In 1975, when Volkswagen shifted from air-colled, rear-drive cars (the beetle) to water-cooled, front-drive power (the Rabbit), it was Audi that developed the engine.
And when VW wanted a junior-size car to the Rabbit, even though it would not be sold in the United States (the Polo), it was Audi that did most of the work. Then when the West German Army asked for a new military vehicle like the Jeep, Audi came up with the Iltis.
Then again, in a stunning example of serendipity at its best, Audi engineers came up with the 4-wheel-drive Qualtro, a superbly handling vehicle and offshoot of the Iltis. Although now sold in Europe, it won't reach the US till 1982.
Indeed, Audi engineers have proved to be a highly motivated, innovative team, based in Ingolstadt -- about 50 miles north of Munich -- and a vital cog in the VW success story around the globe.
"While we share our experiences with VW to some degree, we still are in competition with our colleagues in wolfsburg," asserts Dr. Hans-Juergen Sassor, manager of special assignments for the US.
Audi does no work on the diesel engine, however. "We only work on the 4 -stroke gasoline engine," reports Dr. Sassor.
Audi is known by the four interlocked rings on its cars which stand for the four small German automakers -- Audi, DKW, Horch, and Wanderer -- which came together in 1932 to form a new firm, Auto Union. Later, after NSU was brought into the fold, the company was bought by Volkswagenwerk AG in the late 1960s.
Many of the 2,200 Audi engineers around the world -- Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, and of course the US -- including Dr. Sassor, came from NSU, which had long pioneered the Wankel (rotary) engine in Germany. Ultimately it built and sold the ill-fated RO-80, although not in the US.
Indeed, NSU was an early backer of the engine developed by Dr. Felix Wankel in the 1950s and which also was pursued by Toyo Kogyo of Japan, builder of the Wankel-powered Mazda RX-7. The RO-80, however, suffered right from the start and production was stopped until a new twin rotary engine was developed.
Two years ago, however, the Audi front office decided not to build the new engine because of the changing world market, plus the fact that it needed the factory space for other output. By dropping the engine, $50 million went down the drain. General Motors also dumped the rotary, and $50 million at least, when Edward M. Cole, then president, retired in 1975.
"The Audi decision was not against the rotary engine itself, but rather not to build that particular engine," insists Dr. Sassor.
"It was an economic decision," he adds.
[Meanwhile, Audi chairman Wolfgang R. Habbel confirms that both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China have indicated an interest in the rotary engine, according to Automotive News, the trade weekly.]
Ironically, some of the members of the VW board of management still have their RO-80 Wankel-engine cars. Even so, the reputation of the car was poor, including the low-mileage image of the engine at a time of worsening energy supplies and sharply higher fuel prices around the world.
Looking ahead, Dr. Sassor muses: "Perhaps in the next 5 or 10 years the situation could change for the rotary engine if production costs can be cut. However, the standard reciprocating engine is a product of the last hundred years and all the components have been refined over and over again."
Looking at the company today, there is broad room for engine improvements over the next few years, according to Dr. Sassor.
"We will improve the horsepower and top output of our engines," he asserts. "We want to put the final polish on the total engine."
In 1981, for instance, the compression ratio was increased from 8-to-1 to 8.3 and, he adds, "it will be 9 in 1982."
All automotive engineers are reducing friction, not only of the engine, but of the total power train as well in the search for better mileage on the road. They're working, for example, on reducing the tension of piston rings and all the auxiliary devices on an engine -- alternator, water pump, etc.
By reducing the weight 100 kilos, you can reduce fuel consumption about 1 liter per 100 kilometers driven.
Improving the mileage, however, comes hard, Audi engineers agree. "We're frustrated in our attempts to improve the fuel economy of our cars," Dr. Sassor admits.
Under actual driving conditions, "the fuel mileage of our cars is better than the figures we get by using the EPA cycle on a dynamometer and we don't know why.
"The EPA cycle is not the typical way a motorist drives his car, anyway," he complains.
Audi designers find it hard to cut weight because they start with a much lighter car. Nonetheless, they are using more lightweight materials, especially for suspension parts, and already have tried graphite for the propeller shaft, but it is still under development.
Sheet-aluminum wheels are likely before long.
The Audi Quattro can use two different rims, one 6 inches wide and the other 7 inches wide; or one cast aluminum, the other drop-forged aluminum. "But on a standard car it's too expensive," Dr. Sassor asserts.
"On standard cars in the near future we will see wheels from aluminum sheets, " he predicts. They already are offered on the Chrysler Imperial, but the price is more than double that for a normal steel rim.
"That's just too high," he says.
Changes in chassis design will be evolutionary, predicts Dr. Sassor.
There is a big difference between US and European cars. Right now more than 80 percent of the entire European production is in front-drive cars while in the US the figure is less than 30 percent.
"I'm sure that within the next few years no new car will be introduced, say in the class under 2 liters, with rear-wheel-drive," he predicts.
Audi has run into stiff winds with some of its cars in the past, notably the LS 100, which had, among other things, a proclivity to rust. "It was a bad dream," muses Dr. Sassor.
Now, he adds, the Audi goal is to design for the strength and durability of its components so that only one component out of 100,000 cars will fail under normal driving conditions.
Typical driving in West Germany includes 20 percent freeway.
Surveying the complex of nondescript buildings here in Ingolstadt, Dr. Sassor asserts: "We have invested in the inside of our buildings, not the outside.
"We build cars, not with our buildings, but with our heads."