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Audi Quattro UR: Return to the Alps

Three decades ago, writer Mel Nichols and photographer Martyn Goddard chased Audi’s rally team Quattros through the Alps. Now they’re back


We are here in the Hautes-Alpes, and running up the col ahead of us is a snaking treat of a road. It flicks and flows as it climbs between the trees and rockfaces. It invites all the pace our car has. It challenges me to try to find a straight line through the curves. But it won’t take long to learn that no, that’s not possible and, as the speed builds, the Quattro’s steering wheel will be arcing left-right-left-right in a constant flurry.
 
We’ve been here before, photographer Martyn Goddard and I, in another Audi Quattro. We came 33 years ago, when the Quattro was motoring’s darling, the four-wheel-drive wonder rewriting the high-performance rulebook. We’d belted down from London in an early left-hand-drive test car with the grand notion of trailing Hannu Mikkola and Michèle Mouton as they strove to demonstrate their works Quattros’ advantage in the 50th Rallye Monte-Carlo. 

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As it happened, that January in 1982 was the warmest and driest in the Monte Carlo Rally’s history. The Audis’ expected edge in putting power down on ice and snow – or, at the very least, wet roads – was nullified. Walter Röhrl in his light, nimble Opel Ascona 400 showed the way home, although Mikkola provided plenty of spice as he fought back from eighth to second after losing three minutes in a 12-mile drive on a punctured tyre.
 
For us, it meant a three-day-and-night feast of high-speed motoring as we leapfrogged from one special stage to another and perched on the mountainsides or in the villages to watch the world’s rally elite blasting past. We mightn’t have needed our Quattro’s traction in the way we’d expected, but it did help us park in out-of-the-way places that cars without four-wheel drive struggled to reach.
 
This time, as we head north-east from Avignon to Monte territory in the Hautes-Alpes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence around Sisteron and Gap, it’s intriguing to get to know the Quattro anew. I’d driven Quattros at the launch in Geneva in 1980 and in lots of road tests, had that magical week chasing the Monte, and then bought a 20v. It was our family car. It was fast, effortless, comfortable, dependable and practical enough. We loved it.
 
It’s been a while since I saw a Quattro and I’m surprised how low it looks now. Quite small really, almost delicate – although amid a field of rally cars it seemed a monster until, in 1984, Audi sliced 12.6in from the wheelbase and 10.6in off the length to create the Sport Quattro. Its profile is still utterly distinctive, defined by the blistered wheelarches its designer Martin Smith conceived as an essential way of meeting his brief to make the Quattro look ‘technical’.
 
Inside, there’s that now quaint-looking plaid velour upholstery and door trim, so trendy at the time, and a small, thin-rimmed steering wheel set high and straight in a comfortable alignment with the pedals. They’re perfectly positioned for easy heel-and-toeing, a frequent and essential action in early Quattros because the widely gapped gear ratios demand a big wallop of throttle to match the revs coming down from third to second and second to first while braking simultaneously. You’ll be doing that a lot in the Alps.
 
The wheel feels good in your hands, the clutch’s weight is reasonable and its throw is short; efficient. The gearknob, showing a nice patina like the leather wheel, tops a shift that is and always was somewhat clunky. It works well enough and you won’t wrong-slot, but there’s nothing sensuous in its action. You need to take the shifts a little slowly in a one-pause-two motion to counter the five-cylinder engine’s flywheel effect. 

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The steering immediately reminds you that it’s one of the Quattro’s stronger suits. It’s well-weighted, fairly direct and has reasonable feel. A little distance reacquaints you with a much greater Quattro virtue – its ride. It’s compliant and comfortable, with enough travel and spring and damper settings to deal assuredly with whatever nastiness assaults the wheels. Where we’re going, there’ll be a lot of that. 
 
This Quattro’s suspension, though, is a bit clattery, perhaps consistent with its 34 years and 74,000 miles. It was delivered new in Scotland to a member of Jackie Stewart’s family who later sold it back to the dealer, where it stayed until Audi UK bought it for its classic fleet 15 years ago. Still, the lack of road noise from the 205/60 Goodyear Eagle NCTs is impressive, welcome contrast to many later high-performance cars with ultra-low tyres.
 
In the traffic, before we hit more open roads north of Vaison-la-Romain, the 2144cc injected and turbocharged oversquare five-cylinder engine showed its flexibility and how happily it’ll slog along in a high gear. But while there’s torque enough to make driving easy, there’s no urge if you want a spurt of acceleration. 
 
The 210lb ft torque peaks at 3500rpm and the 197bhp comes at 5500rpm – not high but the difference between on- and off-boost response is profound and typical of early turbocharged engines. So you either grab a lower gear or wait until the revs reach 3000, when the boost gets cyclonic and a great whack of power thrusts the Quattro forward. 
 
In a car with a kerbweight of 1290kg, 197bhp was enough for a 0-60mph sprint of seven seconds – Porsche 928 and Ferrari 308 GTB territory. With 137mph at the top end, it wasn’t far shy of a contemporary Porsche 911.

Audi Quattro
 
On the open roads of the valleys leading to the Hautes-Alpes, the Quattro can stretch its legs and get on with the things it’s so good at, and which garnered it such praise, respect and affection three decades ago. Now it’s into long sweepers with good vision, and I can keep the engine singing in the all-important 3000-4000rpm range so it will soar through those welcoming curves, rolling a bit, its suspension soaking up the occasional bumps, with plenty on tap to whip past slower cars or the odd truck. 
 
