As for the Iltis, its commercial production was short-lived. By the summer of 1980, VW began to offer an even more fashionable civilian version with square-edged plastic fender flares, an upgraded instrument panel and Iltis logos on the side. About 200 civilian Iltis models found their way into private hands, and today it is rare to see one come up for sale. German production of the Iltis ended 1982, and the production tooling was sold to Bombardier in Canada who produced another 4,500 Iltis, primarily for the Canadian military.

As for the quattro and its arrival in the WRC, well… that’s a legend to tell another day.