My Car Quest

August 20, 2019

Tom Meade: An Americano In Italia – Doing What All Of Us Wished We Could Do…

by Wallace Wyss –

Fate is a funny thing. Sometimes you read about someone and never think you will meet them. Well, this is a guy I first heard about in Road & Track classifieds and later on I did run into him. He was one memorable character.

I grew up in Detroit. You were lucky if you saw a Ferrari once a year. Those that were in Detroit were owned by car designers. I read Road & Track magazine diligently, even the classifieds, and in those classifieds there was always a piece about this guy named Tom Meade, over in Italy selling used Ferraris.

Tom Meade

Tom Meade – Photo from an article by Larry Crane

Who is this guy?

Well, I found out a few years later when I was working for CAR LIFE or Motor Trend and Tom Meade shows up, a big beefy plain faced guy with a thatch of brown hair who says it was he who back in the Sixties, went to Italy and built wild cars. I asked for his resume and he showed me old articles, yellowed ones, and I asked, “What have you done since?” His vague reply was something about acting.

Well, decades later, after the turn of the century, I ran into him again, this time he was living in Westwood, California near UCLA. By this time he looked like the bearded old warrior Kris Kristofferson was playing in the films Blade and Blade II (actually in real life he was trained as a warrior, a Green Beret).

Thomassima III

Thomassima III

Meade was still talking about car projects and apparently had a group of fellow Italian car aficionados who met with him regularly in cafes to talk about being recognized at concours. It was a real shocker when I discovered that the Ferrari factory had a Tom Meade-designed model on display.

This, a car from the very same American who had once reportedly been regarded as a renegade without portfolio, an untrained designer daring to come onto their turf and design cars more exciting than those the factory made.

Meade was born in Hollywood in January of 1939. He grew up in a family that had wanderlust, living in both Australia and Hawaii, before the nomadic family set down roots again in California. As a young man he joined the US Navy where he was an aviation electronics engineer. When Tom left the Navy in 1960 he took up surfing in Newport Beach, California, home of some of the best areas for surfing.

Once in a while he would see an exotic car such as a Testa Rossa and would get pumped up about going to Italy to build cars that were equally exciting. Tom later told interviewers that a California Ferrari owner, a man who owned several of the marque, had mentioned to him about Italian warehouses full of old race cars that nobody wanted.

So, different from you and me, we who read those old Road & Track stories, he set as his objective a plan to go to Italy and design cars. The trouble was, he didn’t have any money, but that didn’t dissuade him.

Thomassima

Thomassima II – Photo by Concorso Italiano

Only twenty-one years old, once Meade defined his mission, he set out to accomplish it. He began traveling toward Italy any way he could, even working his way across the Atlantic on a grain freighter from New Orleans to Norway, then hitchhiking across Europe, sometimes driving a used motorcycle. He finally reached Italy by hitching a ride on a sailboat. At another point, when an acquaintance disposed of a BSA motorcycle, Meade fixed it and continued on his journey.

When Meade reached Rome, he searched for that rumored warehouse he had heard about—the one chock full of old race cars. Not having found any such warehouse in Rome, to get by Meade looked for work, ran into film director Dino De Laurentiis and was cast as an extra in a film which allowed him to save enough money to make the final leg of his journey.

Thomassima III Interior

Thomassima III Interior – Photo from an article by Larry Crane

After 1960 he headed to Modena, Italy’s recognized center of exotic car making, where both Ferrari and Maserati were located. There he found old race cars by the bucketful, some with the engines removed, some fearfully bent, and some smashed. Tom saw that it was possible to buy these cars for a pittance. To save enough to buy at least a skeleton of a car, he even slept on the floor of carrozzerias, helping during the day.

Tom began to realize that race teams tend to discard a car as soon as it is no longer a winner which, as a writer of barn find books, has also struck me. Look at how fast the GTOs disappeared once the 250LM was on the track.

WELCOMED AT MASERATI

There is one story that Meade couldn’t get into Ferrari when he first arrived, therefore he went to Maserati where Aurelio Bertocchi, a key official, gave him a guided tour, thinking, if he’s American, he must be rich. On the tour, Tom begged to go to the racing department where he saw dozens of old race cars, now past their prime.

One of the old race cars was a 350S; serial number 3503, the same one that, with a V12, had been piloted by Hans Hermann at the ’57 Mille Miglia. It was subsequently re-engined with a 3.5 liter six, but by the time Meade found it the car had no engine.

Maserati 350S

1957 Maserati 350S Sports Prototype
Chassis No. 3503 – Photo by Bonhams

Meade opened up about his ambition of redesigning race cars and with approximately $420 moving across the table, he owned one. Of course this left him no money for lodging so he found a local farmer who would let him store it in a barn, then bedded down next to his race car.

