Tom Tjaarda

The personal story from the designer
of the Fiat 124 Spider, Tom Tjaarda


exclusively written for Anthony Westen




Fiat 124 Spyder Design Story

The Fiat 124 spyder was the last design I made for Pininfarina before moving on to setting up a small industrial design practice on my own and also heading up the design studio for Alejandro DeTomaso who was now the new owner of Carrozzeria Ghia. It was the summer of 1965 when I had finished the full scale drawing used to construct the 124 styling model and saw the wood buck take shape in the shop. However before the running prototype was finished I had decided to accept other design offers and so never got to see the finished prototype. Another vehicle I had designed and prepared the full size drawings, but left before seeing the final prototype, was the Ferrari 365 California Spyder, this prototype being prepared for the Paris Auto Show that year. So after seven exciting years working on many interesting projects, I moved on to my new responsibilities.

Going back a bit, it may be appropriate to explain just how a midwestern American ended up in Italy designing Ferrari's, Alfa Romeo's and our Fiat 124 spyder. I studied architecture at the University of Michigan and my last year had enough credits to take an elective course, and thought it might be fun to design a sports car with Professor Lahti, head of the industrial design department. No such luck, he told me that his class was not to be mistaken for a fun course and to think instead of some useful family project - so I suggested a "family sportswagon" which he approved but added that it had better be innovative. This little model, which still sits here in my Torino office, turned out to be my ticket to Italy. I had always admired Italian design and the beautiful magazines which arrived each month from that country. DOMUS and STILE INDUSTRIA were always full of the latest design trends from Olivetti, Farina, Ghia, Bertone and Touring in Milano.

Professor Lahti had been on a sabbatical the year before and had visited all the important design studios in Europe, including Ghia. Luigi Segre, the owner of Ghia had suggested that he send over a student that might be interested to stay maybe a year in Italy. My father John Tjaarda worked years in the automotive industry when coming to the States, first designing special cars for movie actors in California and New York, then moving to Detroit where he designed the famous Lincoln Zephyr. I had automobiles in my blood and could not resist the offer to go to Italy for a year to work in Torino, the hub of vehicle design.

This was the summer of 1958, so right after graduation I sold my 4th hand Plymouth, hi-fi, and bought a ticket on the boat to Rotterdam, Holland, to first visit my relatives. My uncle Hans would not let me motorbike down to Italy as I had wished and instead put me on the train, a good thing to since it was horrible weather all the way, until we passed through Como and that balmy evening turned out to be just what everyone expects the weather in Italy. I remember young girls in the train singing "Volare" that popular song that had won the San Remo Song Festival that year. Eventually arriving in Torino to start a new life really, I was young and looked forward to this new challenge, even though the projected one-year stint eventually turned out to be a bit longer than anticipated.

The first car I designed in Italy was the little Innocenti 950 spyder which used the Austin Sprite as a base. I was twenty-four at the time and had actually designed a complete car. I felt privileged after hearing stories of colleagues designing only door handles or grills at the various Detroit styling centers. After two and a half years I received an offer to work at Carrozzeria Farina, as it was called in those days. It took more than a year before I was able to design a complete vehicle at the Farina design studios and was working on face-lifts and details for months before the opportunity arrived.

The head of the Farina design office was Franco Martinengo, who had a fantastic eye for form and proportions and was also a real gentleman, a great man to work with who looked after his design team with professional vigor. After many months of designing details, one of my design proposals was selected as the theme for the new Ferrari 330 2+2 and set about to make the final drawings for the 1:4 scale study model and the full size loft drawings used to make the wooden buck. Back then, that is end of 1962 - beginning of 1963, it took about two weeks to do these drawings, on ones feet eight hours a day but never thought much about this physical aspect at the time, today we have computers and must admit it is a good thing.

