Tom Tjaarda, 1934-2017
Tom Tjaarda, one of the ‘Three Kings’ of Italian car design and Classic Cars columnist, has died aged 82
Born Stevens Thompson Tjaarda van Starkenburg in Detroit, the son of Lincoln Zephyr designer Joop Tjaarda van Starkenburg, Tom truncated his Dutch name to the faintly Italianate Tjaarda on emigrating to Italy in 1958 to work for Ghia. Straight out of the University of Michigan College of Architecture he was designing the Innocenti 950 Spider. After completing his formative training at Ghia, he quickly moved to Pininfarina where his distinctive style resulted in such iconic designs as the Ferrari 330 GT and Fiat 124 Spider. Despite his relative youth, he was given a fairly free hand at Pininfarina, especially in the case of the Ferrari 365 GT California Spider, where his brief was, as he later recalled, ‘simply to design an interesting cabriolet’.
Tjaarda’s prowess at Pininfarina brought him to the attention of Alejandro de Tomaso, who had bought Ghia in 1967 and had typically ambitious plans for the
carrozzeria. Looking for Italian styling and engineering credibility following Enzo Ferrari’s infamous snubbing of Henry Ford II’S buyout offer, Ford bought into Ghia three years later with the aim of creating a range of Italianstyled Fords and de Tomasos to sell in America.
Tjaarda was appointed design director – a move he always found amusing, noting years later that ‘Ford wanted their cars designed by an Italian styling house, and ended up with an Argentinian-owned studio and a Dutch designer born in Michigan!’ The ever-diplomatic Tjaarda was one of the few people in Turin or Detroit who could manage the volatile Alejandro de Tomaso and ensure projects were completed successfully.
Regardless of his heritage, Tjaarda embraced Italian life and citizenship, always speaking fondly of ‘Torino’ and attracting consistent comparison with Giorgetto Giugiaro and Marcello Gandini, yet taking many of his Seventies commissions from Ford. In this sense his best-known design, the De Tomaso Pantera, perhaps most embodies his diverse background. Resolutely Italian in execution, yet with an engine straight from Cleveland, Ohio, the Pantera’s design acknowledged both Italian and American design idioms with its Lamborghini-style wedge-nose running into a dramatic muscle-car style midpoint waistline kick, ‘to draw attention to where the power is’, he would explain. His tenure with Ford and Ghia wasn’t all about supercars though – the 1973 oil crisis led to his small space-efficient hatchback ‘Project Wolf’, which became the first Fiesta.
After a brief period in charge of Fiat’s advanced-design studios in the early Eighties, Tjaarda set up his own styling house, Dimensione Design. This later work largely involved low-volume luxury off-roaders, redesigned interiors and concept cars, but the likes of Saab, Lamborghini and Aston Martin all enlisted his services. One of his last pieces of commercial design involved guiding the styling of the Fiat Barchetta, the spiritual successor of his own 124 Spider.
Always polite and gentlemanly, yet subtly outspoken and with a wry sense of humour, Tjaarda was an approachable presence on the international classic concours and show circuit. He also wrote prolifically and Tom’s family says one of his last wishes was for
Classic Cars to publish his remaining unused columns – something we will continue to do in forthcoming issues to honour him and his legacy. A great authority, colleague and friend, he will be sadly missed.
Tom’s Ferrari 365 California, 330 GT and Innocenti Spider Ghia Coins concept penned for Ford – named after a Frank Sinatra song Tom played in the design studio Tom and Ghia plaster workshop manager Pietro Brovarone perfect the lines of a concept car in 1973