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November 1st 2006

Tom Tjaarda on Creativity

By Patricia Lee Yongue

Tom Tjaarda in at the ItalianCarFest in Texas on September 9th 2006. Photo by Matt Bradley.
“Creativity” is one of American auto manufacturers’ major deficits, asserted designer Tom Tjaarda, guest speaker at the ItalianCarFest, Lake Grapevine, Texas, September 8-10, 2006. In an after-dinner Q & A session, Tjaarda responded to audience lament over a current banality and imitativeness in American production car design. The attitude was hardly surprising, given that CarFest participants had just emerged from a full day of hot Texas sun and pure Italian style that momentarily occluded the view of Ferraris, Panteras, Lamborghinis, etc., as not exactly grocery store transportation. Still, Tjaarda made his point.

For Tjaarda, who is most certainly an artist, “creativity” means chiefly aesthetic creativity, not merely inventiveness or innovation. Creativity fuses style and beauty of form with function in unique ways. “We all know the words a Shakespearean actor is going to say,” Tjaarda proposed (with perhaps too much optimism), “but the power is in the actor’s delivery.” The intriguing, complex analogy by no means implies that Shakespeare’s words are not of themselves poetically powerful, or that cars are not mechanically powerful. Rather, as dramatic performance, both Shakespeare and automobile design flourish at the hand of truly artists. The potential for debate of this metaphysical, not to mention literary, issue is rich.

Wisely tabling metaphysics, Tjaarda singled out the Chrysler 300, with its Bentley-like elegance, as an exception to the American car with little delivery of design. He argued that the primary reason for Detroit’s general creative malaise lay not necessarily in a dearth of talented designers but in the physical and spiritual splintering of talent within the companies. In fact, he said, the diffusion of too many people in too many places simply defuses creative force.

Tjaarda's credits include the Ferrari 365GT California Spider.

At age 72 and a resident of Italy since his graduation from the University of Michigan in 1958, Tjaarda represents, of course, a generation of artists who worked in Europe for smaller organizations that, despite internal conflict and external rivalries, created some of the most admired body designs in automotive history. The Ferrari 330 GT 2+2 (Pininfarina), the Ferrari 365 GT California Spider (Pininfarina), and the de Tomaso Pantera (Ghia) are among Tjaarda’s own recognized accomplishments. He also presides over a small company, Tjaarda Design, in Turin, Italy. Still, he makes another point, if a sensitive one at the moment, given the recent dramatic downsizing at both GM and Ford.

Tom's father John designed the Lincoln Zephyr.

“Harmony,” the focus of Tjaarda’s address and slide show at Grapevine, plays to the continuing dialogue about aesthetics and creativity in relation to performance and intended and/or realized function. Interestingly, Tjaarda included his father John Tjaarda’s Lincoln Zephyr (1934) in his historical inventory of autos emblematic of true harmony. Over the years, Tjaarda has consistently remarked on the rear-engined, semi-monocoque Zephyr’s final “evolution” into a “strikingly beautiful, well-proportioned, mechanically superior automobile” in spite of the bureaucratic “compromises” at Ford/Lincoln with which the project was fraught (Tjaarda, “I Remember My Father,” Special Interest Autos, April-May, 1972, p. 52). John Tjaarda’s indomitable resolve and talent, combined with his boss Edsel Ford’s own talent and acumen, urged the project into design-successful completion.

Tjaarda's De Tomaso Pantera. Photo by Garrick Whitnah.

With charming conviction, Tjaarda cited his rear-engined, monocoque de Tomaso Pantera to illustrate harmony. He infused power into the haunches of the Pantera, he said, with a rear upsweep line that inevitably draws the viewer’s attention. This design is logical as well as beautiful precisely because the car’s power plant is located in the rear. In a fine nuance, Tjaarda compared the design of the Pantera not merely to a panther, but to a panther at speed.

And speaking of speed . . .
Texas Motor Speedway, 20 miles north of Fort Worth, hosted a track day on Sunday for the ItalianCarFest participants and spectators. The harmony-in-creativity Tom Tjaarda spoke to the evening before was not lost on viewers, who could watch mainly the luxury Italian cars take fast laps in the company of “foreigners.” I would liked to have seen--and heard--the Ferrari Daytonas in action. However, I was delighted to watch--and hear--a steel grey 2006 Lamborghini Murcielago negotiate the high curves of the inner course of TMS with a grace, aggressiveness, and horsepower that undid the noisy high speed of a couple of hot rods whose moment of glory came when the Lambo slowed to a cruise. I was also gratified to hear some observers voice a respect for a car they had dismissed as a showy rich boy’s toy. Intermittently throughout the day, the suave, sophisticated Lambo offered rides on the speedway to adventurous spectators.

Past Issues


Graham Gauld

Otto Linton

Giulio Ramponi Part 2

Giulio Ramponi Part 1

Curtis LeMay

Graham Robson Tells All

Jason Castriota, Pininfarina

Tom Tjaarda

Bob and Dennis Show

Ed Hugus, Obit

Joe Nastasi, Part II

Joe Nastasi, Part I

Tony Adriaensens

Otis Chandler Obit


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