As the TT zooms off into the sunset after 25 years, we take a look back at Audi’s first sports car.
It all started with a doodle. The kind of sketch that designers create almost subconsciously. On napkins, cardboard, scraps of paper. Little more than inspiration most of the time. And according to designer Freeman Thomas, that’s exactly what it was. Two wheels connected by a gentle arc, with a swooping greenhouse. A half circle atop two circles. The simplicity of form. A doodle that would ultimately become the Audi TT.
As Thomas shares with me the story of how this sketch evolved from an idea into reality, he’s at once aware of his role in creating this iconic vehicle while simultaneously downplaying it. In person, Thomas is soft-spoken and humble – “I can honestly say I’m not the most talented person in the room, but I never give up,” – but it’s impossible to understate the significance of the car itself. The now-iconic shape was a career-defining moment for Thomas and sparked a Lazarus-like revival at Audi.
Gallery: The Audi TT Through The Years
In March 1994, Thomas was working in Ingolstadt alongside Audi Chief Designer J Mays. Fresh off his collaboration on the Volkswagen Concept One that would eventually become the New Beetle, Thomas was inspired to push the idea of that graphic shape even further.
“I did this little thumbnail sketch, and he walked by, and said, ‘what’s that?’” Thomas shrugged; to him, it was just that – a doodle. “The sketch was literally twenty minutes.” But Mays saw something more and said, “Can I borrow this?” With Thomas’ blessing, Mays took it directly to Audi AG’s development head, Joseph Paefgen.
Behind Mays’ excitement was something else: a palpable sense of urgency. In the same year of the doodle, Audi was on the brink of extinction in the US. The styling of the lineup was angular and handsome… but bordering on invisible. The problem wasn’t just anodyne product – it was a lack of identity. If Audi was going to attract new customers and remain a presence in the US, it needed a hit. Badly. Whatever shape it took, it would need to have a visual soul.
Mays saw such promise in that doodle. As it turned out, so did Paefgen. Just a few hours after sharing the drawing, Mays returned with a plan: Thomas would meet with an engineer and start developing his sketch into a concept. Immediately.
Things moved quickly from there. Thomas was given the green light to develop the concept in secret, away from the watchful eyes of Audi brass. At first, he used his Ingolstadt apartment as a makeshift studio, transforming the doodle into a series of detailed drawings. Meanwhile, Mays secured space at Uedelhoven Studios in the nearby town of Gaimersheim, where Thomas would have the room to mock up a 1:4 scale model.
For the next several weeks, Thomas and his team of modelers focused on crafting the droptop version of the idea. Just before the model was presented to Volkswagen AG Chairman of the Management Board Ferdinand Piech, Thomas sketched out another doodle, this time a fixed-roof version. Once again, Mays became the doodle messenger while Thomas anxiously awaited the outcome. “I wasn’t in the meeting,” he said. “I had to stay outside.”
This time, the request came from the very top. Piech liked the cabrio, but he also wanted a coupe. The two versions would be developed concurrently. That September, work began in earnest on a full-scale model. This is the point in development where the core of the original idea would be put to the test. How would the shape look in three-dimensional form? Would the simplicity of the lines organically translate to a more complex form, or would it be a Bauhaus blob?
True to his word, Thomas was not one to give up when confronted with these challenges. It only made him more determined to find solutions and express the simplicity of his design, regardless of angle.
“I wanted the windows and the windshield to float rather than connect,” he said. “[Because] as soon as you connected, it felt as though it was not carved in as a whole.” Thomas sweeps his arm in an arc to emphasize his point. “The side window graphic, the way it had the quarter window in the front, and of course, the roof line taper as it comes to the back.” If the scale model were to evoke the doodle’s character, he considered all of these elements to be non-negotiable.
As it turned out, the layout of the new studio helped to answer these questions. The workspace was essentially a loft, with an office overlooking the modeling area below. It gave Thomas the opportunity to not only walk around the concept as it took shape, but to look down upon it as well. The second-floor office offered one more bit of crucial inspiration: aviation design.
“Uedelhoven had an aircraft side with all the windows up on the second floor,” Thomas recalled, smiling. As his team downstairs peeled and molded the giant block of clay, Thomas would bounce between the two levels, his mind fresh. “I would peek out of these little windows from all different angles, and then I’d run down the stairs and keep tapering the lines because I wanted them to come to an artificial vanishing point.” As the year drew to a close, Thomas pulled the wraps off the full-scale model.
Inside and out, the TT was a much-needed departure from Audi’s existing design language. You can see the defiance of form expressed in these lines, pulled taut across the body and down, constructed like the world’s most elegant tent. The shapes are at once independent and harmonious, like streams of water eventually joining into a larger tributary.
