Tom Tjaarda, who needs no introduction to our readers, passed away last week at the age of 82. As well as a talented designer, he was always friendly approachable, kind and well liked. Below, we republish Professor Patricia Yongue’s article, “Tjaarda on Creativity”, from the January 5, 2016 edition of VeloceToday.
By Patricia Lee Yongue
“Creativity” is one of American auto manufacturers’ major deficits, asserted designer Tom Tjaarda, guest speaker at theItalianCarFest, 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.
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.
“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.*
With charming conviction, Tjaarda cited his rear (mid)-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.
*A rear engined Zephyr? Well, yes. According to Wiki on John Tjaarda, “during the 1920s, he worked on a series of streamlined monocoque designs, known as the “Sterkenburg series”, before joining the Briggs Manufacturing Company as chief of body design. There he developed a concept car for the Ford Motor Company to be shown at the Century of Progress Exhibition (1933-1934) in Chicago. Known as the “Briggs Dream Car”, this was a streamlined rear-engined design, based on his previous work. Re-engineered as a front-engined car, this design was developed into the 1936 Lincoln-Zephyr.”