Brian McCauley owns five Audi TTs. “It’s a cool car. You don’t see them very often.” McCauley explains his affection and affliction. “It was ‘the German Miata.’ ‘The hairdresser car.’ ‘It’s just a Golf with a Beetle squished on top of it.’ All these stupid things that people say.” McCauley’s husband, Dan Klaudt, chimes in: “It was the first Audi design I fell in love with.”
This story originally appeared in Volume 18 of Road & Track.
The TT was built to inspire passion, not to be an anonymous corpuscle in the traffic stream. It appeared when Audi was on the verge of extinction in America, announcing the company wasn’t going without a fight. The car was distinctive and pugnacious, and it didn’t look like anything else from the Nineties. It was the vanguard of a resurrection.
Destined to be one of the most beloved and respected designs of its time, the TT had nostalgic elements, but the overall theme was modern. Even avant-garde. It helped launch an industry-wide mania for retro style that would result in reborn Mini Coopers, Chevrolet Camaros, and Ford Thunderbirds, among many others. Is the first-generation TT a classic? Not yet. But maybe.
A quarter-century and three generations later, the TT heads into retirement, its job done. This small coupe and roadster imbued Audi with style and street cred, enough that it now sells vast numbers of engorged SUVs to people who sit on HOA boards. So its legacy is not all for the good.
“Audi had its issues,” designer Freeman Thomas recalls of the time the TT was gestating. The company was desperate. In 1985, it sold 74,061 cars in the United States. But then, on November 23, 1986, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a segment titled “Out of Control,” accusing Audi’s flagship 5000 sedan of being prone to uncontrollable sudden acceleration. Sales collapsed and kept collapsing, down by roughly 33 percent in 1987 alone. By 1996, Audi sold only 27,279 cars here.
“But Audi was a tour de force of technology,” Thomas continues. “It had Quattro. It had the A8, with its all-aluminum space frame, and it had Walter Röhrl and all that rally success. We were tasked with how to communicate this.”
From concept to production, the TT design’s message remained pure—the first T for Tradition and the second for Technology. Building on hints embedded in Audi’s two 1991 mid-engine concepts—the W-12-powered Avus and the V-6-equipped Quattro Spyder—the TT was striking without being cartoonish. And while those two exotic concepts weren’t economically feasible, the TT had to be. Therefore, it was built upon mainly Volkswagen pieces and made largely from steel, which, ironically, is mostly iron.
“Our idea was simply to prove that a no-compromise car of character can be built on an economically viable basis,” Peter Schreyer, then Audi’s design chief, said to the editors of the book The TT Story. “We knew perfectly well that we couldn’t build a car capable of enhancing the company image if we economized at every possible opportunity, but we wanted to keep in touch with reality so that the cost controllers didn’t destroy our dreams once again.”
The TT’s advantage was that it was starting with better ordinary stuff. The “A4” component set was, somewhat confusingly, first used under the compact Audi A3 hatchback and then under the beloved fourth-generation VW Golf, GTI, and Jetta, as well as the New Beetle and a bunch of Škodas and SEATs. Unlike in larger Audis but mirroring setups in most mainstream front-drive cars, the engine was mounted transversely. It was conventional, and that, oddly, freed up the designers to run wild.
Conceptually, that linked the TT with many sporty cars, like the Ford Mustang (built on Falcon bones), the original Toyota Celica (mostly Carina sedan bits), and the VW Karmann-Ghia (a sexy-ish Beetle).
“That was when things really took off,” Audi’s then president, Franz-Josef Paefgen, recalled in The TT Story. “After that, Freeman Thomas was asked to make something of it.” In fact, according to Thomas, the final design was set even before the TT coupe concept was shown in 1995.
“We designed it to be approachable,” explains Thomas, the American who, in addition to the TT, also drew the Concept 1 that would become the New Beetle. “It bridges the legacy of Auto Union with the future. The TT was polarizing; love it or hate it.”
The TT design is essentially spare. The body’s shape makes more of a statement than any adornment could: streamlined like the Auto Union racers of the Thirties but precisely fit, with flush glazing and radiused wheel wells that give some muscular heft. It was sensational then and almost universally acclaimed as the exemplum of Audi’s new design language.
“If you consider Audi’s past, you’ll see that it undoubtedly divides into two main periods,” Paefgen told Jürgen Lewandowski in an interview for The TT Story. “First of all, there was the period initiated and shaped by Dr. [Ferdinand] Piëch, in which the marque redefined itself by introducing new technologies and rigorous quality standards....
“This was followed by a second phase, in which emotion was introduced into the equation, in parallel, naturally, with further developments on the engineering side. With powerful and distinctive advertising and a design standard that set Audi increasingly apart from the rest, it built up a fund of goodwill—a feel-good factor—around the engineering that clearly benefitted the company. The TT represents a powerful statement to round off this second phase.”