His new investment presented a small problem—no engine. Fortunately he ran into Lloyd “Lucky” Casner, an American car racer who was racing in Europe. When Casner hit a bump in the road racing Corvettes, Meade bought some of his inventory, including a Chevy V8 which he squeezed into the car.

Tom began to think of ways to locate a shop where he could mate the engine with his car. The shop Meade found was Fantuzzis, owned by Medardo Fantuzzi, a rotund man who welcomed the stranger willing to work in exchange for expertise. Again Meade slept on the floor. But more importantly, Tom learned how aluminum was fashioned into body panels. The result was a car that didn’t have the expertise craftsmanship of cars actually bodied by Fantuzzi, but still looked exotic.

The final touch was the groundbreaking installation of a removable fastback hardtop. Tom’s goal of completing a car had now been realized. Everywhere Meade drove the car it drew attention, and the one time renegade was soon the toast of the town. Tom Meade was now an Italian car builder.

In 1962 Meade shipped the car to San Francisco where his mother resided. Tom followed the car to America, eager to show Americans what could be done in Italy. He gave the car to associates, ostensibly to test the engine, however they crashed it. He sold the entire lot for less than $3,000. After barely a year in San Francisco, the pull of Italy was too strong. Tom had to go back. Building cars in Italy was now his life’s mission.

Returning to Italy in 1963, Tom rented an apartment adjacent to Modena’s Autodromo. It included some garage space which he began to fill with race cars— missing parts, bent, smashed, whatever he could get his hands on.

Tom converted his next two race cars into street cars. According to barchetta.cc, a website which tracks exotic cars through owner histories, Tom Meade acquired a type 53 racing Maserati, SN3501, the same car that had been raced in the Mille Miglia in 1956 by Stirling Moss/Denis Jenkenson. This car had been rebuilt with a Maserati V8, but when Meade bought it, the car had no engine.

1956 Maserati 450S Prototype by Fantuzzi s/n 3501

1956 Maserati 450S Prototype by Fantuzzi s/n 3501- Photo by RM Auctions

He sold it to Ed Niles, a famous attorney who collected exotics, thus it went to a Californian. In 1965 Meade installed a Chevy Corvette V8 connected to a Ferrari gearbox.

In the beginning Meade’s goal was to rescue old race cars and get them on the road, even if it meant installing an American V8. But soon that goal metamorphosed into making his own exotic car body shapes.

Meade got to where he could make the drawings and create a full size mannequino, which is the skeletal body shape on which the panels are formed and then welded together. Usually in Italy a young man would work for an old master such as Fantuzzi, but in this case Tom was the master, mentoring himself.

This first Meade body with a shape planned by him was based on a Ferrari 250GT. His style was exaggerated from the stock car, low hood, with a mean looking air intake, side vents, and the entire canopy tilted back like the wind had pushed it back. He liked the long nose/short tail concept.

Meade took that first creation to Holland where enthusiasts became aware there was a new design force in Italy. Serendipitously, on Tom’s route back to Italy, in Belgium he found a buyer for a mid-engined birdcage Maserati Type 63 he had acquired, and with that money he was able to buy a four cylinder Maserati engine and complete the sale. It wasn’t the V12 that the car had originally run, but it was still all Maserati. In 1964 Meade suffered another loss, this time LOSING A CHASSIS in the devastating floods of Florence.

Accounts differ on which of his early creations was caught in the floods, but even though Meade suffered that setback, he pressed on.

Tom’s residence in Modena was geographically well-positioned to observe what was going on, because Ferrari, Maserati and De Tomaso would show up daily to test prototypes. Thus it was the kind of town where you could drive a full-fledged race car on the street, bringing attention to Modena and its automotive products. Hell, you were in turn supporting the local economy!

Meade came to Italy just as the most creative forces were working to create exciting cars, the American market had opened up and vintage racing had started and people wanted exciting cars. All the big names were working there at the time, Chiti for Alfa, Giugiaro for De Tomaso and Scaglietti for Ferrari.

As improbable as it sounds, Americans were going to Italy to meet Tom Meade and order a car from him. When the car was ready, and the customer arrived, Meade would even take them to the test track for practice runs. One wonders what Ferrari thought when they saw those Thomassima cars, not really race cars but looking as wild as Ferrari’s race cars.

Taking boring street cars such as a 2-plus-2 Ferrari, adding side vents or hood scoops or whatever to juice up the looks—such as putting a GTO nose on a Lusso, created another market.

