This rally driver helped develop the Audi Quattro – but you’ll have seen him in action on a famous TV ad from the 1980s. Words Glen Waddington. Photography Stefan Warter. Harald Demuth Interview. Remember the Audi Quattro ski-jump TV ad?
When he’s not in his rally suit, Harald Demuth looks more like an architect than a driver: cropped steel-grey hair, understated clothes in muted colours, desert boots, frameless glasses. And that’s appropriate really, as we meet at the house he designed himself, in the wilds of Bavaria, close to the Czech border. It’s where Harald Demuth grew up – ‘Lots of space to drive cars and no-one around to take too much notice of us,’ he offers wryly, with a glint in his piercing blue eyes. The man has the compact, wiry frame of a runner – he’s a regular on marathons, which keeps him lithe and looking much younger than his 65 years – while an extensive vinyl collection plus some choice vintage electric guitars are testament to his musical tastes.
But while Harald Demuth might not be a household name outside the German rallying world, you’ve probably seen him in action. Quite memorably so, too. Recall a TV ad of 1986, the one in which an Audi 100 Quattro is driven up a snow-covered ski jump. This is the man who bravely took the wheel.
‘I always was a motor sport enthusiast,’ he says. ‘Not from my parents, just my interest in cars, from 10 or 12 years old. My first hero was Graham Hill in Formula 1. I told everyone at school I would be a famous driver one day. They laughed. They still do…’
And yet his entire career has been as a professional driver, from rallying to performing stunts in the film business. World famous he may not be, but nobody’s laughing.
‘I started with saloon cars, the cheapest way into the business, competing in hillclimbs, slaloms. Rallies too, but they were expensive! No special tyres, just go as fast as you can. Back then we were close to the border with Eastern Europe. Northern Bavaria was empty. Gravel roads in the forest, no police; it was great practice for the RAC Rally.’
That practice came into its own later, as the RAC was a rally Demuth made his own, competing on it first for Toyota in 1974, then later Audi – he finished second after Hannu Mikkola in 1982 – and ultimately for three seasons with David Sutton’s Group B Audi Quattros, including the Quattro’s very last Group B outing in 1986.
As Demuth explains, it was Walter Röhrl’s increasing fame that encouraged Audi to expand its rally team, and Demuth moved there from Toyota around the time that rumours began circulating about a startling development.
‘I was at Wolfsburg with the VW Golf when I heard about four-wheel drive and a lot of horsepower at Audi. The plan was for the Quattro to enter rallying in 1980 but it was delayed to 1981. I spent two years developing the car, bringing along the team, learning the ropes. Two years in the German Championship with Audi 80s and developing the Quattro – but there was no place for me in that 1981 team.’
He shrugs. ‘I had no drive for the year. But then Reinhard Rode took over from Walter Treser as team boss. “You have done all the work, we will employ you,” he said, and entered me in the German Championship. I won it.’
In 1986 came the call about the TV advertisement. ‘The advertising guys said “To prove how good the Audi Quattro is, we’ll drive it up a ski jump”, only for Audi to say it wasn’t possible. But I’d driven in all sorts of conditions and was used to four-wheel drive. I knew how far you could go with it. Why not? “We should try,” I told them. And then later, we went up in the lift of the ski jump and I stepped out. I thought I must be the biggest idiot alive. They asked if I thought it was still possible.’ He laughs. ‘I still said yes.’
It’s the moment that defined Harald Demuth’s career and yet it’s not what he is proudest of. ‘As a rally driver, you drive as fast as you can for 25 years through forests, on ice, across deserts. That’s heroic, dangerous, scary. Yet everybody remembers you for the ski jump.’
In fact, the advert recently came top in a poll of 100 crazy TV moments on European television.
‘We won, 29 years on!’ he laughs. ‘RTL even called afterwards to interview me about it.’ Demuth and the film crew decamped to Finland; Pitkävuori, to be precise, nearly 200 miles north of Helsinki. There, a series of jumps towered above the snowy pine forests. Demuth would drive a barely modified red Audi 100 CS Quattro up the 37.5º slope – that’s an 80% gradient, no less – a total of 13 times, so that every angle could be caught, including several shots captured by cameramen in a helicopter.
