The Audi TT was the last concept car to truly cause an earthquake through its incredible design. Unusually, the production car remained utterly faithful to the concept, creating an instant style icon

By Kotto Williams

They say good design never dates; Not in a sense that it looks old but it will always look good. This rings true for things like the AK47 assault rifle, the Charles Eames lounge chair and Helen Mirren. With cars it’s quite difficult, because what makes a car look good can change in a space of weeks. In true RUSH fashion I’ll ignore the multi-million established beauties like the Ferrari 250GTO - I’m going down to earth, because one of the car designs in my lifetime that sits at the summit of my small brain is the 1994 Audi TT Coupe concept.

You’re probably thinking that I’ve made a mistake, the Audi TT was conceived in the 2000s but nope. It was first penned in California by Freeman Thomas and J Mays. They won over the Audi executives by designing it around the new (for 1996) A3 and sharing bits from established models, allowing them to present it at the 1995 Frankfurt Motorshow as a mere design study – a manifestation of their goal to create a modern, minimalist, gesamtkunstwerk that was within reach of the many rather than the few.

Like many stories of classics, it took a short space of time to create; just seven months. However, in that time nearly a century of German automotive design was accounted for. It looked to the 20s where Bauhaus design language was beginning to take over Art Deco, and then 30s, paying attention to the curves, particularly the rounded lines encasing the wheels and short overhangs – a modern interpretation of the racing cars of that generation and indeed the curvatons, swept-back rooflines found on Auto-unions finest. Racing ahead to the 1940s and 50s we have exaggerated, defined wheel arches married to bodywork that stretched across the cars corners. In more modern times we’ve grown a taste for what makes a car look fast and exciting; feline sharpness and the appearance of velocity.

Dr Demel, Audi’s chairman, described its presence as “An enthusiast’s car with great charisma”. Its design needed no introduction however, it caused such a stir that soon after the show it was going to enter production. Though five years away it was a futuristic car that was born to be in the millennium, finished in silver it could’ve been a beautifully machined aluminium figurine on display at the Guggenheim in Spain. Unusually too, the production version that followed is near identical to the concept – further testament to the intelligent design and genuine forward-thinking nature of its designers. The roofline, door mirrors and elements of the interior have changed but it’s largely the same – more part sharing with its sibling cars rather than bespoke on-off concept items.

The inside, again largely untouched from concept to production, is a masterpiece of simplicity and technical design. It did away with the square 80s that some manufacturers forced upon us or the ultra-curvaceous early 90 and effectively introduced what we have today. It’s a minimalist array of fine materials and age-defying shapes and contours - instead of drab grey or silver painted plastic we got aluminium or satin-finished metals breaking up the monotony of the usual German black dashboard. Even the Alcantara trimmed steering wheel of the concept, usually the sore-thumb of older cars looks like it could’ve been fitted to something last year – the absence of twenty function buttons is the only real give away. Even now from first seeing this concept as a child I want to feel how the machined gearstick feels, a fantastic milled piece and surround you won’t see for another ten years until the Ford GT supercar adopted it.

The production version that came out in 1998 with the revised roof and some more details on the interior such as the TT emblem stamped into the metal bar that bifurcates the centre-console or the neatly finished dials on the climate control panel I think supersedes the concept design. Looking at the car now and they honestly nailed it, it looks fresh, a looked after one with gleaming paint and clear headlights could trick the lay-person into thinking it was a brand-new car. Some early adopters may look past this following some high-profile lawsuits following fatal accidents at high speed. The streamlined rear tragically proved to be too slippery on the autobahn, forcing Audi back to the drawing board to improve stability - a small lip spoiler, sterner DSC and less playful suspension was the result. To drive the TT might not have captured the heights of the urQuattro (little else on the road could) but the underlying hardware of the tuneable 1.8 turbocharged 5 cylinder and proven haldex all wheel drive still made spirited driving engaging.

The most collectable might be the later TT Sport with added boost and subtracted seats, but the one for me is the soulful V6, nabbed straight out of the Golf R32, mated to a manual gearbox. It may not be as fun to drive as a Honda S2000 or Porsche Boxster, it’s certainly a beautiful, bombproof coastal-road cruiser that will spawn a hundred car-park conversations. The TT is a rare opportunity to buy a futuristic, appreciating concept car which only comes once every few decades.

The Audi TT was the last concept car to truly cause an earthquake through its incredible design. Unusually, the production car remained utterly faithful to the concept, creating an instant style icon.