Meade’s best cars captured the design ethic of sports cars in that era—all curves, as sexy as prize winners in a wet t-shirt contest. He really preferred cars with a rounded shape and thus when flat planes began to come in, such as the 512S, he was less on board.

THE THOMASSIMA SERIES

Though details are difficult to uncover about a coachbuilder who much of the time was operating on a shoestring budget with no office, no secretary, no headquarters, it is generally conceded that the first Thomassima was built on a mid-engined chassis from Cooper in England. It was a single-seat Cooper which Tom made into a two-seater. The client, Harry Windsor in California, wanted a body similar to the Ferrari P4. The engine was a 250GT Ferrari GT V-12 mated to a ZF gearbox.

Thomassima I

Thomassima I – Photo from an article by Larry Crane

Meade told his American friends that Carroll Shelby had appreciated his cars and given him an assignment, only to later retract it saying the new laws for safety, etc. would screw it up. Actually Shelby continued with his goal of making a mid-engined Cobra, went to England instead and got his mid-engine sports car, named the Lone Star, built by Abby Panels, who made GT40s for Ford. By that time Shelby’s relations with Ford were so soured Ford wouldn’t even look at the Lone Star. So the mid-engine Cobra was lost to history but one wonders if it would have been a production car had Meade designed it.

Thomassima

Thomassima II – Photo by Concorso Italiano

THE NEMBO SPYDERS

Ferrari fans particularly remember Meade’s Nembo Spyders. Some say four were made, others say two slightly different spyders and one berlinetta were made. All the Nembo spyders looked alike from a distance, but the closer you got the more you detected individual differences, just as Da Vinci never created the same painting twice.

The Nembos are widely considered the most beautiful special-bodied Ferraris ever made. “Nembo” is a combination of the names of the two coachbuilders, Neri and Bonicini.

Ferrari 250 SWB Nembo Spyder

Ferrari 250 SWB Nembo Spyder – Photo by Mike Gulett

Ferrari 250 SWB Nembo Spyder

Ferrari 250 SWB Nembo Spyder – Photo by Mike Gulett

What kept Meade going in his first decade in Italy was the low price of used race cars. As always, the real racers were throwing away their last car to get the latest one. So Meade was able to personally buy for his own use such cars as a Series II GTO and a 330P. He also drove a 275LM which he sold when vintage racing in the US created new demand.

Suddenly with vintage racing starting in Germany, England and the US. Meade’s chances of buying cheap race cars evaporated.

Ferrari 250 SWB Nembo Spyder

Ferrari 250 SWB Nembo Spyder – Photo by Mike Gulett

Meade’s mother was eventually persuaded to come to Italy to join her son and take up the secretarial duties. Meade seemed to have an uncanny knack for locating rare cars and parts. His mother was his source of support in some of these ventures, being his correspondence secretary and silent business partner.

Beyond the cars, Tom claims a number of innovative ideas. He has been quoted in various interviews making the following claims:

“I invented the removable fastback hardtop, I invented the removable gullwing targa top and spaghetti side pipes; nobody else had that at the time.”

He also designed accessories, in one case a wheel he did in plaster of Paris which required special tires to be made

THE THOMASSIMA III

The last of the Thomassima series was the Thomassima III, an open car, front-engined but with the super exotic appeal of the race cars of the time. It used a Daytona V12 and a ZF gearbox. Why weren’t there more? In later years, back in the U.S. Meade told interviewers that pressure put on his craftsmen by the Modenese auto industry denied him the chance to continue building in Italy. The inevitable had happened. The American boy with cheek had worn out his welcome in Modena.

Thomassima III

Thomassima III

The car that gained Meade the most publicity was the Thomassima 3 which graced the cover of the December 1970 issue of Road & Track, and was featured on the Walter Cronkite talk show, the interview on “60 Minutes” and vignettes on Italian TV. The basis was a 250GT chassis, augmented with a 5-speed gearbox and ventilated discs.

After Tom showed the Thomassima III in Modena he shipped it to California, where the hot rodders liked its ”bundle of snakes” side exhaust similar to those on the Competition 427 Cobra.

Thomassima III

Thomassima III – Photo by Pete Coltrin

Then came the fuel crisis, at one point Ferrari having fields of unsold cars. Meade went back into show business as an actor but would sneak his cars into scenes as props, and get paid extra for that. For instance, the Thomassima II can be spotted in a scene in “The Fuller Report” where it is supposed to be at the Ferrari Factory, but was actually filmed at Maserati with Meade’s car positioned prominently on screen.

