COAL #7: 1980 and 1986 Audi 4000’s – The Buttoned Down Sports Sedans

The year was 1984 and everyone in Southern California was preparing for the Summer Olympics to be held in LA and surrounding environs.  The Vega GT Estate Wagon (which just kills me every time I write it) was providing dependable oil burning service, but it was time to level up from Beater Status and get something a little more presentable, a little more practical, more efficient and more fun.  Heck, with the Olympics being in town, maybe something a little more…international?

As I already had the Datsun Roadsters, perhaps my choice could be skewed more towards economy and less to sporty if necessary. Knowing my penchant for less than common vehicles, I found an ad for a VW Dasher diesel wagon, which could certainly fit the practical and efficient criteria.  But while passing gas stations with incredible fuel economy sounded great, passing them very slowly due to all of 49 horsepower didn’t.  And then there were those involuntary shakes that I’d get…

While living up in the mountains, I had become too familiar with a Pastor friend’s brown, diesel, manual transmission Peugeot 504 station wagon.  For some, this wagon sounds like it would be the pinnacle of the automotive world, a true unicorn, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Being French however, that wagon didn’t appreciate long uphill slogs in high heat, AC blasting as it slowly climbed higher and higher.  Memories of wrenching on it and priming the fuel system just one more time still gave me fits of PTSD and that was enough.  Besides, I couldn’t see a VW Dasher Diesel fitting on my “Top 100 Fun Cars To Drive Before You Die” list.

But what about its cousin, the Audi 4000?

I went to the library and researched what I could about the 4000, and was intrigued.  It was unlike any American four door that I could think of, as it was described as more of a sports sedan.  I had ridden in a friend’s BMW 2002tii years earlier and its handling was a revelation – it certainly didn’t drive like any American car that I’d been in!  It was still the dark times of pre-internet, so to the classifieds and other periodicals I went, hands increasingly blackened with ink by my efforts over the years.

The Audi 4000 was built on the VW/Audi B2 chassis.  In the Volkswagen Group nomenclature, the letter specifies the size and class of the car – A for the Rabbit/Golf/Jetta, etc., B for the Dasher/Quantum, 4000/80/80, A4 etc., C for the Audi 100, 200, 5000, A6 etc., and D for the VW Phaeton, Audi A8, Bentley Continental GT, etc.  The number specifies the generation of the platform, so the 1980 Audi 4000 was built on the second generation of the B platform.  My previous Scirocco was built on the A1 platform.   But I digress..

I found a private party ad and hopped in the Datsun Roadster to take a look.  Taking the Vega GT Estate Wagon was an option, but that may have made a bit different of an impression on the seller than I wanted.  I didn’t want them to think that I was made of money by showing up in such a luxurious “Estate Wagon”.

I arrived at the seller’s house and assessed the copper colored beauty before me.  Some looking, testing, driving and negotiating later found me the proud owner of my first four door sedan.

So what is a 4000?  It seems like I keep repeating myself, but once again I had chosen a car designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the same designer as the 850 Spider and Scirocco.  The 4000 had trim lines and not an ounce of fat or waste.  The sightlines were good, as the A, B & C pillars were all thin so visibility was excellent.  The doors were large and access to the inside was easy.  The bumpers appeared to be from the early “battering ram” school of design, but weren’t really out of place given the state of the art on contemporary American sedans.

Inside, the space was much larger than seemed possible from the outside.  Down at my right hand was a four speed manual transmission, and in front of me was a nice uncluttered dash with switchgear located on either side of the instrument binnacle.  I found that I could easily sit in all four seating positions without any strange body contortions, and the trunk was deep and generously sized.  Air conditioning vents greeted me, promising a steady flow of chilled air to calm the roughest rush hour nerves.  It also had niceties like manual crank windows & a manual sunroof, which I preferred for their reliability.  Nice!

In typical Audi fashion, the 4000 was front wheel drive with a longitudinally mounted engine and transmission.  Although this powertrain orientation isn’t as compact as transverse mounting, it allows for a much greater variety of engines to be installed, as Audi’s have used I3, I4, I5, V6, V8, V10 and W12 engines.  It also makes the transmission more amenable to installing the Quattro system in the chassis.

My ownership started by cleaning up the car and installing new gas shocks, alloy wheels and higher performance tires.  The car was fun to drive and was always a willing dance partner in the twistys.  The car was also light for a sedan, weighing in at under 2200 lbs.  With more weight up front, the car understeered of course, but you could take a set in a corner, mash the throttle and let it just pull through.  No torque steer, no jerky steering wheel, and no drama.  This was the lighter front wheel drive version of the 4000, as a Quattro seemed unnecessary to me in the land of sunny Southern California.

