Bob Dylan is one of the most famous, most recognizable, and one of the most respected names in the music industry. His songs have become a part of the rock ‘n’ roll canon, and have been covered so many times that younger listeners are often surprised to learn that a particular piece was, in fact, written by Bob Dylan, not the artist with whom they are familiar. This is perhaps all the more startling when we consider the fact that, as a performer, Bob Dylan really isn’t all that great.
Now there are purists, of course. There will be people who swear high and low that the original Dylan version of a song is by far the best. These people, though vocal, are in the minority. By and large, the most iconic versions of most of his songs came about when performed by someone else. This is no slight to Dylan himself. When these legendary songs are performed by names like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Van Morrison, Patti LaBelle, Pearl Jam, Johnny Cash and the Rolling Stones, there is no shame in admitting their versions were better.
“All Along the Watchtower” is a perfect example. Jimi Hendrix took the song to heights so far beyond Dylan’s own ability that it transcended legend. But because it was a cover, it remained accessible, and as such, has been continually remade and reimagined by countless artists.
This is, perhaps, a long-winded analogy to build; it is necessary, however, to truly understand the context of this week’s Hooniversity subject, and to appreciate the subject. For the Audi RS2 is one of those vehicles that deserves the quiet respect it is given.
At first glance, it seems an unassuming thing. A rather bland-looking station-wagon based on the Audi 80 Avant. It features some obvious upgrades, all of which would seem quite standard today, including larger wheels, a more aggressive front air dam, and a lowered suspension. And indeed, it was largely that: a modified version of their run-of-the-mill quattro station wagon.
The true magic of the thing, however, requires a dual perspective. While not as iconic as, say, the original Mini, or as astonishing an accomplishment as the current Corvette, it laid the groundwork for a generation of cars to follow.
In 1993, Audi was attempting to redefine itself. The brand was largely perceived as a higher trim level of Volkswagen, and with the release of the Corrado and the Passat, two higher-end models within the Volkswagen stable, Volkswagen itself was gaining a reputation as something more than the lowly economy brand it had been. It was determined that Audi needed to become a more serious competitor for BMW and Mercedes-Benz, two brands who had been significantly more upmarket. There was also some grumbling within Audi itself, for some of their engineers felt that their cars, and in particular the quattro drivetrain they had developed, had a great deal more potential than they were allowed to demonstrate. In short, the engineers felt that they were being “held back”.
How the decision was made is somewhat unclear, but the chain of events occurred with an almost explosive suddenness. In early 1993, with the cancellation of an arrangement which saw Porsche manufacturing the Mercedes-Benz E500, there was suddenly surplus capacity available at Porsche’s Zuffenhausen facility. Audi seized the opportunity, and quickly began shipping Porsche the parts for their compact station wagons.
Porsche engineers, it is said, seized upon the task with an amused enthusiasm. They were largely given carte blanche to do as they pleased, and they took to the task with great gusto. In essence, they did to this little station wagon what Hendrix did to “All Along the Watchtower”.
The excellent Audi 2.2L turbo-five was broken down and reimagined. The turbocharger was replaced with a larger unit; a heavy-duty intercooler was installed. A more free-flowing intake and exhaust were installed. The camshaft was redesigned several times with an eye towards extracting exactly the performance they desired. A custom-designed engine-management system was created by Bosch from scratch — one of the first times a limited production car did not simply have a slightly-reprogrammed version of an off-the-shelf system. The fuel injectors, fuel pump and fuel pressure regulators were swapped out for high-end Porsche units. And an exclusive six-speed manual gearbox — with no automatic available! — was hitched up to the trademark quattro system. The car was treated to a suspension system closely related to that of the 911 Turbo, and massive disc brakes were fitted all around; ironically, this led to a rather obvious mistake, in that the previously-planned wheels and tires would not fit. As a workaround for testing purposes, Porsche simply fit the wheels and tires from the 911, and never bothered to change it later. The distinctive Porsche wheels, installed as an afterthought, became one of the most iconic aspects of the car.
The result astonished virtually everyone, including those engineers who worked on the car with some amusement. The engine easily produced well over 300 bhp, and generated 0-60 times well below 5 seconds with an electronically-limited top speed of over 160 mph. While these numbers may not seem so astonishing to us today, they were very significant for 1993, and put the car’s performance directly on par with the C5 Corvette and the Porsche 911. More importantly, however, the engine had been so carefully massaged that the power band was strategically placed right where it could be used most effectively, making the car exceptionally drivable, and according to reviewers at the time, faster than the numbers would allow.
At this point, there are certainly some of you reading this with skepticism. After all, there have been many European cars in the last 20 years that have similar claims. But when the RS2 was released, there was only one: the BMW M3, and that was only available as a coupé. The RS2, then, was more powerful, more usable, faster, more technologically advanced, more stable, and could easily function as a day-to-day car. Where the M3 was intended as a sports car, the RS2 was a station wagon, capable of being a family’s only vehicle. And Mercedes-Benz, the other German rival, was caught completely flat-footed; they had nothing at all to compete, and would have nothing for five more years.
This was a major coup, and made the automotive world do a collective double-take. Audi, a mid-market brand, had enlisted Porsche’s help, and introduced a vehicle that effectively catapulted them well past Mercedes-Benz and put them nose-to-nose with the world leader, BMW. Today, we think nothing of comparing the three rivals; it seems natural! But in 1993, it was a two-horse race. By 1994, Audi had effectively entered the race and taken the lead, and more importantly for those of us with a passion for cars, had ignited a fierce rivalry that pushed each manufacturer to dramatically improve and try and out-do the others.
But the story doesn’t end there. In the early 1990s, the market was awash in decent, comfortable luxury cars. The German cars were seen as excellent cars for a very limited clientele. It has been argued that it was the rivalry between Audi and BMW, thanks to the RS2 and the A4 that followed, that made the public sit up and take notice. From there, all the other brands found themselves frantically playing catch-up. Effectively, this car ignited a rivalry that put brands like Lincoln and Cadillac in serious trouble, and that effect is still being seen today.
So, to recap, let’s return to Bob Dylan. Most of the biggest names in music, from the Beatles, to the Rolling Stones, to Dave Matthews, to Matchbox 20, to the Black Eyed Peas, all list Bob Dylan as one of their greatest influences. But taken in isolation, Bob Dylan is a good lyricist, and an adequate performer. It was in the hands of others — such as Jimi Hendrix — that his work truly became the stuff of legend, and as such influenced all the music that followed.
Similarly, this little Audi, an insignificant car by itself, was remastered by Porsche to become something great. And its influence can be felt on many of the finest cars we admire today, from the BMW M3, to the Pontiac G8 GXP, to the AMG C63, to the Cadillac CTS-V, to the Subaru WRX/STi. The rivalry it inspired caused the level of competition to escalate dramatically, and many automakers are just starting to catch up now.
Like Bob Dylan, sometimes a legend just needs a little help to get there.