It’s not always being first that makes the difference, but being the first one to really make a difference.
Technically, Audi’s quattro (with a small ‘q’ when applied to the car, rather than the transmission) wasn’t the first fast four-wheel-drive coupé, a fact that’s unlikely to dim the celebrations of its 40th anniversary this year.
A decade later, though, it was Audi doing the exterminating, using a similar concept to destroy the two-wheel-drive competition in rallying, changing the face of the sport – and the sports car – for ever.
But if it was Audi that got the four-wheel-drive rally car ball rolling, leveraging the technology from its off-roader to create an epoch-defining loose-surface weapon at the behest of Porsche 917 creator Ferdinand Piëch, it was Lancia and the Delta that picked it up and ran with it.
The Italians notched up six World Rally Championship manufacturer titles to Audi’s two, and three drivers’ championships to Audi’s two, in the 1980s and early ’90s.
Though definitely cut from similar cloth, quattro and Delta never really crossed swords on the rally stage.
Despite continuous evolution that gave us the short-wheelbase Sport quattro and culminated in the shovel-nose E1, the quattro’s star was fading towards the end of the Group B era.
The Audi had been conceived under the old Group 4 rules and was struggling to cope with bespoke Group B supercars such as the Peugeot 205 T16 and Lancia Delta S4, mid-engined machines that shared little more than a name with their road-car cousins.
Sadly, Group B was banned for the 1987 season, partly in response to Henri Toivonen’s tragic death in a Delta S4 on the ’86 Tour de Corse.
But when the rally world regrouped for ’87 under the new Group A rules, it was Lancia again that was making headlines, this time for all the right reasons and with a car that, in common with those early quattro rally machines, was incredibly close to the regular production car you could buy from your local dealer.
Three decades on, the roadgoing quattro and Integrale push the same emotional buttons and cost similar money.
They’re similarly quick and their permanent four-wheel-drive transmissions give them the ability to tackle any weather conditions.
But which makes the best four-wheel-drive, four-season daily classic?
We’ve brought two relatively early examples of each together to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, not far from the old RAC Rally route, to find out.
In the red corner is Steven Jeffery-Bradley’s eight-valve Lancia HF Delta Integrale. In the white corner, Darron Edwards’ 10-valve quattro.
Both look suitably tough, with their boxy wheelarches stretched to house bigger wheels on the competition cars.
But it’s the Delta that nails the stance, its 15in wheels stuffed tight into each corner, leaving no wasteful overhang.
The Audi looks a little over-long and under-wheeled in comparison, its proportions hinting at the mechanical layout it inherited from the 1978 80 saloon, which marries a north-south engine and front-wheel drive.
What you can’t see is just how far forward beyond the axle line the five-cylinder engine lies, or the clever centre differential bolted to the back of the gearbox featuring two shafts, one turning within the other to deliver drive to all four wheels without the need for a bulky transfer box.
We’ll take the birthday boy first.
The ‘Ur’ (German for original) quattros divide into three eras, known as WR, MB and RR.
WR cars carried the 2144cc 10-valve in-line ‘five’, which was superseded by the 2226cc MB for 1988, still making the same 197bhp but fitted with hydraulic valve lifters and more sophisticated fuel injection for cleaner running.
In 1989, the final, most desirable RR version arrived, its four-valve head helping lift power to 217bhp.
Edwards’ car is a WR, but by the time it was built in 1986, quattros had swapped the early quad headlights in favour of a pair of modern, flush-fitting rectangular lamps.
The skinny 6x15in Ronal wheels (or optional 7x15in Fuchs) were also binned in favour of an 8in-wide set that are a happier fit in the arches, but cause all kinds of unhappiness when it’s time to shop for new rubber thanks to their unusual 215-section tyres.
But the most important change for British buyers came in late 1982, a year after the UK introduction, when Audi began offering the quattro in right-hand drive.
There’s no doubt the familiarity that comes with sitting on the right of the car helps you hit it off with the quattro from the start.
Other aspects, also familiar, are less endearing: some of the switchgear feels better suited to a Yugo than a car costing almost as much as a 911 Carrera when new (not that some Porsche dash bits from this era were anything to write home about).
You sit low, the long bonnet unfolding ahead beyond a surprisingly raked bit of glass. All cars built after ’83 got a digital instrument binnacle; green at first, then orange on later cars.
It must have seemed trick at the time, but it’s not nice to look at even if you don’t mind these things: a contemporary Vauxhall Astra GTE’s digital instrument pack is easier to read at a lick.
But the quattro, even this early 10v car, is so much faster than a humble hot hatch.
