An American in Modena.
It was spring of 1971, and Tom Meade had just surfed his first wave in nearly a decade. As he rode up onto the sand of Kuta Beach, jumped off his board and jogged into the pristine, flour-like sand, he contemplated how far he'd come in a decade. On that same day ten years ago, he’d been standing on a deserted Norwegian highway near Stavanger with his thumb sticking out, half frozen to death.
Born in Hollywood on January 19 in 1939, by age 8, Nascent Thomas Meade and his mother had moved to Australia where he claims he wore the first jeans ever seen on the island continent. Aussi’s wore shorts. Within a few years, they had moved again, this time to Hawaii where once again Thomas blazed new trails as the only “haole” at his elementary school.
With money earned from shining shoes for GI’s, Tom bought his first surfboard at the age of 13 and discovered what would become his refuge and first love; surfing. After several years of Waikiki Beach and honing surfboards with Joey Cabell, his mother suggested they move back to the mainland so that Thomas could attend high school in Newport Beach. He could still surf but also study and by the age of 17 he graduated. But his mother believed that continued adult supervision was in order, and so she encouraged him to enlist in the navy. After completing his training as an avionics engineer at North Island San Diego, he would spend the next four years on the Oriskany and later the old Yorktown.
In 1960 after nearly half a decade at sea, he returned to Newport Beach. He had saved much of his four year Navy pay and was experimenting with fiberglass as a styling medium but in reality he was on the look out for something exotic. Walking home from work he had spotted the beautifully shaped posterior of a car peeking out from a dark garage. He had never seen anything as beautiful and one day he worked up the courage to walk in and chat up the owner who was rummaging under the hood.
“It’s a Ferrari 500 TRC,” explained the man. "It's only a two-liter four, but it has double overhead cams and two big Weber carbs and its light and fast. You can have it for $4000.”
“Where did you find it?” asked Meade.
“There’s a warehouse in Rome full of old racecars, and they're all for sale, cheap."
Meade only heard “warehouse," “Rome” and "cheap." In any case, the price was more than he could afford but if he could only find that warehouse he’s work and save up until he had enough to buy one of those beauties. But that was all easier dreamt than done. First, he had to get to Rome. He soon figured out that the cheapest way to Europe was working for passage on a freighter. But most of them left from the east coast. Undeterred, the young pioneer decided to hitchhike his way across the USA and figure things out when he got to the east coast.
A week before he planned to leave, he learned that freighters headed for Europe also departed from New Orleans and so off he went to the Bayou with $50 in his pocket. While still in California, Meade hitched a ride with an Australian plumber. They became fast friends and traveled together all the way to the Big Easy. Arriving in the middle of Mardis Gras the two travelers found an apartment and their pad became well known enough that one night the police broke in looking for someone else. The police incursion seemed like an incentive to continue his journey and Meade had soon secured a job working as a mess hall boy on the SS Nardo, a Norwegian grain freighter on its way home.
The 35 days at sea were a hell of sea-sickness, which was a surprise as Mede had never once had the problem during four years in the navy. To function while serving food, he had to make himself throw up before his shift. This was aided by the smell of black pudding which the Norwegians loved but made Meade gag. The sailors suggested a suppository, but Meade couldn't bring himself to make use of it and so to keep from throwing up pure bile he ate crackers. Lying down also helped but the Norwegians didn’t see seasickness as an excuse not to work, and so the nightmare continued.
On arrival in Stavanger, he was relieved beyond belief and even standing on a deserted highway sticking his thumb out was better than another day on that ship. Furthermore, he was so excited to be in Europe that he could hardly feel the cold through his short-sleeved short and flimsy cotton jacket. After a few hours, he was picked up by a farmer in a pickup truck who spoke no English but shared his cheese with him.
Meade miraculously made it to England where his friend from the Nardo had already acquired a Triumph motorcycle from an American tourist who was on his way home. The two rode the bike to Valencia where they sold it for passage to Mallorca where they spent six months sleeping on the roof of a hostel for a dollar a day.
