That first quattro

source: Peter McKay, Audi Australia Magazine

Leading Australian motoring writer and racing driver Peter McKay has driven everything on wheels in his illustrious career, but Audi’s quattro cars hold a special significance.

It’s impossible to forget your first, and so it is with the first quattro Audi I ever drove, an example of the original limited volume coupe which began the all-wheel drive revolution.

This car, known simply as the Audi quattro or sometimes as Ur-quattro (meaning original quattro), was also the very first Audi quattro ever brought to Australia, specifically for the 1981 Melbourne Motor Show. It was a left-hand-drive car in silver with the chassis number 421 and engine number 418.

Business magnate and car enthusiast the late Kerry Packer had dibs on that car and in May 1981 after doing its thing under the spotlights on the Audi stand at the motor show, it was purchased from the then importer of the Audi brand, LNC Industries.

But before Australia’s richest man got his hands on it, a couple of lucky motoring journalists were given the chance to sample its very special characteristics. There were strict instructions not to put a scratch on it. Mr Packer, we were told, may not like to hear of any misfortune befalling his jewel.

I drove it from Melbourne to Adelaide. Already we were hearing reports that the Audi quattro was starting to get a grip on world rallying and it subsequently went on to win the manufacturer’s championship the following year. Mid-way through our interstate run I succumbed to the temptation to take the Audi quattro for a risky squirt along a winding gravel road that abutted the highway. I’m sure Kerry wouldn’t have minded.

Only here, and after locking the centre and rear diffs, did the real benefits of all-wheel drive loom large. There was none of that whiz-bag electronic traction control of modern cars. But after a lifetime of familiarity with the obligatory wheelspin of two-wheel-drive cars of the day, the quattro demanded a very different driving technique to maximise its performance on unstable, shifting surfaces.

As you down-shifted, it was a matter of sliding it into the turns with the nose pointed in the general direction of intended travel. Then down went the accelerator and the Audi would squat on its haunches and with all four tyres biting through the loose gravel into something more solid, fire out of the corner with adhesion levels and speed I’d never experienced before.

Yes, by today’s values, the 147kW from the 2.1-litre five-cylinder turbo and intercooled engine doesn’t seem too enthralling. But all those years ago, it was something else. But the grip levels were the most impressive part of that car.

After Packer bought the sure-footed super-coupe in mid 1981, his engineer-of-choice for his fleet of fast machinery, the former race ace Kevin Bartlett, converted it to right-hand-drive, using parts introduced from Germany. Soon after, a cabbie was partly through an illegal U turn in Sydney’s William street when Packer and the Audi arrived on the scene and t-boned the taxi in what was an abrupt, jolting meeting of two people of very different socio-economic backgrounds.

“Kerry really enjoyed driving that car,” recalled Bartlett. “But he took some time to really capitalise on its higher grip and power-down capabilities.”

After some tips from Bartlett, Packer got to finesse the quattro with some verve on dirt around his Elleston spread near Scone, tossing it at corners in the manner of Walter Röhrl. The quattro was also part of son James’ early L-plate learning curve.

Since that first experience all those years ago, there have been further fine memories of a succession of standout quattro Audis of different sizes and performance – across a welter of conditions and countries!

Standing on frozen dirt in New Zealand watching a round of the World Rally Championship in 1985, we marvelled at corner speeds of the all-wheel drive machinery and the popping, snarling exhausts of the turbo Audi quattros of Walter Röhrl and Stig Blomqvist which we could hear coming from a kilometre away.

I’ve always had a soft spot for all iterations of the ferociously quick (yet safe) RS 4 Avant, perhaps because it offers prodigious performance in a package of some subtlety. It’s about

understatement. Except for the exhaust sounds … always so beautifully orchestral and expressive!

Because technology is ever on the march, it’s probably no surprise that some of the more current performance quattros have left the strongest impressions, and with each new development and refinement, the performance levels increase along with the grip.