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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tom Meade's Motorcycle Diaries

BSA Motorcycle Story

The year 1960: As he recounts, once in Stavanger, Norway, Tom Meade hitchhiked to Oslo, then to Stockholm, Sweden. There he stayed for a time at a house with an old girlfriend (who was Swedish) in Odenplan. After this time he continued on to the UK, then to Barcelona, Spain. He lived there on “Las Ramblas,” a popular series of streets in central Barcelona.

From there he took a ship and found his way to Majorca. Once there he took up residence on the rooftop of a hotel with a man he befriended en route. After talking with the doorman, Tom and his new friend got a deal: For .50 cents a day the owner granted permission for the duo to live on the roof. The situation was not ideal but for the paltry fee it was.

Adorning the new home base with tented hammocks, hoisted up between plumbing stacks, they fashioned a makeshift kitchen, preparing food on a hibachi grille. Of the time there, Tom recollects: “We lived like kings for .25 cents a day each.”

(Map below: Majorca, Spain: an island off the coast of Barcelona, Spain, part of the Balearic Islands)

But as soon as it all happened it came to a close. Tom’s boat friend eventually left, and the changing situation heralded the final stages for the Italian destination. As the modus operandi from the very beginning was a passage to Italy, Tom’s focus and wanderlust beckoned and he was drawn back to the sea.

Going down to the bay he searched for the right opportunity, for a way off the island. Approaching a captain/boat owner, Tom found his ship: He was given a place onboard and would leave for Genoa, Italy, on the condition that he fulfill duties as cook and deckhand on the 60-foot sailing vessel. The next day they disembarked from Majorca, setting sail for the magical hinterlands of Maserati and Ferrari.

If it were not enough to expatriate from America, braving land, sea, and cold, to fulfill a dream of an Italian lifestyle as a car designer, the fantasy journey was only just beginning. From Long Beach, to New Orleans, to Norway, to Sweden, to Spain –Italy, the Promised Land, had yet to even be set foot upon. And once there, Tom’s itinerant mode of shipping and hitchhiking was about to come to an end.

(above map: Tom Meade’s passage from Majorca to Genoa, Italy; below photo: Genoa)

After the 670-mile/1000 kilometer journey by boat, Tom’s first priority led him up a hill to an abandoned villa converted into a youth hostel. Tired and hungry from his seafaring, he ate and noticed something:

“The first evening I was there, after I ate, I saw a guy riding up on a BSA motorcycle. Curious, I went out and struck up a conversation with him. And it turned out he was from New Zealand. We became good chums because I told him my mother was also from there, from Auckland, off Happy Craenga Road.

“After our talk I went to sleep. The next morning, after my cappuccino on the stairs, I saw the same guy. But this time he was riding up on a Vespa. I went out to meet him and said to him: ‘You change motorcycles like shirts. What happened to the BSA? Who did you sell it to?’ He replied ‘I threw it away.’

“Where? Why?’ I asked. ‘It stopped running,’ he said. When he said that I almost had a heart attack. ‘I would have bought it from you,’ I told him. ‘You don’t have to buy it,’ he replied, ‘I’ll give it to you for free.”

“He walked us around to the back of the hostel and there it was, the BSA propped up against a wall. He handed me the papers for it and that was it, it was mine.

“Seated on it, I coasted down the hill to a nearby gas station. I greeted the owner and asked him if I could use some of his tools for a while.  He agreed and I got to taking it apart. I checked the points, installed a new spark plug, cleaned it up. It took about 3 hours in the morning to do it. Although I didn’t really know what I was doing, I managed to put it all back together. I then went to kick start it. On the first try, the engine came to life and it fired right up like a brand new bike. I was so excited that I didn’t even eat lunch. I bungeed my stuff to the BSA and headed for Rome.”

(below map: Tom’s route on his BSA motorcycle from Genoa to Rome, Italy, approximately 250 miles/400 kilometers)

“I got to Rome that evening. And having it in my head the story of the treasure trove there, a main reason why I left America in the first place, I went looking for that mythical warehouse with all the racecars, the one where the Old Man went around every morning with a feather duster. And I thought to myself, with that vision held so close, ‘I could buy one of them for a song.’ For all purposes I was living the dream.”

“Later that night, exhausted from the search, I went to a youth hostel in Rome. I couldn’t wait to fall asleep. But at around 4AM my sleep was abruptly interrupted. I heard someone banging on the locker doors. Annoyingly, it awakened me. But I eventually went back to sleep. And on the second night it happened again. This time I got up to confront whomever he was.

“He was an American. And instead of a confrontation we got into a discussion. He said he was working as an actor on a film for Dino De Laurentiis, with David Niven and Alberto Sordi. Sordi was big in Italy at the time and is dead now; he was a comedian. The film was ‘The Best of Enemies.’ The first half was shot in Israel during the day. The second half was shot in ‘Cinecitta,’ which was the Italian hub of cinema and where ‘Ben Hur’ was shot. It is also regarded as synonymous with Federico Fellini.