After six months of partying, Meade's shipmate carried on to Africa, and Meade booked a working passage on a sailboat to Genoa. Finally Italy! On arrival in Genoa, he spent time at the local gas station rebuilding a BSA motorcycle someone had left behind at the hostel. After an introduction to mechanics and Italian, he set off for Rome and the illustrious warehouse on the repaired bike.
While staying at another hostel, Meade met a guy who was working nights on the set Dino de Laurentis’s “The Best of Enemies”. One day, Meade's friend took him along, and de Laurantis immediately hired him to play a British officer in the movie. After working directly with the film's star David Niven for a few months, Meade joined the films night crew, which gave him time during the day to search for the elusive Ferrari warehouse.
Soon however, even the ever-optimistic Meade began to doubt its existence, and someone suggested he head to Modena, Italy’s “ground zero” for exotic cars, vinegar and tortellini instead. He arrived in town on his BSA motorcycle sporting a beard he had grown for his part in the Dino de Laurentis movie, but had no money for a pensione or a hotel and slept in his sleeping bag under woodpiles. But his desire to own a Maserati or even a Ferrari had not waned. One night a pedestrian suggested Ferrari headquarters in Maranello was just fifteen km up the road. It was too late for that, but Maserati was closer, and so Meade headed there. He arrived at the factory at 7.30 pm, way after closing time but the gate guard was impressed that an American had come to see his company and called the main building to see if someone was still at work. Below: Tom Meade: with film star beard.
Once again, Meade was lucky, Aurelio Bertocchi (future president of the company and son of chief test driver and Maserati legend Guerini Bertocchi) was working late and offered to give the young American the tour of the racing shop. As they walked past a race car propped up on saw horses and missing its drivetrain, Meade asked if it was for sale. “No, we don’t sell beat up race cars to our clientele.” Instead, our of date race cars were dumped in a swampy area behind the factory and left to rust away. No wrecking yard would take them as separating the various kinds of metal was too time consuming and expensive. Bertocchi and the security guard, of course, had thought Meade was a wealthy American kid who was there to buy a coachbuilt 3500 GTi. Nevertheless, to humor the young American he called the office to see if the carcass was for sale and for how much. After some manipulation of a slide rule Bertocchi named the price in Lire at which Meade almost fainted but after a few more seconds on the slide rule Bertocchi came up with $400. For a little less, a deal was struck but Meade wanted to take possession of the wreck that night just in case management realized their mistake in the morning. By 9.00pm the car and its rediscovered drivetrain were on a flatbed heading for Giorgio Neri’s and Luciano Bonacini’s shop. Still without abode, Meade unfurled his sleeping bag on a mat next to his Maserati racecar there and went to sleep. It had been a long day. Below: the sister car to Meade's Maserati 350 S.
As the sun shone in through the window the next morning waking Meade up, it began to dawn on him that he was now the proud owner of a Maserati 350 S of which only three had ever been produced. His car sn: 3503 had raced the 1957 1000 km of Buenos Aires with an in-line six engine and then again in the last and fateful 1957 Mille Miglia with a V12 fitted. Unfortunately Hans Herrmann suffered a "did not finish". To end its career, it then ran the Nürburgring 1000 km with Sterling Moss at the wheel and the 500 Miles of Monza with Jean Behra. Since then it had been in Brazil for a while and as of late had been languishing in the swamp behind Maserati HQ.
The mechanics at Neri and Bonacini helped Meade improve his Italian and allowed him to work on his project, occasionally lending a hand when they could. Soon however, as business began to pick up for the budding carrozzeria, the shop became too cramped for Meade to keep his project on the premises and Bertocchi introduced Meade to another friend who owned a farmhouse in Vicenza with an available barn. The partially assembled Maserati and all its components were transferred to the barn and Meade’s sleeping bag to the haymow.
Incidentally, while at Neri and Boncini Meade was also involved in the design and production of the three 250 GT “Nembo” (contraction of Nero, Meade and Bonacini-the designers) spyders which are thought to have been Luigi Chinetti’s inspiration in commissioning the legendary 275 NART Spyders that followed. Below: One if the Nembo Spyders.)
