It’s not often an automaker produces a car that goes on to revive—or become—a design icon. In 1997 and 1998, the Volkswagen Group managed it twice, first with the New Beetle and then again with the first-generation Audi TT. Parked beside each other, there’s even a familial resemblance, though it’s one of cousins rather than siblings. And although the New Beetle and its descendants have been successful, the TT is the car that has continued to groom and grow a reputation for striking design.
In our first drive of the American-spec Audi TT in 1999 (June 1999), we interviewed then-New York Museum of Modern Art curator Christopher Mount, who said the TT had a “puzzle-like quality to the design that’s a fascinating alternative to envelope [car] design. There is something artificial about one-piece design. The TT shows how a car is made.”
Why would an art curator’s opinion about a car matter? Because that car is a widely recognized textbook example of a school of art and design: Bauhaus. And what more perfect implementation of a philosophy that seeks to tie art with function into a total package than a vehicle, the rolling embodiment of modern industry, style, and freedom?
It hasn’t been all Bauhaus and butterflies, however. The second-generation TT took the familiar architectural shape and modified it; the third has taken it even further. Now the TT is much more masculine, high-tech, and sporty in its appearance—and much more of a piece, more of an “envelope” design. Gone is the timeless, rolling-sculpture visual, now replaced with a machine that seems to lunge forward when at rest. But the TT’s original thread is still there, if only just.
“In the sketches, I always had the first generation of the Audi TT in mind,” said the third-generation TT’s designer, Jürgen Löffler, upon its debut in 2014. “Because the TT genes should again be clearly visible in the new design. Then again and again I looked at the design of the first Lamborghini Countach in detail. The tight surfaces and the reduction have inspired me. But the Porsche 911 was a role model for me. To further develop a model and interpret it in a modern way without losing the basic genetics was a clear goal for me with the new TT design.”
Löffler set a high bar for himself, though the TT has only two decades to build on, compared to the 911’s 50-plus years of design heritage. Nevertheless, as the car rolls into its 20th year on sale, it’s hard to deny that Löffler, Audi, and the TT have done a remarkable job of staying relevant, fresh, and on top in a famously fickle field.