Audi Manufacturer Profile & Rally History

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Audi Home Country: Germany Germany

Audi is maybe the most perfect showcase why it is tricky to explain a manufacturer's origins and background. Here is an amazing story of falling down, getting back up again, splits and mergers.

A German industrialist with the name August Horch (pronounce “horsh”), created the car brand Horch in 1899. But Horch, known for big luxury cars rather than motorsport, had difficulties and was sold to new owners. August Horch had a 2nd attempt, he founded a new car company in 1909, but now he lost the rights to the Horch name with the sell out of the original Horch brand. So August Horch applied a little name game: The German name Horch by coincidence has the meaning of “Listen”, which in the Latin language is translated as Audi (i.e. Audio). But can Audi and Horch be treated as the same company? Not at all, other than having the same founder they were two different companies that for 23 years were existing alongside each other in complete independence. To add to potential confusion, when Audi as many other brands were heading for an economic crisis, in 1932 Audi then joined Horch, Wanderer and DKW to form a group known as Auto Union. NSU joined Auto Union at a later date as a 5th brand, so even when it was called Audi-NSU, it was only Audi who survived and stood for the original Auto Union. In all that it was actually a coincidence the Audi name survived at all. For some time Auto Union did not find a niche for the Audi brand and the Audi name was dormant, while DKW was Auto Union's biggest seller by far. But when then some DKW models were launched with 4-stroke engines, with the DKW name being very famous for 2-stroke cars, the Audi name was used for these, and today we know that 2-stroke cars was a dying species. Also the brand logo with the 4 rings is that of Auto Union with each ring symbolising one of its original 4 brands. Interestingly this very Auto Union symbol nowadays graces Audi cars, while Audi's true own brand symbol is an oval with their brand name in it, indeed like the Ford oval, only in burgundy. After cooperating with Mercedes for some years, in 1964 Auto Union was swallowed by Volkswagen and only the Audi and NSU names initially survived, which eventually led to Auto Union being re-named to Audi-NSU. But can we credit the rallying successes of the 1950s by DKW to Audi? What about the famous NSU Prinz TT? Or the famous Auto Union F1 cars? You see it is not that easy!

Let's link the cars here too, for your reference. It shows the Volkswagen buy out of Auto Union really made an impact for Volkswagen and Audi. For Auto Union, Horch and Wanderer was for big cars and did not survive. NSU was the most daring company, the Wankel/rotary engined NSU Ro80 will never be forgotten. NSU then created another saloon, one size down on the Ro80, the NSU K70. This car was soon badged Volkswagen K70. It was the first Volkswagen with FWD and a water cooled engine. The K70 replaced the rear engined big-ish Volkswagen 411/412 and was later the start of the Passat range. Interestingly the K70 dash was largely identical to that of larger DKW models and first Audi 80 & 100 models. DKW was Auto Union's small cars with 2-stroke engines. DKW actually stands for Dampf Kraft Wagen = Steam Driven Vehicle, as the company actually started with steam and electric engines, but rather soon switched to 2-stroke combustion engines. For this contradiction Germans often called them Deutscher Kraft Wagen, but that was never what DKW stood for. The biggest and most modern DKWs, based on a Mercedes design from just before the Volkswagen buy out, were the DKW F102 and the slightly larger F103. When fitted with a Mercedes 4-stroke engine rather than the original 2-stroke these cars were marketed not as DKW but as Audi 60, 72 or 75 with the numbers identifying the BHP. However 2-stroke had no future and so these models were later replaced by Audi 80 and 100 with the DKW versions dropped. In their first generations the 100 had a larger shell but similar design scheme to the 80 and you could still see a relation to the DKW F102 and F103 models. In the 1990s the 80 became the A4 and the 100 the A6, which is the names known today.

Just to recap, as this story is as complicated as it is funny: Audi was not the founder's first choice company name. And even later the Audi name was meant to identify a variation of DKW cars rather than replace DKW as a brand name. Audi today uses the Auto Union brand logo, even though Audi has their own and the Auto Union name is no more used. The first FWD water cooled Volkswagen was actually an NSU. And although today Audi is one of the main competitors to Mercedes, the first modern day Audis were actually a Mercedes design with Mercedes engines, even though Auto Union was bought by Volkswagen moments later! They even had Mercedes development numbers: W118 & W119 (try google for a surprise).

