In the beginning there was the Audi Ur-Quattro, and it was a car of many firsts.
This feature was originally published in September 2015
It was the first all-wheel drive car in the World Rally Championship, it was the first car to give a woman a WRC win and it was the first to recognise Group B for what it might be.
But nobody much remembers the Ur-Quattro, even if they think they do. The Audi rally car everybody remembers is the Sport Quattro S1. But nobody called it that. It was the ‘short’ Quattro to rallyists and either the Sport or the S1 to the rest of the world.
This was the snarling, spitting, steaming monster of a thing you still see played in WRC highlight reels in bars from Australia to Bulgaria, from England to Canada. This was the Audi rally car with the huge, flared wheel arches and with the enormous rear wing.
And this was the car with the noise. To be fair, even the Ur-Quattro’s noise was pretty special, but by the time it had evolved into its lighter, shorter successor, that noise had become a highlight reel all of its own, a high-revving, limiter-smashing dervish that left such a lasting impression on the good folks at quattro GmbH that they used electronic trickery to replicate it on the TT RS and the RS3.
It’s a deep, rich sound that permeated into and shook up bits most people didn’t know they had. Once you heard a Shorty at full noise, you never forgot it. It was the sound that epitomised the madness of Group B, and no car had a better sound than the Short Quattro. It allowed a few lucky Australians to realise you could have sexiness with fewer than eight cylinders.
To most, it barely mattered the Shorty wasn’t actually much good at being a rally car. It arrived as a production-based machine when everything it fought – from Peugeot’s cracking 205 T16 to the Lancia Delta S4 – had custom-built frames and lightweight everything. Unlike the competition, the Shorty still used the production floorpan (albeit with more than 300mm chopped out), chassis and interior.
It only won once, delivering a win on the 1984 Ivory Coast rally, before Audi replaced it with its E2 evolution version. It did have one more trick up its sleeve, though, winning the Pike’s Peak hillclimb with Michele Mouton (who challenged her still-disbelieving competition to double-or-nothing on the way back down again) in 1985 before Walter Rohrl won it again in 1987 driving an E2.
But where the faster Group B raiders were far more specialised machines, the Shorty was based on a production car that was heavily based on a road car. Don’t dwell on Audi only building 224 of them, the wonder was that they built so many.
And one of those 224 Shorties is here today, waiting for us to fling it up an Italian Alpine pass and down a Swiss one. This is one of Audi’s museum Shorties (it has four) and, as a note of caution, I’m informed this car cost about $100,000 Aussie pesos when it was new and is worth an awful lot more than that now.
I’d spent yesterday flinging around a new RS Q3. It’s fun enough, in its own way, but unlikely to ever become a classic machine, still talked about in reverential tones by people who know nothing about the car industry. Not like the Shorty.
The one waiting for me is in perfect condition, sitting on fat 15-inch Pirellis and guarded with little worry by a museum curator who tosses me the keys and meanders off in search of the best coffee in Merano, a town in northern Italy’s Alpine foothills.
And that’s my combination for the day: a dark green 1984 Sport Quattro, fettled by the same people who built it, its keys and a tank of fuel. It’s such a boyhood dream it’s almost a surprise the key actually slots into the barrel.
It’s not a beautiful, classic car of the era, in the way a Ferrari 288 GTO or F40 is, but it’s a powerful statement. The nose is still unmistakably Audi Quattro, no matter what they did behind it, but it’s far more menacing than a Ur-Quattro.
The drivers wanted it to be shorter, to minimise the effect of hanging the engine out in front of the front axle line (again, an indicator of how much closer the Audi rally cars were to their production counterparts than the mid-engine 205 or Lancia), so Audi culled 320mm from behind the driver’s seats. There is zero rear legroom in the Shorty and, even then, the bench seat has been chopped in half to fit.
While the boys had the gas axe out, Audi didn’t stop there. It gave the A-pillars a steeper rake to reduce windscreen reflections for the drivers and shoved the front and rear tracks outwards to make it bite harder, then flared the wheel arches to allow fatter 9.0-inch rims under both ends.
But that’s the detail. The core stuff includes a kerb weight of under 1300kg. Audi found the newly-minted Kevlar quite handy, making a bonnet so light you can lift it with one finger.
Once you lift it, you see plenty of engineering trickery, the work of rally boss Roland Gumpert and his team. It was born before car companies felt the need to hide the work of their engine men, so the twin-cam cylinder head sits proudly along the engine bay, cables and wires. It shows its age by having a compliance plate stamped ‘Audi NSU Auto Union AG’, but the rest was absolutely cutting edge back in its day.
The 2.1-litre five-cylinder engine was slightly shrunk as it evolved from the Ur-Quattro (rallying had a 3.0-litre maximum and the 2133cc unit just scraped in, thanks to Group B’s 1.4-times multiplication formula for turbo engines) and, as mentioned, unadorned with niceties like an engine cover. It was the first Audi engine to use four valves per cylinder and crossflow heads, plus they machined the block out of aluminium to save 24kg.
But it doesn’t matter what else you look at under the bonnet, because two things grab you. Firstly, there’s an enormous amount of clear air by today’s standards and secondly, the oil-cooled KKK-K26 turbocharger does a good impression of the engine housing of an A380. It’s also an awful long way away from the cylinder head.
