Audi TT: Elements of a Name

by: Steve Johnson

In a story written by Nelson Ireson for Automobile Magazine covering the Mark III TT models being driven on the Isle of Man TT’s mountain course, he said the linkage between the car and race goes back to 1938 when the TT Lightweight class was won by former mechanic and backup rider, Ewald Kluge, on a new DKW 250 ULd. We beg to differ. The actual linkage is much more complex and more akin to the building blocks of song writing. The introduction, the verse, the chorus and the bridge are parts of a composer’s work that come together to form a song. Let’s travel back in time 120 years to the first building block of the TT, the intro.

It’s 1903 in Great Britain and the motor car is still something for the wealthy. But it is, by now, an established feature on roadways and they are becoming the standard for professionals who need to travel on a daily basis. The term “Touring Car” or “Tourer,” was coined at this time and the operators of these convertible-top automobiles were known as “Tourists.” Not to be confused with someone spending time away from home in the pursuit of recreation and relaxation; however, touring cars enabled these types of activities in the coming years.

As we’ve all observed, when a new gadget becomes widely used in society, people perceive the need to enact controls on its use to prevent abuses from occurring. In the auto’s case, it was limiting its speed of use. An Act of Parliament, in 1903, introduced a 20 mph speed limit across Great Britain. Since at this time there were no race tracks, only public roads, those seeking to race had to look elsewhere where no such law existed.

Enter the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (later known as the Royal Automobile Club). Seeking a location to continue racing, in February 1904, they turned to the Isle of Man, a self-governing British Dependency in the Irish Sea. Here there were no laws restricting racing on closed public roads. Later that same year the Isle’s first race, the Gordon Bennett Car Trial, was held on the 52.15 mile Highlands course as the British qualifier for the fledging European car racing championships. In 1905 the race became known as the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy, so named for touring cars competing for its top prize—the Tourist Trophy—the name which the race itself became known by. While it may seem a bit odd to name a race after its trophy, at that time in history a number of competitions were similarly named. For example, the aforementioned Gordon Bennett Cup, an auto race held from 1900 to 1905, while the romantic term “grand prix” is simply French for “big prize.” We now have the verse of the TT—racing.

The first running of the motorcycle race oft-linked to the TT’s name, the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, was in May 1907. Motorcycles had actually run in the 1905 race, but the steep climbs of the mountain section proved to be more than the machines of the day could handle. So in January 1907, the Editor of The Motor-Cycle magazine proposed a revised race. Two classes would be eligible to race, single-cylinder machines that averaged 90 miles per gallon (mpg) and twin-cylinder machines that averaged 75 mpg. These rules maintained the touring nature of the motorcycles, as opposed to purposed-built race machines. Regulations also required saddles, pedals, mudguards and exhaust silencers, again pointing to touring class machinery.

Of the motorcycle brands with Auto Union lineage, NSU and DKW, NSU has the oldest connection to the Isle of Man TT. In fact, two NSU single-cylinder machines competed in the very first race. While one failed to finish, Martin Geiger finished fifth with a time of 5 hours, 10 minutes and 26 seconds at an average speed of 30.6 mph. NSU continued to compete in both classes until World War I’s interruption finishing as high as fourth in 1913. They re-entered the TT in the 1930s in the revised class structures Junior TT and Senior TT, again finishing in the top seven positions on five occasions.

DKW also appeared on the TT scene in the 1930s competing in the Lightweight, Junior TT and Senior TT classes. These competitive years’ best result was the aforementioned win by Ewald Kluge in the Lightweight TT class, but DKW riders also stood on the podium in 1936 and 1937 in the same class, which is quite an achievement in this demanding and dangerous race. The now annual motorcycle race is the chorus of the TT.

In song writing a bridge incorporates something new or contrasting, more simply, a change. The bridge in the TT’s composition is the four-wheeled NSU Prinz. Beginning mass production in 1958 as the Prinz I, this economical two- and four-door car gained first an upscale model then a sporty model with the introduction of the Sport Prinz. This two-seat sport coupe wasn’t quite a “sports car” yet due to its two-cylinder engine displacing less than 600 cubic centimeters (cc). But the little Prinz grew into that label, by 1963 becoming the NSU 1000 TT and from 1967 to 1972, the 1200 TT. The model designations linked to the now four-cylinder 1,100 cc and 1,200 cc engines. A TTS model was even available, built for competition, they had successful careers in both hillclimbs and track racing.

Arriving at present day, if you were fortunate enough to attend the TT Cars & Coffee held at Audi of America’s Headquarters on April 29th this year (covered on p. 52), you heard the TT’s designer, Mr. Freeman Thomas (interviewed on pp. 24-28), passionately discuss the series of events that led to the iconic TT. (If you weren’t there, a video of it is posted on our YouTube channel, while a podcast for Mr. Thomas is also linked in the story.) To put all the song components discussed up to this point down on paper requires a composer, the TT’s is Mr. Thomas. The final song building block he used was the hook, that little something that grabs you in a way that makes you want more. Freeman’s hook was a “little doodle” of a car’s silhouette that he’d been drawing for years. That little doodle hooked Audi leadership who, after seeing it, initiated a full-blown design and subsequent modeling process.

After a few week’s work by Freeman’s team, the TT’s scale model, a spyder version, was presented to Dr. Ferdinand Piech. Coincidently, another one of Mr. Thomas’ doodles, a coupe version, was also taken into the meeting by Audi Head of Design, Mr. J Mays. After the meeting Freeman was told that Dr. Piech said, “I want a coupe, I want this coupe.” The song’s style had now been selected. The resulting TT concept car was a complete surprise at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show. Mr. Thomas borrowed the concept car’s name and logo from the NSU TT, personally making and attaching the first logo to his doodle come to life.

Interestingly though, in Freeman’s mind during the design the work, TT stood not for Tourist Trophy, but for tradition and technology. The two concepts he feels define Audi. At Cars & Coffee Freeman likened the TT’s creation—the connection of geometric elements into an organic form—to the writing of a hit song. Like connecting a series of words to form a song’s lyrics that become an element of pop culture. In the TT’s case, it has become an icon of Audi design and in the broader automotive world as well.