Some 19 months after the Concept 1 debuted in Detroit, Audi launched the TT show car at the 1995 IAA Frankfurt show. Like Concept 1, it was a show-grabber. Again Mssrs. Mays and Thomas had conceived a hit, but this time the roles were reversed.
Mr. Thomas lays out the history: "J. asked me to go to Germany to assist him (after he had been appointed as the new head of Audi design). I said 'No' at first, then I relented and agreed to go there (Germany) for six months. It was right after the Detroit show (in 1994) and we had to produce a cabriolet (convertible) version of Concept 1 for the Geneva show," he recalls.
Mr. Thomas sketched a TT concept. Mr. Mays. and Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen, now deputy chairman of Audi AG, both liked it. "But I could not work on it at the studio," says Mr. Thomas, "so J. asked me to work on the concept at my apartment in the evenings for two weeks." Officially, if that's the right word, it was a secret project.
Working in a loft with a couple of models and engineers, the team developed a 1/4-scale model and further sketches. A presentation was made to Mssrs. Piech and Paefgen. Mr. Thomas explains that the basic design was right for the TT to work as either a cabriolet or coupe. "Good designs work well in all iterations if the basic design is right," he says.
Given the choice, Mr. Piech said, "I want this coupe. Everyone else has a cabriolet." So the first TT show car became a coupe.
Mr. Thomas is modest about his role on the TT. "All great cars are developed by small teams. They are focused," he says. "I'm really happy with the way the TT came out. It was more controversial than even Concept 1. The TT was completely different, while at least Concept 1 had some familiarity." Some observers, however, see a glimmer of the VW Karmann Ghia built on the old Beetle chassis - at least in basic concept.
Mr. Thomas says that even the TT name, last used on the NSU TT in 1972, was controversial: It refers to the oldest road race in Britain. NSU was one of the four companies comprising Audi (thus the four rings) VW acquired Audi in 1964.
On a more philosophical note, Mr. Thomas offers a mild critique of non-European competitors and buyers. Much like a proud Renaissance artist loyal to his benefactor, he notes that "The Japanese have got to change the way they design cars. The Camry and Accord came out of the '80s, they are appliances that offer great value. The '80s were all about pragmatism; a car was just a tool, nothing more.
"In Europe, an auto purchase is a much more serious decision. In the U.S., it's more emotional. Europeans are more adventurous in things such as colors. The modern German car is one that respects all these values," he explains.
Mr. Thomas sees a change coming, though. "Americans are getting away from just buying an appliance" when they shop for transportation.
Future designs will be more creative and adventurous because "people want (both) a sport/utility vehicle and a luxury car." That yearning, he says, will fuel further cross-pollination of differing vehicle segments.
What about future VW products? "We're given a budget, it's all up to what Dr. Piech wants," says Mr. Thomas. "It's like developing plots for a TV show. Piech and Warkuss are on form right now, and if you're a designer, it's the ride to be on."
There is no way Mr. Thomas will let anyone behind the security doors at Volks-wagen's Simi Valley studio. He gives no hints as to what we will see sooner or later from this talented designer.
But there are plenty of clues in the way he discusses the vehicles he likes and the way he's allowed to design vehicles with a clean sheet of paper and a respect for heritage.
"Tomorrow is all about a balance between heritage, technology and having an optimism for the future," he says. "The Scirocco and the Golf (both introduced in the early '70s) have a following. My neighbor has restored a 1986 Golf GTI and another has a 1960 microbus.
"I can't imagine anyone restoring a Camry," says Mr. Thomas, with just a hint of a wink.