Seeing this car on an Ohio highway was like being reunited with an old friend. My first car was an Audi Coupe – though mine was from the beginning of the model’s seven-year run, rather than from the end as this car represents. Interestingly, the Coupe’s rear profile remained largely unchanged over seven model years, even though Audi redesigned the 4000 on which it was based. That’s certainly not a bad thing, because that fastback Giugiaro-designed rear was one of the more distinctive shapes to come from the 1980s sports coupe era. And it still looks exciting today.
Audi followed a solid formula when creating its Coupe – plunking the 5000’s drivetrain onto a smaller 4000-range chassis, and endowing the resulting car with a unique fastback hindquarters. By doing so, a rather sedate sedan was transformed into an intriguingly fun coupe. That represented a good strategy, though in a flash of uncreativity, Audi named this car the “Audi Coupe” when it debuted for 1981, eschewing both names and numbers in favor of nomenclature anonymity. The GT suffix was added two years later.
If you assumed the Audi Coupe was a hatchback, you’re not alone. It is actually a fastback, with a proper trunk, but since it was born at the peak of global hatch-mania, an identity crisis was almost inevitable. In fact, the above 1979 Road & Track sketch, based on spy photos, clearly shows the car as hatch. Italy’s Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the Coupe’s wedge-shaped rear, and the car yielded an impressive-for-the-day 0.39 drag coefficient.
When it went on sale, the Coupe looked more distinctive than the spy-based drawings suggested. The final effect was an exciting and contemporary design that looked neither faddish nor overly daring. Offered with the 5000’s five-cylinder engine, and a stiffer suspension than on the 4000 sedan with which it shared a wheelbase, this was an entertaining car for its day. Coupes weren’t so much all-out performance machines though, but rather balanced and somewhat sedate GT cars.
I know this first-hand, since my first car was a well-used 1981 Audi Coupe that I bought in 1989. The reason I was able to purchase an Audi on a teenager’s budget was because Audi’s “unintended acceleration” fiasco plunged the make’s resale values, so that older models from Audi’s pre-luxury era were dirt-cheap. I was the car’s fourth owner, and though it had plenty of quirks that one would expect from such a car, I never tired of looking at, or driving, my Coupe.
As a Coupe fan, however, I had relatively little company. At the model’s prime in 1984, its approximately 4,000 US sales accounted for only about 6% of Audi of America’s cars. These Coupes just fell through the cracks… costlier than most sports coupes, yet not quite up to luxury-car standards… a trunked fastback in a hatchback world… a sporty car that could comfortably seat four adults… and a fast-looking car that was in reality was just barely quick due to its 110-hp engine.
For 1985, the Coupe benefited from the same facelift as the rest of the 80/4000 lines, which furnished a smoother front end and slimmer bumpers, though the car’s drag coefficient remained at 0.39. The rear third of the car remained essentially the same – something that I certainly appreciated since I felt that my own car looked newer as a result.
Our featured car is from this first-generation Audi Coupe’s final model year of 1987. (The sedan on which it was based was updated for 1988, and though a Coupe version joined the new lineup eventually, it wound up being a hatchback – just when hatchbacks were going out of style.)
I have a feeling that non-car enthusiasts in the late 1980s would never have guessed that this rear shape was designed nearly a decade earlier — it aged remarkably well, and has continued to hold its own. In my opinion, the rear design of this car looks less dated than the front, which of course is a newer design.
I kept this Coupe GT in my sight as long as I could, until its angular profile was silhouetted against the Midwestern sky. Saying goodbye from a distance, I left this Coupe hoping that I’d see an old friend like this again.
Photographed in Fairfield County, Ohio in March, 2018.