Tom Tjaarda

In his last-ever col­umn, Tom tells us about his fate­ful drag­ster fas­ci­na­tion

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents - Tom Tjaarda, 1934-2017, had a de­sign CV in­clud­ing Ghia, Pin­in­fa­rina, Italde­sign, Ford and Fiat. He first wrote for Clas­sic Cars in 2013. His fam­ily wished that we pub­lish the re­main­ing col­umns.

The drag-racing phe­nom­e­non never re­ally caught on in Europe. It was a Cal­i­for­nia thing that ex­panded af­ter the war and is still pop­u­lar to­day. Just look­ing at some of th­ese ve­hi­cles stand­ing still sends shiv­ers up my spine – how on earth can any­one want to risk their life in such a bizarre au­to­mo­tive com­pe­ti­tion? But among those that do there is lit­tle hes­i­ta­tion, be­cause the win­ners be­come cult heroes for ex­pos­ing them­selves to such odds of plain sur­vival.

Over time the con­struc­tors of th­ese cars have come up with ev­ery pos­si­ble tech­ni­cal so­lu­tion. The first post-war at­tempts saw sur­plus WW2 aero­nau­ti­cal aux­il­iary fuel tanks fit­ted with an en­gine and four ex­posed wheels. Th­ese lakesters were then drag-raced on the Utah salt flats.

The ex­treme came many years later – those long tubu­lar chas­sis with ver­ti­cal ex­haust stacks and what looked like bi­cy­cle wheels in front, giv­ing the im­pres­sion that they couldn’t pos­si­bly hope to have any in­flu­ence over di­rec­tion.

When I came to work for Ghia in the sum­mer of 1958 there were many un­ortho­dox cars be­ing de­signed by the Torino Car­rozze­rias. Ber­tone had its BAT pro­to­types and Luigi Se­gre at Ghia was greatly in­flu­enced by the de­sign cen­tres in Detroit, hav­ing done pro­to­type work for all of them. One of my first de­signs at Ghia was the Se­lene with the driver in front of the front wheels, six pas­sen­gers fac­ing each other be­tween the wheels and the en­gine in the rear. This car went on to in­flu­ence the de­sign of a Moscow taxi us­ing the same lay­out with shorter over­hangs, four pas­sen­gers and the en­gine in the rear. About fifty of th­ese ex­per­i­men­tal taxis were built and used in the Rus­sian cap­i­tal for many years.

What to do next? Se­gre was search­ing for some shock­ing new idea for the 1960 Torino Auto Sa­lon. By chance, I’d left a sketch on my ta­ble and Se­gre came by and asked me what it was; what on earth did I have in my mind? I ex­plained that it was a stream­lined drag­ster. He said we should cre­ate a two-seater sports car us­ing this idea, but that proved im­prac­ti­cal. How­ever, he loved bizarre ideas and the next day said that it would be built ex­actly like it was in my sketch.

The Torino Auto Sa­lon in those days was a mecca for au­to­mo­tive de­sign­ers. All the big styling ex­ec­u­tives con­verged on the city to see the lat­est styling trends. It wasn’t un­usual for a de­signer like Gio­vanni Mich­e­lotti to have cre­ated up to 35 new pro­to­types for one show. Look­ing back I was for­tu­nate to have had this op­por­tu­nity to come to Torino dur­ing its height of de­sign in­flu­ence and cre­ativ­ity. First the Se­lene, now the Ghia drag­ster – and all of the sud­den ‘The Amer­i­cano’, as I had be­come known, be­came the first for­eigner to de­sign cars in Italy. The IXG drag­ster was a cu­ri­ous sub­ject of con­ver­sa­tion, though it never had the suc­cess of the Se­lene.

But for me this un­usual show car changed the course of my ca­reer. Af­ter the 1960 Torino show the IXG re­mained in a cor­ner of the Ghia work­shops un­til one day – ten years later – Alessan­dro de To­maso asked who had de­signed it. The an­swer led to his per­sonal tele­phone call to me and the job as head de­signer at Ghia.

The IXG drag­ster, Ghia’s whim­si­cal in­dul­gence that led to a fate­ful ca­reer turn­ing point for Tom

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