How the Audi TT became a design icon, inspired by the simplicity of the Bauhaus

By | September 18, 2023

Audi all three generations

How the Audi TT became an icon of industrial designHOUDEK Photography

  • With roots in Ingolstadt and Simi Valley, the design story behind the infamous Audi TT is anything but boring.

  • However, the design itself is simple and comfortable in almost any decade, explains ArtCenter executive director Geoff Wardle.

  • As the Audi TT nameplate wanes, we look back at 25 years of sports coupe design and examine how Audi got it right.

Simi Valley, California, and Ingolstadt, Germany, are about 6,000 nautical miles apart, which means that on a good day the flight time is about 10 and a half hours. Despite this distance, the two arenas share some sort of greater purpose, even if it’s not obvious even to the discerning eye of car enthusiasts.

Ingolstadt and Simi Valley lie northwest of world-famous metropolises, in the shadow of the glory of Los Angeles and Munich, respectively. Tradition also holds firm in both of these places, but the seemingly innocuous towns are home to an infamous form of coupe, which will disappear by the end of the year. This, of course, is the Audi TT.

The Audi TT Coupe show car presented at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show

The original Audi TT concept car from 1995 shown in Frankfurt. Audi

Originally introduced to the world at the 1995 Frankfurt International Motor Show, the small but striking coupe was a revelation in automotive design as a whole, but also in German design. And it took extraordinary times to get there, with Freeman Thomas and J Mays behind the wheel.

The California connection dates back to Freeman Thomas’ time working at the Volkswagen Design Center in Simi Valley, from where he was brought to the Audi Ingolstadt Design Center. It was in California that Thomas and Mays collaborated, both during their time at the Volkswagen Design Center, but also during their respective studies at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.

With a legacy stemming from the Audi Avus Quattro concept, the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race and pure sports car design within the Audi range, Thomas and Mays (under the supervision of then design chief Peter Schreyer ) began working on a car that is now undeniably an icon in every generation. But there isn’t much left for this land, in 2024.

That’s because Audi is officially retiring the TT 25 years after its first public release. After three generations, two model launches in Detroit and the model’s widespread acceptance in America, the TT has captivated domestic buyers since its release and developed an enthusiastic following.

the Audi TT in papaya orange, photo taken in 2003

First-year Audi TT models were prone to high-speed instability, with the 1999 and 2000 model year cars recalled shortly after release. A trunk lid spoiler, shown here, was installed on later versions to better accommodate the rear end. Audi

In fact, since 2005, approximately 35,000 TT units have been delivered to US customers. But within these sales and three refreshed body styles, the TT’s formula has remained largely the same. Sharing a platform with the Volkswagen Golf might lead you to believe that the TT is just a styling exercise, but that would be far from the truth.

To say a proper goodbye, we spent some time with the final version of the Audi TTS. Our 2023 model year tester featured Tango Red Metallic paint, 20-inch black Y-wheels, and a red interior that students at the Parson School of Design described as Polly-Pocket. Not even an infotainment screen. Simple.

2023 Audi TT in red parked on New Jersey farmland

Stability issues can be ruled out for the 2023 Audi TTS, as it was eager to travel at near triple-digit speeds. Self-week

Mechanically, the 2023 Audi TTS sports a 2.0-liter EA888 inline-four that produces 288 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels.

Colleagues described it as a Golf R in a stylish package, and indeed it pulls hard, launches even harder, sticks to the road and zips as directed. It also makes all those fun crackles and pop noises.

But we’re not here to examine the TTS’s backroad skills (of which it has plenty) or to marvel at the multiplicity of Volkswagen’s MQB platform.

Rather, we’re here to examine the impact the Audi TT has had on the design world as a whole. And who better to explain the profound impact of the TT than ArtCenter Executive Director Geoff Wardle?

“It had a big impact when it came out because there were a couple of design features that were key,” Wardle said Self-week. “One was that it had a fairly high beltline. The bottom of the side windows came quite high on the occupant’s shoulders.”

By modifying this relational dimension with the occupants, a level of aerodynamics and intrinsic sportiness has been ingrained in the TT form. And it’s a design style that has since grown, with our shoulder now often in line with the window sill, partly due to safety regulations. But the TT didn’t just impress with its beltline.

Indeed, it was the simple form that caught Wardle by surprise. It had a certain purity and soft appearance, but still retained a defined geometry. Even as a rounded model, it was not a shapeless mass.

1998 audi tt design sketch in charcoal

Original sketches of the rear design of the first generation Audi TT. Audi

“It has a sort of almost Bauhaus simplicity and it has a very Germanic form,” Wardle said. “As a professor, I have noticed for a long time that students were drawing inspiration for their design concepts from the Audi TT.”

He’s not so well recognized by students lately, he mused. It’s still a notable car in the parking lot but it doesn’t have the same authority, at least from a design perspective. Having been born in 2000, I often thought of the Audi TT as a cool-looking and attainable sports car, but not necessarily a true definition of design.

But the word Bauhaus itself is appealing to many young art students, as the movement continues to fuel the idealism and creations of modern life. However, the Bauhaus movement could hardly be characterized as an automotive avant-garde, focusing instead on the distillation of design into its fundamental elements. And the Audi TT followed these principles exactly.

Audi TT RS and Audi TT Concept parked together, both in grey

The five-cylinder TT RS has upped the ante in terms of aggression, although the basic shape still remains clear. Audi

“It had a lower shape, which basically wrapped around the engine and the wheels, and then an upper shape, or greenhouse, which was the bubble over people’s heads. It was very clear the intent of the car, which was to carry two people, mainly, but also for some sporting gesture. It was nothing more than necessary,” explained Wardle.

Of course Wardle can’t speak to Freeman Thomas’s Bauhaus interests, but the form makes those influences quite clear. Being part of Volkswagen has also kept Audi and its designers in close contact with Porsche, meaning it’s easy to see Porsche’s influence everywhere.

red audi tt with mountains behind

The value of a good used Audi TT seems to be on the rise, at least since my days of researching on Craigslist. Audi

Just like a Porsche 911, the ends of the car are right at the bottom. From there everything tapers upwards and the widest point of the TT will always be at the bottom of the car. Whether it’s a 1999 or 2023 model, it kind of stands on its own two feet.

The late 20th century Porsche 911 and 959 (also made by Freeman Thomas) caused a sensation in their design and had been around for some time in 1995, but the TT paved its own way. And it is important to return to sunny Southern California to understand its full spread, starting with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Audit 2023

It also goes well with the Manhattan night light. Self-week

“J Mays, I think, invented the term retro-futurism,” Wardle said. “He actually had a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles about Retrofuturism, which is the idea that you can design objects or cars that are very contemporary or even futuristic, but still harken back to some of the earlier gestures of iconic designs.”

And the Audi TT was exactly that. Even in the third generation the Audi TT looks historic AND entirely at home in 2023, a status that modern Audi designers have worked tirelessly to maintain.

“For us the greatest praise was when the trade press noted with appreciation that not much had changed from the study model to the series model, even though we obviously had to adapt many details…” said Torsten Wenzel, the exterior designer at Audi who helped introduce the TT. For Wenzel the Audi TT will always be “a driving sculpture”.

Looking back on two and a half decades of the TT, we’ll certainly remember its sharp handling, powerful powertrains and downright cool RS versions, but it’s the shape that will ultimately stick in our minds. In a sea of ​​cookie-cutter rectangular SUVs and late-model sedans, it will always be a pleasure to pick a TT out of the crowd.

Do you remember the first time you saw a AudiTT? What did you feel? Please share below.

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