So motorsport. If we concentrate only on the Audi name, their motorsport history is very short. It all started off with rallying and a program with a FWD Audi 80 in the late 1970s. It was a mainly national program with occasional WRC appearances, with German Harald Demuth, Swede Freddy Kottulinski, Austrians Franz Wittmann and Walter Smolej and Scottland's James Rae (not to be mistaken for James McRae!). But the FWD Audi 80 program had a surprising purpose. The car didn’t really have much to offer compared to the RWD Ford Escorts, Opel Asconas, Fiat 131s and Talbot Sunbeams, but it was all a learning exercise for Audi.

It didn’t take long after the FWD 80 for Audi to come up with their 4x4 rally car, a project inspired by the Auto Union Iltis, a small military off roader. This Iltis itself ironically, if not confusingly, was a project DKW was responsible for, who in turn had many rally successes in the 1950s with 2-stroke Junior and Donau models. So indeed, the Audi Quattro could be linked back to the DKW brand! When Hannu Mikkola was invited to test the new and first 4x4 rally car, he joked “I am going to test a Jeep”. But the car was surprisingly good. Here is a fact that underlines the intention with the 80, how well the Quattro program was prepared and how impressive the car was: Hannu Mikkola tested the car and signed for Audi in autum 1979, over a year before the car's debut!

Indeed, there was an important result in the built up to the Quattro idea, that only shows how closely linked it all was to the Iltis off roader. Although the car was DKW designed and replaced the DKW Munga, the car was called Auto Union Iltis, and when Volkswagen stopped their own, RWD(!) military off roader, the Volkswagen Kübelwagen (appropriate translation "vomit car"?), the Iltis was re-named Volkswagen Iltis. But it was the Audi Sport team in Ingolstadt that came to prepare 3 Iltis for the Paris-Dakar 1980. The result was surprising for the wobbly 110BHP 4x4 car: Freddy Kottulinski won in IN-NN 69, Patrick Zaniroli came 2nd in IN-NC 81 and Jean Ragnotti 4th in IN-NN 95 and Roland Gumpert in the “flying service” car IN-NT 25 still was 9th. There also were two further Iltis test cars IN-NR 91 and especially IN-NN 51, latter ran as course opening car on the Safari Rally 1980!

The Quattro wasn’t the first 4x4 road car (that credit goes to the little known British brand Jensen) but it turned the theme into a fashion. In fact it wasn't even the first 4x4 rally car, in WRC that credit would have to go to a pair of Range Rovers on the Bandama 1979. The car was named “Quattro”, which basically is “4” in the Italian language. However Audi failed to take a big advantage of having the (nearly) first 4x4 rally car. It had masses of traction and although it won its 2nd WRC event ever, it had a very difficult handling and it had reliability problems. With what was meant to be a far superior concept, Audi finished as low as 6th in their first makes WRChampionship battle. Audi won the makes title on only their 2nd attempt and the drivers title on their 3rd attempt. In their 4th season, 1984, Audi won both titles, but by that time the opposition showed they had not only caught up but passed Audi and it were to be the last titles Audi should win in rallying.

In the following years Audi seemed to be hampered by their praiseworthy attitude to keep a road car relation to their rally cars. This meant the Audi Quattro in all its versions always kept the front engine, which was longitudinal mounted in front of the front axle. This may seem similar to Subaru, but Audi had an in-line 5-cylinder, such the engine was more than twice as long as Subaru's. Therefore the Quattro was very front heavy, needed a huge front overhang to accommodate the engine and still had no room for radiators, which all didn’t help its handling problems. But ironically in that attitude, when with the 1987 season the more road car based group A became the WRC’s top category, Audi’s problems became even worse. The 4x4 Audi 80 & Coupé Quattro models had been good privateer cars in group A trim, but they had no turbo engine. For that the works team had no option but go for the Audi 200 Quattro, which was way too big and heavy to ever be competitive. Indeed tests before the 1987 season proved clearly that the 200 was quicker than the non-turbo Coupé. By mid 1987 Audi left the scene so quietly that hardly anybody realised we were never to see them again as a works team. Strangely nowadays Audi claims they have nothing left to prove in rallying (Which looking at their results, at least from mid 1984 onwards, simply isn’t true!), so it is unlikely the 4x4 pioneers will ever come back. A shame really, as to the day Audi has maybe the biggest range of 4x4 turbo road cars of all makes.