Every morning, Meade would ride his BSA over to Officine Alfieri Maserati where Bertocchi would lead him to the back of the racing department. There, in unmarked boxes lined up on shelves were a conundrum of racecar parts. Meade would spend the entire day there searching for bits and pieces that he could use on his project. Soon he was permitted access to the parts warehouse, which he soon knew better than anyone else in the company.
Maserati had given up all direct racing activity after the catastrophic 1957 Mille Miglia which was part of the reason why the swamp behind the factory was overflowing with old race cars. Bertocchi was busy tending to the development of customer Maserati 3500 GT's as well as the Tipo 61 “Birdcage” race cars sold only to privateers. He also had to make sure that the Cooper Formula One team got their engines. This left little time to tend to Tom Meade however eager he may be. So Bertocchi made Tom a bona fide employee of Officine Alfieri Maserati, responsible for providing parts to the remaining privateer teams still supplied by Maserati. In return the young American could have any parts he needed for his 350 S free of charge. He also got a key to the front door.
Meade’s first customer in his new capacity as "Privateer Parts Supplier" was fellow expat Lloyd “Lucky” Casner who was running a “Birdcage” Maserati and a GM Factory backed Corvette with his team; the Camoradi International Racing Division, including drivers Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, and Masten Gregory. After a race in Sweden, team mechanic Bob Wallace dozed off and went off the road destroying one of the Zora Arkus Duntov engineered, and unofficially GM supported Corvettes. The cars were supplied under a “testing contract” by Don Allen Chevrolet of Miami to circumvent an industry-wide ban on racing involvement by US manufacturers. Casner offered Meade the wreckage and all remaining parts for $400 including a very special race-tuned V8 engine – just what he needed to finish his project. Below: One of Casner's Corvette's that survived.
While Meade’s project was coming along well mechanically with many Maserati racing mechanics helping him in their spare time, the body was in dismal shape after years of festering in the “Maserati Swamp.” To help, Bertocchi introduced Meade to legendary Medardo Fantuzzi to help finish the car. The famed racecar builder shared Meade’s love for English motorcycles and had honed the body of Meade’s car for Maserati in the 1950’s. So a deal was struck by which Meade would provide Fantuzzi with transportation via the ex – Camoradi trailer in exchange for mentorship and bodywork on Meade's Maserati. The deal soon included a “residence” as Meade, homeless as usual, moved into Fantuzzi’s shop with his sleeping bag. This time the sleeping arrangement was more luxurious as Meade now reclined in an army cot next to the oil heater to fend off the winter chill.
The illustrious car designer and the young American had a love of old English motorcycles in common but Fantuzzi also realized that the young American had a gift for design and spent hours teaching his protege. The arrangement would last a year as Fantuzzi taught the young American metal shaping, design, quality craftsmanship and the art of Carrozzeria. On the weekends, Meade had the shop to himself to work on the new body for the car while eating Salami on bread and slightly sparkling Lambrusco. Some would say he had gone to heaven. Below: Learning the Fantuzzi way.
When Meade's 350 S was finally completed the young American took it back to the US to sell and finally make some money. It seemed that Meade’s Italian adventure was over and he set up an import bazaar with his mother, Day Meade. Unfortunately, before selling the Maserati he lent it so some friends to get engine work done and somehow it ended up going off a cliff and into a tree, destroying it completely. The wreck sold for a pittance of what it was worth.
Suddenly the import bazaar wasn’t going to cut it and Meade returned to Italy to start over. For $50 he bought one of the other Maserati 350 S “Swamp-Dwellers” and once rebuilt sold it in California. It was on this trip home that he met Richard Merritt.
Merritt had co-written a book called “Ferrari, the Sports and Grand Turismo Cars” which introduced the American market to the value and heritage of vintage Ferraris. It also created a business opportunity for Merritt not only in restoring and reselling American “Barn Finds” but also by sourcing similarly discarded thoroughbreds in Italy and selling them in the US.
