David Rowe already had a deep passion for motorsport, but when tragedy struck his family in 2014 it led to the creation of a very special machine indeed.
Meet Ray, at no. 1 Acacia Crescent, middle-Englandshire. Ray lives behind an entirely normal door, in an entirely normal village. It’s fair to say he doesn’t get out much, but one thing he does enjoy is a holiday once a year to America, or more specifically, Colorado Springs. Mountain climbing is his unlikely passion, see – he’s been twice, and the locals for some reason seem to know him on sight. The perilously thin air doesn’t affect his lungs much, but why would it, for Ray is not a slacks-wearing septuagenarian enduring retirement; Ray is a car. A thoroughly modernised evolution of the most ferocious Audi ever conceived. Ray has nearly 700kW.
Of all the incredible vehicles built in homes across the British Isles, this must be one of the most ambitious and well executed in existence. Not just because of what it is, but for how it’s been used in one of the last great hardcore motorsport events. But then you only have to meet Ray’s creator, David Rowe, to understand how this might all be possible, and also to understand the powerful emotive force behind the creation of this outrageous machine.
‘‘My father was a petrolhead,’’ says this big, affable ex-pat Australian. ‘‘We’ve always been involved in fast cars, and go-karts. After school I became a mechanic by trade, then back in Melbourne I got a job at Motec. They also owned Motec Europe, so I came over in October 2000 – for a year.’’
After nine years with Motec in the UK, Rowe set up on his own 10 years ago as EPS, offering mapping and calibration, track-side support and generally everything to do with the supply, fitting and running of Motec ECU systems and their ancillaries. He rallied Mk2 Escorts and even a 5.0-litre V8 ute back in Australia, with some success, entering up to 15 events a year: ‘‘They were such good times, even if you’re repairing the rear quarter panels a lot! Then again, you could buy a complete Mk2 Escort for $1500 back then, so…’’
The rallying bug bit hard from an early age: ‘‘When I was a youngster, Group A was the flavour; Martini Lancias, Cosworths, the Toyota GT4 with Carlos Sainz – it was awesome. But the video that really made it was Climb Dance, with Ari Vatanen on the Pikes Peak, and that’s where all this comes from.’’
Okay, so if that’s the case, why are we not looking at a home-brewed evolution of a Peugeot 405 T16?
‘‘My love affair with the Quattro started when I came to England, as my first customer was Keith Murray at Dialynx Performance. He had a silver short-wheelbase Quattro that he campaigned in the British Hill Climb Championship and it was batshit crazy – 560kW, mega light. He took me for a ride in it and I couldn’t believe how fast it was. I had to build one. So that’s when we built Walter.’’
Walter? Yes, that’s right, Ray is by no means the only home-brewed beast in the Rowe collection, exhibit ‘A’ being Walter, a spaceframe chassis Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2-a-like powered by a tuned twin-turbo Audi V8 engine with over 520kW. ‘‘Walter was built just for fun,’’ says Rowe, with a laugh. ‘‘I’ve always been one to tinker in the garage and make stuff – that’s why I like building them, not buying them. And because I can. And, well, you can’t buy one [a Sport Quattro] anyway, so you have to build it – you have to join two cars together to make it, but you have to know where to get the bits, or how to make the bits yourself. I can build it to a high standard and it doesn’t cost me a lot of money as I’m not paying for all the labour content. It also means I learn new disciplines, which helps in the day job.’’
By the beginning of this decade Rowe was really missing taking part in motorsport, but wasn’t sure what to do about it. He didn’t want to compete nationally to avoid running head-to-head with his clients: ‘‘I wanted to do one big event a year, so I thought, ‘F*** it. Let’s just do Pikes Peak in 2013.’ It’s one of the biggest international events you can do at a realistically affordable level.’’
Building a car was the least of his problems. Nine months later Rowe had built a stunning Mitsubishi Evo IX Time Attack car with 560kW. I saw that car up close at the time, and it wasn’t just the spec that stood out, it was the quality of the build. If someone said a major professional racing team had built it at the behest of Mitsubishi I’d have believed them, but one hadn’t; instead, it all took place largely in Rowe’s garage. Frankly, I was in awe.