With the start of the Quattro program Audi had a distinct red, grey & not quite black (what seemed to be a very dark grey/brown, light black?) all on a white base. They stuck to it throughout. When from 1984 Audi secured sponsorship of cigarette brand HB, the sides of the cars featured the HB white & yellow stripes while bonnets and roof kept showing Audi’s own red, grey and dark brown brand identity. Audi as well had a very interesting idea with their importer teams. So was on WRC events the Audi red, grey & dark brown replaced by national colours without changing the layout, as the Audi Sport Germany car of Harald Demuth featured black, red & gold, the Audi Sport Sweden cars of Stig Blomqvist and Mikael Ericsson had blue, yellow, blue, only with the Audi Sport UK car it seemed impossible to implement the Union Jack, but it still was distinctively different to the full works cars.

In tyres Audi started off with Kleber, which was a German brand that was later bought out by Michelin (and now homes a big Michelin factory). From then Audi used Michelin tyres with the exception of Audi Sport UK, who used Pirelli. One interesting exception here was Malcolm Wilson who had an Audi Quattro BRC program with Dunlop sponsorship.


Audi seems one of the easier and more interesting brands to identify. See our general registration guide for the German registration system - as well as details on UK, Isle of Man for that matter! Audi is based in Ingolstadt, Bayern, Germany. Ingolstadt is abbreviated IN, which is what you find in front of the dash on their license plate. "IN" actually is one of the "smaller" towns of Germany. Such, while 4-digit numbers are possible, this is only with a single letter behind the dash. In combination with 2 letters behind the dash there are no more than 2 numbers. Audi not only went for that, but for some mystery reason, they always choose numbers that would start with an "N" behind the dash. Sometimes they ran out of such possibilities and choose a "Y" instead. Therefore you easily identify a works Audi on reg plates starting IN-N.... or IN-Y...., such as "IN-NL 67" or "IN-YD 29". However then there were teams that were a little more than just importer teams. German tuner Konrad Schmidt was one of them. Based in Nürnberg, his cars are identified by N as the regional code before the dash. In the group A days Konrad Schmidt moved to new premises in Fürth and such his cars would show . The Austrian tuner Rolf Schmidt also shouldn't be ignored. His reg plates would start with an N for Niederösterreich, followed by a 6-digit number (not to be mistaken for the Nürnberg plates of Konrad Schmidt). Audi Sport Sweden used normal Swedish 3 letters 3 numbers plates. And finally David Sutton had a major Audi Sport UK program. To make sure this isn't simple, this was just the time when Sutton moved from Acton, London, to Daventry near Northampton and then he decided to safe tax and register the cars on the Isle of Man! Such early Sutton Audis showed plates like "LYV 4X" with the Y identifying London. Then was a string of Northampton registered cars, including some group A Volkswagens with the 2nd & 3rd letter of the 3-letter-block being either of these combinations: BD, NH, NV, VV & RP, such as "PVV 561Y" (you actually MUST look at the registration file of this specific 80 Quattro, big surprise!). And Isle of Man you see in the aforementioned guide, they seem a bit random but would always contain the combination MN or MAN, i.e. "44 CMN". Seems a lot, but now you can identify which car belongs to which tuner, while for proper works cars the simple key is "IN-N...." or "IN-Y....".

Audi Rally Cars

Model Class
Audi Audi 200  Group A
Audi Audi 80  Group A
Audi Audi 80  Group 2
Audi Audi 80  Group A
Audi Audi 90  Group A
Audi Audi Coupé  Group A
Audi Audi Coupé S2  Group N
Audi Audi Coupé S2  Group A
Audi Audi Quattro  Group 4
Audi Audi Quattro  Group B
Audi Audi Sport Quattro  Group B

Rally Honour Roll

Year Class Place Manufacturer Events
1994 WRC Group A 5th. Audi (24pts) 10

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1993 WRC Group A 7th. Audi (26pts) 13

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1992 WRC Group A 7th. Audi (10pts) 14

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1990 WRC Group A 6th. Audi (24pts) 13

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1989 WRC Group A 5th. Audi (43pts) 13

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1988 WRC Group A 3rd. Audi (71pts) 13

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1987 WRC Group A 2nd. Audi (82pts) 13

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1986 WRC Group B 4th. Audi (29pts) 13

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1985 WRC Group B 2nd. Audi (126pts) 12

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1984 WRC Group B 1st. Audi (120pts) 12

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1983 WRC Open 2nd. Audi (116pts) 12

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1982 WRC Open 1st. Audi (116pts) 12

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1979 WRC Open 13th. Audi (11pts) 12

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