The design of the Fiat 124 spyder has a somewhat interesting aspect in that the theme for this car is derived from a Chevrolet Corvette concept proposal from Pininfarina. It was wintertime in 1963 when I was handed a drawing of the Corvette Sting Ray chassis and began making idea sketches including a 1:4 scale model of a concept car to be shown in the Paris Auto Salon that October. My design was the one selected and the full size running prototype completed for the show. Every so often Battista Pininfarina (the name had been officially changed now) would come to the factory to check on things. He was somewhat retired but still followed every aspect of the business, also because he still had that "eye" for proportions, forms and everything else which made his name so important all over the world. It so happened that one time he asked the modelers to slim down the sides of a wood buck however being such a slight change was left as is and so happens that it went undetected by the "maiestro". The prototype was then built and before the final painting Pininfarina painfully said that he had made a mistake that it needed to be slimmed down just a bit more - this time they did just that!! He had a fantastic eye and so did Martinengo and so being in this kind of company was learning very quickly. Martinengo would take me into the workshop and point out little things like door cut lines which must be seen from every angle, the sometimes strange twist in the window pillars, the rounded surfaces that had to be just right and not too flat or bulbous, everything had to be in harmony, even the angle of the exhaust pipe.


Click on this picture to see a PDF file of this unique automobile
The Chevrolet Corvette Rondine, produced in 1963
Click on this picture to see a PDF file of this unique automobile


The Corvette was given the name of "Rondine" or Swallow because of the dovetail form of the rear fender treatment. This vehicle participated in many Automobile Salons that year after the Paris show and seemed to be destined to end its days in the prototype storage facilities at Pininfarina. Actually, it really did not look like a "Corvette" and thus General Motors was not too interested to pursue further development of this car. On the other hand the directors a Fiat thought it had a unique look to it and asked Pininfarina to use the design idea for their future spyder. Thus the idea for the 124 spyder was born from this Corvette. My next assignment was to take this theme and prepare full size drawings to construct the wooden model.

This was not an easy job for the simple reason that the Fiat chassis was much shorter than the Sting Ray, smaller also were the overhangings both front and rear. Thus to adapt the lines of the Rondine, which were rather long and flowing, to these shorter proportions was a real challenge. It took me days just to plot the first profile of the car, it just did not seem to work, and it took no end of time to come up with something satisfactory. Signore Martinengo could see that I was having trouble coming up with a solution and above all that it no longer looked like the Rondine. That is where he kind of saved my day, or month in this case. He simply said why must it look exactly like the Corvette; this was a different car. After that I just went ahead and finished up the drawing and came up with a new front-end treatment.

The buck was put together in the shop and ready to fabricate the metal prototype. It looked good but it was not quiet ready because before making a prototype it was standard practice at Pininfarina to hammer out aluminum panels which conform to the surfaces and mount them on the wood model. The model was then taken into a courtyard and oil wiped over the aluminum surfaces so the sunlight could pick up the reflections on the surfaces, and of course point out eventual defects. This process went on until everyone was satisfied, and Battista was always there for the final approval.



Tom at the drawing board
Tom at the drawing board


Both the Fiat 124 spyder and the Ferrari 365 California were going through this same design process when I left Pininfarina, in the summer of 1966, to pursue other opportunities. I had not seen the finished prototypes before leaving the Pininfarina premises for the last time but have a rather unique recollection of the first time I actually saw both these cars together. It was during the summer, I think in 1967, on the Italian Riviera sitting in an outdoor café in the center of Santa Margherita with a number of friends when we suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of a Ferrari engine. A few seconds later a Ferrari 365 California came by and had the attention of everyone on the piazza. By pure coincidenza there was a Fiat 124 parked nearby and casually mentioned to my friends that I had designed these two cars. I got some blank stares and even some laughs that made it clear that they were not about to believe what I had just said.

My friends’ reactions made me think and did not pursue the issue any further. Actually it was only a few years before that I was just another university student in a midwestern college admiring Italian sports cars in magazines and never thought by the remotest of chances that I would participate in the design of these fantastic machines, much less than for the worlds most famous and prestigeous name like Ferrari or design a vehicle like the Fiat 124 spyder which went on to be produced for more than twenty years.

Tom Tjaarda
Torino, March 2004

© Copyright Anthony Westen

In virtue of a personal relationship exclusively written for
Anthony Westen - The Netherlands.
Auf Grund einer persönliche Beziehung exclusiv geschrieben
für Anthony Westen - die Niederlande.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of Anthony Westen - Netherlands.



logo Tom Tjaarda