In the whole history of the automobile, there have been surprisingly few iconic models. If you count ones that went on to be a success (I’m sorry DeLorean), and were also affordable to the regular guy on the street, you are left with remarkably few car models. One car that certainly does fit into that category is the Audi TT. Since its launch in 1998 it hasn’t been an altogether smooth ride, but isn’t that always the case when a company pushes boundaries with design and manufacturing techniques?
One thing that was obvious from day one was that Audi had produced a head turner, a motor that people would want to get behind the wheel of and show off on their drives. And most importantly, want to drive. So almost two decades since it first hit our roads, what is the real story of the TT, and what does its future hold?
The story of the Audi TT begins in the spring of 1994, at its design center in Santa Monica, California. Designers Freeman Thomas and J. Mays – who would later also come up with the design for VW’s New Beetle – came up with the jaw dropping exterior design of the TT, while the award-winning interior design was the work of a team comprising of Romulus Rost, Martin Smith, Hartmut Warkuss and Peter Schreyer.
From day one, it was the project’s aim to not only fill the gaping sportscar-shaped hole in their range that the Quattro had left in 1991, but to create something truly special. In Rost’s words – to design a true sports car, that was exciting and would evoke people’s curiosity. The design team took inspiration from everywhere and everything – music, architecture, fashion, plus some decidedly leftfield places. Baseball featured prominently in the designer’s concept scrapbook. The seats in the Roadster are shaped like baseball gloves, and Rost particularly liked the idea of the way that the ball is contained and held firmly in place by the glove, becoming one with it. That was what he wanted the people inside the TT to also feel like.
The first appearance of the TT was at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show as a concept car, but it was to be another 3 years before it was rolled off the production line. There were several reasons for this. The main one was that despite the TT sharing some features from the likes of the Mk4 Golf, it had many new design features, and utilized innovative manufacturing techniques. One of these, a never before used laser welding system – allowing for seamless design features – caused several setbacks, until it was mastered to create the now familiar TT.
Despite these delays, the car that became available to an intrigued public in September 1998 was practically identical to the one that featured in Frankfurt three years earlier. Initially available as a Coupe, the Roadster followed in August of the following year.
Initial reactions were good. In a world when computer design suites were starting to make it difficult to tell one car or even one manufacturer from another, the TT was a breath of fresh air. Its stunning looks and smooth lines made it look like one of the first concept cars to actually make it onto the road commercially. Looks would take a backseat unfortunately, when a series of high-profile, and equally high-speed crashes made the headlines. At speeds exceeding 110 mph the car became unstable when carrying out sharp maneuvers, prompting a recall. Several modifications were eventually added, including Audi’s Electronic Stability Program and a rear spoiler – spoiling the lines slightly.
TT – What’s in a Name
There are a couple of different theories of the origin of its name, but it seems that the truth is certainly better than the fiction. The Audi TT actually takes its name from the successful motor racing tradition of NSU in the British Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) motorcycle race held on the Isle of Man in May/June every year. NSU was a manufacturer of automobiles and motorcycles located in Neckarsulm in Germany. It began competing in the iconic TT races in 1911, a tradition it successfully carried on right on into the 1960s with models including the 1000TT, 1200TT and TTS. After being bought by VW in 1969, it was merged with Auto Union to become Audi NSU Auto Union AG, and eventually Audi shortly after that. Of course, this isn’t the only time that Audi has had associations with a renowned motorcycle manufacturer.
As for the TT race itself, that continues to go from strength to strength. From its inaugural year in 1907 (moving to its current Snaefell Mountain Course in 1911), it quickly gained the reputation of the most prestigious and most dangerous race in the world. It is still one of the main highlights on the racing calendar, attracting tens of thousands of racing and non-racing fans alike.
After boldly announcing in 2004 that the next generation of TTs would be made of aluminum, Audi showcased the new style in the guise of an Audi Shooting Break Concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2005. The MKII hit production in August 2006, with several enhancements and modifications on its younger sibling.
Five inches longer and three wider, the new version cleverly combined aluminum (front body panels), and steel (rear panels) resulting in practically neutral front-to-rear weight distribution. As well as an enhanced suspension system, the MKII also featured a new and improved rear spoiler that automatically extended when driven faster than 75 mph and retracted at speeds below 50mph. A switch on the drivers console also allowed it to be operated manually. Best of all, Audi imported the Audi TTRS to the United States, which came in manual transmission only and packed an inline 5 cylinder turbocharged engine – which I’ve featured in a previous post here.
MKIII (2014-Present) & Beyond
With the previous versions of the TT selling more than half a million units between them, there were big boots to fill for the MKIII when it was previewed at the Detroit Motor Show in 2014 as a concept car, and then as the real thing in Geneva later the same year. The MKIII uses the VW MQB platform, and is available in both TFSI and TDI engine formats, the former comes with a Quattro all-wheel drive model, while the TDI is front wheel drive.
The MKIII has more than carried on from where its predecessors left off. The body shape has changed subtly, it is lower, wider and lighter. And more powerful. It still uses a combination of steel and aluminum – this time much of the skin is aluminum as well.
Looking through a crystal ball, it would appear exciting times are ahead for Audi and the TT in particular. The new TT RS is expected to hit the road this year (2016), while the stunning TT Clubsport (pictured above) looks set to make some waves.
In a world where so many manufacturers tend to play it safe in terms of design the Audi TT has constantly railed against the norm producing gorgeous automobiles that are not beyond the means of the ordinary man on the street. Even in the choice of its name is impressive – taking something from the past, a symbol of a rich, dramatic and exhilarating sporting tradition, and using it to name something so ground-breaking, so ahead of its time sums up the ethos of the TT perfectly.
I don’t think a renowned New York Times critic was exaggerating when he called the Audi TT “historically significant” and nominated it for “car of the century.”