How the Audi TT Became a Design Icon, Inspired by Bauhaus Simplicity

audi tt the three generations
How the Audi TT Became an Industry Design IconHOUDEK Photographie
  • With roots in Ingolstadt and Simi Valley, the design history behind the infamous Audi TT is anything but boring.

  • Yet, the design itself is simple and comfortable in just about any decade, ArtCenter Executive Director Geoff Wardle explains.

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

Simi Valley, California, and Ingolstadt, Germany, are about 6000 nautical miles apart from each other, yielding a flying time of about 10 and a half hours on a good day. Despite this distance, the two arenas share a sort of greater purpose, though it isn't obvious even to the attuned car enthusiast eye.


Ingolstadt and Simi Valley are tucked Northwest of world-famous metropolises, shadowed by the glory of Los Angeles and Munich, respectively. Tradition holds steadfast in both these places, too, but the seemingly innocuous towns are home to an infamous coupe shape, one that is going away later this year. This, of course, is the Audi TT.

the audi tt coupe show car shown at the 1995 frankfurt auto show
The original 1995 Audi TT concept car shown in Frankfurt. Audi

Originally unveiled to the world at the 1995 Frankfurt International Auto Show, the petite yet striking coupe was a revelation in automotive design as a whole, but also in German design as well. And it took some extraordinary lengths to get there, with Freeman Thomas and J Mays behind the wheel.

The California connection stems back to Freeman Thomas' time at the Volkswagen Design Center in Simi Valley, from where he was brought to Audi's Ingolstadt Design Center. It was in California where Thomas and Mays collaborated, both in their time at the Volkswagen Design Center but also in their respective educations at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.

With heritage stemming from the Audi Avus Quattro concept, the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race, and the design for pure sports cars within the Audi lineup, Thomas and Mays (under the watch of then Head of Design Peter Schreyer) got to work on a car that is now undeniably an icon in any generation. But it is not long for this earth, come 2024.

That's because Audi is officially retiring the TT 25 years after its initial public release. Following three generations, two model launches in Detroit, and the widespread acceptance of the model in America, the TT has captivated domestic buyers ever since its release and developed an enthusiast following.

the audi tt in papaya orange, picture taken in 2003
First year Audi TT models were prone to high-speed instability, with 1999 and 2000 model year cars recalled shortly after release. A trunk lid spoiler, shown here, was installed on later versions to better plant the back end. Audi

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

For a proper send-off, 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-spoke wheels, and a red interior that students from Parson School of Design described as Polly-Pocket-esque. No infotainment screen, either. Simple.

2023 audi tts in red parked on new jersey farmland
Stability issues can be ruled out for the 2023 Audi TTS, as it was eager to cruise at nearly triple-digit speeds. Autoweek

Mechanically, the 2023 Audi TTS sports a 2.0-liter EA888 inline four-cylinder making 288 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque through all four wheels.

Coworkers described it as Golf R in fancy packaging and it does indeed pull hard, launch even harder, stick to the road, and dart around as instructed. Plus it makes all those fun crackle and pop noises, too.

But we're not here to review the TTS' backroad talents (of which it has ample) or to marvel at Volkswagen's multiplicious MQB platform.

Rather, we're here to examine just how much impact the Audi TT had on the design world as a whole. And who better to explain the TT's profound impact than ArtCenter's Executive Director Geoff Wardle?

"It had a big impact at the time it came out because there were a couple of characteristics of the design which were pivotal ones," Wardle told Autoweek. "One was that it had quite a high beltline. The bottom of the side glasses came quite high up on the occupant's shoulders."

By changing this relational dimension to the occupants, a level of aerodynamics and an inherent sportiness was ingrained in the TT shape. And it's a design style that has grown ever since, with our shoulder now sitting in line with the window sill more often than not, in part due to safety regulations. But the TT wasn't impressive just because of its beltline.

In fact, it was the simple form that took Wardle by surprise. It had a certain pureness and soft complexion to it, but it still retained a defined geometry nevertheless. Even as a rounded model, it wasn't a blob.

1998 audi tt design sketch in charcoal
Original sketches of the rear-end design for the first generation Audi TT. Audi

"It's got a sort of almost Bauhaus simplicity and it's very Germanic in shape," Wardle said. "As a professor, I did notice for quite a long time that students got inspiration for their design concepts from the Audi TT."

Lately, it's not so well recognized by students, he mused. It's still a notable car in the parking lot but it doesn't command the same authority, at least from a design perspective. As someone born in 2000, I often thought of the Audi TT as a cool-looking, attainable sports car, but not necessarily a real design definition.

But the word Bauhaus is enticing in its own right for many young art students, as the movement continues to feed the idealism and creations of modern life. However, the Bauhaus movement could hardly be defined as automotive-forward, instead focused on distilling design to its core elements. And the Audi TT followed these principles precisely.

audi tt rs and audi tt concept parked together in shown both in gray
The five-cylinder TT RS upped the ante on aggression, though the base shape still remains clear. Audi

"It had a lower form, which basically wraps the engine and the wheels, and then an upper form or greenhouse that was the bubble over people's heads. It was very clear about the car's intention, which was to carry two people, mainly, but also for some kind of sporting gesture. It was no more than it needed to be," Wardle explained.

Of course, Wardle can't speak to Freeman Thomas' own Bauhaus interests, but the shape made such influences rather clear. Being a part of Volkswagen, as well, kept Audi and its designers in close contact with Porsche, meaning it's easy to see Porsche's influence throughout.

audi tt in red with mountains behind it
The value of a good used Audi TT seems to be rising, at least from my days of Craigslist searching. Audi

Much like a Porsche 911, the extremities of the car are right down at the bottom. Everything tapers up toward the top from there, and the widest point of the TT will always be at the bottom of the car. Whether it's a 1999 model year or 2023, it rests on its own hips, in a way.

Late 20th-century Porsche 911s and the 959 (which were also crafted by Freeman Thomas) made their own design waves and had been around for some time by 1995, but the TT paved its own way. And it's important to travel back to sunny Southern California to understand its full spread, starting at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

2023 audi tts
It matches well with the Manhattan nightlight, too. Autoweek

"J Mays, I think, invented the term retro-futurism," Wardle said. "He actually had an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art on Retrofuturism, which is the idea that you can design objects or automobiles that are very contemporary or even futuristic, but still hark back to some of the previous iconic design gestures."

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

"To us, the greatest praise was when the trade press noted appreciatively that not much had changed from the study to series model, although we did, of course, have to adapt many details..." said Torsten Wenzel, the exterior designer at Audi who helped introduce the TT. To Wenzel, the Audi TT will always be, "a driving sculpture."

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

Do you remember the first time you saw an Audi TT? What did you feel? Please share below.