As he hands over the keys in the car park of Audi’s UK headquarters in Milton Keynes, Alex from the press office tells me something he’s only just been told himself. The 100 GLS we’re standing beside may be the only one within sight today, but forty years ago, before he was born, the place was full of them. At management level, almost everyone wanted to have a 100, and perhaps more importantly to be seen to have one.
This was neither the first nor the last generation of 100. There had been one in the sixties, and there were to be two more, the last of them rechristened A6 when Audi revised its naming strategy towards the end of the century.
The second was perhaps the most radical of them all. The body styling – “timeless rather than extravagant and functional rather than deliberately eye-catching,” Audi said at the time – may not have been dramatic, but it was partly the result of a serious effort to reduce wind resistance, a subject that had only recently become fashionable.
This was also the first 100, the first Audi and indeed the first mass-produced car of any sort to be sold with a five-cylinder engine. “As economical as a four, as smooth as a six,” claimed the advertising copywriters. There were those in the industry who joked that it was the other way round. It was, of course, no passing fad. Audi kept on building engines of this layout and continues to do so now. Others have done the same, but to anyone whose life was changed by Hannu Mikkola, Michele Mouton, Walter Röhrl and others flinging their Quattros through rally stages, every five-cylinder car in the world sounds like an Audi no matter what badge it wears.
If you know your 1970s Audis, though, you’ll be aware that this 1978 example can’t possibly have that engine. The S in its name tells you it must be powered by a 114bhp two-litre four-cylinder unit (petrol, obviously – there were no diesels at this time). The GL shows that it’s in the highest of the three available trim levels, and thus blessed with a laminated windscreen, headlight washers, front and rear foglights, velour upholstery, pile carpeting (including on the parcel shelf and in the boot), a revcounter and, for those who felt they needed them, a voltmeter and an oil temperature gauge.
You could have all that for £5615, which must have seemed quite modest compared with the £7950 Audi was asking for the Avant CD five-cylinder automatic. This particular car would have cost more, though, since the body was painted in the very attractive Reseda Green. As the pictures on this page show, it’s a metallic colour and therefore added £142.58 to the price. Buyers would also have been charged £45.36 for mainland UK delivery.
Audi bought this car for its heritage fleet in 2012, but it’s in such good condition I would almost have believed Alex if he had told me it had been built in that year as a special project. The instruments seem not entirely unfamiliar to someone who has driven a lot of modern Audis, but the interior is otherwise quite foreign, and dominated by no fewer than six ventilation outlets built into the dashboard.
There is no air-conditioning (which is a bit unfortunate as today is a hot day) and you don’t have much choice of where the air goes. You can send it up to the windscreen, or down to your feet, or have it coming straight at you. What you can’t do is send it in two or more directions at once.
On the road, it quickly becomes apparent that what was considered good enough for a premium car in the late 1970s would be the subject of bitter criticism today. The gearchange is recalcitrant from cold and doesn’t improve much once the oil has warmed up, making the £435 for automatic transmission seem a wise investment, and although the 185/70×14 tyres are narrow by current standards the steering has no power assistance and is very heavy at low speeds.
There is also a tremendous amount of noise. When the car was introduced, Audi said it had paid a lot of attention to sound deadening, and I’m sure this is true. Nevertheless, the thrashing from under the bonnet as the engine turns over at 3600rpm while the car is travelling at 70mph in top gear is almost painful. I can’t help wondering what other cars of the era must have been like on a motorway journey if this was considered one of the quiet ones.
The old 100 is at its best on bendy A-roads, where the steering is lighter than it is in town and the handling helps to take your mind off the sound effects. You can flow from one corner to the next and marvel at the balance of grip, which is as near perfect as makes no difference at the speeds I’m prepared to reach in such a precious machine in countryside I don’t know well.
I like that, and I’m prepared to accept the less favourable aspects as examples of quaintness. I’ve told Alex I don’t need to spend more than an hour in the car, but despite being increasingly hot and deaf I end up staying out for three. I think this must mean I’ve become an Audi 100 enthusiast.