Driven: 1981 Volkswagen Iltis – The Ur-Ur quattro

“We’re about to confirm that we’ve cancelled the Q3,” Joseph, Audi AG’s German PR representative says to me with a smile as I walk past him and into the frigid morning air in the Quebec back country.

He pauses, waiting for my morning din to crack and for me to respond.

“Really?” I ask quizzically.

“Yes, we’ve decided to instead build this,” he replies, grinning and nodding off to my left where I see a rather unassuming little Jeep-like vehicle looking like it stepped right out of a 1960s Davos ski advertisement. Its bright khaki paint looks almost vibrant yellow against an overwhelmingly white snowy backdrop and its white canvas top looks anything but army.

Most who follow Audi and its rich heritage are quite familiar with the ur quattro. The term “ur” is German for “original”, which might be the best possible term for the car that started it all for Audi. Known simply as quattro, that car launched the concept of all-wheel drive that is now offered across the Audi range, not to mention by all Ingolstadt’s major competitors. But what of the car that sold Audi executives on the quattro concept? Might we call that the ur ur quattro?

Known internally as the Volkswagen Type 183 or more commonly as the Iltis, the vehicle you see here was designed for the German Military as a replacement for the Auto Union-built DKW Munga. The Munga had ceased production in 1968 but Volkswagen, which had purchased Auto Union GmbH in 1965, was again vying for business from the German military, updating the all-wheel drive system and powering it with a 1.7-liter Audi four-cylinder water-cooled engine boasting just 75 horsepower.

A gearbox from an Audi 100 was converted to four-wheel-drive with a low range and lockable differential gear, and it was fitted with an uprated clutch to handle the additional stress from all-wheel drive. In order to send power to all four wheels, the Iltis skipped the added weight of a transfer case and auxiliary shaft, making use of front and rear differentials with bevel-gear designs. A driver manually engages the front axle when maximum traction is needed.

Fortunately for Audi, the Iltis was chosen by the military over Mercedes-Benz’s Gelandewagen. With production set to begin in Ingolstadt by 1978, several Iltis prototypes found themselves alongside other upcoming Audi production models on a winter test session in Finland.

Though neither comely nor powerful, the Iltis surprised many at the test, including an Audi engineer by the name of Jorg Bensinger. Bensinger couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the higher-performance Audis and the 75-hp Iltis, noting how the tall and gangly jeep was as fast or faster on the snowy Finnish roads than the higher-powered cars. Upon returning to Ingolstadt, Bensinger reported his findings to his boss, a Development Director at Audi by the name of Ferdinand Piech.

The quattro story takes off from there very rapidly. An Audi 80 was fitted with a modified version of the Iltis drivetrain, including the ‘80s front auxiliary frame mounted in the rear of the sedan, along with a rear differential housing cast in aluminum from the Iltis diff moulds. Following these changes, a five-cylinder turbo gleaned from an Audi 200 made the little red 80 into a favorite commuter for top Audi executives at the time. The project was very quickly greenlighted.

Having donated its components and inspiring the first Audi quattro prototypes, you’d think the value of the Iltis would have passed, at least in regards to Audi. Not so. Development of the ur quattro was nearly complete and Audi was readying its white show car for its debut at the 1980 Geneva Motor Show. That car would be mass-produced, or at least produced in high enough numbers to satisfy FIA homologation and allow Audi to field a full rallying effort. There was, however, one problem: the FIA didn’t allow all-wheel drive in rally cars. Audi needed to figure out a workaround.

At the same time Audi began to lobby organizers for all-wheel drive approval, and well before the full plans to market quattro or the car bearing that name had been divulged, Audi entered four Type 183s in the 1980 Paris to Dakar rally. In an unlikely turn, the homely appearance and specification of the Iltis would play to Ingolstadt’s advantage. Event organizers and Audi’s own competition eyed up the Iltis and Audi’s Paris to Dakar plans, assuming limited potential. All-wheel drive was unanimously approved.

Had organizers and competitors known about the ur quattro and Audi’s plans, the vote would have likely have been different. Could they have even guessed how the Iltis itself would fare in the Dakar competition they may have thought twice. As it turns out, all four Type 183s entered by Audi finished the grueling Paris to Dakar, with Freddy Kottulinsky taking first place, Patrick Zaniroli nabbing second. The third car with Ragnotti at the wheel finished fourth and the last participating Iltis, piloted by a young Audi engineer with the now familiar name Roland Gumpert, finished ninth despite a heavy accident costing four hours of repair time. Interestingly, the Gumpert car was a prototype fitted with an Audi inline-five, throwing out approximately 150 hp.