Thomassima III

Thomassima III – Photo from an article by Larry Crane

Due to the aforementioned lack of cooperation from the Italian auto industry, Tom felt it no longer practical to build cars from scratch. The next step was to open a restoration shop in Milan, but he was still tempted to build cars on commission. His mind constantly churned on new ideas. One idea was for removable body sections, so if you had an accident you just needed to unscrew the damaged one and screw on the new one. (The Pontiac Fiero had the same concept decades later.)

Tom Meade and Thomassima III

Tom Meade and Thomassima III

Meade decried the use of the cars as mere status symbols by people who had no idea of the history of the car they were driving. This was a bit of the pot calling the kettle black pomposity on his part, as his main market had been “café racer” types who wanted a car that looked like a race car, but had never actually been on a race track.

When I encountered him again after the year 2010, he still hinted he had cars being built here and there around West Los Angeles. But, perhaps inspired by Italy’s Machiavelli, he was being extremely careful to separate his suppliers. He set it up so that the body man never met the painter, the painter never met the upholsterer and so forth so the whole world couldn’t divine what he was doing.

A site called TOFM had a story about Meade that claimed he returned to Los Angeles in 1993 to look after his mother. Meade began earnest work on a new creation, a carbon fiber bodied mid-engined car using an engine from Ferrari’s 1990s 333 SP endurance racer. Alas, that engine was sold so one wonders if we will see this last Thomassima with the engine Meade planned for it?

I miss Tom now. Meade died in 2013 at age 74 of various medical complications. I miss him not only for what he created, but for what he accomplished back in the 60s—being a thorn in Ferrari’s side; building the cars they should have built, and for bringing race car styling to the street.

Whenever I read of his adventures, I wish I would have had the guts back in the ’60s to do exactly what he did–to pick up and move to Italy to create the cars of one’s dreams. He went there for all of us—to prove it was possible…

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss doubles as a fine artist. A list of his available fine art prints is available by contacting him by email – click here.

 

 

Tom Meade Logo

Some of this article was first published in the Concorso Italiano Program – August 15, 2015.

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Tom Meade: An Americano In Italia - Doing What All Of Us Wished We Could Do...
Article Name
Tom Meade: An Americano In Italia - Doing What All Of Us Wished We Could Do...
Description
Tom Meade led a car lover's dream life.
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Comments

  1. Anthony Rainone says

    What an excellent post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Richard Greenblum says

    Really enjoyed reading that story Mike. Guys like that are rare and so valuable. No telling what he would have accomplished with backing (e.g., Carroll Shelby, Alejandro De Tomaso). Perhaps he was too independent, too much of a renegade to ever get institutional support.

  3. Ed Niles says

    You got it mostly right, Wally. I don’t know who Tom was thinking of, but I never bought that Maser from Tom. However, I did buy the original Nembo (S/N 1777GT), still in its first colors of dark blue with pumpkin interior, a combination which I thought was just spectacular. I hate that later owners have painted it resale red. I also bought one or two other cars from him, back in the day, and had met him at his apartment/garage near the Modena Aero-autodrome. He was the very definition of “right place, right time.” He was able to make a decent living by trading in used cars to the American customers, and by living like a pauper. He told me that he had sold over 1,000 cars to the States. Amazingly, he hung onto the Thomassima 3 throughout his lifetime.

    Sadly, in his later years, after suffering a stroke, he became an irascible curmudgeon, wanting only to talk about the past. As a geezer myself, I was able to oblige him, and we had a few great dinners talking about the “good ol’ days.” It’s a shame that no-one seems to have taped an in-depth interview with him.

  4. Roberto Goldoni says

    Ed Niles sent me to Modena to contact Tom . He was in the early stages of putting together his cars. A very interesting and particular human being. It is sad to know he disappeared. I hope people like him still exist and make cars the way he did somewhere.
    Roberto Goldoni

  5. wallace wyss says

    What I have deduced from dealing with a few self made self educated men is that they have a deep distrust of “book learners” and people with impressive degrees and yearn to come up with something that will upset the (commercial) apple cart and the world will be stunned that this uneducated clod could be such a genius. We Ferrari fans, were dutifully impressed. But unlike Carroll Shelby, another self taught fella (his lieutenant status in WWII was purely of necessity when they needed pilots and made sergeants lieutenants…) who, once he had a winning idea, could corral investors. I got a kick out of hearing that Shelby used to listen to this radio program on KFI that is broadcast late at night and they would talk about flying saucers and other weird unsubstantiated things. Shelby was always hoping he’d hear about a new process or invention and glom onto it and once again stun the automotive world with his acumen, despite his lack of a formal education. I think Tom was a little like that, but played the cards too close to his chest to the end….

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