Auto designer legend Tom Tjaarda died at 82 today, and even if somehow you don’t think you know who he is, trust me, you know who he is. It’s almost certain that at some point you’ve seen a stunning car that’s taken your breath away, and there’s a decent chance that Tom Tjaarda had a hand in its design. Tjaarda was a legend, and it’s sad to see him go.
Tom was part of a legacy of car designers, as his dad was Dutch-born John Tjaarda, who worked for Ford, designing an incredible rear-engined streamliner concept that would be developed into the striking 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.
Tom followed in his father’s tire tracks, but took a slightly different approach. Instead of staying in America and working for one of the Big Three, Tom went to Italy to design cars, starting with a summer at Carrozzeria Ghia.
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Just think about that; going to Italy to design cars in the late ‘50s, arguably the golden age of Italian automotive design, takes some serious palles. Happily, Tjaarda’s confidence wasn’t misplaced at all, and once settled in Turin, he brought it, automotive design-wise.
He started his career at Ghia in earnest in 1960 with the Innocenti 950 Spider, a lovely, taut little roadster built on Austin-Healey Sprite mechanicals. Where a Sprite was sort of goofy and fun looking, Tjaarda brought a crisp, tailored elegance to the car, something that would prove to be a hallmark of all his later work.
Tom then moved to Carrozzeria Pininfarina, where he just kept on designing incredible cars. I want to point out one especially remarkable car, his concept for a Chevrolet Corvette, the Corvette Rondine, because, as an ex-pat American, Tjaarda could bring something that I’m not sure his native Italian colleagues could.
Just look at the Corvette Rondine so when I gush over it in the next paragraph you’ll know what the hell I’m going on about:
Built on a stock 1963 Corvette chassis, the Rondine was the only ‘Vette ever to be made from steel. That means it was heavier if you were to weigh it, but visually, this thing is as light and airy as a passing thought about speeding.
It still somehow feels like a Corvette, or at least a more well-to-do cousin in the Corvette family. It has similar shark-like design motifs, but it’s all somehow a bit more controlled, yet just as dramatic. There’s an underlying tension in the design that’s just right.
Also, look at the back. It makes me feel complicated in my trouser-tenants:
That actually wasn’t even his first time designing a new look for an American car; just a couple years before, he designed what may be the most beautiful Corvair ever made, the Corvair Coupé Speciale:
Tjaarda went on to design more design icons: the Ferrari 330GT 2+2, and one of his best-known designs, the Fiat 124.
Sports cars and concept cars are relatively easy to make beautiful; that’s a huge part of why they exist at all. The real challenge is to make great designs for cars that anyone can own and that will be used for anything and everything, and have to be cheap as dirt, too. Tjaarda proved he was capable of that as well when he designed the first Ford Fiesta in 1972.
The Fiesta was designed right around the same time as Giugiaro was designing the Golf for Volkswagen. They’re very similar designs to solve essentially the same problems, but I think it may be that Tjaarda’s had just a bit more of his trademark elegance than what would become the Golf.
Right around the same time he was designing mass-market hatchbacks, he was also designing the wild DeTomaso Pantera, a design that, updated with current lights and bumpers and other details, would look right at home as a modern supercar. It’s possible the Pantera was what he was best known for.
Yet Tjaarda kept on designing: Lancias, Saabs, Isuzus, SEATs, LaForzas, more DeTomasos, Fiats, Chryslers, sports cars, econoboxes, SUVs, sedans, everything, everything, and everything looking great.
He even designed a VW-based dune buggy, sort of like a Myers Manx from a future Italian Mars colony, called the Autozodiaco Damaca:
Tjaarda kept designing up into the mid 2000s, making cars like the Shelby Cobra Series 2, and modified Mustangs in 2007.
Tjaarda was, really, one of the defining automotive designers of the 20th century, and was responsible for a lot of what we think of as clean, elegant Italian design. He and his work will be missed.