Trickle along with the engine off-boost and the famously warbly five-cylinder soundtrack is strangely muted.
Dip into the throttle pedal’s arc and the initial response is impressively sharp, though there’s little in the way of actual energy until the turbo wakes up, whereupon you’re hurled forward to the accompaniment of an induction and exhaust that suddenly find their voice.
With the turbo blowing the WR surges up hills in one long lunge, dispatches dawdling cars without even considering a downchange in the five-speed manual ’box.
Period tests put the quattro’s 0-60mph acceleration at 6.5 secs, meaning it’s still usefully rapid by modern standards, if around a second slower than the later RR.
But it’s the way the quattro steers that catches you off guard, not the way it goes.
If the knowledge that there’s so much weight slung out beyond the front wheels suggests the Audi is going to feel stodgy or inert, the tiniest nudge of the thin-rimmed, leather-wrapped wheel entirely disabuses you of the notion.
The steering is disarmingly light just off the straight-ahead, giving it a delicate, almost nervous feel until you learn to relax your grip, listen a little harder for the messages coming back through the rim and trust them despite the lack of reassuring weight as you tip it into a bend.
You need to learn to trust the brakes, too. Road testers in the 1980s and ’90s were forever complaining about over-servoed Audi brakes, but, if anything, these could do with a bit more bite.
Really get into them and there seems to be plenty of retardation, but the softness underfoot doesn’t inspire confidence in the same way the incredible traction does.
Climb on the gas too early on the way through a tight corner and you can feel the 50:50 torque split and the big old lump of engine over the nose trying to push you wide.
But the effect is much less pronounced than you fear, and the remedy simple: lift your right foot, wait a beat, then get back on it.
There are no vices, and even without the automatic Torsen centre differential that transformed the handling when it arrived with the MB engine in 1988, this is still a hugely fun car to hurl down a B-road in Wales – or indeed anywhere else.
By the decade’s end the quattro was still on sale, along with various Quattros (four-wheel-drive versions of Audi’s ordinary cars, this time with a capital Q).
But Audi’s narrow-arched Group A Coupé Quattros were no match for the Lancia Deltas. The balance of power had shifted. Not for the first time.
Rewind to 1983 and you might remember that Lancia’s mid-engined 037 managed to split the quattro’s two WRC titles in a heroic last gasp for two-wheel drive.
Markku Alén was also briefly drivers’ champion in 1986 after Toivonen was killed, before FISA promoted Juha Kankkunen to the top spot on a technicality 11 days later.
From ’87 it was Lancia all the way. That first manufacturers’ win in Group A’s first year as flagship was actually accomplished in a narrow-arched Delta HF; the 8v Integrale didn’t appear until early in the 1988 season, eight years after the cooking Delta had bagged the European Car of the Year crown.
Building on the spec of the four-wheel-drive 2-litre Delta HF, the 8v Integrale received a bigger Garrett turbo and intercooler, boosting power from 165 to 182bhp.
Wheels and tyres grew in width and diameter to 15x6in, nestled under arches that were clearly designed for even more serious hardware, and a centre diff split the torque 56:44 in favour of the front wheels.
The 16v Integrale that followed in 1989 reversed that split, and the bonnet bulge required to clear its 200bhp four-valve head added an extra dose of visual aggression that was ramped up even further in the Evolution I and II that followed.
But you approach this meeker early 8v car with no less enthusiasm. With advice from owner Jeffery-Bradley not to spare the horses because the car can definitely handle it – and a warning not to wind the window down more than halfway, because it definitely can’t – the keys are snatched from his grasp and thrust into the steering lock.
Like almost all Integrales, this Italian-market car is left-hand drive, though the differences between it and the Audi aren’t limited to the side the wheel is mounted. The driving position is more upright; the windscreen, too.
The abrupt clutch and light gearshift make strange bedfellows and the ergonomics are typically chaotic.
There’s a comprehensive eight-dial analogue dashboard, but the Momo wheel rim manages to completely ruin the view of the important bits of both speedo and rev counter.
Fortunately, you can feel and hear enough that you can live without both.
Twin balancer shafts add refinement to the in-line ‘four’, but it’s never what you’d call musical.
The throttle response feels softer than the Audi’s, and it’s a surprise to discover the Delta’s steering doesn’t have that same sensitivity in the first few degrees on either side of the straight-ahead. But that gives it a solid, planted feel.
There’s a pleasing meatiness to the steering, a connection to the front tyres that encourages you to lean on them even in the very early moments of getting to know the car.
