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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tom Meade: Car Designer Part II, III, IV, V

I will publish in one post the rest of the installments from the 2009 archives, a reintroduction of the original Tom Meade interview session (Thomassima II pictured below): 
from Sunday, October 4, 2009
By Chad Glass

Default A Slice of Life, An Altered State: An Afternoon with Tom Meade, part 2
I see fragrances of a GTO Series 2, California Spider, 250 SWB, 275 GTB, others. But as whole cars they’re not any of those. Looking at Meade’s cars, the overall effect would be as if Ferrari were to add extra dashes of spices and herbs to the sauce, letting it sit overnight for that “2nd day taste,” resume baking the next day, producing a more flavorful car, with nuances overall to dramatically alter the visual experience.

I am impressed on many levels certainly, but the main thing going through my mind is the sense of respect and humility I am feeling upon seeing the legacy that this man has created. I’ve met many visual artists, painters, movie people, musicians, some of my childhood heroes –but never a living legend such as this man. I can’t stop repeating myself with saying “wow” and “amazing.”

“I learned all of this the hard way --the very hard way. Some of the things I have lived through would leave your mouth hanging open. It has taken me 50 years to learn how to make the new Thomassima.”

When he says this to me I am again taken to another level of thinking, like a slow bullet entering my skull. The cars, the coffee, the afternoon sun, the level of design, the memories and times of this man in Italy somewhat become my own –it all begins to penetrate as I speak:

“You are one of those types of people, a Clint Eastwood type. You’re much less mainstream, in relative obscurity today… you are a living legend, an icon.”

He appears happy to hear this, somewhat surprised, perhaps, to hear me assess him in this way. And I continue:

“Because you create boutique products, highly specialized niche products, exotic cars, only true connoisseurs will know who you are. I must be one of those people now because I was lead to this.”

“The Thomassima is more known than you think it is,” he assures me.

As a draftsman myself, a largely self-taught storyboard artist for Hollywood movies and tv commercials, I am well aware of many areas of design and art that are not really my niche. Insofar as cars are concerned, I am merely a bright-eyed hobbyist at best, having drawn original car designs only very infrequently.

And drawing something already made, as I have done hundreds of times, if not thousands of times, will never qualify me as an automotive designer. That is for rich kids who go to places like Art Center or somewhere else to learn industrial design. Worse, that is a special talent, perhaps, that I may not even possess. Only lucky people end up as car designers.

Tom responds: “Art Center creates cookie cutter students who make all the same kinds of designs. They’re trained to become the same.”

While chewing food as he says this, I stop chewing to laugh with the food in my mouth. I feel uplifted and in accord with his thinking. It’s easy and a release for me to assume that attitude, being someone who never went to brand name schools. But the weight behind Tom saying it brings a fresh validity to the statement.

Regardless, with no formal training in anything really, I often feel pathetically out of my depth when I attempt to render an original car design. At best I feel like a fake. And the feeling is only amplified upon seeing Tom’s cars. But, alas, he wasn’t formally trained either. Neither was Enzo. And that is somewhat unbelievable when looking at what they can/did create, and what Tom has yet to do.

Whatever fantasies I may have entertained long ago of designing cars, of being part of that culture in any way, have long since faded with age –but have they really? For all the times I’ve imagined being behind the wheel in a car chase, drawing the scene by placing myself in the driver’s seat, by collecting a long list of speeding tickets, of going to hundreds of car shows, import car events, I never crossed over into actually creating the fast cars to be admired and collected. In all honesty to myself, I am no one special as I have been, and am, just another admirer, a consumer. But an enthusiast, nonetheless.

I’m the type of person who considers the sound of the engine to be important enough that no radio exists in the cars I own and drive. The soundtrack of the exhaust and gears changing in a tunnel, the moments that a sports car is heard above anything around, can be among the most intoxicating sounds ever experienced. In this way I consider myself a connoisseur of the sound a car makes as well as of the car itself. And as my interests and tastes in cars continue to expand, I realize that about the most uniquely exotic sound is from a Ferrari.

