Tom Tjaarda – a tribute

05 June 2017 | by Chris Rees

One of the great unsung heroes of the car design world, Tom Tjaarda, has died. He passed away in Turin on 1st June 2017, aged 82, after a battle with cancer.

Tjaarda leaves behind him a portfolio of designs that’s one of the most stellar, and one of the most numerous, in the car world. His work spanned supercars, coachbuilt specials, show cars, beach buggies and even a Formula 1 car. Along the way he also designed one of the best-selling cars of all time – the Ford Fiesta.

Fiesta To Geneva 970

The classic, clean-cut Mk1 Fiesta

With a body of work as broad as this, his name ought to rank alongside Giugiaro and Bertone but he is little-known outside the confines of the car design community.

Tom Tjaarda was born in Detroit as Stevens Thompson Tjaarda Van Starkenberg, the son of a Dutch-born car designer, Joop (who renamed himself ‘John’ on arrival in the USA) – he was the man who designed the streamlined Lincoln Zephyr in the 1930s. Tom had the good fortune to be studying architecture in Michigan in 1958 when Luigi Segre, head of the Italian design house Ghia, came looking for a promising student to employ. Tom Tjaarda’s name was put forward and he departed for Turin in the summer of 1958, expecting to stay perhaps six months. He ended up living in Italy for the rest of his life.

During his first stint at Ghia (1958-1960), he designed some exceptional concept cars such as the Selene – a precursor of today’s MPVs – and the IXG dragster. He also penned his first commercial projects: the Fiat 2300S coupe and the Innocenti Spider. Both had notably clean, uncluttered, cultured lines – traits for which Tjaarda would become renowned.

Fiat 2300 S Coupe 61 62 2

The urbane Fiat 2300S Coupé

Following an argument with Luigi Segre, Tjaarda resigned from Ghia at the end of 1960 and soon after accepted a job at Pininfarina. Here he designed two Ferrari greats, the 330 GT 2+2 (1965) and 365 GT California (1966). But easily his most important design at Pininfarina was the Fiat 124 Spider of 1965. He got the task of designing it because Fiat had seen Tjaarda’s 1963 Corvette Rondine show car and asked for a sports car that looked as like it as possible. The essential rightness of Tjaarda’s 1965 design for Fiat has been reinforced 50 years on with the current Fiat 124 Spider, which echoes many of its design cues.

Rondine 01

The elegant Corvette Rondine

I met Tom Tjaarda most recently at the Padova Auto Moto d’Epoca show in October 2015, where he was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fiat Spider. This was a car he recalled with great affection – indeed he even built his own custom ‘Rondine’ version with unique front and rear styling. He also remembered with fondness his time with Battista Pininfarina, a man whose eye for detail he greatly admired.

Tjaarda was effortlessly well spoken, considered and intelligent. A more approachable, affable and self-effacing man you could not wish to meet. One example: he recalled seeing, for the first time, two of his designs – a Ferrari 330 GT 2+2 and a Fiat Spider – together on the Italian Riviera in 1967. He mentioned to his friends that he’d designed both cars but they simply laughed in disbelief – and after reflection, he decided that in future he would be more modest about mentioning his work in public.

Fiat124spider

The iconic Fiat 124 Spider

Tjaarda returned to Ghia in early 1968 as Head of Design after Giorgetto Giugiaro had left the carrozzeria. He immediately launched into designing the iconic De Tomaso Pantera – arguably the most cleanly styled mid-engined supercar of its era. He also penned the Deauville and Longchamp for De Tomaso in the 1970s.

But of all the cars that Tjaarda created, easily the most significant was the very first Ford Fiesta of 1976. His ‘Project Wolf’ design while at Ghia was just what Ford’s Lee Iococca wanted and remarkably, it was turned around from drawing board to running prototype in just 56 days. The crisp lines of the Fiesta Mk1 still look fresh even today.

Tjaarda departed from Ghia in 1976 and went back to work for Pininfarina, then Fiat Centro Stile and finally Rayton Fissore (where he designed the Magnum 4x4, a Range Rover rival).

With Mercedes 230Sl Pininfarina

The great man, with a Pininfarina Mercedes 230SL

In 1984 he finally went independent, setting up his own design house, Dimensione Design (also known as Tjaarda Design). While he never stopped designing cars, he moved increasingly away from the automotive sector, in later life creating objects as diverse as boutique shops and helicopters. However, he remained a frequent sight at concours d’elegance events, where his services as a judge were highly prized – as was his impeccably gentlemanly manner.

Chris Rees is Editor of Auto Italia magazine