There’s a new set of Recaro seats, too, and they are immediately and spectacularly comfortable and supportive. It might look as though the steering wheel belongs in an Audi 80 (because it does; that’s where it was lifted from) but it somehow suits the surroundings. It’s a chunky interior, with a dashboard carved into blocks, three gauges sitting atop it in the centre pod and the switchgear feel of successfully attaching two Lego blocks.
And then there’s that key. The five-pot fizzes to life, but you quickly realise there was no marketing pretense in the way the rally engines sounded. They weren’t built to reflect something from the production car because the production car sounds more like a bunch of kitchen appliances operating at different speeds.
There is none of the competition car’s aggression or deep lung capacity. It’s great fat layers of whizzes, whirs, zings and bleats. Every pump, every drop of oil, every cubic millimetre of air and almost every electric impulse can be clearly heard from the driver’s seat and then, on top of that, there’s the relentless, incessant tick-tick-tick of the fuel pump from behind you.
Well, that’s at low speeds around town. Urban trundling might not be why Audi built the Sport Quattro, but it’s a bloody impressive thing in a city. It has strong torque, it rides well (mostly) on its fat little 15s and vision is excellent. You can even reverse park it.
But clear town and a very, very different set of feelings swallows the low-speed impressions whole and one of those feelings is bewilderment. At the first opportunity, I stomp the throttle in third gear trying to pass a tractor and, essentially, nothing happens.
This car, the most fearsome Audi for 20 years, accelerates no harder than a Volkswagen Polo. The three-cylinder one (the five-pot is smooth and has no vibrations in it, but there’s also no power). Now I’ve been on the wrong side of the road for what seems like forever and there’s traffic coming the other way.
And then everything happens. WWOOOSSHH! The turbo wakes up and the Shorty is gone, howling like a bear woken by a thousand bee stings and blasting up the Italian alps like the 1300kg tearaway it is. This car hit 100km/h in 4.8 seconds when it was new and it’s even faster today. The trouble is getting it in its power band and out of the reach of the dead hand of turbo lag.
There is 350Nm here, yes, but the Shorty has to be spinning beyond 3500rpm before it’s willing to do anything at all resembling altering its rate of speed. If the frustration at its lack of acceleration is dominated by the turbocharger, so too is the acceleration when it finally spools up. You can forget the sweet-spinning, baritone note of the rally cars. The Shorty is nothing like that.
You can barely hear an engine beneath the whistle and howl and the constant wooshing of air, followed by the chirruping of the wastegates trying to bleed off all that boost on the overrun.
But it’s properly fast in a straight line, even by today’s standards. It’s even faster when you take into account its tiny wheels, ancient brakes (though it was the first Audi with ABS) and its dead – and dead slow – steering. We could easily have flung the Shorty up the Stelvio pass, but we’ve chosen a different route into Switzerland called the Ofen Pass, 2149 metres up into the clouds.
Bits of ice, snow and rain don’t hurt the Shorty, and it only serves to highlight the genius and forward thinking Audi had with the original, said to have come about from watching the Volkswagen Iltis testing its all-wheel drive by pulling front-drive Audi road cars from the snow. Audi engineers looked over the little military rig and thought: “What if?” and the Quattro was born.
There is a mountain of grip in the Shorty and no hint of defiance. It doesn’t take long before you’re sliding the front end, giving it a dab of left-foot braking to bring the back out a few degrees and trying to manage the turbo lag to keep the slide moving. It’s an inexact science that the lag often wins, but the ones you hit are just sweet.
Even with this wheelbase, the car’s handling is ludicrously progressive and it tells you everything you need to know about how to fix anything that’s gone wrong. It rolls around on its soft (by today’s standards) springs and the body movement makes even slow seem fast.
It shoots its way skywards and out of Italy, with a bit of pre-loading (all right, about three seconds’ worth) on the turbo to snatch any tiny overtaking window you might need.
The top of the mountain pass is littered with ancient iron furnaces (it’s called Passo del Forno by the Italians) and the roads are smooth and brilliantly taken care of, even if they’re covered in snow half the year.
The only problem is that any road leading into Switzerland leads into Switzerland and that’s an automatic fun handbrake. This one, in particular, drops us into St Moritz where, sadly, Audi takes the Shorty away.
They say an RS7 should ease my pain, but somehow instant throttle response, greater grip, even more intensive noise and astonishing speed isn’t enough. I want Shorty back.
1984 AUDI SPORT QUATTRO SPECS:
Body: 2-door, 2-seat hatch
Engine: 2133cc inline-5, DOHC, 20v, turbo
Bore/Stroke: 79.3 X 86.4mm
Power: 228kW @6700rpm
Torque: 350Nm @ 3700rpm
0-100km/h: 4.8sec (claimed)
Top Speed: 250km/h (claimed)
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Suspension: multi-links, coil springs, anti roll bar (f/r)
Tracks: 1516/1492mm (f/r)
Steering: hydraulically-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes: 4-piston callipers, ventilated/drilled discs (f);
4-piston callipers, ventilated/drilled discs (r);
Wheels: 15 x 9.0-inch (f/r)
Tyres: 235/45 VR15 (f/r)
Price: if you have to ask...
Positives: Performance, handling, provenance, presence, collectability
Negatives: Turbo lag, slow steering, average brakes, rarity, price
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars