Freeman Thomas & the Origin of the First Audi TT

By: George Achorn, photos: Audi AG

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in the Q4_2023 issue of quattro Magazine. It was accompanied by a podcast with Freeman Thomas that can be found HERE.

The pitch meeting with Porsche had bombed. Freeman Thomas knew his former employer wasn’t fully on board with the idea, but Franz Josef Paefgen confirmed it. This time, Audi’s head of Technical Development traveled to Stuttgart to try one last time. With luck, it was assumed, the Porsche power players in Zuffenhausen would buy into the project for their own entry-level sportscar, cementing the future of an idea the team from Audi had already grown quite attached to. 

Porsche wasn’t having it. “It didn’t go well in Stuttgart,” Paefgen began. However, he wasn’t stymied. He looked across the Udelhoven design loft studio at the young American designer and said the words that would set the Audi TT on a collision course with reality, “Start the full size (model). We’re going to Frankfurt… and they don’t know it.”

At the time, the Frankfurt IAA was the biggest auto show in the world. If the TT project was going to go it alone, it would need to find an enraptured audience. Paefgen figured they’d find it by raising eyebrows on the biggest stage in the automotive industry, making the car undeniable whether Porsche threw in their support or not.

For Freeman Thomas, the road to this point began decades before. He’d grown up in Southern California, where his love affair with the car began. Jeff Zwart was a neighbor five houses up and Jeff’s parents drove a Porsche 356 and 901. These cars left an indelible mark that lasted through school, through a stint in the Air Force and through years studying design at Art Center College of Design. And as he readied to go out into the real world with his first job, he managed to quickly land a position at Porsche.

His work for Porsche in Stuttgart only cemented Freeman’s appreciation for the works of Erwin Komenda, the longtime engineer for Dr. Ferdinand Porsche who’d had a hand in everything from Auto Union Silver Arrows to the Volkswagen Beetle, the Porsche 356 and even the Porsche 911.

Freeman would later leave Porsche, aiming to return to California where he could set up his own design shop. However, he was coaxed back into the space by another American. J. Mays had taken over design at Audi and had asked Freeman repeatedly to join him there. When Thomas finally succumbed, he headed down a road that would revisit the Komenda theme. First came Concept 1, a secretive project hatched on the Audi side of the Volkswagen Group design studio in Simi Valley, California. With that project, the two Audi designers envisioned a return of the iconic Volkswagen Beetle as an electric car. 

Concept 1 took over the Detroit Auto Show in January 1994. VW would show a convertible version months later in March. By then, Freeman had relocated to Ingolstadt where Audi staff were already considering their own take on the upcoming next-generation transverse architecture being readied by the Volkswagen Group. That chassis would underpin the next Golf, and Audi was considering their own positioning down market with the introduction of an A3. Senior project engineer Ulrich Hackenburg tasked Ralf Willner with devising a roadster that could utilize the same components. 

By Freeman’s account, it was just weeks later when J. Mays wandered by his desk and caught sight of the first sketches of the small sportscar that would become the TT. Even at this earliest moment, the design had a cohesiveness, using a few concise lines to define the car. Mays asked if he could borrow the sketch, then shared it with Dr. Paefgen. By all accounts, Paefgen totally got it and instructed the designers to keep working, but to do so in complete secrecy.

At first, Thomas worked on the car at night and on a drawing desk that had been moved out of the studio and into his Ingolstadt apartment. Over the next eight weeks, he continued to sketch while at the same time relocating seven kilometers outside of Ingolstadt to Geimersheim and the studios of independent Audi concept vendor Udelhoven.

The team prepared for a review from Ferdinand Piëch who was Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson, former head of Audi and, at the time, head of the Volkswagen Group. To that meeting they brought a quarter scale model of the roadster and sketches of a coupé as well. Thomas shares that Piëch looked over everything and said, “I want a coupe. I want this coupe.” Pointing to one of the sketches.

With momentum growing, Porsche was brought into the discussion. Zuffenhausen could, the Audi team reasoned, build their own Porsche version of the car that would help defray costs of series production. Freeman Thomas was tasked with designing both an Audi and a Porsche version. Interestingly, Porsche design also planned their own proposals of both the Porsche and Audi versions.

Perhaps due to Piëch’s preference, Paefgen never shared Freeman’s coupé design with Porsche, he’d only taken the roadster. There was no plan to show them the coupé unless Porsche were interested in the project and… they simply weren’t.

As the TT continued to develop, it’s hard not to note its spiritual succession to the Porsche 356. Like the earliest Porsche road car, the TT utilized many components and even underpinnings from its own generation’s people’s car. As the 356 was to the Beetle, the TT was to the Golf… and even the New Beetle in which Thomas had played a part.

Even better, the TT embraced the spirit of the 356 in a decidedly authentic way that wasn’t retro at all. Rather than harking any Porsche, it harked the avantgarde spirit Ferdinand Porsche instilled in those original Auto Union racecars, though presented in a modern way. Freeman credits the strategy of “silhouette innovation” to create something that you will immediately recognize from the side view. Having this rounded front and back was important to accomplish a contained and resolved look, the way the headlights and taillights looked as if they came from the same family. Thomas  wanted it to be obviously Teutonic, to be German and say it with shapes, lines, forms, touches like the distinctive fuel cap, or with other details within the highly unique interior devised by Romulus Rost.

During that time, Thomas wandered by the old Audi museum in search of inspiration. He found it on the flank of a small 1960s era NSU. TT, standing for Tourist Trophy in the case of the NSU with its motorcycle history (pp. 36-38), also represented a consequent minimalism that suited the project perfectly… including a modularity that would see expansion of the line such as TTS, TT RS and so on. Freeman snapped a photo of the badge and later recreated it by hand and largely unchanged for the first concept.

By early 1995, full scale models had been created from clay, while an interior design penned by Rost had also been completed. From there, Thomas relocated to the ItalDesign facility near Turin where he oversaw the creation of the cars in steel. The TT Coupé was completed over just four months, emerging from the studio by August. As the team rolled it out into the sun for the first time, Thomas asked ItalDesign co-founder Aldo Montovani if he would allow the young designer to photograph the TT next to his ‘59 Porsche 356. The elder Italian agreed to do so. And, when Giorgetto Giugiaro arrived to lay eyes on the completed car, the design legend remarked to the young Audi team that the TT was simply “perfect.”

In September, the TT coupé emerged again, this time at the Frankfurt auto show where it wowed the assembled press. Its presence overshadowed significant launches from other manufacturers, cars like the Lotus Elise and even Porsche’s the new 911 Targa. For the Audi team, the TT wasn’t just a coupé, It was a coup.

The TTS concept, the roadster designed alongside the coupé from the very beginning, turned up seven weeks later at the Tokyo Motor Show complete with slate gray bodywork and reddish orange leather with now iconic baseball glove interior. As with Frankfurt, public response was off the charts, though it didn’t really matter because the Audi Board of Directors had secretly already given the go-ahead to build the car.

For Audi, that first concept was just the beginning of a decades-long love affair with the TT. It also marked a fundamental shift in brand design. For Freeman Thomas, it was also just the beginning of a long and storied career. He’d leave Audi in 1999, to head design at the newly formed Daimler Chrysler, then rejoin his former colleague, J. Mays, at Ford years later. In the time since Ford, he and some investors acquired Meyers Manx and have made great strides in relaunching the brand, selling both its iconic dune buggy designs and moving to establish the beloved marque as a player in the electromobility space.

Freeman Thomas turned up as a guest of Audi earlier this year to celebrate the end of the TT era at the Audi TT Cars & Coffee event (p. 52) where he recounted his time on the TT project. Through an emotional speech, it was obvious that the TT holds a special place in his heart just as it does in the hearts of so many enthusiasts… and how couldn’t it really? The Audi TT, especially that first-generation, harken a simpler time in the automotive industry which isn’t just about the Porsche 356, but a time when human instinct like that shown by Thomas, Paefgen, Hackenburg and the rest of the Audi team pushes forward a project derived from the heart.

Today’s auto industry is very different. New models are chosen more by sales data than by public response at auto shows. The arrival of electromobility makes the stakes higher and executives even less risk averse to taking a chance on such an obvious show of passion. And yet, the pendulum never stops swinging. With luck, expansion into a wider EV market will see a return to less practical and more passion-driven models and perhaps a successor or spiritual successor to the TT will arrive. And you never know, right now Porsche may be trying to find its own development partner to underwrite development of its new electric 718 architecture. Perhaps they should ring up Freeman Thomas for a few design proposals.

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