‘I decided after the third or fourth attempt that this was enough,’ says Demuth, with a pained expression. ‘It wasn’t the driving that was difficult, but stopping: it wouldn’t hold on the brakes.’
Engineers rigged up some aids, including a length of rope under the snow that would pull taut and hold the car in place if it slid back (and which could be used to return the car to the bottom between takes), plus a fork-like arrester hook underneath, activated by the handbrake, which would dig into the icy surface and hold the car still – at a height of 47m above the ground. So it was hoped. ‘It was so cold, we weren’t always sure everything would work, although ice crystallises hard at those temperatures, allowing more traction for the studded tyres. Which we needed when setting off up the ramp.’
There was also a net at the bottom, in case the worst should happen, like those employed on aircraft carriers. ‘Thankfully, we didn’t need it,’ Demuth says, with some understatement.
Of course, there had been testing before the trip to Finland. ‘We went to Austria, tried various slopes and got to 33º. It was enough to make me confident about Pitkävuori. And the ad guys loved that place: a flat landscape with these incredible pieces of sculpture, 20m off the ground.’ And that’s the height at the bottom. Sad to say the place has been derelict since 1994, although we’ll come back to that shortly.
So, how did Harald Demuth drive an Audi 100 up a ski jump? ‘The car had a manual gearbox; you had to get the feeling, not too much torque, not too much wheelspin. If you didn’t get it right, the car would stop. I did it again 19 years later in an automatic; it was so much easier.’ That’s another part of the story we’re coming back to.
As for how it feels to be driving in such a peculiar situation: ‘You just see the sky, though there were markers on the fencing at the sides, telling me where to stop. We spent three or four days doing this until the camera guys were happy. It was -20ºC, there was nowhere to get warm.’ As he finally admits: ‘Crazy!’
But not so crazy that he didn’t return. For the 25th anniversary of Quattro, Audi went back to Pitkävuori in 2005 to recreate the original advert, this time with an Atlas Grey A6 4.2 Quattro and a new safety system, with steel cables attached to a sled under the car, and two arrester hooks. Crucially, it was an automatic, which made Demuth’s job easier. But it was harder for the film crew, as the ski jump had to be repaired before the car could take its run.
Demuth again did all the preparation, organised all the set-up – yet he didn’t perform for the cameras. ‘The jump was 12km from the hotel and one night I decided to run back at the end of the day,’ he says, ruefully. ‘I slipped and broke my hand. Couldn’t operate the fork and so it wasn’t safe.’ His place was taken by engineer Uwe Bleck.
Yet all this was only the beginning of Demuth’s career driving for the cameras. ‘There’s a film company in Germany called Action Concept; the boss came for lessons at my rally school. He asked if I wanted to work in some films. It goes back to the talents of a rally driver. The cameraman asked how many attempts I need at a drift. In rallying, you only have one chance to get it right, not like in racing where you can improve on every lap. “Can you go again?” he’d ask. “And again?” And so on – but they always used the first take. I once had Dennis Hopper come up and say “So you’re the famous stunt driver!” And this is Easy Rider himself!’ laughs Demuth.
‘I think rallying is like the decathlon in athletics: you drive the car in all circumstances – day, night, winter, summer, and so on. On the Monte Carlo you drive tarmac on slicks, then into snow and ice on narrow studded tyres. I think the rally driver has better instincts than a racing driver.’ Just right for driving up a ski jump.
Left. Demuth back in the Audi Quattro in which he contested most of his nine British rallies. Blomqvist won the 1983 RAC in it, too.
‘RALLYING IS LIKE THE DECATHLON IN ATHLETICS: YOU DRIVE THE CAR IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES – DAY, NIGHT, WINTER, SUMMER, TARMAC, SNOW…’
Above and right. Harald Demuth, the 65-year-old former German rally champion, achieved European TV stardom when he drove this Audi 100 CS Quattro up the Pitkävuori ski jump in 1986 – a total of 13 times. ‘I thought I must be the biggest idiot alive!’ he quipped.