After Niki Lauda endured a fiery crash at the Nurburgring in ‘67, James Hunt amicably quipped, “You’re the only man I know who could be in a fire and come out better looking.” They were bitter rivals, friends and, eventually, legends. My history with the Audi 4000CS Quattro is less illustrious and, thankfully, less incendiary — but I can say, with friendly affection, that the Quattro running through the woods of Team O’Neil’s rally wonderland does look better after being scorched in a fire.
Two weeks before I arrived at Team O’Neil, the equipment shed that the Quattro was parked next to inexplicably caught fire during the night. The Quattro suffered some burns, giving the generic-looking sedan a touch of character Ingolstadt never intended. It’s a good scar, because the problem with Audis from the ‘80s is that they are boringly boxy. They’re so squared off that the round wheel arches look like a mistake. Sure, the Ur Quattro was an icon, but it was an otherworldly Group B Rally car and had Walter Röhrl backing it up; fast race cars will always look good.
The equipment shed inexplicably caught fire during the night. The Quattro suffered some burns.
This slightly charred Audi 4000CS Quattro is heavy, stretches out with a long wheelbase and has a steering wheel that takes two turns, lock to lock. In its battered state, it’s forgiving and generous, like a well-oiled, broken-in mitt. Its tarnished looks make it easier to not care when it gets stuffed into a snow bank at 30 mph. And that’s why Team O’Neil keeps it around. It’s the go-to car for the novices learning the nuances of AWD rallying.
Originally, the 4000CS I drove for the four-day Rally School came in a glossy black. But now that the barn fire has baked some character into it, it lives with a dynamic matte gray finish and an alpine white trunk lid sourced from the spare parts. Luckily, the taillights weren’t completely incinerated, because the semi-melted plastic adds some surprisingly pleasing organic lines to the rectangle-heavy back end. It’s the type of custom fabrication West Coast Customs dreams of, but only Mother Nature can whip up.
Engine: Fuel-Injected 2.2-Liter Inline-Five
Transmission: Five-Speed Manual
Drive: Quattro AWD with custom-welded center and rear diffs
Horsepower: 130 (when new)
Torque: 140 lb-ft (when new)
0-60 mph: Depends
Top Speed: Not 155 mph (very limited)
With an original curb weight of around 2800 pounds and 130 horses to move it, the 4000CS wasn’t very nimble. So before the fire took care of the cosmetics, the mechanics at Team O’Neil set to work tearing out anything useless. They turned it into the off-road classroom it needed to be — fitting a roll cage and bucket seats with four-point harnesses, a skid plate and adjustable suspension, then welding the center and rear diffs shut.
After a briefing on the Quattro’s handling characteristics and riding shotgun on a sighting lap, it was my turn to toss the Audi around. Having been in a fairly pedestrian Ford Fiesta the day before, my excitement to test AWD was palpable. Hurdling over the roll cage and down into the low-slung bucket seat, I grabbed the steering wheel stamped with four rings. This is a bare-bones rally car. I strapped in, braced myself and stomped down on the worn accelerator with a certain hopeful curiosity. The result? The AWD hooked up and let out a surprising push of torque from an experienced, yet enthusiastic engine. The 4000CS and I launched forward. A high-strung wail reverberated through the cabin, and every nut, bolt and weld sounded like it wanted to break free. I
trusted hoped Audi’s reputation would run true — that this beater, built like a tank, would hold together.
Aiming for the first apex of the slalom, I dabbed the brakes to get the front end to bite and the back end to rotate around. The steering wheel took some working, the brakes a little kicking, but the 4000CS complied. The Audi is a limo on ice, and its slide was easy to catch, send back the other way and pendulum around the next corner. After I put a few runs under the belt, the course became less of a wrestling match and more of a friendly dance. This old bird, beaten, burned and risen from the flames, took the ice and snow with grace, and lap after lap, we began waltzing together around the course.