The Handoff: Witnessing John Buffum Transition the R27 Works quattro Rally Car to Enthusiast Jeff Beyda

words/photos: George Achorn

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in the Q2_2022 issue of quattro Magazine. If you would like to subscribe to quattro Magazine, please join Audi Club here.

Opening the door of the RS 6, the crisp air over Lake Champlain is a palpable yet refreshing wakeup call as it floods into the cabin. While we’re cruising along at a healthy pace, the car sits stationary on the deck of the Charlotte Ferry that’ll deliver it on the eastern shore of the lake in Vermont. From there it’s another 20 miles or so north to the Libra Racing facility just outside of Burlington.

Anticipation is high. I’d received a call days before from Brooklyn-based Audi enthusiast Jeff Beyda and Tim Maskus, one of the America’s most knowledgeable rally quattro experts from up-state Michigan. Bowling quickly past greetings and introductions, the pair shared that they were headed to Vermont in short order to meet with American rally legend John Buffum, owner and operator of Libra Racing. John was a highly dominant driver for Audi Sport back in the heart of the rally era, and in his possession was perhaps the last remaining Audi works rally cars in the USA. That quattro had been shipped to Buffum back in 1982. He’d raced it for years and retained it ever since. It seemed John was ready to part with the car, and he and Beyda had worked out an agreement for the sale. Maskus had helped broker the deal… and he also intended to lead the restoration that would follow.

The offer to me was to see if I wanted to attend and catalogue the handoff… to tell the story. While last minute, it wasn’t the sort of proposition you refuse. Jeff generously shared that I could join him on a plane leaving out of Teterboro Airport in just a few days. However, Buffum’s facility was only a few hours further than Teterboro. And, while a run to Vermont in late October would be a bit late for peak foliage color, it would still make for a spectacular drive. After overnighting in Saratoga Springs, NY, my navigation system didn’t disappoint, guiding me down country roads and into the hamlet of Essex, NY where I rolled onto the ferry. Now, I relaxed in the morning sun from the deck while inhaling the distinctive scent of autumn in New England.

Twenty minutes later I’m trying to figure out my way into the building. I’m late, and there’s little signage beyond faded vinyl letters on the door. An Uber minivan with Vermont tags sits waiting on Jeff and his sons who’d just flown in, its driver oblivious to my presence, nose in his phone and likely contesting his own Wordle championship of the world. Unfortunately for Tim, his flight had been canceled.

I call out to alert of my presence as I walk into the office. Parts and vintage rally paraphernalia are everywhere, clues hinting at a rich career of competition in an era when things were decidedly simpler. Items are stacked rather unceremoniously around the room. Was that an aluminum ur quattro fender just leaning against a box of vintage parts? Yes, yes it was.

Wandering down a dark hallway, I spy the car through a lit doorway. Buffum and Beyda’s voices can be heard now, though light from the workshop bathes the old quattro (a.k.a. chassis R27) and reveals the kind of patina only a storied rally car can offer. It steals my focus.

I’d heard Buffum had been working on his own restoration of the car, returning it closer to what it looked like in its first victory. Michèle Mouton had piloted R27 to victory at the 1982 Rally de Portugal. That was the second-ever WRC victory for the legendary female driver, an staggeringly dominant showing with 18 stage victories and also her first victory of her breakout 1982 season where she very nearly won the championship. Through the lit doorway, I can clearly read the Rally de Portugal specific ”Vinho Porto Wine” and  “Hotel Estoril Sol” decals on the side of the car. Continuing into the garage, I find Buffum and Beyda  peering under the hood while Jeff’s teenage sons stand nearby listening to the conversation.

Buffum carefully goes over the car, hand-writing notes outlining startup procedures and pointing out modifications made over the years. He wanders around inventorying things that go with R27, and other items that might cost Jeff a bit more.