The Quattro excelled in those conditions in the ’80s, and still does. Aside from the potential its four-wheel drive gave it as a rally car (initially in 300bhp and ultimately 591bhp form), Audi rightly saw the standard Quattro as a luxurious, high-performance road car – a classic grand tourer boasting decent accommodation (if not a big boot), quiet and comfortable suspension, good seats, plenty of top-end urge, mighty roadholding and consistent handling. From that week-long jaunt to the Monte in 1982, three-up and with loads of kit, I knew just how well the Quattro performed in that role. When the weather was bad it was peerless.
 
But now we want to push it in tighter conditions too, on classic Monte stages, some used in the ’82 Monte and others in later years. So, as we near Gap, which will be our overnight base, we peel off the D994 just before L’Epine onto the D26 to tackle Col des Tourettes and the 31km loop to Rosans. Martyn had watched Colin McRae and Richard Burns here in the 1999 Monte.
 
And here is that dream of a road inviting all the Quattro has to offer. Now we see again how well it puts its power down and generates those high cornering forces, responding best to a slow(ish) entry to the bends – to avoid too much understeer – and then powering out with the throttle flat to the boards. 
 
If you get to the limit in fast bends its behaviour is a little curious. If the front pushes wide and you ease the throttle, what happens next, I wrote in 1982, is peculiar to the Quattro. ‘It hangs a second in limbo and you feel as if you’re in a roller-coaster at the top of its arc: sort of weightless; suspended. For a moment, it can be scary. What you do is go back on the throttle. Then it sweeps out towards the exit, perhaps with just a trace of oversteer needing a touch of opposite lock. The ultimate step is a final oversteer semi-drift that is gorgeous – but the split second in which you hang in between is not a pleasant time.’ 
 
As much as the long sequence of bends reaffirms the pleasantness of the Quattro’s steering, the strength of its grip on radials merely six inches wide, and the absorbency of its ride, they also highlight its flaws: the brakes, and poorly stepped gear ratios.
 
So many early Quattro drivers wished its brakes had more bite, sharper response and hauled its speed down more reassuringly. And no anti-locking seemed very odd – a frustrating anomaly in a car at the cutting edge; a bit of sheen knocked off the Vorsprung durch Technik image. By today’s standards, they’re very poor. And, of course, if you have to push very hard, with no ABS you’ll lock up and slide – something that caught out many owners: tenacious cornering grip, but standard (or worse) braking ability.
 
The wide lower gear ratios demand – when you’re whipping between bends, coming down from third to second or even first for the hairier hairpins – a big throttle-blip to bridge the gulf, or you must endure the jolt when the lower gear bites. And the shift is clunkier than ideal. So it’s a meaty old process, changing cogs in the Quattro.
 
Despite all that, if you can keep the engine above that 3000rpm watershed, as you may on so many sections of these alpine roads, you’ll flow and fly and the Quattro will sing its burbly song and you’ll love the tune.
 
Over a day-and-a-half, Martyn and I drive three more stages: a couple – Col de Faye and Col des Garcinets – where we’d spectated in 1982, and another, 37km on the D3 from Sisteron to Thoard, that’s new to us.
 
The Col de Faye run is the most spectacular. We use the 31.15km route from the 1999 Monte, in reverse order. That takes us from Ventavon over Col de Faye on the D21/D48/D49/D149/D20 to Barcillonette and Plan-de-Vitrolles. There are fast, open stretches where the Quattro can run full-out without the need for frequent gearchanges and there are plenty of gorgeous sequences of left-right-left-right bends like linked chicanes. 
 
Three-quarters of the way round, south-east of Chateauneuf-d’Oze, we climb into stark grey peaks where the D20 cuts into the mountainsides. It’s peppered with fallen stones that sometimes call for swift avoidance and it crests at a spot with extraordinary views down the vast valley of the Céas to Vitrolles and La Saulce. Then it awes us again as it etches its way across the face of cliffs as barren as the moon.
 
But the fact is that it doesn’t matter where you go in these Alps. They teem with enticing, challenging roads that will indulge your driving desires. Pick any part of the map and you’ll be spoilt for choice. And there are as many striking views as there are roads. If you want to find stretches used by the Monte Carlo Rally, plenty of sources pop up in Google, including www.rally-maps.com and www.ewrc-results.com, which has special stage itineraries going back to 1973. 
 
Gap, long since an overnight stop for the Monte, is a convenient base with plenty of good restaurants. We opt for La Maison Jaune at 18 Rue Pasteur, conveniently open on a Monday night. 
 
After our fourth stage, deeply fulfilled, we point the Quattro south on the Route Napoleon to the A51 and enjoy once more its mile-gobbling effortlessness – though in 34ºC heat, air conditioning would have been a treat. In 1982, after a week on board, we’d learned that the Quattro’s credentials as a grand tourer were exceptional, with an unrivalled edge if the weather was foul. All these years later, it’s still an impressive car with a very pleasant nature that’s not brought down by its under-par brakes and gappy gearbox. Its heart and its abilities are too big for that. 

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Words: Mel Nichols // Images: Martyn Goddard

BUY THE BOOK! Mel Nichols’s original story on following the 1982 Monte Carlo Rally in the Quattro is in his book And The Revs Keep Rising: Great Drives In Fast Cars (ISBN 978 0857 3327 07), along with stories on the Sport Quattro and riding with Hannu Mikkola.

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