Roll your wrists into a bend and it’s the Delta that better resists body roll. Push hard into a tight corner and it’s the Delta that’s less inclined to push wide.
Climbing back on to the throttle on the way out? They feel evenly matched, contemporary figures suggesting that the Lancia pipped the Audi to 60mph by a solitary tenth.
The Integrale’s mid-range pull is monstrous, stronger even than the Audi’s, the only disappointment being that it doesn’t quite sustain the lunge into the last section of the rev counter; you need 16 valves for that.
Stomp on the brakes, though, and there are no let-downs. The middle pedal feels beautifully firm, the hallmark of a car that lives to be beasted.
If you really were looking for an everyday classic, you’d be both cruel and spectacularly brave to pick the Delta over the quattro.
Both could take the vagaries of the British climate, and the Delta’s rear doors and practical hatch mean it’s genuinely family-friendly. Until it breaks and your family defriends you.
The Lancia’s thin tin and iffy electrics wouldn’t thank you for it, and while you quickly acclimatise to life on the left, it’s still not as straightforward as sitting on the UK-correct side.
No, ideally you’d want both: a late, galvanised quattro for hacking about through the week and a Delta for weekend use.
And as recently as a decade ago you could have afforded to do that. Not any longer.
The low-mileage Audi that Edwards paid £6500 for is now insured for £40k, and the leggier Lancia is worth around £25,000.
Let’s face it, for all their all-weather capabilities, these are special-occasion cars. And one feels slightly more special than the other.
Head says Audi; ears, too. But I’d go for the Delta, and brace myself for the inevitable blues.
Images: Olgun Kordal
Darron Edwards, Audi quattro 10v
“It’s the sight and sound for me,” says engineer and confirmed quattro nut Darron Edwards. “I remember watching them rallying on ITV’s World of Sport and instantly wanted one. I wouldn’t care if it did 0-60mph in 12 secs, I’d still want one.”
In fact, he has four: an early left-hand-drive car that’s about to undergo a major restoration, a black WR, an early Group 4 Rally replica, and this white car. A two-previous-owner WR, it’s all original and has just 64,000 miles on its digital clocks.
“It used to be tricky to get parts,” says Edwards, who bought his first quattro in 1992, and now spends much of his time repairing them for other enthusiasts. “Before the internet really took off you were at the mercy of rip-off specialists charging fortunes for parts. Now you can source spares from all over the world.”
Steven Jeffery-Bradley, Lancia Delta Integrale
“I always had a thing for 1980s turbo cars,” says Steven Jeffery-Bradley, as he tries to explain why a man who services and repairs Mercedes-Benz cars for a living is so smitten by a bright-red Italian rally weapon.
The owner had no intention of selling, but when he passed away in 2015 Jeffery-Bradley stepped in rather than see the rare 8v fall into unsympathetic hands. Not that it was pristine as bought.
“You name it, we’ve had it fixed,” says Jeffery-Bradley. “A top-end engine rebuild, plus brakes, suspension, a rear-axle rebuild and a full respray. I wasn’t even sure how much I’d like it when I bought it because I couldn’t drive it. But I’d never sell it now. I don’t think my son would forgive me, anyway.”
Audi quattro 10v
- Sold/number built 1980-’91/11,452 (all)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 2144cc 10v ‘five’, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection and KKK turbocharger with intercooler
- Max power 197bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 210lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual with integral centre differential, AWD
- Suspension MacPherson struts, anti-roll bars (front only from 1982)
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes 11in (280mm) ventilated front, 9½in (244mm) solid rear discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 5¼in (4404mm)
- Width 5ft 7¾in (1780mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3¼in (2524mm)
- Weight 2844lb (1290kg)
- 0-60mph 6.5 secs
- Top speed 138mph
- Mpg 19.9
- Price new £24,204 (1986)
- Price now £25-50,000
Lancia Delta HF Integrale 8v
- Sold/number built 1987-’89/9841 (8v only)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1995cc 8v ‘four’, Weber fuel injection and Garrett T3 turbocharger with intercooler
- Max power 182bhp @ 5300rpm
- Max torque 224lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual with integral centre differential, AWD
- Suspension MacPherson struts, anti-roll bars
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes 11¼in (284mm) ventilated front, 9in (227mm) solid rear discs, with servo
- Length 12ft 9½in (3900mm)
- Width 5ft 7in (1700mm)
- Height 4ft 6¼in (1380mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 1½in (2480mm)
- Weight 2793lb (1267kg)
- 0-60mph 6.4 secs
- Top speed 130mph
- Mpg 17.6
- Price new £25,862 (1988)
- Price now £20-45,000