Tom Meade was a Californian dreamer who infiltrated Modena’s world-renowned “carrozziere” during the 1960s, creating a stunning series of one-off specials. We remember a man who was as much adventurer as car designer
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
The film Raiders of the Lost Ark originated in producer George Lucas’ desire to update the boys’ own serials or “chapter plays” that accompanied feature films in 1930s US cinema. It was expertly done, even down to the map graphic that charted Indiana Jones’ fearless globe-trotting.
True characters in the world of car design are rare, but there are shades of Harrison Ford’s iconic creation in the tale of Tom Meade. Meade, who passed away last year aged 74, may not have left a legacy as rich as the likes of Sergio Pininfarina or Sergio Scaglietti’s, but his career is intertwined with the greats, his output characterised by a vision and determination that was powerful enough to secure the approbation of Enzo Ferrari himself. Most of all, though, Meade was an adventurer, a man with a natural eye for a beautiful car, aided and abetted by a lust for life that Ernest Hemingway would recognise.
His early years were picaresque. Meade’s father, a professional wrestler, died while his mother was still pregnant. He was born in Hollywood in 1939, and flunked school. A spell in the US navy sated his wanderlust, and for a while he lived in Australia.
He was already an accomplished accumulator of life experience, despite his youth. Back in California, in 1960, he had the moment that would shape his destiny. Walking past a garage, he spotted a car whose shape was utterly unlike anything else he would have seen at the time, even in car-centric Los Angeles. It turned out to be a Ferrari 500 TRC, a rare bird then and now, and part of that sub-genre of competition-bred Ferraris that was powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. Its owner told him that there was a warehouse in Italy full of them, and Meade was so spell-bound he vowed there and then to travel to Europe on an automotive treasure hunt.
Cue the Raiders-style map. With $50 in his pocket, he hitched across the US to New Orleans, and managed to talk his way into a job as mess boy on board a Norwegian freighter. After 35 days traversing choppy waters, Meade arrived in the port of Stavanger, headed to England, bought a motorbike and set off across Europe with a friend. According to some accounts, the duo spent six months sleeping on the roof of a Majorcan hotel before Meade finally made it to Italy. Among other encounters, he was introduced to the film producer Dino De Laurentiis, and wound up opposite David Niven in the 1961 film The Best Of Enemies. (Meade’s son has heard about this part of his father’s life, but has never spotted him in the movie. It might be apocryphal.) Of the fabled car warehouse, though, there was no sign. Having come this far, Meade was directed towards Modena, home to Maserati and numerous carrozzerie (“coachbuilding companies”; see page 116 in this issue), although he was actually trying to get to Maranello. Typically, he undertook the journey on a Vespa.
Fortune favours the brave. But luck also plays its part. Arriving at the Maserati factory after hours, Meade talked his way in, and chanced upon race director Guerino Bertocchi. He graciously showed him around, and when Tom spotted an old racing Maserati – destined to be dismantled and dumped, as was customary back then, as sacrilegious as it now seems – he immediately began hustling to buy it. It was the first in a lifetime of deal-making, and set the tone. Enter
Meade, the accidental entrepreneur.
This particular car turned out to be a 350S, raced by the great Hans Herrmann in the 1957 1,000 Miglia (a holed sump ended his race prematurely), later fitted with a V12 engine, and raced at several other notable events. This remarkable provenance didn’t mean a lot in 1961. A local farmer agreed to let him store it in an out-building, and Tom even slept beside it as a deterrent to thieves. In the process of rebuilding the car, Tom was introduced to a friend of Bertocchi’s, the coachbuilder Luciano Bonacini (of Neri & Bonacini). He was known to bed down on their workshop floor, too.