It was with this idea in mind that Merritt approached Meade saying he had a customer for a Ferrari 250 SWB and asked Tom to source one for him. Out of that first Ferrari Short Wheel Base a business developed by which Meade would find cars and sell them to Merritt at a profit, who would then sell them to his clients in the US for an even more substantial profit. It was this ‘Prancing-Horse Trading” which would become Meade’s bread and butter and would earn him enough money to start building cars of his own design.
Meade rented an apartment with a balcony a couple of blocks from Modena's Autodromo where all the local sportscar constructors came to test their designs. Buying up various out of date Ferrari and Maserati race-cars for pennies on the Dollar, he began to sketch out future projects. At one point he was using a ‘64 Ferrari 250 GTO as a parts runner which he had acquired for $720. There is no evidence, but it would not be surprising if he hitched the old Camoradi trailer to it.
Soon Meade partnered with British race car driver David Piper on a storage space which would become Piper’s “Italian Headquarters" and Meade's "Design Office." The most lucrative products from these early days were a series of Ferrari 250 Lussos Meade fitted with a GTO–like nose similar to the 330 LMB's officially built by Ferrari on the same Lusso chassis. Most of Meade’s cars were created from crashed or out of commission cars he found in surrounding Emilia Romagna for little money. One of these “Meade Lussos” made its way to Anchorage, Alaska into the hands of Ralph Stephano, a professional Ice Racer and founder of FART (Far Alaska Racing Team.) Below: One of Meade's modified 250 Lusso's
Around the same time, Meade began to collect race-car parts from his growing circle of Modenese friends. Thomassima 1 was the first car Meade created from scratch. Based on a Ferrari 250 GT its form was so dramatic that Meade was invited to show it at the Florence Car Show. Unfortunately during the 1965 rainy season, the banks of the Arno river flooded and Thomassima 1 was utterly destroyed in the storage facility while waiting to be shown. Below: Tomassima 1 already precariously close to water.
In early 1966, Los Angeles lawyer as well as Ferrari trader and collector Edwin K Niles made contact with Meade. Similarly to Merritt, Niles was looking for scouts to find good used Ferraris in Italy that he could resell at a profit in the US. Niles found Meade at his home, which consisted of an apartment above two garages combined into one living space. Everything was full of Ferrari and Maserati engines and components and on the wall hung a Formula 1 space frame that Meade claimed was a De Tomaso. Alessandro De Tomaso had raced in Formula One but what hung from the wall was, in fact, a Cooper Type 43, which had used a Maserati engine and had possibly been raced at Monza by Meade’s friend Piero Drogo in 1960. In any case the historic space frame was to be disassembled and repurposed to fit what would become Thomassima 2.
By the time Meade had met his next customer, Harry Windsor, he had produced at least a dozen cars. Windsor wanted something similar to the recently announced Ferrari 330 P3. Repurposing the former Cooper spaceframe for Tomassima duty was harder than expected. Even when finished, the car was not up to Ferrari or Maserati in-house standards, but it was strikingly beautiful and bore a close resemblance to the official Ferrari 330 P3. Power came from a rather ancient “inboard plug” Colombo 250 engine that made a leisurely 240 hp. Nevertheless, it was more than enough for the featherweight creation that weighed less than 2000 lbs. The transmission was a commercial truck four-speed designed for front wheel drive installation that had been flipped and attached to the midships V12 via an adapter. The set up was similar to that used by the 1962 ATS GT created by the “Ferrari Exiles” of the 1962 “Palace Coup”. The suspension came straight from the Cooper parts bin which meant it was an English Standard/Triumph design modified by Cooper. Dunlop disk brakes were used all around with the rear calipers exchanged for Girling road car units that included a parking brake feature. The roof was removable so that Windsor could enjoy the fleeting San Francisco summer rays, via a mechanism patented by Meade. The roof's shape was dictated by the Alfa Romeo Sprint Speciale rear window, that now served as a windscreen.
