Mimicking Maranello

Inspired by the 330 P4 and powered by a Colombo V12, the Thomassima II aimed to outdo Ferrari at its own game.

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December 8, 2016

It’s tough to pin down the story of the late designer/carbuilder Tom Meade. There’s been little written about him, and not all of it agrees. The most common storyline is of a young blond-haired Californian who set off to Italy with the dream of designing and building his own brand of exotic cars—and build them he did.

From his base in Modena, Meade made his living buying, selling, modifying, and designing various Ferraris and Maseratis. His first brush with fame may have been the NART Spyder-like “Nembo” roadsters (a contraction made of letters of the car’s main three protagonists, Neri, Meade, and Bonacini), but most Americans learned of Meade in December 1970 issue of Road & Track, which featured the successor to our featured car, the Ferrari V12-powered Thomassima II, on its cover.

The Thomassima tale starts in the early 1960s, when Meade, just out of the Navy, returned home to Newport Beach with the dream, according to the R&T story, of someday owning an exotic car. “What really lit his fuse was the appearance in town of a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa,” wrote author Pete Coltrin, who quotes Meade as saying, “I fell in love with it and spent hours just looking at it.”

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A friend told Meade the TR’s owner bought his car out of Rome, that the city was packed with similar machines, and that such cars could be found and bought on the cheap. Meade was sold. He found a job on a freighter headed for Norway, fixed up a non-running BSA motorcycle he found when he arrived, and rode south toward Italy and its endless supply of affordable, used Ferraris.

Once there, of course, he discovered it was all a myth. But rather than simply return to the U.S., he aimed his BSA at Modena, the home of Maserati. Once there, he showed up at the factory and asked for a tour. As Coltrin tells it, Meade was ultimately introduced to factory engineer and test driver Aurelio Bertocchi, who showed him around—and, eventually, sold him an outdated, mostly stripped 350 SI sports-racer missing its engine, transmission, differential, etc. for $400.

Bertocchi provided a truck and driver and directed Meade to a nearby garage. The American negotiated a rental space, and, with his new/old Italian exotic, spent his first night in Modena on the garage floor.

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Soon thereafter, he met racer and race-team owner Lloyd “Lucky” Casner, who sold him a Corvette powertrain. Meade rented an unused barn, where he mated the Maserati chassis and Chevy hardware, then sketched out a body with a removeable hardtop and sent everything to Carrozzeria Fantuzzi. In early 1962, he and his rebodied Maserati-Corvette returned to the U.S.—where a couple of friends soon drove the car off a cliff. Nobody was hurt, except Meade’s dream machine. He reportedly sold the wrecked leftovers for $2,700, about what he’d invested in the car.

NO MATTER; Meade had gotten a taste for exotic-car building, and decided in 1963 to relocate to Modena with the intention of setting up a more serious concern. Rather than sleep on barn or garage floors, he rented an apartment in Modena that included a garage. He soon got ahold of two more Maserati rolling chassis and rebuilt them; both finished cars went to customers in the United States.

The following year, now being somewhat more established, Meade decided it was time to build cars completely of his own design. Which he did, three of which were ultimately named Thomassima, a loose Italianization of Meade’s first name.
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The first Thomassima was a front-engine Chevy V8-powered car that loosely resembled a Ferrari 250 GT Pinin Farina coupe. (The TI was seriously damaged in a flood a few years after it was built; its remains currently reside with Meade’s son.) The Thomassima II clearly mimics Ferrari’s mid-engine 330 P4, and is suitably powered by a Ferrari V12 engine. The third Thomassima also echoed the P4 and also featured a Ferrari V12, this one sitting up front. (In an odd, modern-day footnote, given that Meade’s work was never officially recognized by Ferrari, the Thomassima III was recently displayed in the Casa Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena.)

While Meade had a clear vision of how his cars should look, he did not have the infrastructure or financial depth to engineer and construct chassis and powertrains from scratch. As a result, he worked with what was available, which in the case of the Thomassima II meant using the chassis of a Cooper Climax Formula 1 car—complete with Cooper-modified cast-steel English Standard/Triumph front upright units and Cooper’s own hollow-cast, magnesium F1 units at the rear—reconfigured to support his imagined two-seat mid-engine sports-car coachwork.

The P4 look came at the request of a California client named Harry Windsor. It’s not clear if Windsor also mandated the use of a Ferrari engine, perhaps furthering a perceived connection to the P4, or if Meade made that call. Whatever the case, the engine chosen, or found, was a 1957-spec “inside plug” Colombo SOHC 3.0-liter V12, at the time good for 240-250 horsepower. The car’s mid-engine layout called for the use of a transaxle, something else Meade wasn’t in the business of constructing, so he sourced a compact ZF unit with four forward speeds (but, oddly enough, no reverse) that was reputedly destined for an ill-fated ATS formula racer.

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For panel beating and final construction, instead of Fantuzzi Meade turned to another well-known Italian coachbuilder: Piero Drogo’s Carrozzeria Sports Cars. It was a logical enough pick; by the late 1960s, Drogo was no stranger to fashioning custom Ferrari sports and racing cars. Drogo’s craftsmen translated Meade’s design into aluminum body panels that certainly recalled the famous P4 without being a direct copy. The main differences were Meade’s use of gullwing doors, differently styled intake and cooling ducts on the sides of the body, and even larger headlight nacelles.