Now the fun could really begin. ‘It was an adventure. Nobody cared about making money, beyond food and rent. It was cars, cars, cars, and to hell with everything else,’ Meade once said. Steve McQueen had a similar mantra, though his stellar acting career allowed him to indulge his passion more deeply than Tom managed. As his son notes, ‘There were times when he had a tonne of money and times when he was broke. But whatever was happening, there were various cars, engines and components he would never part with.’ Meade sold his Maserati in the US, for a considerable profit. It’s believed that at least two Ferrari 250 GTOs, a P3 and other gems passed through his hands in the 1960s, back when these extraordinarily valuable cars were just another bunch of fading and unloved ex-racing stars. Indeed, he toyed with using a GTO as the basis of the now celebrated 250 Nembo Spider, which he helped create for Neri & Bonacini, before opting for a 250 PF cabriolet as the donor vehicle instead. Four Nembos were made, including a car that apparently headed to Beirut and was presumed lost. In fact, we can exclusively reveal here that this car, chassis number 2707, was later repurchased by Meade and restored to his collection.
By now Meade had begun wheeling and dealing for wealthy American clients, notably Richard Merritt, the founder of the Ferrari Club of America, and Peter Sachs (of Goldman Sachs) sourcing various Italian exotics and working his contacts in Italy and the US. (He once found himself being pursued by the police while delivering a car in Arizona, but was more worried about what would happen to his dog Meccanico if they caught him.)
His apartment overlooked Modena’s autodromo and he also rented a workspace, which was soon teeming with activity. In the late 1960s, he had accumulated enough engines, chassis hardware and cash to begin realising the designs in his head. The resulting series of cars, the Thomassima 1, 2, and 3, (the name meaning “the maximum from Tom) might be footnotes in Modena’s carrozzeria hagiography, but they are significant ones, especially for students of Italian car design. The first, and least well-known, used a Ferrari 250GT chassis, but was lost along with countless other art and literary treasures when the Arno River catastrophically flooded Florence in November 1966. Thomassima 2 is something of a masterpiece, not least because, while clearly inspired by Ferrari’s remarkable 1967 Daytona 24 hours-winning P3/4, it pumps up that car’s proportions to an almost cartoonish degree. Meade and his team of moonlighting Maserati and Ferrari engineers used marine plywood to work up the car’s shape. Beneath its incredible form was a tubular spaceframe chassis and mounted at the rear of that was a 3.0-litre Ferrari V12 borrowed from a 250 GT. The third Meade speciale is arguably the most memorable, and was certainly his favourite. It’s probably also the one that most marries the sensuousness characteristic of Modena in that period with the rather less subtle manifestation of automotive muscle usually associated with Meade’s homeland. It caused uproar when it was displayed at the 1969 Turin motor show, prompted America’s number one prime time current affairs show 60 Minutes to send a crew to Modena to film a segment on Tom, and starred on the cover of the biggest selling US car magazine, Road & Track, amongst others. Let’s also not forget Meade’s riposte to the Shelby Daytona, brilliantly called the Anti-Cobra, and based on a Maserati WRE chassis. A star was born.Or maybe not.
Tom left Italy under a cloud in the 1970s, put his cars and vast collection of engines and parts in secure storage and spent most of the next two decades travelling in Asia. His son remembers his father reminiscing about staying in $1 a night hotels and spending the same on food and drink daily. ‘He had a fun life,’ he says with a knowing smile. ‘He was a good looking guy, with a real free spirit.’ Cars could take a back seat, for a while at least.
Tom returned to LA in 1993 to look after his mother, and began reassembling his assets. He had a long gestating new project, a carbon fibre bodied supercar powered by the engine from Ferrari’s 1990s 333 SP endurance racer. But illness intervened, and Thomassima 4 was not to be. Following Tom Meade’s sad passing, his son, a highly successful figure in the luxury goods world, now also finds himself curator of his father’s work. His remarkable legacy could not be in better hands.
Tom Meade’s fully restored Thomassima 3 will be on display in the Museo Ferrari in Maranello, as part of the California Dream exhibition, starting in March
From issue 24, March 2014