In 1960, fresh from his “world tour” with the Navy, Tom Meade thought he had seen everything. Until the Ferrari — and the story.
Only the tail was visible. It was an Italian posteriore; elegant, sensuous, and spellbinding. It was the most beautiful car Meade had ever seen. He had noticed it before on his walk home from work, but this time a figure was moving in the shadows at the back of the garage. Without hesitation, he walked straight in to see what this shape belonged to.
The surprised Newport Beach, California, owner answered from the back of his garage, “It’s a Ferrari 500 TRC. It’s only a two-liter four, but it has double overhead cams and two big Weber carbs, it’s light and fast. You can have it for $4,000.”
After the name, the rest had been lost to Meade’s ears.
“Where’d you find it?”
“There is a warehouse in Rome full of these old race cars and they are all for sale — cheap.”
An epiphany — and a future — in the blink of an eye. Italy.
I had found out that what I really wanted to do in life was to go back, build these bodies for these cars, buy these race cars, prepare them for the street and send them all over the world,” — Tom Meade
Tom Meade had a direction. Work for passage on a freighter; better than cheap, passage plus pay. The nearest Europe-bound freighters left from New Orleans, so he packed his gym bag, stuffed the $50 he had saved into his pocket, and hitchhiked to New Orleans. Seasick for 35 days in the galley of a Norwegian grain ship, SS Nardo, he jumped ship in Norway and headed south with his traveling thumb. Six months to Italy by way of parties in Mallorca, a sailboat to Genoa and a free motorcycle to Rome.
Roman serendipity: Working nights on a Dino De Laurentiis film called Best of Enemies while searching for the “the warehouse treasure” in daylight — urban myth, so on to Modena and the epicenter of fabulous cars.
He arrived at the Maserati gate at 7:30 p.m., finding the place closed and mostly deserted. Aurelio Bertocchi, (future company president and son of chief test driver, Guerrino) happened to be working late and offered a brief tour.
Meade noticed an old race car under a tarp, perched on a pair of sawhorses. The cover could not disguise its elegant form. He asked Bertocchi if it was for sale.
“No. We don’t sell beat up old race cars to our clientele.”
Maserati typically took last season’s race cars and dropped them into a swampy field behind the shops.
Meade persisted and a price equivalent to $420 was agreed, but he wanted the car that night before anyone discovered the mistake the next morning. It was 8:30 p.m.
By the time coachbuilder Giorgio Neri arrived with a flatbed truck, the missing V12 drivetrain had been located and soon an incomplete Maserati 350S was en route to Carrozzeria Neri & Bonacini. At the shop, Meade put his sleeping bag next to the car.
“I slept there because I was afraid to leave the car alone.”
A nearby barn became the restoration shop and its loft was sleeping quarters. Maserati racing mechanics spent their off hours in the barn helping Meade with his project and, not insignificantly, improving his Italian as they tried to fathom English.
“I had the most fantastic relationship with them; I was really like their pet, the factory pet,” he said. “They liked the way I did things, I was very adventurous.”
Adventurous was part of Meade’s makeup. He was born in Hollywood in early 1939. At age 8, he moved with his mother to Australia. He was in elementary school when they moved to Hawaii, where he took up making surfboards. His mother moved again, to California, so he could attend high school there. He joined the Navy to see the rest of the world immedateily after graduation.
Bertocchi introduced Meade to Medardo Fantuzzi to help restore the car’s bodywork. It seems the popular Italian race car builder shared the young American’s enthusiasm for English motorcycles, so it was arranged that he would take Meade’s motorcycle in exchange for body work and mentorship. The deal would also include a “residence” as Meade moved into the shop. He slept on an iron army cot, next to the oil heater during the winter, living there for a year while Fantuzzi graciously mentored him in both metal shaping and design.
“It was Fantuzzi who really taught me how to ‘idea shape’ the cars. He is the one who made the body on these cars, so my very beginnings were with Fantuzzi. He is the one who gave me my inspiration in how the cars were shaped and my schooling in how the bodies were made.”
After months of warehouse exploration, Meade became the racing parts expert at Maserati in exchange for the pieces he needed for his project.
Racing season fed the entrepreneurial contact kit. “When I first met Lloyd “Lucky” Casner (famous for his Comaradi USA Maserati racing team, among other things), he had destroyed one of his Duntov-racing Corvettes, so I bought most of his equipment for 400 bucks, including parts, tools, and trailers. He gave me the whole shebang, and, most importantly, an engine.”
That engine powered an iconic Meade coupe he called the “Anti-Cobra,” after a verbal deal with Carroll Shelby had been usurped by Ford.
Meade brought the car back to the States to sell. Unfortunately, he loaned it to an old friend who promptly launched it into a Malibu canyon, destroying the vehicle. The wreck was sold for a fraction of what it might have been worth. After a year working in San Francisco, the Meade moved back to Italy.
“I had found out that what I really wanted to do in life was to go back, build these bodies for these cars, buy these race cars, prepare them for the street and send them all over the world,” Meade realized
Meade bought one of the other Maserati 350S derelicts for $50 and started over. When it was finished, he sold it in California and met America’s favorite Italophile, Dick Merritt, during the process. Merritt said he had a customer for a short-wheelbase Ferrari 250 GT and asked Meade if he could find one for him. He did, and another profit center was established.
Meade rented an apartment with a balcony overlooking the Modena Aero/Autodrome. “Below it were four garages in a row which I started filling up with old race cars, bits and pieces.” He even bought a tired Ferrari 250 GTO 64 for $720 (now they go for $30+ million) that became his daily parts runner.
Meade eventually partnered with a David Piper, a famous British Ferrari racer he had met at the autodrome, in a storage space Piper could call his team’s Italian headquarters and Meade called his design office. His most effective “production” was a series of 7 or 8 Lussos fitted with GTO-like noses, not unlike the 330LMBs Mike Parks developed for the SF endurance racing team. Meade never intended to be a businessman, rather sculptor of automobiles done for pleasure. Each was sold to finance the next.
The first car he designed completely on his own, Thomassima I, was sent to be exhibited in an auto show in Florence, but one of the riverside-city’s famous floods destroyed it before it was shown.
Thomassima II used elements of a rear-engine Cooper chassis into which Meade fitted a Ferrari 250 GT V12 and a ZF 5-speed transaxle. It is arguably the most beautiful of all his designs.
Thomassima III was his favorite and the only one he kept. The Hot Wheels recreation was a top seller for years.
As the Thomassimi became public, they made Tom Meade famous. 60 Minutes did his life story. The TV crew mounted cameras on Thomassima II and filmed some fast runs around the Modena circuit. Then it followed him around the Torino Salon where his cars were on display, and in doing so created “The Famous American Ferrari Sculptor, Tom Meade.”
Meade returned to California in 1993 to be part of his mother’s final years. He died in 2014.
Debates will continue about the Tom Meade automotive style and even more about his personal style, but there can be none about his accomplishments. He set out to own an Italian racing car to drive on the street and developed into a legendary builder of very personal automotive statements.
As Top Gear described him, “A Ferrari footnote, maybe, but he leaves behind a unique automotive legacy.”
By way of validation, his much-admired Thomassima III went on display in the new Ferrari Museum in Modena and the recently restored Thomassima II was the star of a recent Concorso Italiano in Monterey, California.