The bare running chassis, and sometimes the nearly completed car, was often seen and occasionally photographed undergoing testing at the Modena Autodromo in downtown Modena, a property also employed by Ferrari until the early ’70s construction of its own Pista di Fiorano. Once complete, Meade’s creation was shipped to its new owner in California.

TODAY, THOMASSIMA II is owned by retired Texas businessman Larry Hatfield. Hatfield has been into hot cars since his youth, his first car being a hopped-up ’58 Chevy Impala. He’s stuck mostly with Mercedes for much of his driving life—his second car was a 300 SL roadster—but there was a Ferrari 275 GTB/4 in the mix, as well.

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Hatfield first learned of, and was captivated by, the creations of Tom Meade from that Road & Track cover story, but there was another connection. He had lived for some time in the San Francisco Bay area, once home to both Meade and Thomassima II’s first owner, Harry Windsor.

In the early 1980s, Hatfield made it his mission to track down both Windsor and the car. The ownership chain is slightly murky, but it’s believed there were three or four owners in between Windsor and Hatfield. During that time, the car suffered a front-end altercation with a stubborn palm tree, which did substantial but not irreparable damage to the front sheet metal and underlying frame.

After this incident, one of those previous owners took Thomassima II to some shop or another for “restoration.” After it was disassembled came disagreements over how to proceed, costs, and so on. As a result, the car sat.

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This is where Hatfield entered the picture. In 1984, he bought the wrecked, disassembled machine from then-owner Alexander Harwick, with every intent to put it back to how Tom Meade built it.

Fortunately, Hatfield and his chosen restorer, Dallas-area Red Car Restorations, both had the opportunity for long conversations with Meade himself prior to the designer’s death in 2013. The owner recalls Meade asked if the car still had its original steering wheel, and if it had been restored or refinished in any way. When he learned the steering wheel was both original and untouched, Meade encourage Hatfield to leave it as-is and not erase the real and metaphorical fingerprints of all the great mechanics, engineers, and craftsmen—Drogo, Medardo Fantuzzi, Alejandro de Tomaso—which, said Meade, would be “just wrong.”

While the steering wheel was easy, the rest of the car presented numerous questions. “It was a few big parts, like the frame, some of the body panels, and the engine, and box after box of little pieces,” recalls Red Car’s Derik Kennedy. “So many, in fact, that we weren’t totally sure what we had.”

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Therefore, the first step was a through inventory and condition analysis of everything they had in hand. From this, Kennedy and Red Car principal Tim Taylor started to determine what could be refurbished, restored, and reused, what needed to be replaced, and what was missing entirely. Says Kennedy, “It was like a giant puzzle with no clear picture of what the finished product should look like when done, and lots of pieces missing.”

As the reconstruction began, Kennedy remembers looking at many systems and thinking, “We could really improve on this.” For his part, Taylor was less impressed by the quality of Meade’s chassis modifications. “The welding was poor, but almost all Italian cars of the 1960s were,” he says. “Local bicycle shops were the source for high-quality chromoly 4130 steel-alloy tubing.”

In the end, they decided to stay true to the original concept and construction, and elected to retain as many original components as possible—with one substantial exception: that missing reverse gear. The Red Car team purchased several used ZF four-speed street-car transaxles and picked through them for parts needed to both freshen up the original gearbox and to incorporate the new cog.

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The original aluminum body panels were reused where possible (Kennedy compliments the quality of Drogo’s work), as were the wiring harness and exhaust. The harness was carefully removed, tagged, and cleaned, with repairs only where really needed. The original exhaust system was leaky and tired, so it was blasted clean, welded, patched, and otherwise repaired, then refinished and reinstalled. The shifter and its long convoluted linkage were also sorted, along with all of the original instruments.

All in all, bringing the Thomassima II back to life was a seven-year process. The work ebbed and flowed a bit, especially when Red Car was busy with race cars or other work on short deadlines, or when waiting for parts.

While the restored exotic runs beautifully, it’s not entirely clear if its future lies in the realm of open road or museum. “It feels like it would scrape if you ran over a silver dollar that was minted a little too thick,” says Kennedy, noting some suspension reengineering would be needed to use the car in the real world.

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“The brakes are not great,” adds Taylor, “but this car was not meant to go racing, it’s more art work. At this early stage, Tom Meade was less an automobile designer than an artist, a sculptor who created wire-frame drawings to be made whole as voluptuous aluminum sheet forms by his artisan friends at [Drogo’s] Carrozzeria Sports Cars. The ignition switch and all the switches are in the rearview mirror—this is the only car I have ever seen that has this—and who would have thought an Alfa Romeo Sprint Speciale rear window could make such an elegant windshield?”

That’s not a bad tribute for the Thomassima II. It represents Tom Meade’s singular vision of an exotic car, one that pays tribute to the masters of Maranello while at the same time trying to outdo them.

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