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July 17, 2023
6 Min Read
A Freeman Thomas sketch of the original Audi TT concept car.Audi
When the Audi TT debuted as a production model in 1998, the automotive world was shocked that the company had been able to retain virtually all of the bold design of the original concept car.
That concept appeared at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show following a secretive development program for a design sketched by American designer Freeman Thomas. By the time that groundbreaking first-generation car ended its production run after the 2006 model year, Audi had sold more than 178,000 of the daringly designed coupes.
In recognition of the 25th anniversary of the TT going into production, Freeman Thomas visited Audi of America’s headquarters, where he spoke about the process of creating an iconic design.
Q: How did the TT come to be? How did actually the idea come to fruition?
Freeman Thomas: It happened about 29 years ago and I just finished the Concept One convertible and coupe, which became the new Beetle and I was asked to go over to (Audi’s headquarters in) Ingolstadt. I was actually under Audi at that time we did the Beetle under Audi and so my colleague J Mays wanted me to be his right hand in Ingolstadt as he took over his new job as the head of design for Audi.
J was known for doing the Avus. I was only there a couple of weeks and I was on my sketch board I did this little thumbnail sketch and he walked by and he said, “What's that?” I said it's just a little doodle. He asked, “Can I borrow this?” and I said “Absolutely.” He came back a couple of hours later and he said I shared this with the head of development of Audi at that time, this is 1994, around April or March.
He said, “He's smitten by this concept,” and he said “You're going to meet an engineer shortly and you're going to talk about this concept. But you can't do this concept in the studio. We're going set up a drawing table at your apartment and over the next couple weeks you're going to develop it.”
I started developing for the next two weeks and came up with what you know as the TT. Then they put me into another neighboring village called Geimersheim and they built out a loft for me. I chose two modelers to work with me and then we had another couple weeks to develop a scale model and that scale model was presented to Ferdinand Piech.
At that time it was still the spyder version of the car and right before the presentation to Piech, I did another little thumbnail sketch and it was of the coupe. So the meeting went on with Piech and Dr. [Ulrich] Hackenberg, and J Mays. I wasn't in the meeting. I had to stay outside, and Jay came to me afterward and he said Piech said, “I want a coupe. I was this coupe.” So from that point on we developed the models.
Q: What happened from the development of those concept models?
Freeman Thomas: We created the full-size model and we went in ‘95 to the Frankfurt Motor Show it was a complete surprise for everybody. The concept of the car, in my mind, was really to define Audi. You know, “TT” stood for “tradition” and “technology.” I borrowed the logo and the name from the NSU TT. I actually made that first TT logo myself and put it on the concept car.
The design language of the car has many layers to it. What I think is good design is really to tell a story. You'll notice that it starts off with the two circles and then the two circles are connected by this line that connects it, and that to me communicated Quattro. And then the roofline of the car was the Auto Union and the form vocabulary was pure Bauhaus. It was really connecting the geometric elements into this organic form. I never realized what I had created, just like when you create a song or a series of words, you don't know that they become pop culture at the time.
For me, that inspiration was not only Audi history but also the original design engineer. He designed the Auto Unions and then went over and was at Porsche and designed the 550 spiders the Porsche 356 and also was the designer of the original Beetle. That was Erwin Komenda and I studied his design language and wanted to translate that in a modern way and my story goes on and on and on.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in taking the concept from design to production?
Freeman Thomas: I was really fortunate because I was surrounded by amazing engineering talent. There was a young engineer and we were connected at the hip and from the very beginning as I was going through the concept from the very first lines, through all of that I would ask him, “Is this possible? Is this possible?” and he would make it possible.
So, it was probably, in my experience, and I've been part of many vehicle design concepts through the years, but it was truly a highlight in that I was supported by engineering. Successful design always comes through collaboration instead of the two fighting against each other. I would have to say that I had nothing but support. I can't even think of any challenges going through the process. Everything was a solution that was successful.
Q: What was the inspiration for the TT’s baseball glove cabin upholstery, considering that Audi is German and baseball is America’s national pastime?
Freeman Thomas: I'll give you a little bit of a sidebar on the baseball glove. I had this vision of this Bavarian fashion called lodenfrey. Lodenfrey is the Bavarian Austrian garb that you see with the hats [with] the feathers and beautiful felt and colors like dark gray, dark green, light gray trim, and so forth. I envisioned at that time that a younger Bavarian would be wearing lodenfrey in in the jacket but he'd have Levi's on, probably a pair of Adidas.
They're into baseball, they're into basketball it was this transition of Americana coming to Europe and so when I sat down and sketched out the baseball glove [interior], when I went back home I went to a Big Five Sporting Goods in Thousand Oaks, California and looked around for every baseball glove and I found that perfect orange-brick leather and I bought the glove and I took it back to Ingolstadt and I gave it to the color and material designers and they mastered it, and mastered the stitching and everything and so that was part of that story.
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