While the car sitting rather unceremoniously parked in a corner of Buffum’s shop may look like just another worn ur quattro with some stickers, it’s not that simple. R27 was assembled as a body-in-white real deal factory rally car, built to Group 4 spec for Mouton’s use in Portugal that season, then refurbished and shipped to America where Jo Hoppen of Audi of America coordinated it landing in Vermont with Buffum who was set to compete in the North American SCCA Pro Rally series. John would also take the car to Pike’s Peak, beginning in 1982 where it logged a class victory in its maiden run at the famed Colorado hillclimb.

Buffum had other suitors for the car. No doubt some were European. Most, if not all the factory rally cars that ever came to America including the better-known Pike’s Peak Sport quattros are all back in Europe now, in the hands of Audi Tradition or other collectors. That John agreed to sell it to Beyda was remarkable because it kept this very special car in America where it had logged so many of its wins and holds a key position of importance regarding the lesser-known American rally exploits of the era. Buffum was utterly dominant at the time, logging win-after-win for Audi, and beginning with R27.

So what’s a Group 4? Effectively, this was the earliest evolution of the Audi rally quattros. Group 4 cars are most easily identified by their use of what looks like standard fenders with extension arch flares overtop. At the front, an extended grille with single square sealed beam style headlights is also a tell. It’s not as elegant as later evolutions of the rallying quattros, but it is simple and purposeful, allowing for greater cooling hardware to be packed inside. Curiously, the grille also lifts with the hood unlike production quattros of the time, and this no doubt provided better access for servicing.

For R27, the arch flares are long gone and modifications in period had definitely been made. Even still, it’s largely still a Group 4 spec car and that’s pretty rare. You see, most of the racing chassis of the period were simply overhauled as rules evolved. That R27 wasn’t in Germany to be overhauled may have preserved it.

As I lean into the cockpit to take some interior shots, I see an open face helmet on the floor. It’s got the period Audi Sport stripes painted on the side, and I spy the name “Pons” on the side. That’d be Fabrizia, who was Mouton’s co-pilot throughout her time at Audi. When I mention that, John confirms there’s another. He digs it out casually and sets it on the car’s roof. This one says Mouton, and also her blood type “O+”. It’s a reminder both that rallying remains one of the most famously dangerous forms of racing, and it also underscores the unique nature of Michèle Mouton. O+ is an utter rarity in the world of blood types. In the world of professional rallying, Michèle is one of a kind, to this day the only woman who has ever won a round (multiple actually) of the WRC. Apparently, these helmets remained with the car for decades, and Buffum had no intention of splitting them up now.

As the morning passes, the theme of simplicity and practicality established by R27’s Group 4 configuration can also be seen in the nature of the individuals in front of me.  Jeff mentions he and his sons will have to return to Brooklyn with enough time in the day for the boys to get to sports practice. Buffum admits he has afternoon plans with his wife. As soon as the car gets loaded on the truck, both will have other family priorities to attend to. It’s that sense of practicality that likely forms the bond between them and cemented John’s decision to choose this Jeff as the buyer for his car.

Buffum states that he suspects Beyda might want to drive the car, and he’s guessed correctly. Here again, John Buffum is refreshingly practical and old school. Once he’s fired up the quattro, he pulls it out into the sun and Jeff climbs in beside him. They tear off down the access road exiting the small commercial park that is home to Libra Racing without plates (because John Buffum doesn’t need no stinking plates). The wail of the 5-cylinder can be heard all the while, and then it eventually gets louder again signaling their return. This time Jeff is in the driver’s seat and Buffum alongside. They’re still bonding, and Jeff is taking it all in calmly. If he’s as giddy as one would expect anyone to be in such a case, he’s hiding it coolly behind one hell of an intent poker face.

Then the truck arrives. Here again, Buffum’s work ethic shows through. After driving R27 onto the trailer, he climbs underneath, almost lovingly, to help make sure it’s tied down correctly. Here he is, this 78-year-old American rally driving legend with no less than 11 national championships under his belt, and he’s on the floor of the trailer slightly underneath his car, his old friend really, making sure it’s properly tied down. Minutes later, he’s in the bed of the tow pickup helping situate the remaining aluminum body panels. He’s just that kind of guy. R27 is just that kind of car. Jeff Beyda is just that kind of buyer, and a sunny October morning in Vermont was just that kind of day.