Other makes are different, can be nice, but nothing is really like a Ferrari’s sound. It’s a less-heard, head-turning event when you hear it. And I’ve read that it has a lot to do with Ferrari’s penchant for using flat-plane crank shafts in their engines (where the shaft lobes are directly opposed, different than the more commonly seen crank lobes offset at greater or lesser angles to each other). What results is this high-strung, high-revving, high-pitched symphony, something similar to a Formula One car.

I can only imagine what the sounds the Thomassima cars are like; better yet, how they feel to drive. I’ve been around car culture for years but only rarely have I driven the cars of my admiration. I’ve driven some, but not enough.

Amid my enjoyment of the afternoon, our meeting begins to elicit certain feelings, as if I had missed/am missing the big party, born into a time and situation that unfairly places me far and away from ever being able to grasp or have what I want.

Yet, paradoxically, I feel as if I am living in a moment of the beginning of something greater and more involving than most things I have pursued up to this time, at least in a long time. I feel that I am in an altered state, as if faerie dust is being sprinkled over the whole afternoon. It’s not just the black coffee. I feel empowered and excited, not down on myself. What I have not become, what I never had, who I am not… none of that matters. I’m not dead yet and I’m riding a wave of happy magic.

A Slice of Life, An Altered State: An Afternoon with Tom Meade, part 3

I still want to show Tom my drawings, even though by now I fully realize they will be seen as inferior. Not in how they are rendered per se, but in how I designed them (or lacked in the designing of them). My lack of imagination will surface immediately and I will appear orders of magnitude naïve. I begin feeling intimidated as I voice this to Tom.

I have not felt this way about something in a long time. After all I have attained and realized to a level of proficiency with my drawing skills that typically impresses others. Certainly, the rise I may get from an admirer are wonderful, even as the shelf-life of a compliment tends to be fleeting and ultimately dissatisfying.

Alas, this was to be a lesson, yet again, in humility. Literally I would soon be humiliated. And I was asking for it. I have been asking for it all my life, throughout the many chapters I have encountered. Moving out west to LA was a movement in this direction into humility and fear –headlong into a risk that guaranteed only that I would encounter unknown things. Some terrible, some great. And I am there again.

As Tom and I continue talking and sharing our lives’ stories, my role fast becomes the listener, the one absorbing from the elder statesman. What I had done up until this very hour begins to shrink and disappear into a shadow of a figment of an imaginary thought. But somehow I manage to blurt out something:

“A dream of mine, a big one, is to have a spot of land with a big house by the mountains and the ocean, with a giant multi-car garage, and a soaring workshop space where I can create giant paintings of cars and other amazing things –to have some level of renown”

“Yes, I’d like to see your drawings,” he says.

With that, reaching into my leather case, I produce 2 finished concept sketches of a red Ferrari front V12 GT, and a fantasy version of the Dino, in yellow. They were drawn last year sometime, yet I don’t bring that up as an excuse. I am already fully exposed.

He gives them a look and says in a supportive tone: “Oh I see you can use what I can show you. This first one, it kind of looks like the 599. Did you have a picture of the 599 in front of you when you drew this?”

“No, it’s from my imagination,” I say

Tom responds “One of my main weaknesses is that I love beauty, and your drawings, they’re not more beautiful than the basic Ferraris. Would someone pay for a one-off like these, over 1 or 2 or 3 million dollars, when they can buy a mass-produced Ferrari that is already as beautiful, for about 3 to $400,000? They can just go out and buy a 599.”

Looks like I will not achieve any renown with these drawings.

Likewise, I cannot say anything in rebuttal. Looks like a checkmate to me. I admit as well that I am not entirely ready to hear what he is saying as it’s something nobody has ever really told me. Being that I am prepared for criticism, I am not so crestfallen. Yet I am unsettled. I feel it in my whole body as I hear the truth being laid down about my work.

By now I have learned, from years of being exposed on jobs in Hollywood, to just take it like a man and shut up and be glad for the lesson. So I don’t take the criticism so personally as it is an excellent gift. The pangs of hurt are treasures.

“I want you to begin thinking of everything in terms of beauty,” he offers, “but these drawings do not show beautiful cars; they show nothing new or different.”

Up to this time, I never had things put to me this way… beauty? So simple yet something I honestly had either forgotten about or did not consciously implement. Whatever the case may be or might have been, I awaken out of a sort of sleep upon hearing this.

