Tom Tjaarda, the American-born designer of some of Italy’s most striking cars, such as the De Tomaso Pantera and original Fiat 124 Spider, has died. He was 82 years old.
Tjaarda was born in Detroit in 1934. His father was an automotive designer, creating the show car that would lend much of its aesthetics to the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. He studied architecture early on but ended up one of the first Americans to live and work in Italy, where he would design cars for some of the country’s greatest coachbuilders, including Ghia and Pininfarina.
Tjaarda called Italy his home since his initial move abroad as a young man and until his final days continued to be involved in the world of automotive design. I had the good fortune to interview Tjaarda at the 2016 Concorso Italiano in Monterey, California, and found him to be a warm, gentle, and humble person whose passion for the art of automotive design was infectious. You can read the interview below.
Tom Tjaarda is an American designer born in 1934 and the son of John Tjaarda, Dutch designer of the prototype for what would become the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. Tom famously based his career in Italy, working for many of the country’s top design houses where he penned cars such as the original Fiat 124 Spider and the De Tomaso Pantera. We grabbed some time with him at the Concorso Italiano during the 2016 Monterey Car Week.
AM: Given your father’s profession, did you know you’d be an automotive designer?
TT: No, I studied architecture. I wanted to be an architect, but my last year in college I designed a car, and that’s how I got involved with Carrozzeria Ghia and moved to Italy. It was kind of a natural thing. My father went from aeronautic to automotive design, and I went from architecture to automotive design.
AM: How did it feel to be a young American doing what you did in 1950s Italy? Was it intimidating?
TT: No, not really because I was the first one to do that. After a while a lot of Americans came over to work in Torino, but I was the first one. In college, I liked Italian design and Italian architecture. That’s where I wanted to go to work.
AM: Let’s talk a little about your original Fiat 124 Spider and how that came to be. There was the Corvette Rondine concept first.
TT: Yeah, the Rondine was a concept for the Paris show in 1963, and General Motors liked the car, but they said it didn’t look like a Corvette, so they couldn’t use it. But Fiat and Pininfarina decided they really liked the car, so why let it die? I was given the assignment to do a full-scale design of the 124 using the Corvette concept as the base.
AM: Any thoughts on the new Fiat 124 Spider?
TT: Well, the first time I saw it was this morning! I’ve seen it in the distance on the road in Torino, but I’ve never been up close to one. It’s not bad. You know, you take a piece here and put it on—like the upsweep of the rear fender. [Designers] all think style is something you take and you apply. They do that a lot today. The grille looks like the old grille, but they just kind of slapped it on the front. The car is OK, I think they could have done a better job. To me, they should have at least asked Pininfarina for some input.
AM: Is it true the De Tomaso Pantera went from a blank piece of paper to production in a year?
TT: No, eight months. It’s too bad since there were so many defects on it. After two weeks, De Tomaso said, “Hey, is the model done? I’m coming in a week with a friend of mine, and I want to show him the car.” So he came over, and his friend turned out to be Lee Iacocca. So they came down to the shop and saw the car, and Iacocca approved of the car’s design in about 10 minutes. He walked around it and said, “This is it! This is what I want.” And right from there, right away on the same day, he set up the whole crew to put the car into production. You can do that when you’re a small company.
AM: What are you up to these days, do you still live in Torino?
TT: Oh, yeah. My wife is Italian, and she’d never leave. I’ve been there since I moved over in 1958. I still have my office. But of course, automotive design today is done in-house. It has to be, there are all the electronics, safety regulations. I’ll get the occasional design project, but it’s usually very small. I do some industrial design. I don’t have to do too much because I’m legally retired.
AM: Is there anything you’d like to design that you haven’t had the chance to?
TT: I always liked Maseratis. I designed Ferraris, but I always wanted to design a Maserati, and I never have. Giugiaro was designing Maseratis and never a Ferrari, so he complains about that, but I complain about never having the chance to design a Maserati. But I probably never will. I love the name Maserati, the sound of it, just saying it.
AM: What’s your take on the state of automotive design?
TT: Forty years ago you could go to the design studio at General Motors or Mercedes, and they’re all Americans or Germans, and you could see the difference between the designs and the nations. Today, it’s a crossover. You go to any design studio and you see a Brazilian, you see a Japanese designer or an American designer or German designer. … There’s a real interchange of ideas. Today with the internet, you know tomorrow what somebody is doing. As a result, the cars look very similar. It’s difficult to tell a Hyundai from a Mercedes sometimes if you don’t look at the grille.