“We became very friendly, this actor and I, as he was, too, from California. He told me: ‘You look like an English officer, exactly what we’re looking for. Come down with me tomorrow at 11AM and I’ll introduce you to De Laurentiis at the soundstage.

“So I did go the next morning to meet him. Once we were inside, he led us to De Laurentiis who was seated at a big banquet table. Dino waved to us, a gesture of ‘over here.’ He asked me if I’d ever done film; I said “I sure have.’ But of course I had to say whatever I could to get the job. I was starving to death in those days. So I had to say what he wanted to hear.

“It must have worked because De Laurentiis hired me. All the scenes where I appeared were done at night. When the film was in the can I got paid  and rode my BSA up to Modena. I now had the means to continue my quest, to the Ferrari factory.

“When I arrived in Modena it was about 7:30 in the evening. And there was a man standing on the corner, at the crossroads, entering Modena from the south on the Autostrada del Sol (from Rome). I asked the man where Ferrari was. He said ‘Ferrari is 15 kilometers to the east. It’s too late to go there now.’

“Where’s Maserati?,’ I asked. He said: ‘Maserati is about ½ mile down this road to the right. They’ll be open now, late. You can probably still get in there now.

“Disheveled, my hair and beard was windblown. I had on army fatigues and boots, which I had gotten from wardrobe on the film.”

As if cutting from one scene to another, a sequence from his own life’s movie, Tom wasted no time in his pursuits; he possessed a bottomless reserve of energy. If it was not going to be Ferrari that evening, it was going to be something. He then ventured to Maserati, with the urgency to enter the hallowed automotive Promised Land as soon as possible just too great, his crossing through the gates of his life’s path taking place that night.

(map below: Tom’s BSA journey from Rome to Modena, Italy)

“I pulled up to the gates of Maserati –the giant factory gates almost prison-like. The guard asked me why I was there and I just answered ‘I want to see the new Maseratis.

“Once they realized I was American, they got the chief engineer of Maserati factory, Aurelio Bertocchi, on the phone to come down. Being American, they assumed I was a millionaire even though I looked like one of Castro’s freedom fighters. Suffice it to say, Bertocchi became one of my friends in Modena. He took me to see the production line where they were building the 3500 GT. I had no real interest in that car, honestly, as I was only interested in their racecars.
(above photo: Maserati factory, ca. late 1950s, early 1960s)

“When we reached the end of the production line, in the back of the factory, we finally came upon the racing department and the factory foundary. I asked Bertocchi if he could show me these areas more closely. He happily agreed. He then took me outside to a back alley. To the left was a car under a tarp. I knew it was a racecar as it was low slung. I asked him what it was and he said it was a Maserati 350S, #3503.

(below: 1957 Maserati Tipo 350S, V12, raced in 1957 Mille Miglia)
“Bertocchi said it was an old race car they were throwing away. But this was exactly what I was looking for, so I asked him if I could see it. Initially he said no, but I talked him into it. After he agreed, I lifted the front of the tarp and saw the most beautiful nose, the most beautiful mouth, and I was just in shock. They were throwing this away!

“I walked around to the back, lifted the tarp, and was just as shocked at how beautiful the car was. Most cars are not so well done from front to rear. It was typical for me to never like a whole car from front to rear, but this was a mind-blower, was totally beautiful from back to front.

“I totally fell in love with the car and wanted it immediately. Bertocchi said ‘no, we’re not used to selling used cars here at Maserati.’ I begged and pleaded, almost to my knees, to buy the car.

“He said, ‘let me get on the phone, call upstairs to sales, to see if it’s possible if this car can be sold.’ He left. About fifteen minutes later he returned. I didn’t think it would ever really happen, I couldn’t be so lucky. When he came back we stood sizing each other up, and he said ‘okay, we can sell it to you. The price is $450.”

“I thought he would say something like ‘the price is $10,000.’ It was the only 4-cam, front engine V12 Maserati ever made. So when he said $450 I became dumbfounded and couldn’t talk. I wanted to say ‘yes,’ but couldn’t. He saw me fumbling. Concerned he said ‘oh, okay, I know that’s too much –it’s $420.’ And I blurted out ‘yes!”

“I had it towed on a flatbed within a half-hour so it wouldn’t give them any time to change their minds overnight. The car clearly needed refurbishing but that would come later. I wanted it out of the factory and in my possession. Prior to my towing it, Bertocchi asked me ‘where will you take the car? I can get you a truck from some people who have who have a race car shop in the villaggio artigiano (Artisan’s Village).’

“They sent a flatbed to the factory. When the truck arrived, about ten Maserati mechanics came out at about 9:30PM to help lift the car upon the flatbed. One of them was a guy named Manacardi who later became a friend. Once loaded and secured down, I followed the flatbed with my Maserati out of the area on my BSA to the villaggio artigiano.

