Maximum dose – The Thomassima III is an exotic Italo- American hybrid of almost mythical reputation, but Drive-My has tracked it down and can tell its story Words Marc Sonnery. Photography Piotr Degler.
1969 THOMASSIMA III
Incredible story of one American’s obsession with creating the perfect Italian GT
Not many people get to build their own car. Fewer still enlist their coachbuilding help in Modena – supercar central – or use aristocratic 1960s Ferrari components as their foundation. The late Tom Meade did, though, and the swooping style of his Thomassima III is evidence that he had an eye for stunning bodywork.
‘SHOCKING OR NOT, THE REBEL HAD BEEN RECOGNISED AND WELCOMED TO THE PALACE’
Meade’s is a fascinating story. Born in 1939 with no father on the scene, he spent his childhood in Australia and his teenage years in Hawaii before his mother re-settled to Los Angeles. Four years in the US Navy as an electronics engineer in aviation then developed a can-do attitude alongside his evergrowing – rapidly becoming all-consuming – interest in cars.
A watershed moment came when Meade saw a Ferrari 500 TRC being worked on in Costa Mesa, and it sparked an incredible odyssey. Meade spent many hours admiring it, the owner regaling him with tales of an Italian warehouse full of the cars, going cheap. And so the youthful Meade set off for Italy in the autumn of 1960. Suffice to say that when he finally wound up in Rome – after hitch-hiking to New Orleans, peeling potatoes on a cargo ship to Norway, hitch-hiking down to Spain and eventually boarding a ship bound for Italy – this Aladdin’s Cave proved to be a myth.
‘WHEREVER MEADE TOOK THE CAR, ON-LOOKERS WERE SLACKJAWED AND SPEECHLESS’
But he was in Italy! There he met – and worked as an extra for – film director Dino de Laurentiis, then rode a decrepit motorbike to the Maserati factory in Modena where he bought a tired 350S chassis (#3503) and bodyshell from a startled Aurelio Bertocchi. Next Meade rented space at a farm and bought a racing Corvette engine from Lucky Casner, whose trailer had overturned, wrecking the car. With the help of Carrozzeria Fantuzzi, engine and 350S came together – Meade may have been sleeping on haystacks, but he was every inch the playboy driving his ‘new’ car around Modena. When he headed back to the US, though, this car was promptly crashed by a friend. He sold off the remains.
Cue episode two. A year later, in 1961, Meade went back to settle in Modena for the long term, renting a workshop with apartment above it and near the aerautodromo. There he started buying parts and reselling them, eventually buying used Maseratis and Ferraris and then selling them on while conceiving and eventually starting his first design. His favourites were the 315S, the 500 TRC and the GTO 64. All the while he could be seen zooming about Modena on his Vespa with his German Shepherd, Pig, along for the ride.
Meade’s driving force was to create the curvaceous body shapes he had in his mind; everything else was just the means to that end. Putting to good use what he had learned with the 350S, he procured a Ferrari 250 GT and worked with a mannequino (a skeletal wire body buck) designed by him with help from local craftsmen. Showing impressive flair for form he created an alluring – and never christened – shape: let’s call it Thomassima Zero. It had a nose which was like a 275 GTB’s but more pointed, gill-like side vents, and a roofline that seemed to melt into the trunk, a straight line from windshield top to trailing edge. It made the 275 GTB – which itself premiered at about the same time – look comparatively demure. Meade’s dramatic creation pushed Italian sports car design to its limit without falling into the realm of absurdity.
That was the car that set the tone for his future designs. He drove it to the Netherlands, where he had been asked to create a body for a Maserati Birdcage chassis, and it attracted much attention. Then he met Leon Barbier at Garage Francorchamps in Belgium, who had a client for a Maserati Tipo 63 rear-engined Birdcage – one of which Meade had back in Modena, where his rent had gone unpaid for six months.
‘THE VELOUR SEATS SEEM AS THOUGH PLUCKED FROM A LAS VEGAS HOUSE OF ILL REPUTE’
Barbier whipped out a cheque that allowed Meade to start buying cars again, planning to sell them to Northern Europeans and in the US. Alas, his own car was destroyed in the great flood of Florence in 1966 – Meade had left it there for a forthcoming exhibition. He sold the dismantled remains, and then a series of incredible cars passed through his hands, including a 250 LM and a 1964-bodied 250 GTO (#4091GT), which he used as a daily driver for some time – back then, market speculation and a vintage racing class for such cars did not exist, so they were of little value relative to today. He also modified Ferraris, with nose jobs for Lussos and additional side vents for 250 GTEs.
In the industrial alley workshops, cafés and hotel bars of Modena, Meade would run into Alessandro de Tomaso, journalist Peter Coltrin (who wrote a cover feature on him for Road & Track in 1970), the author and wheeler-dealer Hans Tanner, and Count Volpi, who had his own fledgling car manufacture not far away, and for whom Meade crewed at Le Mans one year.
