Some events in history create such a stir that they fuse a person’s time and the outside world’s time together as if captured in a photograph of a single permanent moment. In some of our lifetimes, these events include the day that John F Kennedy was shot, that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, or that the final Harry Potter book was revealed to the world.
The release of the 1983 Audi 100/200/5000 was one of those watershed moments in the automotive world.
The 1983 big Audi marked an unexpected line in the sand in the automotive world. When future generations of automotive archaeologists dig through the rubble of the 20th century landscape, they’ll find nice, big, broughamtastic cars before the big Audi, and sleek aerodynamic ones afterward. Its styling suddenly made existing cars look outdated, and influenced mass produced cars like the new Ford Taurus. Manufacturers moved to fit flush side glass to their models so their cars too could look smooth, aerodynamic and modern.
I’ve called it the big Audi as its name changed depending on what country you were in, what year it was, and what automotive controversy you may have been aware of. Built on the C3 platform, this was the third generation of the big Audi, and debuted as the 100/200 in most of the world, and the 5000/5000CS in the US. It not only looked modern and aerodynamic, but its coefficient of drag was the lowest of any large car at only .30, even better than most sports cars. Excellent aerodynamics allowed it to achieve a higher top speed and higher miles per gallon with a smaller engine than comparable vehicles.
In the US, sales soared to 74,061 in 1985, until the broadcast of the 60 Minutes episode titled “Out Of Control” in November 1986. The program interviewed six people who had sued VW (Audi’s parent company) over the claimed Unintended Acceleration of their Audi 5000’s, causing death, mayhem and destruction. Reports flooded the NHSTA about cars accelerating uncontrollably despite drivers standing on the brake pedal.
Audi claimed that drivers had to have been pressing on the accelerator, not the brake pedal, as the most powerful sports car in the world could not out accelerate its brakes. They moved the brake and accelerator pedals farther apart, and eventually installed a shift interlock system so the brakes must be applied prior to shifting the transmission out of “Park”. It was later revealed that 60 Minutes had doctored their cars to non-stock configurations to dramatize their conclusions.
For Audi, it was all too little and too late, as its US sales imploded from that previous high of 74,061 to only 12,283 in 1991. It was the most effective corporate hit job in automotive history, and Audi’s sales didn’t exceed that 1985 high water mark until the year 2000.
Audi’s resale values also plummeted right along with their sales, and I’m a big fan of buying things at a discount.
It was 1991 and we lived in Huntington Beach with a beautiful two year old daughter. I was traveling a lot for work and becoming increasingly disillusioned with 15 years of corporate work environments. An associate from Denver and I had become friends as we shared some common interests – we were both pilots, owned airplanes and wanted out of the corporate rat race. We hatched a plan to start our own business, and since I wanted to get out of the hustle and bustle of Southern California anyway, I’d move and we’d locate the business in the Denver area.
I visited the Rocky Mountain area frequently during my corporate travels, so I was very familiar with the changing weather. “Self?” I said to myself, “It snows in Denver, and while front wheel drive is good, wouldn’t four wheel drive be even better?” And “If I’ll be leaving the stop and go traffic anyway, maybe I could go back to a manual transmission?” With Audi offering turbocharged power and Quattro four wheel drive, what could go wrong?
Throw in the depressed resale prices and I smelled “opportunity”. So I searched and found a 1987 5000CS Quattro about 60 miles away in Van Nuys, CA. In the US, the CS was the upmarket version of the 5000 line, featuring turbocharging, the Quattro drivetrain and leather throughout. Whereas the 4000S looked chiseled and lean, the 5000CS was smooth and flowing.
It looked fast even standing still, and the Titan Red Metallic color really set it off among a sea of gray and silver cars.
Inside, big leather seats cosseted its occupants and everything had an upscale feel to it. The five speed fell readily to hand, the instrumentation legible and controls reachable. Everything was power assisted – steering, brakes, windows, locks, sunroof, seats – the works. This was the largest car that I’d ever had, and four NFL linebackers could actually fit inside as opposed to my previous cars. The trunk seemed humongous and could hold 47 suitcases, give or take a few.
The engine compartment was chock full of 2.2 liters of turbocharged and intercooled goodness. The five speed models generated 164 hp, while the automatic transmission equipped cars had 130 hp – resulting in very different driving experiences. The radiator was offset to the driver’s side to allow for the length of the engine, and hoses, lines and wires seemed to run everywhere.
