On June 2, 2017, prolific American automobile designer Tom Tjaarda, 82, left this world. His talent and work ethic shone through whether designing utilitarian econoboxes or sexy cars that engage emotionally; he was not nearly as gifted as a self-promoter.
Tjaarda’s modesty set him apart, but so did his backstory. He got off a plane in Turin, Italy, in August 1959, just 25 years-old. The son of Dutch-born automotive designer, John Tjaarda, Tom grew up in Michigan learning the language of design and was fascinated by the Italian automobile shapes he saw in motoring magazines. Due to this background he was able to immediately immerse himself, upon arrival in Italy, in his work. Despite working with, and being surrounded by, the greatest Italian designers of the day, the younger Tjaarda was undaunted.
Tjaarda had planned on a career in architecture, but took a few other design classes while at the University of Michigan. His senior year project of designing a sporting station wagon turned out so well that his professor recommended him to Luigi Segre, the owner and manager of Carrozzeria Ghia. Suddenly, Tjaarda was the coachbuilder’s newest designer.
Once in Turin, Tjaarda set about learning Italian and went straight to work with virtually no guidance or supervision from Segre. The young designer’s first prototype, for the Innocenti Spyder, debuted at the 1960 Turin Motor Show and the car entered production the following year. A series of concept cars followed before Tjaarda moved to Pininfarina in 1961. His first project for the famed coachbuilder was to design a pavilion for Italy’s Centennial of Independence exhibition.
Under Pininfarina’s design director Franco Martinengo, Tjaarda received the additional training and supervision he sorely lacked at Ghia. Most of his work in his first few months at Pininfarina focused on curves and details, such as lights and interiors before graduating to a much more ambitious project, the Ferrari 330GT 2 + 2. This was followed by a series of show cars, including a Fiat 2300 coupe, an elegantly restyled Mercedes-Benz 230SL, and the sublime Corvette Rondine—the foundation for the wildly successful Fiat 124 Spyder. Before leaving Pininfarina, Tjaarda designed one more Ferrari, the 365 California.
His 50 year career included a second stint at Ghia during Alessandro De Tomaso’s tenure. This is where he designed his most famous car, the De Tomaso Pantera. It’s also where he tackled “Project Wolf,” which became Ford’s first-gen Fiesta. After a stint at Fiat as Advanced Design Director, he moved to Rayton Fissore before establishing his own studio in the heart of Turin: Dimensione Design.
Like Tjaarda, the offices were modest and without glitz. He intentionally kept the company small and design-focused, whether it was automotive or industrial, and left the manufacturing to others. Clients included Chrysler, La Forza, American Sunroof Corporation, Honda Iveco, several Asian clients whose identity he couldn’t reveal, and Pulimat, which made large industrial floor sweepers.
When I first got to know Tom Tjaarda he was in his mid-sixties and looked a decade younger thanks to being tall, slim, and athletic. He was incredibly easy to talk to as I discovered during several days traveling together, visiting the Qvale (formerly De Tomaso) Mangusta plant, the Ferrari museum, and the Concours at Villa d’Este. It was wonderful listening to him explain the design process and interpret several lovely designs including a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso, which a colleague styled during his time at Pininfarina. I was disappointed when he cancelled a meeting in Turin three weeks before his death, but, he explained he was having complications from his medical treatment.
In losing Tom Tjaarda, the design world lost a quiet force of six decades and I lost a friend.