The faerie dust begins dusting the area even more; I instantly see my drawings and the photos of his cars with new eyes. The changeover is instantaneous. My drawings instantly appear as if some other person besides myself has drawn them. “I will never draw that way again,” I say to myself, assuming the position of someone different, as I am shown something greater.

Suddenly, too, I see how utterly hard it is to come up with something that looks good and new in the round, in 3D. It’s even worse because the subject matter is automotive. Everyone has an instant opinion and recognition with a car design. If something looks bad on a car, it looks really bad and is unforgiven.

He adds “Look at how your lines flow; they start and stop and have no meaning. What is this? (pointing to an area on the front of the Dino) What were you thinking? The front is too high, the fender arches don’t rise above the hood, the headlights are unattractive, the grille is too tall and flat. And there are no relationships between the different areas of the car.”

So much is wrong with what I had drawn that I sit wondering if I did anything right. Yet I don’t dwell on this. I am already a changed man and invite more.

“Do you like any of the modern Ferraris?” I ask.

“Mmm not much; I like some parts of them but generally no,” he says.

“What do you think of the 458, the new one?”

“It’s close but…. what about the tail lights? They look like… they remind me of someone with gum disease, the way they designed how the tops of the lights go into the body. They did that same thing on the 430, the receding gum tail lights.”

A Slice of Life, An Altered State: An Afternoon with Tom Meade, part 4

I laugh out loud when he suggests this, having never heard that before. I agree with him even though I like the 430 and 458, save for the strange headlights on the latter car.

“I don’t care for the headlights on it either, they’re too complicated,” he says.

“The 458 looks better when it’s moving. I’ve seen footage of it,” I say. He doesn’t really respond.

“The biggest problem with modern Ferraris is that the original maestro designers are gone. And the designs must appeal more and more to all kinds of people. I have freedom to make and do what I want. But I don’t compete with them on their level, so I have to go and make my cars more beautiful and of higher art. But I don’t have the billions to spend. Yet I have to try beat them. Otherwise I have nothing special; my cars will not be worth more than a Ferrari if I barely meet their standards. It’s like David and Goliath,” he says.

Agreeing, I say “You’re a boutique car maker, of the old world, how it used to be for Ferrari when they were still a company developing in a cottage industry.”

“Absolutely yes,” he agrees “it all used to be a cottage industry. Not anymore. It used to be about beauty, now it’s just about money. I never see a car which I consider especially beautiful.”

The surrealism of the day going into evening maintains a nice level of enjoyment, an altered state that I accept and have accepted. He is talking about creating a hand-built supercar without compromise to quality or performance, going directly to compete with everyone’s reputation and design aesthetic.

“The Thomassima will be entirely hand-built. The panels of the body will be hand-beaten in aluminum, with a hammer, around a mannequin (wire frame). Nobody does that anymore. It’s all computerized now.”

He continues: “Brembo is making the braking system for this car, specifically for this car. I was also going to use a Ferrari frame for it, but when I moved it was stolen. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After the incident, I teamed up with an English engineer, an absolute genius, who designed the chassis and suspension for the Aston Martin GT race car last year for LeMans.

“He’s also designed chassis and suspension for Forumla One. For the Thomassima, we have teamed up together, designing the suspension and chassis to be at the avante garde of engineering.”

At some points in hearing him speak, I am taken by the matter-of-fact delivery of what he is doing. It is not phrased in terms of “someday, I will make a car; I hope it is… blah blah blah.” There is no nonsense here. Instead, the message is clear: He has actually started building the chassis, suspension, and many of the components. In my summation, he is a doer and not just a talker.

Most people in any given business that I typically find myself interacting with never approach this kind of endeavor for any reason. Even film directors talking about what they are going to do, how they want the scene to look…. all of that is great and fun to be a part of, but in this context seems to be a more common issue.

But not this.

This is different. The scope of what Tom speaks of takes all afternoon to recount, all day to hit me as more and more is further revealed, about the Thomassima project, and about myself. Rather, I am perpetually eased into a jarring string of moments that quietly present themselves in the gentle shower of falling faerie dust.

