Quattro legend challenged ‘It looks like something Norman Foster would drive’ – architect evaluates Quattro. The List TV presenter, architect and Classic Cars reader Piers Taylor meets the design icon that is the Audi Quattro. Will it live up to its gravel-spraying hype? Your dream drive made real Piers Taylor has always admired the Audi Quattro from afar. Time to see how the reality stacks up, as he fires one up. Words: Ross Alkureishi. Photography: Alex Tapley.
‘I’d buy one before a Ferrari’
Temperature in single figures, rain falling in a steady mist – dreich, as we Scots say – and the roads greasy, gritty and pot-holed almost beyond redemption after winter, it’s not a day for driving a classic. Best keep the garage door locked and just daydream of being behind the wheel. Unless… maybe, just maybe.
Following a seemingly never-ending line of parked modern Volkswagen Group cars, I negotiate security and pull into its Milton Keynes headquarters. Amid a sea of modernity is today’s car, all sharp-angles, purposeful, squat and with bodywork resplendent in très Eighties pearlescent white, it’s the antithesis to its identikit neighbours.
Classic Cars reader Piers Taylor and Audi PR man Alex Fisk are already there. ‘I was expecting it to be red,’ states the former. Me too – blame Life on Mars’ DCI Gene Hunt. ‘I love the colour-matching alloys,’ enthuses Piers. Only available on Pearl White cars – all the others had silver – they certainly add to the impact. ‘You know, it has a Coupé badge on the rear, but I don’t see the word Quattro anywhere,’ observes architect Piers.
In last-of-the-line 20v form – complete with Torsen differential – we have perhaps the best of breed, trumped only by the limited-run short-wheelbase Sport. ‘The Quattro changed everything – rallying, how we thought about cars and our perceptions of Audi. The DNA of all its modern vehicles is in this car. It was a complete game changer.’
Piers interrupts his eulogy by popping the driver’s door and gives an ironic smile – the word Quattro is on every inch of seat fabric. ‘I’d have thought it would be in reverse script on the front valance, à la BMW 2002 Turbo, not tucked away in here.’
He turns the key and fires up the Quattro. The engine settles down into an even offbeat thrum. ‘It’s an unusual noise,’ remarks Piers. ‘You can’t quite tell what it is; it’s not a four, it’s not a six. I do like quirky engines.’
Released into Milton Keynes’ playground of roundabouts, we negotiate the first and Piers nails the throttle midway through. The whistle of the turbocharger rises in tempo while our backsides attempt to exit left-right-left. No tail-happy antics here, just unbelievably purposeful progress as all four wheels grip the tarmac like a Bavarian grasping his bier stein during Oktoberfest. ‘Now that’s a bit special,’ he says with a huge grin. ‘The steering is so direct and the traction just fantastic. I had an E30 M3 and it would have been facing the other direction there; even the ASR on the modern M140i I travelled up in today would have lit up as its tyres scrabbled. Straight of, the limits of this car feel very high.’ Heading south-west, the town’s unique grid system provides Piers with the perfect opportunity to get to know our car; long straights permit heavy throttle-down action, punctuated by obstacles that let him further gauge the handling.
‘It feels very neutral and undemonstrative. Coming through these greasy, wet roundabouts I have total confidence. I was expecting significant turbo lag but that’s not the case. Back when it was new I can imagine this leaving everything else for dead. It’s not just about the power, it’s the full package – four-wheel drive, looks, handling, engine. It’s not as sonorous as a BMW straight-six but it’s lovely and punchy.’ With peak torque of 228lb ft available at just 1950rpm that’s an understatement. ‘I suspect that the more you live with it, the better you understand it. I like the fact that the engine isn’t as dominant as I thought it would be – a bit like the car, it’s not in your face.’
On the dual carriageway the Audi is an easy companion and potent overtaking weapon, but it’s the composure of the whole package that fools you into thinking it’s a much newer car. ‘I can’t believe it’s almost 30 years old,’ says Piers. ‘It’s so beautifully engineered. To think that the Quattro was initially on sale at the same time as a Montego – that’s absurd.’
Do any traits betray the car’s age? ‘The gearbox. It’s nicely spaced, if a little notchy and long of travel, but you have to work hard to find the ratios – though I don’t mind that. The brakes too – they’re pretty good but we’re so used to over-servoed, over-grabby systems these days.’
From Towcester we head south-west towards Silverstone motor circuit and the country roads surrounding it. ‘I live in a rural area and these are the kind of roads I drive on most – A-roads, B-roads and almost always in bad weather,’ explains Piers. ‘I’ve owned so many cars for ideal road conditions – smooth, dry German ones – but now I prioritise bad-weather handling. I like cars that can deal with the grit, the mud, the gravel and the crap. Cars you can use every day and are incredibly well built. I suspect you could get this, leave it as it is and it would sail through winter.’
We fall into a respectful silence as Piers continues to push harder, the chassis’ fluidity allowing the Quattro to devour mile after mile of empty twisting road with contemptuous ease. ‘It feels like we’re on a rally stage,’ he smiles.
