By the time the automotive world got its first look at the angular Audi quattro coupe at the Geneva Auto Show in March, 1980, the all-wheel-drive technology that inspired it had just finished claiming the laurels in one of the world's toughest rallies, but the Paris-Dakar winning four-wheeler wasn't wearing Audi badges.
The vehicle that won that year's trek from Paris across the Sahara's sands to Dakar on the west coast of Africa wasn't a racy-looking rally car, but a rugged military utility vehicle called the Iltis and it was carrying the colours of Audi's parent Volkswagen, although it had been readied for the rally by Audi.
The Paris-Dakar event was the highlight of the Iltis's brief competition career - Audi's quattros, of course, went on to dominate rallying in the years ahead - but this tough little euro-jeep went on to serve German, Belgian and Canadian forces into the new millennium. Canadian-built examples served with our forces in Afghanistan until being phased out in 2005 in favour of the Mercedes-Benz Gelaendenwagen.
But it was the olive-drab Iltis - named for a German polecat - that gets the credit for meshing the gears in the imagination of Jorg Bensinger, a member of the team Audi (at VW's behest) had created to design a new light vehicle for Germany's Bundeswehr.
Bensinger was testing a prototype early in 1977 and was impressed by how quick it was in slippery conditions despite its low power. What if we bolted this system under something with more oomph, was the question he asked himself.
And then apparently Audi chief engineer Dr. Ferdinand Piech (later to head Volkswagen) who, never shy of imagination himself, immediately ordered a test mule to be built to explore the possibilities.
This was soon cobbled together from the floor pan and bodywork of a front-drive Audi 80 Coupe and a turbocharged, five-cylinder engine from an Audi 200 stuffed under the hood. After a few tweaks it worked brilliantly and in mid-1978 Audi got the go-ahead signal from VW to develop a production version.
The Audi quattro made its Geneva show debut a couple of years later and the rest, as they say, is history. In the three decades that have followed, Audi has built some 3.7 million all-wheel-drive vehicles.
The Iltis story begins with a 1960s NATO attempt to create a standardized European amphibious 4x4 utility vehicle that eventually fizzled in the mid-1970s, participants' enthusiasm dampened by a bureaucratic cold war fog.
In the meantime, Volkswagen had come up with a compromise vehicle in the form of the Type 181. This drew its inspiration from the World War Two Kubelwagen, which was based on the rear-engine "Volkswagen" or people's car that would later be known as the Beetle. The also rear-engined, Beetle-based Type 181 would be marketed in civilian form in North America as the Thing.
The demise of the NATO effort left the German military without a really suitable replacement for its Munga utility vehicle - designed in the late 1950s and built by DKW up to 1968 - and it put out a call for a new design, to which Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen responded.
Volkswagen had recently consolidated a group of companies that included DKW under the Audi name and leveraged the existing Munga expertise to create the lightweight, relatively simple and inexpensive Iltis. After trials the Iltis, branded as a Volkswagen, was eventually selected over the bigger, heavier and pricier Mercedes Gelaendenwagen, which had the last laugh, replacing the Iltis for Canada's troops in Afghanistan.
The Iltis is an all-steel design weighing 1,550 kg, with an open (canvas-topped) bodywork with integral roll bar. It was built in a standard version but also available in ambulance, cable layer, military police and TOW missile launcher equipped versions.
The suspension system is based on long semi-elliptical leaf springs that span the chassis from side to side. It's powered by a 1.7-litre, four-cylinder engine that produces 75 hp at 5,000 rpm and is fitted with a five-speed gearbox. Four speeds are used normally, with an ultra-low first gear available if required. The "allradentrieb" or all-wheel-drive system is of the manually selectable type with the vehicle operating in rear-wheel-drive unless it is engaged. Top speed is about 100 km/h.
It went into production in Germany in 1978 and some 8,800 were built there until Canada's Bombardier purchased the rights and tooling in 1981 and moved production to Quebec, where another 1,900 were built for the Canadian military and 2,500 for Belgium.
The Canadian forces took about 100 to Afghanistan to serve mainly as patrol vehicles but complaints about the lack of power and uncertain reliability of these aging combatants soon began to emerge. The Iltis also offered little protection from roadside improvised explosive devices resulting in a number of deaths and injuries, which led to their replacement by the armour-kitted Gelaendenwagens.
The units that saw service in Afghanistan apparently remained there, but others were sold off to the public and can still be seen at military vehicle enthusiast events and summertime car shows.