Audi would execute a similar plan about five years later with the Le Mans concept that led to the introduction of the mid-engine R8 sports car. The distinctive R8 embodied the company’s burgeoning racing efforts and boosted the brand’s image to top-tier luxury status.
McCauley’s TTs are at his home on the outskirts of Phoenix (Phoenix is all outskirts). He races one, daily-drives one, and knows the minutiae of all of them. It’s his 2005 coupe with the VR6 engine, however, that’s instantly engaging. It’s pure design, unpretentious in its self-consciousness.
“In these days of vast intercontinental carmaking conglomerates, the chances of a car like the production TT existing are akin to a snowflake’s odds in the Sahara,” wrote Road & Track’s Kim Reynolds on encountering the production 2000 TT for the first time in 1998. “As the century of the automobile ticks to an end, show cars are supposed to melt into plain-wrap clones by the time the factory robots, amid sparks and smoke, start welding together their production progeny.... All in all, the TT is a production-car miracle; the automotive equivalent of the 1969 Mets, Truman’s reelection, Apollo 13’s happy ending.”
It was a design sensation well beyond the automotive enthusiast crowd. Neiman Marcus featured the car wearing Nimbus Grey paint and a Moccasin Red leather interior in its 1998 Christmas catalog. And Audi needed the attention.
Even before the TT went on sale, its styling was hinted at in the immensely attractive 1996 A4 sedan and fully expressed in the 1998 A6 sedan. The TT’s allure was already paying off as Audi sales rose through 1997, ’98, and ’99. By 2000, U.S. sales were up to 80,372. The TT’s best U.S. sales years were 2000 and 2001, when the company sold 12,027 and 12,523 units, respectively. But the glamour dust it spread across Audi mattered more.
Running a short 95.4-inch wheelbase and only 159.1 inches long overall, the first production TT is close-coupled and packed with a turbocharged 1.8-liter 20-valve engine making 180 hp. Quattro all-wheel drive was optional. It wasn’t a rocket, but a 225-hp version of the same powerplant would come a year later. And then, in 2004, came a 3.2-liter version of the VW Group’s narrow-angle VR6 engine rated at 250 hp. Rocketry was now on the menu.
McCauley’s TT VR6 is well preserved but not a museum piece. The Continental ExtremeContact tires are well aged, even if they show little wear, and the odometer displays 49,000 or so miles. Lowering into the driver’s seat, however, is like entering a familiar leather- and aluminum-trimmed den.
The first TT’s exterior is sensational, but the interior is at least as good in a brilliant, sanitary way that seems ancient compared to today’s digital-overkill era. It has simple circular instrumentation and vents. The three-spoke steering wheel has only three functions: blowing the horn, containing an airbag, and, of course, steering. There are no menus to scroll through, and radio volume is controlled by a knob on, get this, the radio.
The VR6 comes to life with a growling mechanical presence. The cam gears can be heard churning, and the exhaust note has some honest menace. There’s no turbo whine because there’s no turbo, but the engine ingests audible gulps of air. Naturally aspirated six-cylinder engines are a rare delicacy in 2023, and the linear flow of torque this one delivers comes as a feline purr. There just isn’t a new vehicle that offers mechanical engagement like this.
Out of respect to the vintage rubber and private ownership, there was no diving into corners or pulling to the redline. But from inside the TT’s bunker-slit cab, this is an immersive experience even at part throttle. The hydraulic power steering is direct, the brakes work, and the leather seating surfaces are just now showing some polish with use. Yeah, 2004 really was almost 20 years ago.
“The ultimate one, as far as fun to drive, is, I think, the second generation, the RS,” says McCauley. Introduced as a 2008 model, the second-gen TT isn’t as distinctive as the first, but it’s a better car, with an updated rear suspension and the glorious trill of a turbo five-cylinder engine with the 2012 RS.
Audi introduced the third- and final-generation TT for 2016, and it’s a sharp-edged stiletto compared with the first gen’s blunt object. The interior is slyly digital now, with HVAC controls embedded in the vent knobs and no massive center screen. And with 394 hp in the TT RS, it’s truly quick. Audi might sell maybe 1000 TTs this year, as the model departs. Good as they are, second- and third-gen TTs are only echoes of the original design.
Thomas is heading up the revival of Meyers Manx in California now, and Schreyer has been kicking ass at the highest echelons of Hyundai and Kia design. Nostalgia isn’t dead, as the Volkswagen Group is bringing back the VW Bus as the ID.Buzz and plans to revive, for some reason, the International Harvester Scout.
The TT leaves as a quarter-century-long success, not in sales but in design. Today it’s an impractical used car to most people, who can’t see its greatness, so good ones are still affordable. Take advantage.
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