The Audi handled better than any large car that I’d ever driven, and its ability to soak up bumps and bad roads was impressive. And although there was some turbo lag at low RPM’s, it quickly composed itself so rowing through the gears was fun with an addictive quality as the boost ramped higher. The car was entertaining, and reminded me of an NFL running back whose speed and agility are unexpected in a package of that size.
This iteration of the Quattro system had a knob on the dash that could manually lock the rear, front or both differentials. This gave you some real options when the weather turned bad, and I never got stuck in the car regardless of the road conditions.
Surprisingly, the big Audi also had an illustrious racing career, winning eight of the 13 Trans Am races that it entered. Of course, Americans weren’t keen on a German vehicle, particularly one as large as the Audi, dominating American racing, so it was banned after one season. The 2.1 liter motor and Quattro drivetrain competed a little too well with the 5 liter American entries.
The Audi was full of the latest whiz bang electronic, hydraulic and vacuum gadgetry as befits a premium German automobile. Audi was playing in the big leagues now, and it needed to keep up with its Mercedes and BMW competition.
There’s a saying that goes “Nothing is as expensive as buying a cheap German car”, and the 5000CS repeatedly tried to prove that to me. Although there’s no evidence that Britain’s Joseph Lucas, “The Prince Of Darkness” designed any of the Audi’s electrics, the engineer who did may have been the result of some inbreeding with a distant cousin of Lord Lucas. Sometimes the car had a mind of its own, and at times the push of a button wasn’t a demand for a certain action, but rather interpreted as a polite request for the car to consider.
Twist the knob for the differential lock and the gremlins responded with “Lock the rear differential? I don’t know, do we want to lock the differential?” Select the headlights at night and it was “Headlights? Didn’t we do that yesterday?”
One summer, my wife, two year old daughter and I were returning from a family visit in Denver to Huntington Beach. Passing through Green River, UT, a bright red orb caught my attention, just sitting there and glowing in the instrument panel. Huh? That suspiciously looked like the alternator light, but the temperature gauge was unchanged, so an alternator belt didn’t seem to be a likely candidate. I cut power to all of the electrical accessories and turned around at the next off ramp. Re-entering Green River, I stopped in a motel parking lot, popped the hood and couldn’t see anything amiss. Did I mention that it was Sunday?
Since it was only about 94 degrees outside, I booked a room where wife and daughter could relax while I figured out what to do. Green River was not exactly a thriving metropolis, and I could count on one hand how many other foreign vehicles I saw on the streets. With no shops open, I removed the alternator and hiked the ¼ mile to a NAPA store.
The good news? Yep – the alternator was shot and I didn’t have to search for any other causes of my predicament. The bad news? This small local NAPA store didn’t have an alternator for a German vehicle in this God fearing American town. But they were willing to order it and it would arrive…whenever it would get there. Two days later the alternator arrived, I installed it and we hightailed it out of hot, dry and dusty Green River UT.
Although the Audi only left me stranded that one time, my economical nature began anticipating that I could soon be funding a mechanic’s boat purchase or kid’s college education. I became fearful of something going “poof!” and letting the magic smoke out of the wiring, requiring a tow truck to the mechanic and me being required to bring a Brink’s truck full of money to recover the vehicle.
Although I could list all kinds of logical reasons that it was time to sell the Audi, the truth is – and I hate to admit this – but I had fallen in lust love with the idea of another vehicle. This really isn’t my nature, as I don’t actively plot for the next while I’m with the current, whether it be in a marriage or with cars. But in this case, I became obsessed with the idea of what was possible, and set my sights on making that happen.
The Audi had provided upscale, relatively dependable, fast and engaging transportation in all weather conditions. It safely relocated my wife and daughter from Huntington Beach to Denver while I drove the moving truck and towed her car. It opened my eyes and showed me that not all large cars had to be wallowing Brougham-mobiles (no offense to the Broughamaholics here at CC).
But after several years, I wanted to turn the knob up to 11 with an unlikely car. For those of you following along at home, we’ll end this COAL with a pop quiz – “What could take a turbocharged, four wheel drive vehicle up to the next rarefied level?”
Stay tuned as our next COAL examines one of my all-time, top 5 favorite vehicles…