Seen from above, the A-pillar looks like a structural piece emerging from the earth, sweeping up in a graceful arc to define the shape of the roof. As it drops down to eventually flow into the seam of the tall, slab-like doors, another line emerges to pull the roofline back in a gentle descent, leveling off across the deck before finally and dramatically plunging down. A bold character line spans the length of the body, gliding across the sheet metal like the flight of an arrow.
But it was the interior that fully delivered on the promise of something special. Who knew that a knockout punch could be delivered with such restraint? The circular motif continues throughout, executed in a cohesive way. The steering wheel hub, shifter surround, and vents are all ringed with genuine aluminum, equally punctuated with eight indents. The indentations on the vent surrounds are especially inviting to the fingers. A simple twist of the ring adjusts the airflow, moving with a definitive, deliberate snick between settings.
Seat heater controls deliver a similar tactile reward: the spring-loaded switch extends with a gentle press, offering a rotary selection of six heat settings. Even more aluminum graced the hideaway radio panel and the machined triangular support braces "floating" in the dash above the center console. Even for a concept car, these unique details were extraordinary.
Shortly before the TT concept’s world debut that September, Thomas and Mays – both graduates of ArtCenter – traveled back to their alma mater as guest lecturers. Standing in front of a group of third- and fourth-term design students, they spent most of the hour talking about the gestation process of the New Beetle. But near the end of the lecture, the two senior designers started grinning like kids.
One of the students in attendance that day recalled Mays addressing the audience with a conspiratorial smile. “What you’re about to see can’t leave this room.” With five minutes left in the lecture, Mays unveiled photos of TT concept’s final form. That same student remembers the collective gasp of his fellow classmates. “I was already an Audi fan,” he told me, reliving the quarter-century-old memory in vivid detail. “But this TT made me a believer.”
The world appeared to agree. Nearly a year to the date that the full-scale concept was approved, the TT stunned the industry at the 1995 Frankfurt Auto Show. Tokyo was next, where Audi revealed the companion droptop concept. By the time Audi’s concept duo arrived at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit later that year, the brand was once again in the international spotlight. Buoyed by the reception, Audi promised that a production version would follow.
In 1998, four years after that initial doodle, the TT went into production. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that all of the exquisite details which made the TT such a hit on the show circuit carried over into production. Thomas was determined to retain the vision of the concept’s design, much as he did from sketch to scale model. On the exterior, the most noticeable change was the addition of rear quarter windows, which actually helped balance the proportions of the greenhouse by reducing the visual weight of the C-pillar.
And what of that interior? Beautifully executed and bespoke, a bane to cost consultants – and crucially integral to the TT’s unique visual character. Thomas laughs as he recalls a conversation from the Detroit Auto Show when the concept was first on display. “I remember a guy coming up and sitting with me in the car, playing with the shift gate and vents and everything. He goes, ‘You know, you’re never gonna get these in production.’” But the cockpit’s unique (and expensive) design carried over largely intact as well.
Platform sharing made this low-volume mission possible. Riding atop a shortened version of the chassis also found underneath the VW Golf and Audi A3, the TT featured a transverse turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder putting out 180 horsepower. A hotter 225-hp version came standard with all-wheel drive. While sharing parts was nothing new within VW Group, the sideways-mounted powertrain was a rarity at Audi.
Thomas views the packaging as one of the TT’s main advantages, especially early on in its development. “I was surrounded by amazing engineering talent. There was a young engineer named Ralf Willner. As I was going through the concept, I would ask him, is this possible? Is this possible? And he would make it possible.” Every design choice, Thomas says, was based off the hard points. “So when it went on top of the Golf platform, it wasn’t a compromise.”
The plebian bones created a viable performer, with Motor Trend going so far as to say “This is the first Audi we’d label as a true sports car.” Frank Markus was lasciviously giddy in his review over at Car and Driver, calling the TT “a visual and tactile master stroke that stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers like few other forms of adult entertainment.”
Markus also described the shape as being “vaguely retro” – a word that irks Thomas, especially when it comes to the TT. “A lot of people perceive this design as retro. To me, retro is when you’re borrowing from something else. This was taking Audi’s story and really trying to create an authentic piece out of it. I think you could use words like retro, but I don’t think it’s appropriate. The idea of the TT was to be original to itself.”
By the end of the century, Audi was in full-on renaissance mode with a fully revamped and competitive lineup. The A4 was the undisputed leader of this product offensive, accounting for nearly half of Audi’s US annual sales in 1996 and singlehandedly doubling the number of total cars sold in the bleakest hours of 1994. But as crucial as the A4 was to Audi’s bottom line, it was the TT that drew attention back to the brand by establishing – and cementing – an identity. It’s this duality of purpose that Thomas feels is the greatest accomplishment.
“Design is a communication. It’s a visual communication. And a lot of times a concept can have a lot of innovation, and they never get recognized because the communication isn’t there to describe it. So for me, the TT, its greatest innovation was its shape and form to communicate all of the great innovation that was already there.”