(First Posted Sept. 22, 2013) I vividly remember the first time I saw one of these; it was very early in 1990, on I-80 Eastbound around Sacramento, on the way to Lake Tahoe. It was yellow, and went flying by me. I was mesmerized by its shape…
Prior to that first sighting I had already read everything there was to read about these cars, but their looks are what did it for me. For some reason, I really loved that rounded shape with the hatchback and the large tray wing on the back. It just looked “right” to me.
At that point I was still in college, and the $29,750 base price (in 1990!) was completely out of my reach and would be for quite a while. Apparently I was not alone; these were sold here for just two years, and only 1,730 of them found buyers. Worldwide production between late 1987 and early 1996 totaled 75,858, so only a very small number came to the U.S.
Fast forward to 2002. Our stable contained an Audi S4 (in the background below), a Volvo V40 and a Volvo 740 Turbo. I’d been reading about the Alcan 5000 Winter Rally (www.Alcan5000.com) since its 1984 inaugural and had always wanted to participate. You need three things for the Alcan: at least one co-driver, a suitable car, and a couple of weeks of spare time for the rally and the necessary prep time beforehand. How hard could it be?
Before I get ahead of myself, I did not end up taking part. I did pay the entry fee deposit, but then pulled out after my daughter was born in early 2003, realizing that this kid thing is WAY more time-consuming (but in a good way!) than I’d thought it would be.
Anyway, my buddies, Jim (the guy with the other S4 I’ve mentioned before) and Scott (the guy in Colorado with the S6 Avant I’ve previously mentioned), were willing to drive the rally with me if I provided the car. Half seriously, I started to look around.
I’d always loved the shape of the ‘90-‘91 Coupe quattro but even very used ones were always fairly expensive. One day I found one literally around the corner from my house, owned by a kid that was looking to unload if for about $2,000, which was less than half the next-cheapest one I’d seen thus far. After driving it around a short test loop, I bought it on the spot, warts and all.
I figured this car would be perfect for the rally. Full-time all-wheel drive, a lot of weight for such a small car (around 3, 200 lbs) to push it down into the snow and ice, a DOHC 2.3-liter, 20-valve, five-cylinder normally aspirated engine with 165 hp and 157 ft-lb of torque that loved (and needed) to rev to deliver its utmost. Add in a versatile hatchback body, a very comfortable cabin in both front and rear compartments, and sturdy construction to boot. What’s more, Audis had won several times before, thus setting a precedent.
Why was this car so cheap? Well, there was some body damage. One front headlight was smashed, the hood had a small wrinkle, and the bumper was missing a piece of the surround along with a headlight washer. The passenger side of the body had a couple of small scrapes. None of which worried me, for this was going to be a race car!
The engine fired smoothly, but had not been maintained well. There was an oil leak at the valve cover, and the battery did not hold a charge very well. Also, a wheel bearing was howling. Fine, I figured, this engine was not that different from the one in the S4 (except the turbo) and it would be easy to sort everything out.
So I ordered some parts (gaskets, plugs, bearing, etc.), found a used hood, and parked the car in the garage until I had the time to deal with it.
Mine was Tornado Red with a black leather interior. Obviously, these came in a variety of exterior colors, but several interior colors were also available; I’ve personally seen them in black, gray, tan, green, and even in blue. Woe to the guy who needs a trim piece for a blue interior …
These are closely related to the 80/90 four-door-only body style, which also became the basis for the original Audi Cabriolet that came along later in the 90s. U.S.-market cars had the V6 and front-wheel-drive.
They all were pretty much loaded. My car had everything but the Pearl White paint, although the used hood I bought actually WAS Pearl White! Every car had leather, genuine Zebrano wood inlays, a steel sunroof (and later, a glass moonroof), a trip computer, power everything, etc. Options were limited to eight-way power seats with driver-side memory, a Cold Weather Package comprising heated front seats, windshield washer nozzles and door locks, and Pearl White Metallic paint. While on the subject of heated items, all early quattros (before 1995 or so) had the “quattro” logo incorporated into the rear window defroster element, which means that on a frosty day the first thing that appears is a large logo at the bottom of the rear window. Sounds weird, I know, but still very cool to an Audi geek like me…
One interesting feature also found on other Audis of this vintage is a dash switch that turns off the ABS. Audi figured that under certain conditions (i.e., packed snow or gravel), locked wheels will actually help the car stop faster due to a “wedge” that builds up under the locked wheels as the car slides. Once you turned it off, it stayed off until you either pushed the switch again or turned the car off and then restarted it.
Wheels were nice-looking Speedline six-spokes, tires were 205/60-15, brakes were discs all around, and included the previously-mentioned defeatable ABS. Supposedly, top speed was around 135 mph (electronically limited, I believe), and fuel economy came in around 18/24 mpg. All that weight, plus the high torque peak, hurts…
All of them were fitted with a five-speed manual; an automatic was not offered. The full-time AWD was a TORSEN system (TORque SENsing), which could split power up to a 78/22 to either the front or back; under normal conditions, the split was 50/50. The rear diff could also be locked via a button that self-disengaged at a set speed, just like in my S4. These cars did understeer (as did most Audis, until recently) since the engine center was forward of the front axle, resulting in a 58/42% front/rear weight distribution.
I figured out that my car was a very early build as it did not have any air bags (they were added later in 1990), and did have the gorgeous exhaust header like the one pictured above. All five tubes, which are 800 mm long and 40 mm in diameter, merge into a common flange before connecting to the down pipe. Very quickly, Audi switched to a not nearly as attractive (but presumably much cheaper) header.
This engine is known as the Audi “7A” engine. Over here it was used only in this car and its sister sedan, the Audi 90 quattro 20v, which also is quite rare and was sold for only two years. I may not be as up on exactly which engines were used in a 1978 Cutlass Cruiser, but get me jabbering about older Audi products and you can’t shut me up…
These cars are also popular candidates for engine swaps, which most commonly utilized the Audi “3B” engine and the Audi “AAN” engine from the 1991 Audi 200 Quattro five-speed, and the 1992-1995.5 Audi S4/S6, respectively. Both are turbocharged five-cylinder, 20-valve engines, with the ignition (distributor vs. coil-on-plug) being the main difference.
In Europe, this was offered from the factory as the S2. That engine obviously overcomes the stock power-to-weight deficit. Many people retrofit the hood and bumper from the later cabriolet, as it has the updated clamshell design of the post-1992 Euro-market Coupes.
You’re probably thinking that this seems more of a Curbside Classic post than a Cars Of A Lifetime post. The truth is that soon after I got it, we found out we were having a baby. I shifted into high gear, gutting and replacing the kitchen and bathroom in our 1920s-era house, finishing a couple of days before Piper was born. After that, there was really no time to pursue the project.
When the Alcan 5000 Rally in which I was going to take part came and went, in early 2004, I decided I wouldn’t be getting around to doing anything with the car, especially since it was now one of five (yes I had picked up another in the meantime, which we’ll discuss next week.)
I plugged in the battery charger, got it firing and placed an ad asking more money than I had in the car. A few days later, I got a call and a guy my age came over. After I explained the whole story to him, he wanted to drive the car with me along for the ride. We drove it for 24 miles, which just about doubled the miles that I’d driven it since the first time I saw it.
All told, from the time I first saw it to the time it disappeared down the street, the odometer showed I’d added just 47 miles over two years. I hope the new owner likes it–I know I smiled every time I went into the garage and saw it. And I still love the shape which, to my eyes, hasn’t grown old at all.