Part of the “no drama” was, unfortunately, due to the low power from the engine.  Although fuel injected, the SOHC 1.6 liter engine (1588 cc) just didn’t have enough torque to take advantage of the chassis.  A little bit of research, a little bit of cash and I found myself with a rebuilt 1715 cc long block sitting in my garage.  I spent a weekend pulling out the old, transferring the bits and installing the new.

The engine ran beautifully and felt like what Audi should have done from the beginning.  A few weeks later I added an Ansa Sport exhaust system as the piece de resistance.  The car was now a far better dancer, faster and light on its feet but still able to swallow four people and their luggage comfortably.

While the new found power certainly didn’t overwhelm the chassis, it did significantly improve the balance between the engine and chassis, being quicker all around and providing additional flexibility in LA’s notorious stop and go traffic.  I soon found, however, that I wanted less of a gap when rowing through the gears.  Audi didn’t offer a 5 speed transmission in the 4000 in 1980 – rats.  But they did offer it in 1981 and later cars.  And a 5 speed is just a 4 speed with another gear, right?  And the newer 4000’s are built on the same chassis, so it’s just a bolt in fit, right?  It worked on the Camaro – so let’s do it again!  Eureka!

A number of phone calls to wrecking yards eventually located a wrecked 4000 with a 5 speed.  A few turns of sockets and wrenches, and the new transmission, linkage and shifter were mine.  Another Saturday, more sockets and wrenches and the 4 speed was out.  I put the 5 speed in and, hey what’s this??  It won’t fit??  Why won’t it fit?  It was from a 4000!  I pulled it out myself!  What gives??

As I pondered my dilemma, it slowly dawned on me that Audi had apparently enlarged the transmission tunnel to accommodate the physically larger transmission.  I obviously was not understanding some physics lessons from before, as how could five gears possibly fit in the same case as a 4 speed?  It’s days like these that I wish that I was a little smarter, maybe just a little brighter crayon in the box.  But you know what they say, when in doubt, get a bigger hammer…

What I lack in intelligence I occasionally make up for in determination.  I went to the garage and obtained tools used by generations of craftsmen – a block of wood and a three pound sledge hammer.  I beat the living snot gently shaped that transmission tunnel for 30 minutes – it wasn’t high art but eventually it looked good enough to me.  I put the transmission up and – it fit!  I hooked up everything and took it for a drive.  It shifted well, it accelerated well, and continued its transformation into a well-rounded sporty sedan.

I topped all this off with a set of aftermarket sports seats with increased side bolsters and comfort.  The whole package was a fun blend of sport, economy and practicality.

A couple of years after modifying the little 4000, I took a new job with the Automotive Claim Services division of ADP, working with insurance companies and body shops on automated estimating systems.  I enjoyed everything about the car and the job, but after several years of commuting in LA traffic, the drive was taking longer and longer, and shifting the manual transmission was getting tiresome.  Although I preferred a manual, I was at a point of trying to retain what little sanity I had left in an insane, traffic infested world.  I genuinely liked the car, so what about a newer automatic transmission equipped version?

I located a 1986 4000S and it was apparent that Audi had sent the car to finishing school.  The battering ram bumpers were exchanged for nicely faired in units.  Edges had been rounded slightly, and the entire car had a more mature, less chiseled physique.  The Champagne color wasn’t my first choice, but it was amazing in that it didn’t show dirt at all.  Bonus!

The interior had grown up as well.  Electric windows & sunroof, revised dash & switchgear, nicer thicker carpet, more padding & more soundproofing.  It was a more luxurious, comfortable and quiet capsule to endure the hustle and bustle of hours of traffic.

But the entire car had grown up as well, as this newer generation gained about 250 pounds from the original.  The automatic transmission made traffic much more bearable but also sapped the sense of urgency that the earlier five speed car had possessed – this Audi had traded its agility for a bit of maturity.  It was like the star college running back who cuts and runs with abandon when he first joins the NFL.  Seven years later he still produces, but he’s replaced the quick darts with straight ahead runs, and no one dares mention that his career is nearing its end.  He’s more composed and mature, but sometimes you’d just like to see him cut loose with abandon one more time.

The 4000S served me dependably for several more years, but eventually I yearned for something with more thrust.  Four doors were required in my business, and I had a suspicion that I’d soon be changing careers and relocating to a different part of the country.  I was growing up too, so what could I buy that could be grown up and fun?

And that’s the tale for our next COAL….