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LOOK WHO'S TALKING: VW-Audi's Freeman Thomas.

The designer of Audi's head-turning TT and the New Beetle reveals why passion beats focus groups every time in vehicle design

Freeman Thomas, VW North America's chief design, was born in Long Beach, Calif., in 1957. His father was in the U.S. Air Force, and Thomas grew up in California and Europe. He graduated from the Art Center College of Design in 1983 and went to work for Porsche. He left there in 1988 and opened his own design firm in California, where much of his work was under contract to Porsche. When Volkswagen and Audi opened their California design center in 1991, Thomas went to work there with J Mays. The two collaborated on the now-famous Concept 1, which became VW's New Beetle.

Q. What were you trying to say with the TT?.

A. There is an absoluteness and a purity. It is about communication, because the design of the product was a great communication between design and engineering, then it translated through to marketing.

Q. You also worked on (VW's) Concept One. Do you see any common design themes with the TT?

A. Part of the passion of designing these types of products is heritage -- trying to brand the spirit of what a Volkswagen is, which I feel is honesty, and the spirit of what an Audi is, which is a combination of art and technology.

Q. You've talked about progressive optimism being a key element in the design of the TT. What is progressive optimism?

A. It's a combination of things. It gives you the sense of optimism when you look at it. It makes you feel good and it has a sense of progressiveness. If you design a headlight, you look at the technology available today, all the different types of lens and blinker technologies. If you do it just pragmatically, it can look fairly dull. What we want to do is more than the sum of its parts -- and part of that is making it have this sense of optimism.

Q. What role does passion, rather than demographics, play in designing new vehicles?

A. An example of a demographic automobile is where product planners come together and see what other companies are doing, and what they are being successful at. They develop a product profile, then a vehicle. Then they do focus grouping. If within the focus group three people say [something critical] about the car, the product planners will say, `Oh, my goodness, we're on the wrong track.' By the end of it you end up with a fairly generic automobile.

I tend to design cars for myself, which in a funny way is maybe a little more of a puristic way to design an automobile. You develop a car that is very focused.

Q. Are you saying there is too much reliance on clinics?

A. A lot of people who run the clinics don't understand the true passion of the automobile. All the great automobile companies in the beginning were run by just a few people who had a passion. General Motors' Harley Earl, Ferry Porsche, Enzo Ferrari, Jaguar's William Lyons -- they were very strong personalities and, in a sense, the customer for the product. They picked the personality that fitted themselves. Now companies are designing products that are very generic.

Q. What have been the major influences on your work?

A. Half of my life I lived in Europe. The other half, I've lived in California. Those two cultures are very polarizing. In California there is a definite attitude of optimism, a pioneering spirit. The influence allows me to put on different hats. I don't find it a problem to develop an English product, or a German product or an American product.

Q. What do you do when you're not working?

A. I'm usually hanging out in my garage with my neighbors, or I'm out driving an old Porsche, a 1969 911E coupe, through the Santa Monica mountains.
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Comment:LOOK WHO'S TALKING: VW-Audi's Freeman Thomas.
Author:Jensen, Christopher
Publication:Automotive Industries
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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