The sun sinks lower, the chill of autumn begins to bite the air; we pack up our stuff and head out. Tom remarks on the process that he will use to create the tail lamps for the Thomassima –which will be made in Murano, Italy, from glass, not plastic. Many of the components in the Thomassima will be made of glass, but I’m not allowed to comment further.

After that visit we go to dinner. The day has tired me out, my head is reeling.

In moments between conversation, under the weight of dusk, I ask myself why am I hearing all of this? Why did I meet this person really? Certainly there are others with whom he has in close confidence to reveal secrets to instead of me (and throughout the day he does reveal such things to me that I am sworn to silence over).

In reminiscence, Tom recounts “I’m the last remaining one from that whole era. All of my contemporaries, the ones who I learned from –the Maestros-- they’re all dead.”

Certainly if such a maestro is in existence today it is indeed him. He’s been building cars and living in Italy all of his adult life –that’s 50 years, making him more Italian than American.

The solitariness of his condition makes itself very clear as I contemplate from what time in history he comes from. It’s quite a bit before my time, so this is like being in an animated time capsule. Inasmuch as I have in common with him, I am in stark contrast to him.

But the opportunity to board the train on this journey, as he builds a car in early Enzo era tradition, with the technology of tomorrow, is strangely wonderful. As he stands as a last remaining link to that distant time, I am anxious to get on with the next installment to this continuing saga…

A Slice of Life, An Altered State: An Afternoon with Tom Meade, part 5

Below are listed current specs on the new Thomassima:

“Old World body outside mixed with New World technology inside,” and, according to Tom:

“I have already made a trip to Italy and contracted with my old body man who used to work for me. I’ve brought him out of retirement, so the new Thomassima should reflect the original beauty of the vintage cars.”

-Supercharged 4-cam, front-engine V12 with titanium rods, springs, hollow valves, keepers, and locks, etc.

-6 speed transaxle, custom-engineered and manufactured solely for this unit

-2015 technology, monocoque chassis /LeMans competition race car design and construction using many lightweight and exotic materials
-Gas tanks of hand-formed aluminum, riveted with internal fuel bladder, with “yesteryear” look as seen on the 250LM Ferrari race car
-Target weight is below 2000lbs including fuel, water, and oil

-Carbon-ceramic/special alloy caliper Brembo, custom application braking system, made and created especially for the Thomassima; more advanced than the braking system on the Ferrari Enzo

-General Formula One racing suspension, with lightweight A-arms and rear axles of carbon fiber
-Magnesium hub carriers
-Computerized electric power steering

-Hand-hammered aluminum, 1.5mm thickness –done in the old style method akin to the 315S, 335S, and pontoon Testarossas-- with carbon inner panels
-Tail lights, emblems, instrument faces, created out of glass in Murano, Italy
-Ground clearance: 3.5” front/4” rear

-Hand-spun 356 T6 aluminum: 20” dia/11” wide front, and 13 1/2” wide rear
-Pirelli P-Zero tires –front and rear, featuring widest street tires made

Tom commenting on the wheels: “They’re for me absolutely gorgeous and very unusual and never before seen, designed especially for the new Thomassima”

-One-piece carbon fiber interior structure

-Integral to chassis/fixed

-On seats and kick panels only

-Movable hand-machined aluminum pedals that adjust and move to driver’s height, up to 6’-8”

-Power assist via variable computerized electronic steering
-Telescopic/tilt steering column
-Ebony-covered and hand-polished steering wheel, inlaid with 40-thousand year-old mastadon fossil ivory

-Polished/hand-shaped aluminum dashboard

-Black leather, black suede, and polished aluminum interior highlights made in carbon fiber

-Created in Murano, Italy out of glass, never before seen or attempted in a car

To add, one of Tom’s admirers, a longtime wealthy Italian Ferrari collector, has so much faith in the new Thomassima project that he has stepped forward and offered to financially back the endeavor.

This allows Tom to use all of the technology and technical innovations that he has wanted to incorporate into the new supercar. These facts guarantee its fast and high-level completion.

I can well imagine that the new Thomassima, upon release, will stun the automotive world. I can’t wait to see it come to fruition, and I’m honored to be given the duty of reporting on it’s unfolding process.

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