The completed car was a rolling sculpture and caused a sensation even in its raw, unfinished form during testing at the Modena Autodromo. All Meade’s racecar builder buddies came to help. Surnames were not used so there was Gigi for the electrics and instrumentation, Giuseppe for technical advice and Nino for data collection and suspension set up. Even Il Commendatore came to see what all the fuss was about and, like the Pope on St. Peter’s balcony at Easter, gave his blessing to the young American. The track was free of charge, Meade simply had to find time between the other teams that were testing that day. After a few test lap sessions, the chassis was ready for the stunning Drogo coachwork to be added. Finally, after Harry Windsor had made multiple revisions to the design at the last minute, it was ready and put on a ship bound for California. Below: Tomassima 2
Above: Meade being congratulated by Il Commendatore.
Above: Meade consulting with Gigi, Giuseppe and Nino.
The “evil eye” struck almost immediately as the protective covering was partly removed during the sea voyage and the pristine red paint exposed to weeks of salt water. When it arrived in California, the car was further defiled when Windsor removed the Thomassima badges and replaced them with Ferrari ones. He even went as far as sticking a fake 250 P/4 script to the tail. But despite all that, the car was invited to 1968's Pebble Beach Concours where it was a sensation.
Tomassima 2 changed owners several times before Larry Hatfield purchased it in 1984. The car had been wrecked, and the nose damaged. Several attempts were made at restoration, and finally, it was brought Tim Taylor's Red Car Restorations in Rockwell, Texas. After several conversations with Meade to make sure the car remained original. The car’s story came full circle when it was featured at Concorso Italiano in 2015, 43 years after its first appearance at Pebble Beach.
Meade's third design was similar to his first that had been destroyed in Florence. It would become famous due to its exotic side exhausts more elaborate than any AC Cobra or Corvette Stingray. It was also significant in that it was used as a model for a Hot Wheels toy car and made the cover of Road and Track. Even “60 Minutes” came calling and had a camera car follow Meade around the Modena Circuit driving his now famous creation. The cameras then followed Meade through the Turin Salon where his cars were on display with the resulting episode named “The Famous American Ferrari Designer; Tom Meade.” Below: Tomassima 3 with Meade demonstrating the almost horizontal seating position.
Above: Meade standing next to his brand logo along with Tomassima 3 and his German shepherd who was known for his less than friendly demeanor in Modena and could often be seen riding around town with his master on a speeding Lambretta scooter.
With funds in the bank but not comfortable with the fame Thomassima 3 had brought. Meade escaped to Indonesia leaving a warehouse full of parts and unfinished projects on the banks of Lake Como in the care of his son. He would spend most of the next two decades surfing in Indonesia.
Finally, in 1993 he returned to California to tend to his mother in her final years. It was she who had set the events in motion that would send Meade on to the fairytale life he had lived. When she died, he returned to Italy and began to fill the warehouse on Lake Como with parts for Thomassima 4 including a 333 SP V12 engine from a recent sports car racer.
But Tom Meade was never able to finish the last project. In 2014 with the designs and drawings taking shape he died leaving his friend and co-designer Josh Lange to finish the project.
Lange is still at it putting the finishing touches to what he has named Thomassima 3 Lacrima Rossa (Red Tear – Lange’s recognition of Meade’s last great struggle.) With a carbon fiber chassis and seats molded into the tub and multifunctional and multi-level instrumentation and an Aluminum body based on Meade's design, it is an expression of Lange’s devotion to this last testament and memory of tom Meade.
Tom Meade was a dreamer but unlike most dreamers he was willing to risk almost everything to follow that dream. Many dream of becoming car designers and some reach their goal and even less become famous and go down in history. Of them all only Tom had the heart and fire in his tummy to sleep under woodpiles to make it all happen.
Surely he’s in heaven in that great carrozzeria in the sky still hammering away under the proud and approving eye of Medardo Fantuzzi on a Tomassima beyond anything he created here on earth. I imagine first century Roman charioteer Gaius Appuleius Diocles, with at least 200 wins under his belt and winnings reportedly totaling 35,863,120 sesterces ($US 15 billion) in his pocket, has ordered one as well as more recent greats with names like Tazio, Juan Manuel and Ayrton.
(see: minute 6.16-9.00)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modena - Cuisine