For Rowe, the hard part was always going to be actually competing in Colorado. ‘‘I’m good at planning and I like the logistics side, just making things happen,’’ he explains. ‘‘With Pikes Peak you have to apply for an entry, and submit a résumé on why you’re not going to drive off the end of the cliff. We started building the car and originally got rejected, and then a couple of my mates in the industry said, ‘You want this guy on your event,’ and my wife sent a letter with big words in it as well, and they reconsidered my entry and I got it in.’’
It was to be the beginning of a journey that’s seen him make friends on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘‘I met up with Bob Boileau at the nearby Pikes Peak Raceway, and he offered me a workshop at the racetrack, and said they would accept the freight of the vehicle. As it turned out, for the actual hill climb we were based there with Loeb and the works Peugeot team – and me with my Mitsubishi, just me! The guys there love that you’re making an effort to come from England to compete, and they couldn’t do enough for me. We’re all best friends – it’s so easy to do Pikes Peak now. Bob has a little corner where all my parts get sent in advance. The first time I did it I was shitting myself over logistics. It was a big task, but we got over it.’’
In comparison to Peugeot Sport’s multi-million-dollar effort, Rowe’s team was miniscule: his dad, and brother Jason Rowe, came over from Australia, his wife flew out for moral support.
‘‘The first Pikes Peak was hard, partly because the car was freshly built. When you’re there the altitude really f***s things up. You have 30 per cent less air, so you need a 30 per cent bigger cooling system, more cooling for your brakes, softer-compound tyres because track temps aren’t as high – you have to learn all this. It’s a tough event – you’re up at 2am to get ready for practice, and then on the hill at 3 to 4am.’’
Rowe didn’t just go out early that first year to sort logistics, he also went to try to learn the course, which has been all-asphalt since 2012: ‘‘This is the hard part. You’ve got 156 corners, but the terrain is very similar in places, and some you approach at 200km/h and some at 140km/h, and if you don’t know where you are that’s when you fall off, and there’s no fluffy gravel traps and hay bales; one bit has a 900-metre drop.’’
Rowe watched many hours of YouTube videos, and then pressed a hire car into service to start learning the hill in sections – and to acclimatise to the altitude, as high as 14,500 feet at the summit. ‘‘It’s a 50km/h speed limit, and I got pulled by a ranger as I was the first one on the hill that day and speeding. He asked for my licence and car number, and obviously guessed I was a competitor, so then said: ‘I’ve pulled up all you lot: Ari Vatanen, Michèle Mouton,’ blah blah. ‘That Michele Mouton was crazy! She said us Americans were a bunch of pussies and we should be racing downhill, not uphill!’ If you get caught a second time you’re booted out of the event, so I was pretty careful after that.’’
Talking of the local constabulary, Rowe’s actual run up the hill in 2013 was marred by a rain shower halfway up – not good news when you’re on slicks – but he was so elated when he reached the top that he couldn’t resist a few impromptu donuts in the Evo, an activity which caught the attention of an officer who delivered the immortal line: ‘‘Today’s the only day you’re going to do that, son. Any other day and we’d probably shoot your ass.’’
Rowe was back in 2014, not with the Evo but supporting another competitor. When he arrived and switched his phone on it glowed red hot with missed calls and messages. Anxiously calling home to Australia he received the dreadful news that his brother Jason had died suddenly. Understandably, it was a life-changing moment for David, but as he tried to come to terms with his loss, out of the grieving process grew a passionate desire to build something really special.
‘‘Anything Jason and I could race, we’d race together. He was always there for me. We sat at the top of Pikes Peak looking over the valley in 2013 and he said, ‘You’ve got to build a bitchin’ Quattro to come up here. It’s got to be five-cylinder like back in the day.’ We had that banter to do it, so I thought, ‘I’m going to build a car in his name,’ and his name was Jason Raymond Rowe, which is why we picked the name Ray for the new Quattro.’’
In 2015 Rowe competed at Pikes Peak once again, and set the quickest time yet recorded by a Lancer Evo, enough for 2nd in the Time Attack class behind Jeff Zwart’s Porsche. But already plans were being made for the new car.
