Know Your Designers: Tom Tjaarda


Born: Detroit, MI – July 23, 1934

Early Plans: Tom Tjaarda was the son of Dutch-American automotive designer John Tjaarda, a 1920s Hollywood coachbuilder who penned the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. Tom studied architecture at the University of Michigan and claimed that he had no intention of following his father into the car business.

Discovery: Tom presented a car for his senior industrial design thesis. Charged with designing something practical, Tom penned a shooting brake sport-wagon. This led to an internship at Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Ghia. Tjaarda moved to Italy, where he spent the rest of his life.

Biggest Hits

1965 Ferrari 330 GT 2+2
1965 Ferrari 330 GT 2+2 RM Sotheby's
  • 1963 Corvette Rondine
  • 1964 Ferrari 330 GT 2+2
  • 1966 Fiat 124 Spider
  • 1971 De Tomaso Pantera/Deauville
  • 1976 Ford Fiesta MK1

His Lasting Influence

Though he designed a number of notable exotic cars as lead designer for the likes of De Tomaso and Ferrari, Tjaarda also brought beautiful design to the masses with vehicles like the Fiat 124 Spider, first generation Ford Fiesta, and the VW Karmann Ghia Type 34. Regardless of where engineers put the engine and which wheels they chose to power, Tjaarda’s designs famously communicate a vehicle’s powertrain and potency through muscular yet elegant lines and perfect balance. Tjaarda also remains well known for creating beautiful and respectful one-off versions of popular vehicles like the Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet Corvair, Mercedes Pagoda SL, and Lancia Fulvia. He was also the go-to neoclassic designer for nameplate revivalists from brands like Isotta-Fraschini, Bugatti, and Shelby.

Other notable automotive work

1971 De Tomaso Pantera front 3/4
1971 De Tomaso Pantera RM Sotheby's

Carrozzeria Ghia (1958–1960, 1968–1977)
Innocenti 950 S Ghia Spider
Renault Dauphine Ghia Coupe
VW Karmann Ghia Type 34
De Tomaso Longchamp

Pininfarina (1960–1965)
Chevrolet Corvette Rondine
Fiat 2300
Lancia Flaminia 2.8 Coupe Speciale
Mercedes 230 SL Pininfarina Coupe
Ferrari 365 GT California

Director of Fiat Advanced Studios (1978–1981)
Lancia Y10
SEAT Ronda
Chrysler LeBaron Prototype
Chrysler Imperial Prototype

Fiat 124 Sport Spider
Fiat 124 Sport Spider FCA

Dimensione Design (1984–2013)
Isotta Fraschini T8 & T12 Coupe’s
Bitter Tasco
Lamborghini Diablo (Interior)
Qvale Mangusta
Spyker GT Sport
Shelby Series II
Fiat 124 “Rondine” (2013)

Biggest Bomb: After the 1998–05 Shelby Series I—a contemporary update on the blistering 1962–67 AC/Shelby Cobra roadster—Tjaarda was brought in to update the update. The 2006 Shelby Series II was to feature sophisticated composite body panels and outrageous performance, but the design ended up appearing at once globular and mimetic, like a Cobra sketch that had been put through a photocopier 1000 times. A supercharged Oldsmobile Aurora engine didn’t help the allure. Only three prototypes were ever made.

Shelby “Series II”
Shelby “Series II” Mecum

Best Oddball: The 1984 Laforza/Magnum was a leather- and wood-lined, Ford or Chevy V-8 powered, high-riding SUV. Built on the chassis of an Iveco AWD military truck for go-anywhere capabilities, and designed with a shovel-nosed/power-domed front end and trapezoidal Range-Rover-esque greenhouse, it combined Italian styling with American power, and presaged the luxury sport-ute boom.

Other Design Work: 1958 Ghia Auto Show Display, 1964 Westinghouse World’s Fair Pavilion, Furniture Gabetti & Isola furniture, and the interior of the Lamborghini Diablo.

Biggest Regret: Tjaarda’s recent death occurred before he was give a chance to design for autonomous vehicles. He was happy about this, but we’d like to think he would have improved upon the current tube/cube/lozenge language. In one of his last interviews, he told me, “Guys like in Google come up with these driverless cars that look like snowballs. I mean what do you do with designing a driverless car? How do you be honest, with it—I don’t know.”

1965 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Type 34 Coupe
1965 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Type 34 Coupe RM Sotheby's
Share Leave comment
Read next Up next: The 1972–78 GMC motorhome is a front-wheel-drive wonder

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.