Designed principally as a road car, Audi’s technological marvel also re-wrote the rules in Group B rallying. While rivals such as Lancia’s rear-engined, rear-wheel drive 037 were drifting wildly round corners, the Quattro’s differential – that split drive 50:50 between front and rear – instantly consigned two-wheel drive to the dustbin of rally history. WRC titles in 1983 and ’1984 at the hands of Hannu Mikkola and then Stig Blomqvist, complemented by Walter Röhrl’s Pikes Peak triumph in 1987, secured its legacy.
It’s one that still resonates today. ‘It’s no wonder it was so successful, it’s just so precise,’ says Piers. ‘Some might think that boring, but it’s really engaging to drive. I like that it has such huge motor sport heritage woven seamlessly into it and the fact that it heralded the future. It was just a normal car in your garage, but at the same time a real link to that real Group B highpoint.’
He pulls into a lay-by to give us some time to ponder and pontificate. ‘There are so many stories around the Quattro. Earlier cars had talking dashboards and I think there’s a button here for dimming the illumination so you didn’t frighten your wife.’
Piers likens the interior to a ‘Bang & Olufsen stereo circa 1980s’ and ‘very Germanic – purist’. I can sense the underlying principles of this architect’s profession coming to the fore as he casts a critical eye over every aspect of the Quattro’s design. ‘I love the functionality of the switchgear,’ he says. ‘It would have been so modern at the time, just like the buildings being designed then. It’s the kind of car Norman Foster would have driven.’ What, not a Saab 900?
‘Everyone thinks we should drive one of those, but they’re not really driver’s cars. Yes, like this, it didn’t conform to what people thought a car should look like, but the Quattro was an uncompromising vision of the future – it looked forwards rather than backwards and for an architect, that catches the eye.’ Exiting the cabin and taking in the rear three-quarter view, we agree that for almost 20 years neither of us really noticed the Quattro. We discuss what changed are our perceptions of it. ‘It’s got better looking with age,’ says Piers. ‘I never looked at one twice until recently. At launch I thought the proportions were slightly awkward but it’s really come into its own now. You know, I’ve never looked back at my M140i; cars have changed, they’re so much more generic. But this is a thing of beauty – you’d walk away just to get the best angle to look back.’
A white van brakes hard and crawls past with the driver sticking an upturned thumb from his window. ‘I’ve never owned a classic that someone’s given the thumbs up to,’ says Piers. ‘For a 40-something-year-old man it’s probably his dream car.’
We finally find a Quattro badge on the exterior, in the heating element inside the rear screen. How cool on a frosty morning to clear all the windows except the back, engage the heater, and see the word slowly writ large behind you.
Popping the bonnet reveals an engine located almost entirely forward of the front axle, and one that’s surprisingly modern in appearance. ‘This stuff could be of a new car. It all looks familiar, the language of this is the language of cars now.’
Something about Piers seems familiar and I ask if we’ve met before. He shakes his head, explaining he presents a series on BBC2, The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes. ‘Of course, with Caroline Quentin from Men Behaving Badly,’ I say, explaining that it’s only two days since I watched the episode in which a Porsche-mad chap designed a house around his car collection. ‘She appreciates design but hates cars and is really funny about them,’ says Piers. I remember – unable to identify a repurposed Porsche kitchen utensil she made a quip about ‘single men in flats writing in to tell me what it is’. Sorry Caroline, here are two married men with houses who both know it was a centre-locking wheel nut that doubled as a bottle opener.
Time to bomb back to HQ so Piers can catch his 4pm light to Paris and join a panel evaluating a new Porsche Design phone. Our journey back is a high-speed, precision experience punctuated by sound bites as he voices his thoughts. ‘Everything about the whole set-up inspires confidence... 220bhp, four-wheel drive on British roads is a sweet spot... You just trust it implicitly.’
Back in the car park, Piers’ enthusiasm is undiminished. ‘I like design that is simple, not about flamboyant gestures, and works beautifully. There’s intelligence to this car, it’s not showy, flashy or ostentatious, yet it has that visceral directness. You’d reach for the keys on a rainy, muddy day. It’s a real high watermark in car design – I’d buy it before a Ferrari.’
Shaking hands, I ask Piers if he can do me a favour. ‘Any chance you can get me Caroline Quentin’s autograph?’ His smile suggests he’ll let me get away with that one because we’ve bonded, although perhaps not quite to the extent he has with the car. ‘I expected to respect and admire the Quattro,’ he says. ‘But I’ve fallen in love with it. I’d get rid of my modern and have this instead in a heartbeat. The best way of having a classic is to weave it into your life. Bye-bye BMW, hello classic Audi.’
With that he’s gone, leaving me thinking that the old adage, ‘You should never meet your heroes’, is particularly apt in this case – because if you do, you might just want one.
Thanks to Audi UK (audi.co.uk) and the Quattro Owners Club (quattroownersclub.com)