It was a creatively fertile time in Modena and in bar conversations with Carroll Shelby there was talk in 1968 of Tom handling design and production of the next Cobra – but then the tall Texan told him in a telegram that he had sold out to Ford. Meade was then the mastermind behind the three Nembo Spyders and one Nembo coupé, all on 250 GT chassis. The Spyder #1777GT is considered by many to be one of the all-time-great designs, and is believed to have inspired Luigi Chinetti to order his 275 NART Spyders.
Meade was then approached by a Swiss Baron, angered that his Corvette was outperformed by Shelby Cobras. He commissioned what became Thomassima I, nicknamed by Meade the ‘Anti-Cobra’. As he told me in Los Angeles in 1996: ‘It was very exciting for its day; it had removable Gullwing doors and it turned into a Targa. The whole top came off: you just put it in the trunk. No-one had thought of it before.’
Then came the Thomassima II. ‘It originated when I asked my client Harry Windsor from San Francisco what lines he preferred. He replied that he loved the look of the Ferrari P4 and I said I will build you a car more beautiful than the P4. It wasn’t really an inspiration from the P4, it was my idea of what the P4 should have looked like.’ The Thomassima II had a longer nose and more muscular haunches than a P4 and was indeed more pleasing to the eye. It was also 250 GT V12-powered, with a chassis that according to various opinions was partly Cooper, partly built from scratch. But Meade was only interested in the design; the underpinnings were for him vulgar necessities, a means to an end.
That car went on to win a class award at Pebble Beach in 1968, soon after its arrival Stateside. ‘Ironically, Harry put a Ferrari badge on it so I did not get the recognition I might have otherwise,’ said Meade. The car was later crashed and, after many years in limbo, restored. It was shown in 2015 at Monterey’s Concorso Italiano, where it was the star and poster car, another confirmation of the status by then attained by Meade’s work. Back in ’1968, however, Meade’s crowning achievement was still to come. As the basis for the Thomassima III, he had sourced a 1958 250 GT PF coupé (#1065GT), finished at Maranello and delivered not to Chinetti as some records state but, according to historian Marcel Massini, to Luciano Ravina in Genoa, Italy, finished in Bianco Savid with a black interior. Meade’s design pushed the Thomassima Zero theme further but in a more mature way, its nose and haunches fuller and again with gill-like side vents and gullwing doors. Huge exhaust sidepipes, like twirling snakes, are reminiscent of US hot rods’.
‘The finish on this car was probably better than that of every Ferrari that had ever been made: everything on the car was fitted by hand,’ he told me. ‘If you look at the trunk and the doors there was a millimetre or two all the way round and even after this car was driven the finish was still 100%. It was done on a combination of 250 GT chassis and parts. I left the chassis alone, used a 250 GT engine but had a five-speed gearbox and special brakes with vented discs.
‘I entered it in a lot of shows; it won first place at Modena and Turin. Then I shipped it to California, I had it in Newport Beach and showed it in various events. Shirley Guggenheim, one of the nightclub owners there, thought it was the most beautiful car she had ever seen and asked me to build her a car.’ It didn’t happen: Meade did not feel ready to start building a production version, yet.
As you can see in these pictures, the cockpit is even more outlandish than the body. The deep-dish steering wheel is a bespoke casting and features the Tom Meade Modena Italy lettering. The gauges are buried in the plush dash like the eyes of seals in their fur, and the velour seats – originally red, now blue – seem as though plucked from a Las Vegas house of ill repute. They are comfortable, but what astonishes is the laidback inclination they offer while travelling in a high-speed boudoir.
Louche? No, they allowed a lower, more aerodynamic roofline. Any danger of falling asleep at the wheel would be conveniently dispatched by the racing-car decibel level generated by the spaghetti pipes, from which came the sort of menacing howl normally reserved for the Mulsanne Straight. The centre-lock wheels have huge, bespoke-cast, long-eared spinners with the Meade script – and his logo, the standing goat. The trunk is wholly taken over by the huge spare.
Wherever Meade took the car, on-lookers were slack-jawed and speechless: it was like a fantastic creature visiting from another dimension. Bona fide fame beckoned. Coltrin wrote the Road & Track story about it and the US TV network CBS carried a special report on Meade in which the car appears to run flawlessly and boisterously at the Modena Aerautodromo. Remember, he was only 31 years old and had already created four complete cars to his own design and restored several before that. There is no denying Meade’s amazing energy, desire and talent. ‘There were at least 20 to 30 people who wanted to buy this car but I loved it and wanted to keep it to show my expertise,’ he told me. ‘I just used it for auto shows; it has never really been used very much.’
