No one can deny that Volkswagen is on a roll. The German automaker has come a long way from the early 1990s when VW was doing poorly in Europe and even worse in North America. It was so bad some pundits predicted VW, which rode to fame on the original Beetle in the '50s and '60s and built Rabbits in Pennsylvania in the '70s and '80s, might even abandon the crucial U.S. market.

Now there's speculation VW may have another go at building vehicles in the U.S. And its newly revamped, tautly redesigned Audi and VW cars are enjoying a resurgence that only can be described as remarkable (see chart, p.84).

Suddenly VW is everyone's darling. Even Consumer Reports rates the VW '99 Passat ahead of the venerable Toyota Camry. VW sales are climbing on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is poised to overtake Toyota Motor Corp. as the third largest automaker in the world (barring more mega mergers).

Is this success all due to one man, Chairman Ferdinand Piech? Yes and no. In the U.S. a critical part of VW's resurgence is undoubtedly due to the enormous public love for the New Beetle, which debuted early in 1998. Its targeting is right on, and it has been critical to revived interest in the VW marque.

Most assuredly, Dr. Piech gets some credit: After all, he gave the New Beetle the go-ahead. What he got was a technically advanced car - it shares the Golf platform and powertrain - that's mindful of the original, sculpted in appealing new skin by Americans for niche-happy American buyers.

Who were these Americans who bought the New Beetle to fruition?

If you look at the limited edition painting commissioned by Volkswagen of America soon after the original Concept 1, precursor to the New Beetle, was shown at the Detroit auto show in 1994, you'll see several designers and modelers featured.

The key designer was J.C. Mays, then top designer at VW's Simi Valley, CA, studio who was tapped to replace Jack Telnack as Ford Motor Co.'s vice president of design in September 1997. With the New Beetle on his resume, his place in auto history books is clearly assured.

Mr. Mays is (standing center left) in the painting. To his left is Freeman Thomas (wearing a tie), Mr. Mays' close associate in the development of the New Beetle and now chief designer-VW at the Simi Valley studio, which designs both VW and Audi models.

Some stories suggest that Mr. Thomas actually designed Concept 1.

"I don't want to undermine Freeman's role in the design, but I've got to make sure that history doesn't get rewritten." chuckles Mr. Mays when asked about Mr. Thomas' role. Officially, Messrs.. Thomas and Mays were co-designers of the landmark Concept 1.

More importantly, though, Mr. Mays makes it clear that Mr. Thomas was the "key designer behind the Audi TT, and he doesn't get the credit he deserves for that." Shown to rave reviews in Europe and the U.S., the TT, which boasts what is arguably the industry's most intriguingly techy interior treatment, already is on sale abroad and will be introduced this month Stateside. Like the New Beetle at VW, the TT aims to further boost the image of VW AG's upscale division.

Thus Freeman Thomas has played a pivotal role in designing two unique small cars for Volkswagen - hot products that have quickly come to symbolize VW as an automaker on the move, its worst days in the rearview mirror.

Who is this talented, largely unheralded designer, and what can we expect to see from him in the future?

Although TT was designed by an American, it is very much a European car relying on European heritage rather than American nostalgia - as it is with the New Beetle.

Naturally the first question to ask an American designer working for a German company is: Do you consider yourself an American? Mr. Thomas' answer: "I'm probably an American in attitude: I have optimism as a Californian," he says, but quickly adds, "I can think as a German and I can communicate with Germans." He insists that you have to be part of a culture to understand its thought processes. "To be a successful designer, you have to understand them."

Like so many of today's auto designers, Mr. Thomas is a graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. A Ford scholarship got Mr. Thomas to Art Center when he was 22. A degree landed him his first automotive job with Porsche AG in Stuttgart.

"When I came out of school I had many offers. Porsche was the lowest of all, but Porsche was my dream," he says. But he is convinced it was worth it. "One of my mentors was Erwin Komenda, a construction engineer for Porsche, Auto Union and the Beetle. He was a pivotal figure at Porsche."

While at Porsche Mr. Thomas worked on the team that designed the 959 as well as several projects for outside clients. One of his claims to fame was a series of concept forklift trucks for Linde, which are still being built today to his design.

Mr. Thomas says that too many designers graduate from Art Center and stay in California. "If you're interested in European cultural designs, you have to live there," he explains.

And he has. Apart from California and Germany, Mr. Thomas has lived in England, Greece, Spain and Norway. Of course, he spent plenty of time overseas while growing up, first as the son of a U.S. Air Force man and then as a young recruit himself.

He remembers his father in Europe driving a '57 Buick Roadmaster. He also fondly recalls when he was 18 and living in Oxford, cruising around England on a motorcycle and in a '62 black right-hand-drive Beetle, stopping at pubs everywhere.

Mr. Thomas' mother is German-born, so perhaps he is more "mid-Atlantic" than he lets on. Because he grew up as an American, however, he feels "I looked at Europe differently than my peers in Europe." In all Mr. Thomas spent 18 of his 41 years in Europe.

Following five years at Porsche he returned to California in 1987 and struck out on his own. His main client was Porsche, which hired him as a design consultant on the West Coast. He also taught at Art Center as well as doing freelance writing and design analysis for Road & Track magazine.

When VW of America opened its design studio in Simi Valley in 1991, Mr. Thomas was among the first designers hired. From the start Mr. Mays was in charge of Audi design while Mr. Thomas was his assistant chief designer for Audi. The two worked well together. "I liked working with J. We had good chemistry. I've always had a free spirit in my design, I've always been a rebel - it's one of my strengths."

One day in 1993 Mr. Mays called Mr. Thomas into his office. "He asked me to close the door. He showed me a sketch he'd done at lunchtime and asked me what I thought about doing a modern Beetle," Mr. Thomas says. "We set up a project book and sent it to (Audi design chief) Hartmut Warkuss, who saw its potential."

The timing was good. Herr Warkuss was soon to be Dr. Piech's choice as overall head of design for the entire Volkswagen Group.

"J and I each made models that were very similar," says Mr. Thomas. "We showed them in a presentation along with marketing slides that vividly demonstrated how VW sales in the U.S. had declined over the years.

"They were very moved by the presentation." he says. "We sent it to Wolfsburg in September 1993 to show Piech in a private review. After reviewing it, Piech said "inordnung" (in order, meaning let's get on with it) with a big smile."

Concept 1's final design combined elements from the two scale models by Mssrs. Mays and Thomas. "J went in a Bauhaus (functional, uniquely pure) direction while mine was more whimsical. We had two canvases to present ideas," says Mr. Thomas.

Timing is important. "When you have an economic situation at a company, it's an opportunity for designers to help," says Mr. Thomas. He argues that designers usually produce designs to please management when things are going well, but says companies appear more willing to take risks when times are tough.

"Why did we want to bring back the past?" Mr. Thomas asks rhetorically. "We coined a phrase: 'progressive emotional optimism,'" which he describes as "a movement that is respecting history while embracing technology and simplifying the design."

The two designers also kept to "four key words - honest, simple, reliable, original - throughout the process," says Mr. Thomas. "They bring VW back to its heritage."

He's convinced you can define the Audi or VW shape, but asks: "Can you define the shape of an Accord or a Corolla?"