Four-wheel drive (4WD) was invented not long after the automobile itself. An Englishman by the name of Bramah Diplock patented it in 1893, and one of the earliest examples was built by none other than Ferdinand Porsche in 1899. So why did it take 80 years until someone thought to fully realize the performance advantages of all-wheel drive (AWD) to motorsport and sports cars?
Perhaps it’s with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but it seems so obvious. Be that as it may, no one actually recognized the value until an engineer at Audi had a big idea. The German automaker then parlayed this innovation into dominance in Group B rally racing and that propelled Audi into a household luxury and performance car brand it still enjoys today.
After Diplock’s patent, he showed his invention -- not on the automobile -- but rather a steam-powered locomotive. The first actual automobile to feature it was the Lohner-Porsche, a hybrid-powered car. Ferdinand Porsche, at just 23 years of age, designed it with four electric motors which drove each wheel individually. Fun fact: it was later researched by NASA when they were searching for designs on which to base the Lunar Rover.
The first gas-powered four-wheel drive was the Spyker 60 H.P. which was introduced in 1903, and also credited as the first 4WD race car. The first production vehicle emerged in the U.S. in 1908 when the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company started making military trucks for use during WWI by the U.S. Army.
The die was cast and four-wheel drive was relegated to military and commercial applications to transport cargo in rough terrain. This continued through WWII where examples of all-wheel drive vehicles were made by many of the great powers around the world to move their armies. The most famous was the Willys U.S. Jeep, whose name was derived from the initials “GP” which stood for "General Purpose" vehicles.
Following the war, the Jeep was so iconic that consumers wanted it. In 1945, Willys started selling them to the public, with Dodge introducing the Power Wagon shortly thereafter. In 1948, Land Rover was introduced in the U.K.
The first AWD road car was the limited-production Jensen Interceptor FF from England. This was a performance GT car of which only 318 were built. Japan’s Subaru introduced a 4WD station wagon called the Leone in 1972. After American Motors bought Jeep in 1970, the company introduced the Eagle, which was the forebear of the sport utility vehicle.
Were it not for the clunky Volkswagen Iltis, who knows where Audi would have ended up in the annals of automotive history. In the winter of 1976-77, Audi had sent a group of engineers to Finland to test their front-wheel drive performance car prototypes in snowy and icy conditions. However, in testing the powerful engine was too much for the front-wheel drive which caused the wheels to slip. An Iltis was brought along for comparison and the 75 hp all-terrain military vehicle crushed the much more powerful road cars by comparison.
Audi chassis engineer Jorg Bensinger (pictured) had an idea to build a four-wheel drive car for road use and the project was greenlighted in September 1977 by Ferdinand Piech, Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson and Audi’s then head of R&D. A prototype drivetrain was built in an Audi 80 road car chassis under the direction of engineer Walter Treser. Piech and Treser took it out for a firsthand test drive up a steep and snowy mountain in the Austrian Alps where it climbed the pass without even using snow tires! Now Audi knew it really had something.
The engineers in Ingolstadt got to work. Since four-wheel drive had been the domain of slow-moving, heavy vehicles tackling tough terrain, the idea had to be reimagined for high-performance, high-speed use on asphalt (not boulders). Heavy-duty off-road vehicles typically had a clunky transfer case to distribute the power -- a solution that would not work for this assignment. The Quattro system, as it was called after the Italian word for “four,” took two years to develop.
The challenge was to understand how to distribute the power from a 200-horsepower, turbocharged inline 5-cylinder engine to all four corners evenly, and at speed. The key was a center differential that allowed the power to the rear wheels to be fully or partially engaged or disengaged.
The revolutionary Audi Quattro road car made its debut at the 1980 Geneva Motor Show. The first permanent all-wheel drive performance car was now in the public eye. Meanwhile, Audi had assembled a motorsports team under the direction of Walter Treser.
The first competition Audi Quattro was the A1. It featured a 300-horsepower competition engine that was ready to take on the prestigious and competitive World Rally Championship (WRC). The rally rules had not allowed four-wheel drive, but that changed in 1979. The prevailing wisdom of most manufacturers was that the concept was too complex to succeed.
The Quattro A1 broke cover at the 1980 Janner Rallye in Austria -- and won by more than 20 minutes. The 1981 season was Audi's first in the WRC. The A1 experienced reliability problems but still took three wins, including a historic win by Michele Mouton at the San Remo Rally. Mouton was the first woman to compete in the WRC and with this win become the first woman to win a world championship rally.
Audi had a two-year headstart and took full advantage. The following season, Audi dominated and won the manufacturer championship. Mouton, along with her navigator Fabrizia Pons, fell just short of the drivers' championship in spite of their three victories, finishing second behind Walter Rohrl.
Audi’s success continued in 1983 with Hannu Mikola winning the WRC drivers’ championship, and in the subsequent season, they won both the manufacturers’ and drivers championships. Mouton also famously won the 1985 Pikes Peak Hillclimb for Audi in a Quattro S1.
Audi’s innovation was transformational in competitive and commercial terms. Soon the competition caught up and every car in the World Rally Championship used AWD. Audi ended its rally program in 1986 after a tragedy in which three spectators were killed at a competition in Portugal.
They shifted their focus to sports car racing, first in the U.S. Trans-Am Series in 1988, and then on to IMSA in the GTO class in 1989. This launched Audi into sports prototype racing where they eventually won Le Mans 13 times beginning in 2000.
The Audi line-up thrived on the innovation and reputation that stemmed from the innovative Quattro AWD technology. While Quattro production ended in 1991, its DNA continues as the brand has grown since those years and now produces close to 1.5 million cars each year. Its own sports cars, and those of its fellow VW-owned Lamborghini, frequently use AWD in some of the world’s most desirable supercars.
While Audi did not invent AWD, it pioneered its use for high-performance vehicles which will forever be the company’s legacy.