One respected collector claimed to have paid Tom for the car, railing that he had never received it: Virginia’s Norm Silver, who owned many great Ferraris from the 1960s to the ’80s, including the Thomas Crown Affair 275 NART Spyder. Its Virginia plate lends credence to that but the problem was not Meade at all. A notorious scoundrel, the late Gordon Tatum, had positioned himself as Silver’s agent, took his money, went to Italy, spoke with Tom, reported the car as acquired to Silver… but kept the money. He later did similar with funds another American gave him to buy the Ferrari 250 GT Breadvan in the UK, using the money to buy it for himself. And when respected Belgian importer Claude Dubois was in charge of selling a Bugatti collection, Tatum showed up to buy the most important one for Bill Harrah, whose museum he then curated. Months later Dubois confirmed to the FBI that Tatum had declared a price to Harrah of which he had paid only 25%, pocketing the rest. Tatum later went to jail for fraud.
And Meade’s dream had ground to a halt. ‘I had started to do the convertible Thomassima IIII, and then, in the early 1970s, everything sort of came to a standstill and I had to stop because nobody wanted to buy a Ferrari anymore, be it by me or standard. Money ran out.’ The 1973 oil crisis, ever-increasing regulation, speed limits, and a swelling opinion that sports cars had become politically incorrect together caused a traumatic shift in the market, but there was another problem. Tom had begun to annoy the powers that be around Modena, who resented the publicity he was getting, and so craftsmen were encouraged not to collaborate with him any more.
That’s nothing new under the Emilian sun: ask Ferruccio Lamborghini how the sudden and suspicious cancellation of a huge South American tractor order in the late 1960s jeopardised his accounts and had a disastrous effect on his business empire, including the sports car factory that had been irritating the established order. Or, three decades later, consider the saga of Romano Artioli, the investor behind the Bugatti EB110, who was suddenly no longer welcome around Modena, his vision snuffed out by silent external forces.
‘I opened a restoration shop in Milan, restored cars, manufactured components, did castings for small racing shops all over northern Italy and got busy fabricating parts,’ said Meade. There he was close to Carlo Chiti, who then ran Motori Moderni in Varese, and both considered further projects such as a new type of valve.
During the late 1980s there was potential for another run of Thomassimas when a Texan investor wanted to buy ten Testarossas and have Meade rebody them in his distinctive style. The bold and sensuous Meade DNA was clearly recognisable on a body that had sharp 1980s lines but retained roundness. It would have had six headlights and been built in aluminium. Alas it was not to be: the money-man went bankrupt. Eventually, Meade felt the need for a change of scenery and departed for Bali, no doubt nostalgic for his surfing days in Hawaii. It wasn’t all beach time, though; he was the subject of a large article in a newspaper in Brunei but this failed to attract business from the Sultan. After a few years there Tom moved back to California to take care of his ailing mother. I met him in Santa Monica in May 1996, and his mother passed that summer.
Many believed that Tom had not kept any of the cars, but he had actually bought back the Anti-Cobra in period, damaged in an incident then badly repaired, and he had clung on to the Thomassima III. He even had the body bucks for the Nembo Spyders and Berlinetta, plus numerous parts and a few other cars such as a timewarp 250 California Spyder (#1951GT), which he later sold in a hush-hush 2009 trade.
Tom Meade passed away in August 2013. It was therefore a great shock, in the year that followed, to find out that the Thomassima III was not merely a long-lost dream but was actually displayed in a museum. Not just any museum, mind you, but the Galleria Ferrari museum in Fiorano, right by the Maranello factory. Shocking or not, the rebel had been not just acknowledged, but invited into the palace.
Today the Thomassima III is in the protective hands of Meade’s adopted son and is kept in northern Italy. As its sub-300km odometer reading shows, the car has not run in decades, but to see it as it was in period – save for absent exterior mirrors and the different seat colour – remains awe-inspiring. Its shape is very much organic, the ultimate rendition of the 1960s front-engined Italian sports car ethos. That Tom Meade showed up in Modena just at the right time and did so with pluck and talent was just meant to be, hence the name Thomassima: massima means ‘maximum’ in Italian.
In some ways the Thomassima III story is rather like that of the Breadvan, which symbolised the rift between Enzo Ferrari and the youthful Count Volpi but was recognised decades later by the factory, which created for it a special ‘Modification made in period’ classification. The fact that the Thomassima III was displayed for more than four years in the Galleria Ferrari museum is sweet posthumous recognition of Tom Meade’s role in Modenese lore. Yet while the Thomassima I Anti-Cobra and the P4-like Thomassima II were defined and thus restrained by client requests, the Thomassima III – presaged years earlier by the sadly shortlived Thomassima Zero – stands as Meade’s most significant and groundbreaking design. Its time in the spotlight was very much deserved.
Below and right: The late Tom Meade in California in 1996, when interviewed by the author; his creation today, now owned by his adopted son.
Above, left and right: Gullwing doors lift to reveal a buttoned velour interior with reclined seats and a bespoke deep-dish wheel; sidewinder tailpipes sound suitably loud; early photos probably date from 1970.
Above and top right Voluptuous curves hide Ferrari 250 GT PF engine and underpinnings – though not strictly a Ferrari, the car was eventually displayed at the Galleria Ferrari museum in Fiorano.