This past week, as I once again violated my “car ownership stabilization” plan for the umpteenth time and turned over 66.6% of the stable inside of 48 hours, it occurred to me that I’ve accumulated an interesting enough collection of observations, about an interesting enough range of automobiles, in my 20 some odd years of driving, that it just might be worth blogging about. So with that in mind this entry will mark the first in a series of “notes from the road”; casual, sometimes objective but mainly subjective, thoughts on the full catalog of 23 fine (and not so fine) vehicles I have been fortunate to own since first getting my license way way back in 1987 (a day which shall live in fiscal infamy!) Where I can I will include some photos of the actual car and, where I didn’t bother to save any, at least a stock photo for reference. I’ll also provide some personal context where I think it might be relevant or is coloring my observations.
Baby’s First Steps – 1985 Audi 4000S
I figure the best place to start is at the beginning. In this case that would be with my very first car: a 1985 Audi 4000S, Copenhagen blue with dove grey cloth interior. It’s funny how time and life experience gives us perspective, and I can admit it is more than a little bit embarrassing to say that I absolutely took this car for granted when I was handed the keys. It has been my dad’s car, bought cash, brand new, with a good years bonus for the then not insubstantial sum of nearly $17,000. Two years later, in 1987, he finally decided to make the move to Manhattan, the daily expressbus ride from Staten Island wearing thin, and handed the car off to me for safe keeping. The deal was I had to contribute to put gas in it, pay for maintenance and contribute what I could from my part time video store (remember those?! no? that’s ok 🙂 ) job to the insurance burden. As a 17 year old high school senior, a brand new Audi was a pretty incredible ride. Over the past 25 years Audi has done an amazing job of building their brand power and their lineup and has grown into a real challenge to BMW. It’s worth noting though, that the mid 80s was really the dawn of this evolution. So as great as the Audi was, back in 1987 it was a lot closer to the VW side of the Porsche/Audi/VW family than to its barnstorming cousins from Stuttgart. Cutting to the chase, all of this is an attempt at rationalizing how an ignorant young 17 year old could think a great car was just a bit boring and “uncool”.
Build Quality, Design and Ergonomics
I have some great memories of this car as, since it was my first, I tinkered with it a bit. Adding a rear spoiler to mimic the vaunted quattro’s look, swapping the standard Blaupunkt head unit for what I viewed as a superior Alpine one (in reality a side grade) and even trying my hand at my first oil change (quite a mess). The fit and finish and overall build quality of the 85 Audi was exceptional. The doors closed with a satisfying thud and the interior plastics, while basic, had a solid feel and wore well over time. The design, while a bit conservative, had many modern (for the time) cues like a blend of body colored and black molding and accents, nicely designed alloy wheels, injection molded bumpers and soft lines. Compared to the steel behemoths of the 70’s still prowling the streets at the time, the Audi was positively space age. It is a testament to this forward looking design aesthetic that even today, the early to mid 80’s Audi’s hold up quite well. Better even than their BMW and Mercedes contemporaries of the same era. Inside that same pattern of somewhat austere, but cleanly modern, simplicity continued. The fabrics were well stitched and wore well over the 3 years that I owned the car (the 4000s had a cloth interior) and the controls ergonomics were great. Everything was in reach of the driver, well labeled, and worked as expected. Being an entry level luxe sedan in the 80s, most of the controls were analog. Straightforward sliders and knobs for the climate control and head unit and standard mechanical controls for the seats. The car did have power windows, door locks, mirrors and sunroof, however, which were all a nice high-end touch matching what BMW was doing with the 3 series at the time. Overall the cabin was definitely a nice place to spend time and while certainly not up to the over-the-top standards of a modern Audi, I suspect it still is.
The Audi was one of those cars that felt faster and more agile than it really was. The suspension was very well matched to the chassis, the weight distribution was reasonably even and the 1.8L 4 cylinder power plant, while a bit anemic with an output of only 115 or so HP and 125 or so tq, was nicely responsive thanks to the front drive configuration. Steering, braking and throttle feel were all excellent and overall my personal opinion was that the car held up surprisingly well against the 1986 325i which a good friend of ours owned and I was able to drive frequently at the time. The BMW was firmer, sportier and a good bit quicker overall, but the Audi had a more comfortable, yet still firm, ride and a similar feeling of both enthusiasm and quality.
I have to say that the Audi was pretty trouble free with one exception. After a year or so of ownership I ran into what turned out to be an idle speed control solenoid issue. This issue ultimately went on to become infamous vis a vis the Audi “sudden acceleration” scandal. In reality what would happen is the idle would fluctuate erratically under certain conditions and could surprise you, or worse stall, but nothing that an alert driver couldn’t compensate for. The real problem was that, as a broke high school student trying to do my own maintenance on a high dollar German car, I dealt exclusively with “corner shop” type mechanics who really had no clue. It took eventually bringing it into Audi, and a steep repair bill, to finally sort it out. The other issue I ran into was really courtesy of the horrific Brooklyn roads. The CV boot had cracked, and the grease dried up over time, eventually taking the left CV joint with it. Another expensive repair, but this one able to be diagnosed and repaired by pretty much any reasonably competent wrench. The learning experience I took away from this though was that you had to “pay to play” and that cutting corners with European metal wasn’t a great idea. Every since then it has been premium dealers or truly expert independents only for me.
In conclusion the Audi set a very high bar for me even though I didn’t realize it at the time. Like most young men I would have to learn the hard way and, as it turned out, it wasn’t until nearly a decade later that I was able to return to this level of automotive excellence! Luckily I did save a picture of my first baby complete with a horrifically embarrassing 80’s shot of yours truly!