• Matteo Licata

The Amazing Story Of Tom Tjaarda

I think it's unquestionable that the 1950s and 60s have been the "golden era" of Italian automobile design. But what if I told you that one of the world's most accomplished Italian car designers was actually born and raised in Detroit, Michigan?



Born in July 1934, we could say that Tom Tjaarda had car design in his blood, given his father John was behind the sweeping, teardrop shape of the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. However, following his parents' divorce in 1939, Tom was raised by his mother and studied architecture at the local university.


There, Tom met associate professor Aarre Lathi who, noticing Tom's talent for design and passion for automobiles, recommended him to Luigi Segre, the boss of Turin's Carrozzeria Ghia. Segre, at the time, received a lot of work from American companies, especially Chrysler, and legend has it that his American contacts originated from some covert work he did for the Allies during WWII.


Tom Tjaarda arrived in Turin, the city that would become his home for almost six decades, in 1958, and by 1961 the first of over fifty cars Tom would design in his career was in production: the Innocenti 950 Spider.


The same year, Tjaarda left Ghia for Pininfarina. Under the direction of the company's design director Franco Martinengo, Tom designed arguably the most important cars of his career: the one-off Corvette Rondine and the successful Fiat 124 Sport Spider.


"Rondine" is the Italian for "swallow" and refers to the car's peculiar rear-end design, vaguely reminiscent of the bird's tail.

Presented at the 1963 Paris Motor Show, the Corvette Rondine was a running prototype based on the newly-launched Corvette Sting Ray. Interestingly, the study was apparently commissioned by General Motors itself and, having been built by Pininfarina's craftsmen, the Rondine it's perhaps the only Corvette to ever have a steel body instead of a composite one.


In a rather unexpected twist of automobile history, the Rondine did not inspire any future Corvettes but rather a Fiat: the Turinese company tasked Pininfarina to adapt the Rondine's styling to a shortened 124 platform to create a spider... And it's a testament to Tom's skills just how well the 124 Sport Spider turned out, given how different the dimensions and proportions are compared to the Corvette.

However, due to the Fiat's short front overhang and relatively tall engine, the Rondine's front end design just couldn't be adopted and was replaced by a more conventional solution similar to the 124 Coupé, much to Tom's displeasure. Nevertheless, the Fiat 124 Spider went on to become a great success, selling nearly 200.000 copies over 19 years, the vast majority going to the USA.


From 1968, Tom Tjaarda was the design director of Carrozzeria Ghia, which had fallen under Alejandro De Tomaso's ownership.

Naturally, the highlight of this period must be the De Tomaso Pantera, the striking mid-engined supercar powered by Ford's "Cleveland" 351 V8 engine that, between 1971 and 1975, was sold in the USA through the Lincoln-Mercury dealership network. With about 7000 units sold, the Pantera is by far the most successful De Tomaso model in the company's troubled history and a coveted classic today.


Tjaarda would remain at Ghia, which by 1973 had become a wholly-owned Ford design studio, until 1977. From then on, he was involved in numerous vehicle projects until well into the new millennium, but sadly without making as significant an impact as before, as these underfunded ventures often failed before even making a single car.


Tom Tjaarda passed away in May 2017 due to an incurable illness, but his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of thousands of enthusiasts worldwide. I dedicate this video to his memory.


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