Curbside Classic: 1983-1991 Audi 5000/100 (C3) – A Picture Book Story Of The Very Model Of The Modern Car

(first posted 10/4/2011)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s true, I’m off the hook, and can just stop writing right now, because this picture tells the story of the Audi 5000/100’s huge impact and lasting influence quite perfectly, beyond its mere sales numbers. But just in case the full story behind this picture isn’t quite clear enough for you, here’s a few other shots to fill in the details:

Exactly thirty years separate these two Volkswagen AG products. Here are a few of their vital statistics: front wheel drive; engine: five cylinder in-line; length: within an inch of each other; width: within an inch of each other. Get the picture? One could substitute just about any car from the Camcordia class, and arrive at pretty much the same conclusion.

CC 116 065 700crop-vert

And here’s another. No words necessary.

As a frame of visual and historical comparison, here’s the Audi’s predecessor thirty years earlier, the 1953 DKW F89 ( didn’t think I needed to show you a 1953 VW Beetle). It had a three cylinder two stroke, and maybe 40 hp or so. The point is: has automotive development just slowed down in recent decades, or what? Is there a corollary to the state of our economies?

Here’s the best selling car in the US in 1983. Quite different from the Audi indeed. Personal taste aside, which was the more influential one?

The 1967 NSU Ro80 (top, just in case you recently arrived from Mars) was a sneak preview of the Audi C3, fifteen years earlier. Now go back and compare the Ro80 with the 1953 DKW. Also fifteen years separate them. Sometimes when I indulge myself in thinking or saying that the mid-late sixties were a golden time in the evolution of the automobile, I think it’s just because that was during my youth, and we all tend to look back on that time of our life with rose colored glasses. But when I look at the Ro80, I realize it really was the case. Why is the 1967 Impala there with it? Good question, other than it was the best selling car in 1967. And to offer some visual contrast.

Here’s another good story, and this one might be even more than a thousand words long. Let’s just say that the Taurus appeared exactly three years after the Audi. Which is the typical amount of time it takes to design a car from beginning to production. I just wish it had been a sedan there, and not the Avant. Close enough.

And what does this picture tell us? Perhaps the passion with which Americans embraced the Audi 5000. Or maybe the owner is just hoping that one of them will actually run. The 5000 was not a paragon of reliability.

CC 116 061 800-vert

It wasn’t just in its exterior styling that the Audi set the template for the future.

The Audi C3 arrived with a drag coefficient of 0.30, which set the automotive world on its ear. One of ways it did that was the very trick flush window mounting. I happened to be in Germany on a business trip (to visit Maharishi; don’t ask) in the late fall of 1982, and saw my first Audi C3 there. I spent several minutes gazing at their clever solution for mounting the side glass flush. Why hadn’t anybody thought of that before?

Let’s just say that Ferdinand Piech was the head of Audi back then, or at least the head of their engineering (the very model of a modern major engineer). That explains a thing or two, and why he’s holding an award of some sort for his latest baby. Before I forget, the C3 was awarded the European Car Of The Year in 1983.

Which is determined quite differently than Motor Trend’s version. And in  1990, the European Audi 100 was one of the first cars to have a modern direct injected diesel engine, the first TDI. That was a major milestone too. In one noisy leap, Audi jumped right over Mercedes’ long diesel leadership. (update: we all know how that story ends, this time VW/Audi’s own doing).

The C3 Audi was available with a raft of VW family engines in Europe, including four cylinders. For the US, the 827-family engine sprouted an additional cylinder, but that already appeared in the previous generation 5000, in 1976. It was the first gasoline five cylinder engine, if we’re not counting airplane radials. Or my ’68 Dodge van with an oil-fouled plug.

I have yet to find a C2 Audi, but I live in hope (update: here’s a Cohort capsule of one). Used to be so many of them in LA. If I remember correctly, the C3 was really an evolution of the C2, which in many ways perhaps deserves more recognition for its influence. The turbo version was a highly admired car in its day.

Never mind finding a C1 Audi 100. They were quite popular here once upon a time too, but not exactly famous for their durability either. The whole story of how it came to be is fascinating…another day (update: here’s our CC on one posted at the Cohort).

But it was the C3 Audi 5000 that suddenly became America’s new sweetheart. And 5000s were to be seen everywhere in fashion-conscious American suburbs. By 1985, Audi sales in the US were 74k; pretty impressive. And then…

Well, I can’t find a suitable picture, so I’ll have to tell the story, very briefly. Suddenly, a number of those newly-enamored Audi 5000 owners who had traded in their Cutlass Supreme Coupes started mowing down their kids or granny in the driveway. Better yet, you can read my whole take on that here. Sometimes a link is worth a thousand words, or at least eight hundred.

Anyway, that debacle almost wiped out Audi in the USA. Sales fell to 12k in 1991, and it wasn’t until 2000 that Audi got back to the 74k sales they had in 1985. Ouch!

Speaking of 800 words, I’ve just exceeded them already. The Audi 5000, especially in its turbo version (200 in Europe) was a superb driver’s car too. Its steering was surprisingly good for a front wheel drive car.That used to not be something to take for granted, back then. Or now, thanks to electric steering.

The Avant version didn’t sell well here, but that doesn’t diminish its very profound influence too. The Audi “wagon” really redefined the modern European wagon, from the plumber’s vehicle to a chic lifestyle-mobile, where maximum capacity wasn’t the ultimate goal. To fully appreciat its lasting impact, consider that the overwhelming percentage of cars like the Passat and Audi A4 sold at retail in countries like Germany are the wagon version. The Avant turned the old order upside down, in Europe.

And the 5000 sedan had pretty much the same effect here, except that its target was different. The 5000 may not have directly or solely caused the demise of Cadillac and other American premium makes, because of the SUA debacle, but others quickly stepped into its role. And the rest is history.

 No more pictures needed. Or words.