The Type 183’s military history also continued on beyond 1980. In North America these vehicles are rare, but they’re not impossible to find thanks to a North American production arrangement under license by Bombardier for the Belgian and Canadian militaries.

The 1981 Iltis you see here never saw military duty. As part of the Audi Tradition collection since 1987, this civilian-looking beige four-door was pulled out recently for Audi’s Fascination quattro winter driving event near Mont Tremblant, Quebec in order to give us a chance to relive Mr. Bensinger’s findings. The only differences this time were that instead of Finland we’d be driving on a snow covered ATV course and the competitive Audi models at this test included cars like the RS 5, TT RS and RS 3.

Despite its much sexier and more advanced counterparts, the Iltis kept puttering off into the woods and returning with guests who exited the vehicle with broad smiles plastered across their faces. The car’s retro uncoolness goes so far it actually seems to come back around to being cool again, even before I climb into its early-‘80s-era Audi 4000 seat to take a stab at it myself.

Inside, the Iltis is Spartan, even by late 1970s VW standards. There’s a center-mount speedo that goes to 140 km/h, though we’re willing to bet no Iltis has ever come near that figure. There’s a headlight switch, a foglight switch, a hazard switch, cigarette lighter, radio and ashtray. It’s clear that what’s here exists for a purpose — anything else is unnecessary.

I head out into the woods with a smiling German representative from Audi Tradition as my co-pilot. Where some German driving instructors on this day might otherwise start with a short lecture, my co-pilot just points me in the direction of the course he’s plotted out and lets the Iltis speak for its tall, boxy self.

There’s not much magic as we motor down a snow-covered access road, but once we head out onto an ATV trail the little SUV begins to show its mettle. We plow up incredibly steep hills and go back down the other side with little difficulty.

“No brake needed,” my Audi Tradition friend says to me. “Give it gas, then ride it down.”

The approach and departure angles on the Iltis are fantastic. I begin to lose all fear as the little wünder-jeep putters over every hill the Quebec backwoods can throw at me.

Then we hit the grand finale. That would be the tallest and iciest obstruction on the course. I’m apprehensive about manhandling Audi’s pristine Type 183 and my hesitance with the throttle results in our running out of momentum about three quarters of the way to the top. I’m standing on the gas and all four wheels are spinning. There’s not enough friction to pull our weight over the crest.

“Just take your foot off the gas,” my new friend suggests. “Roll back,” he says. And we most certainly do so with authority, bouncing backwards down the hill.

I look over and he’s got a grin on his face.

I try again and again I come up short. Again, we bounce backwards down the hill.

“Look, it’s okay,” he says to me. “It can take it.”

I jam the throttle down and the sheer thrust of no less than seventy-five horses pushes with everything they have, which, let’s just say, is nowhere near what that RS 5 had on tap. Still, it pulls much harder than I’d expected and there’s no problem cresting on the third try — no more backwards bouncing, as fun as that was.

Having rounded the course in the Iltis, it’s easy to see how the ugly little military-issue duckling captured the attention of Jorg Bensinger and Ferdinand Piech. Though not much to look at and far from high performance, the potential offered by the introduction of mass-market all-wheel drive reset the bar in both the rallying and luxury automotive landscapes. Audi created its modern reputation based on four driven wheels while contemporaries from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and even Cadillac have all introduced their own all-wheel drive offerings in order to meet customer expectations — expectations set in part by the ugly little Iltis.

We suspect if you had a chance to drive one as we recently have, you might even be tempted to pick one up. Rest assured, that’s entirely possible. The Iltis is an uncommon vehicle but not impossible to find. Bombardier-built Type 183s can be found with relative ease and only a bit of Googling.

For the record, the Audi Q3 is still a go. There’s no plan to swap it out for the Iltis. That said, maybe Audi should crank up the Bombardier plant for another run of Iltises. While the Q3 will no doubt be faster, more sporty and more refined, it can only hope to have the charm of a beige Iltis ferrying skiers in Davos, journalists in Mont Tremblant or tackling any other hill that gets in its way.

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