When Group B was abruptly banned part way through the 1986 World Rally Championship, manufacturers and teams were left with lots of expensive cars and nowhere to run them. Over the next five years Group B cars completely took over rallycross, dominated rally raids, and also appeared at Pikes Peak. In fact, Audi had been going there for much of the decade anyway, but in 1987 decided to have one more go with a factory-run Quattro; truly, the end of an era. The result was a radical overhaul of the already extreme E2 version of the short-wheelbase Quattro S1.
Much of the structure was now a spaceframe, the suspension was completely redesigned and the engine was comprehensively evolved into something that Audi officially claimed had 450kW, but which Walter Röhrl later said was more like 560kW. The cow-catcher front end and massive rear wing of the rally car were dramatically extended, with a separate front wing and double-level rear. It was more than enough: Röhrl’s eventual time of 10:47.8 was not only a winning one, but a record one too, and made him the first driver to dip under 11 minutes – all in an era, remember, when just 25 per cent of the course was asphalt.
‘‘We were never going to build an original car,’’ says David, ‘‘because you can’t physically do that – there are no parts around. So we decided to make a modern take on it, with modern parts from the same brands – Alcon brakes and Recaro seats like the original, and a five-cylinder engine, but the unit from the current TT RS.’’
Rowe followed the original method of creating a Sport. He found a rotten Audi 80 and a very forlorn-looking Audi Quattro and chopped the back off the former and the front off the latter. The 80 provided the more upright windscreen angle, and after 250mm was cut out of what was left of the Quattro, the whole lot was welded together, acid dipped and then built around an immensely strong roll-cage. Replica body panels were sourced from Germany, but the TT RS engine is all Rowe’s own work.
While hardly short on urge in the first instance, every element of the five-pot motor has been carefully developed, with the result that in its latest guise, it’s good for 679kW before the hit of nitrous chimes in. I won’t turn this into a spec list, but from the multi-adjustable KW dampers and the semi-automatic gearbox (with flat-shift feature), to the Alcon GT brakes and bespoke crafted suspension arms, the Rowe Quattro is something very special. Naturally, it’s packed with the sort of electronics that are Rowe’s bread and butter: 240 data channels in all, covering every aspect of the car.
And yet it’s the little details that are fascinating. There’s the works-type suspension top mounts, to which the strut is attached with a locking pin, allowing different caster settings in an instant. Or the engine valve cover, digitally scanned from an ’80s original to make the engine bay look authentic. Look at the famous Audi rings on the grille, too: they were unique on the works cars, so Rowe scanned a set and CNC machined his own out of aluminium. The more you look, the more beautiful this monster of a car becomes.
How fast is it? ‘‘When you launch it it makes you giddy,’’ he says with the biggest grin. ‘‘It’s ridiculous. Up to 2 G acceleration. Up to 2 G under braking. Out of some of the hairpins we’re pulling 1.8 G under acceleration.’’ Unsurprisingly, this isn’t run on 95 unleaded: ‘‘We run 120-octane fuel. It’s rated above that, but they can’t measure it above 120 RON. So we don’t get any knocking and we can run really high ignition advance without worrying about detonating a piston higher up the mountain. It’s worth remembering with the massive radiators and oil coolers it uses about 2 litres of fuel just to warm the engine up – and it’s $18 a litre…’’
Ray was ready for the 2017 running of Pikes Peak, but problems with the nitrous system marred Rowe’s run. Returning in 2018 he fared better, but the fan belt came off halfway up and the Motec system pulled everything back to try to conserve the engine. Fourth in the Unlimited class was some reward, but Ray is about more than just setting a great time on the hill: ‘‘I got goosebumps at the start in that car. I’d won before I’d even got there. The guy that waves the flag congratulated me and said, ‘Dude, thanks for bringing the car. We’ve seen the story on Facebook. Go and have a safe time, and enjoy the hill.’ I still remember those words – it’s just very special. If Jason could have been there he’d have been pissing his pants. He was 41 when he died. Family in life is the most important thing. Family, cars… that’s it really. We always had those two things.’’
With a road-legal 1:1 Quattro S1 project in the works (that’s 1000bhp and 1000kg, readers) as well as a more refined, 560kW long-wheelbase Quattro with full interior nearing completion, it seems there’ll soon be more names added to the automotive electoral roll at this particular address. There may be a return to Colorado, too: Rowe believes Ray can go under ten minutes without problems. Now that, David, really would be ‘batshit crazy’. Adam Towler