The Audi Fox, called the Audi 80 in Europe, was a milestone car for both Audi and Volkswagen. Introduced in 1972 in Europe and sold in North America from 1973 to 1979, the 80/Fox was the parent of every water cooled, front wheel drive Volkswagen that replaced the Beetle and its air cooled, rear engined progeny during the 1970s: Passat/Dasher, Golf/Rabbit, Jetta, Scirocco, Polo, the T4 Transporter, – all of them branched from the tree that Audi planted with this design, as well as all subsequent Audis too, of course.
As such, the Audi 80/Fox rightfully takes its place as the second most significant car in Volkswagen’s 75 year history alongside the Beetle. But unlike the Beetle, few Foxes seem to have survived, and the model has received little interest from the automotive press or enthusiasts on the internet so far. So finding a Fox parked at the local public library after decades of never seeing one was a surprise, and a chance to tell its big story.
The Audi 80/Fox was a major step in the evolution of Audi from its roots in DKW/Auto Union (full history here), a maker of two stroke cars with a heritage going back to the 1920s. Mercedes bought Auto Union in 1958-1959 somewhat reluctantly, and finding Auto Union’s two stroke model range to be outdated and unprofitable, sold 50% to Volkswagen in 1964 and the remainder in 1966.But along with the sale came a new four-stroke engine designed by Mercedes, which was intended to replace the two-stroke engine in the otherwise quite modern DKW F102 (above). This would herald the transition from the brand name DKW to Audi.
The re-engined model, called the Audi 72 (as well as 60, 75, 80 and 90 after its nominal horsepower), was a decent success, but VW forbid Audi to develop any more new cars, since their interest in acquiring Auto Union had really been for the desperately needed additional production capacity to build more Beetles.
But Audi’s irrepressible boss Ludwig Krauss secretly had the larger 100 developed, fearing that Audi might be reduced to just building VWs. The 100 was a direct development of the 60-90 range, but had a larger, more luxurious body with which to compete against BMW and even Mercedes. When VW’s Heinz Nordhoff saw the 100 prototype, he was so impressed that he reversed himself and greenlighted its production.
But that was just the warm-up act. In order for Audi to really establish itself solidly, it needed a fresh new middle-class car. Unlike the 60-90 and 100, whose origins were still from the DKW and Mercedes era, the clean-sheet 80 was a chance for the Audi development engineers to really shine. The goal was to make the most efficient, modern, lightweight, and best performing and handling car in its class. The result met and exceeded the brief, and solidly established Audi as a design and technology powerhouse for its parent company, as well as in terms of its reputation at large.
The 80/Fox established design principles that still endure today in Volkswagens and Audis. Although the front wheel drive drive train with its longitudinally mounted engine layout was inherited from DKW and the Audi 60-100, the 80′s engine was all new, the EA827, which begot a huge family of engines that are still being produced today. If for no other reason, the 80′s EA827 engine alone made the 80/Fox a cornerstone of the new water-cooled era of VW.
The 80′s drive-train configuration turned out to be ideal for the Quattro all wheel drive system and has continued in Audis and Volkswagens to the present day. The first experimental Audi with all wheel drive was an 80, utilizing components of the military VW Iltis.
The chassis used a MacPherson strut front suspension and a rear beam axle with coil springs, a layout that lasted into the early 2000s. And the 80′s body was a breakthrough in lightweight design/construction, weighing a mere 1885 lbs for the base version. That was one of the prime targets of its design,and the key to its sparkling performance and efficiency even with modest engines under the hood (European 80s had both 1.3 and 1.5 L versions available). Yet the 80/Fox was surprisingly roomy, for the times and its class. The 80/Fox was available as a two door sedan, four door sedan and later as a station wagon.
The 80/Fox became the basis for Volkswagen’s first water cooled, front wheel drive model. The Passat, introduced in Europe in 1973 and in the U.S. as the Dasher in 1974, was essentially an 80 with a modified fastback body style. The next Audi model, the 50 supermini of 1974, used the suspension layout of the 80 and a more space efficient transverse engine. The 50 completed Volkswagen’s transformation by serving as the basis for Volkswagen’s Polo supermini and Golf/Rabbit subcompact, which also used the 80′s engine.
A Fox in name, this Audi was more like a a smart, sensible girl with glasses, called Four Eyes by the cool kids, who would eventually bear many children. Audi made no attempt to add sex appeal to the 80/Fox lineup of sedans and station wagons with a sporty coupe or convertible comparable to the Mercedes SL or Volvo P1800, as it would with the Coupe GT of the next generation 80. A quarter century would pass before Audi would show the world its TT.
That’s not to say that the 80′s performance was neglected. In 75 and 85 hp form, the European 80 was already decidedly brisk. In the fall of 1973, a GT model upped that to 100 hp. And in 1975, with the addition of fuel injection, the GTE 1.6 L engine now sported a sparkling 110 hp, and its performance was stellar. This formula with essentially the same engine were to become legendary in the VW Golf GTI a few years later. A GTI appearance option package was offered on US-bound Foxes for 1978 and 1979, but did not include the higher-performance engine and goodies. Once again, Audi did the pioneering.
The 80/Fox entered markets worldwide to accolades. The 80 won the 1973 European Car of the Year competition, beating the Renault 5 and Alfa Romeo Alfetta. In the United States, the Fox received high praise from car magazines such as Road and Track, Car and Driver and Motor Trend for its space efficiency (room for five and a 15.4 cubic foot trunk in a car only 14.5 feet long), good performance for the time (0 to 60 in under 11 seconds) and handling.
With its upright profile, trim lines, thin roof pillars and large greenhouse, the 80/Fox really stood out as a compact and efficient design among the Broughams and American small cars of the 1970s. It continues to do so today, a sharp contrast to the bulging flanks and gunslit windows of automobiles in the 2010s.
Behind the US-market Fox’s grille was a de-smogged 1471 cc version of the single overhead cam four cylinder EA827 engine with an iron block, aluminum heads and carburetor, but still rated at a decent 75 hp for the times. Weight was listed at 1925 lbs. For 1975, the engine size was increased to 1588cc, fuel injection added, and power upped to 83 horsepower, making the Fox even harder to catch. The Fox had a decidedly better hp/weight ratio than a 1975 Mustang Mach 1 with the optional 4.9 L (302) V8.
Perhaps the complexity and high underhood temperatures of 1970s emissions controls may have contributed to the reputation for fragility and unreliability of the Fox and other Audis of this era, which usually rated “much worse than average” in the reliability surveys of Consumer Reports. As advanced as Audis of this era were technologically, they just were not built to the demands and expectations of the typical American consumer.
The end of the Fox came in 1980, when the new 4000 (B2) replaced it in the U.S. Still called the 80 in other markets around the world, the 4000 continued Audi’s invasion of the mainstream American automobile market with a new body by 1980s car design master Giorgetto Giugiaro and the Quattro all wheel drive system starting in 1984. With the last Fox sold in 1979, any surviving Fox out of the 142,500 that were imported is at least 34 years old, and most likely few have survived in the condition of this example.