When did Audi become a premium brand? There is no clear answer to this question. In the 1980s, the Ingolstadt-based company still took the motto "Technology as an advantage" very seriously and shook up the competition with the Audi quattro and Sport quattro. In 1988 the V8 appeared as the new top model. Although technically independent, the saloon looked like a bloated Audi 200 to many (see gallery at the end of this article).

It was clear to CEO Ferdinand Piëch: the successor also had to set new standards on the exterior. As early as 1982, Piëch had already signed a contract with the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) to lay the foundations for a new high-end car with a lightweight design. Because the Audi V8 also proved that, with an unladen weight of more than 1.7 tonnes, it was not exactly slender.

Gallery: Audi Space Frame Concept (1993)

The Audi ASF Concept, the beginning of the A8 saga

Audi heralded the start of a new era with the presentation of the aluminium ASF (Audi Space Frame) concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show in autumn 1993. It wasn't just the bodywork that was special. Under the bonnet was a 3.4-litre V8 TDI engine. A diesel engine was still quite unusual in luxury saloons at the time.

Perhaps "concept" is not the right word, as the ASF was more like a near-production prototype of the first generation A8. It was shown to the public with an unpainted body of polished aluminium to emphasise the car's lightness.

Indeed, it was light, as the aluminium body of the production car launched in 1994 weighed only 249 kg. With the basic 2.8-litre petrol engine, the five-metre car weighed just 1,460 kilograms on the scales. Without extras, of course. Those who later ordered the more powerful A8 engines, including a W12, came dangerously close to the two-tonne mark.

Audi Space Frame Concept (1993)

Audi Space Frame Concept (1993)

The 'aluminium Audi' celebrated its world premiere as the successor to the Audi V8 at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1994. With the new model name A8, Audi also initiated a profound change in model nomenclature. The Audi A6 followed in the summer as the successor to the Audi 100, and in November 1994 the fifth generation of the Audi 80, known as the Audi A4, appeared on the market.

The first A8 was a success. The elegant bodywork had a completely different figure compared to the bulky appearance of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W 140). Although both had the same width and almost the same length, the Audi looked much lighter.

Which brings us back to the ASF: during the development phase of the aluminium-intensive body, which is 40 per cent lighter than a conventional body, no fewer than 40 patents were registered. And this despite the fact that, for safety reasons, it was up to 1.8 times thicker than conventional steel in some places.

Audi Space Frame Concept (1993)

Audi succeeded in slimming down the vehicle body by 110 kg. And they stressed that even more could be achieved (up to 60 per cent less weight). But they did not want to jeopardise the considerable safety reserves.

For the ASF, extruded profiles (many of them with closed multi-chamber profiles) were used, which, together with die-cast parts, form a grid. Around 75 per cent of the assembly work was done by hand at Audi's Neckarsulm plant and the extruded profiles accounted for around 71 per cent of the 334 individual parts.

However, the ASF was not the first car in which Audi opted for aluminium construction. Eight years earlier, the company presented an Audi 100 with an aluminium body at the 1985 Hanover Motor Show. The beautiful Quattro Spyder and Avus of 1991 also had this quality.

Today, the A8 uses the company's latest developments on the ASF principle: aluminium is combined with magnesium, steel and carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP). The largest component of the A8's cabin is the CFRP rear panel, which provides one-third of the car's total torsional rigidity. The discontinued R8 also used a combination of aluminium, steel and carbon.

Gallery: Audi V8

Photo by: Fabian Grass