“That night at the shop I slept on the floor next to the car. Within the recesses of the space, among the smell of oil and car engines, I felt I was being given access to the Taj Mahal. I couldn’t even believe it was true. It was like a dream: My first night in Modena, upon arrival, within hours, I had bought an Italian racecar and spent the night with it in a racecar shop. This intimacy with cars was to become the theme of my life.

“In the mean time, Bertocchi called a friend of his, a farmer, and asked him if he had a place for a young American who didn’t have any money but had just bought a Maserati race car. The farmer said ‘yes, send him on down. He can work on the car down where I milk the cows.’ He cleared out a space for me, a stall next to two cows, and that’s where I put the car together. Initially, the closest living friends I had at the time became some field mice in the barn. I named three of them Sniffles, Coughy, and Squeaky. But there were about ten of them that slept with me up in the hayloft.

“During my days at the barn, the young guys, the mechanics over at Maserati, would come over after hours and help me to get the 350S back to running condition. I also learned Italian being around them and we all became friends. Manacardi, the manager, would often arrive as well. We all became family.

“Among the many things in need of repair it had a broken piston, requiring engine work. As the factory was nearby, I began a system where, during the day, I would go over there and get parts for the car. I’d ride up to the guardhouse, park the BSA, they’d call Bertocchi, and I’d be taken to the parts warehouse with him. It was this huge mountain of randomly piled Maserati parts dating back from the 1930s.

“They would just throw parts in there for years and years and years without rhyme or reason. There would be a 1930s Maserati Gran Prix car front spindle next to a 350S spindle. I would go through the pile like a squirrel digging for nuts, asking the mechanics if this part or that part was for the 350S. This went on for a couple of months. I dug through it about 20 or 30 times and eventually knew all of the parts.

“After a point Bertocchi stopped accompanying me and he’d just let me raid the pile by myself. He was very receptive, giving me insanely cheap prices on the rare parts. One day he said ‘I’ll tell the guard you can come in any time you want.

“He said ‘take what you want and leave the money on my desk for whatever you think the parts are worth.’ I realized after that that I had sort of become the factory pet. With this status, Bernocchi approached me one day saying ‘how would you like to get your parts without paying for anything?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. He continued to explain: ‘If you could help the private racing teams find their needed parts I’ll give you your parts for free.’ By this time I knew virtually where every part was and knew what they were. So he gave me a job and paid me in parts, 7 days a week. I had a free run of the factory and was known on a first-name basis. I became friends with everybody.

“When the car was finished mechanically, Bertocchi sent me to Medardo Fantuzzi to do the body work. Fantuzzi bodied the 150, 200, 250, 300, 350S, and 450S Maseratis. He was one of Bertocchi’s best friends. I spoke with Fantuzzi and offered to help me modify the body. I wanted to create a fastback road-going berlinetta. In so doing I would be the first one, in 1961, to create the first true ‘supercar,’ which is defined as an original racecar modified for the street. Today the term ‘supercar’ is so often used that it has lost its original meaning. Unless it was originally made to race, it is not a supercar.

“But about the 350S, I had to put a glass windshield on it because it was originally an open car with a 5” high plexi racing windshield. So I improvised and got a rear window, of non-safety glass, from a Maserati 3500 GT. It was a bit too large so I trimmed about 7” off the top but it had a beautiful swept back shape which was what I was after. And it was free. Bertocchi gave it to me.

“Now that I was in contact with Fantuzzi, we discussed my vision for the 350S: I wanted a new hood bubble installed, side vents, and a fastback removable hardtop. The fastback of my own design would resemble the then-non-existent Ferrari GTO, somewhat looking like the Ferrari 250 SWB. I envisioned a rounded, very shapely design, just the very thing Fantuzzi was in love with. He said ‘yes, absolutely, I can do everything –it’s going to be exquisite.’
(above: Medardo Fantuzzi in his workshop, ca. 1970, with 1956 Maserati 250S in background that Tom modified for street use, with a swept back windshield added)

“Fantuzzi, too, in the same breath, reminded me of the costs involved. He asked, endearingly, ‘how are you going to pay for this?’ I just laughed and told him I hadn’t thought about that. At that point it seemed that every time I thought about something I wanted it would just happen and come true. He then began eyeing my BSA. And being a mad collector of British bikes, he said ‘if you give me your motorcycle I’ll do the bodywork on your car. And while we are doing it, why don’t you just stay over and sleep here. You can sleep in the shop and watch me work on your car every day. I’ve got an army cot. You can sleep in front of my oil burner.’

“The oil burner sounded like 100 elephants when it was on, but I didn’t care. I was floating in 7th heaven. The tradeoff was too valuable. And with the 350S in my possession, a car driven by Sterling Moss and Gene Behra, I had the most beautiful car Maserati ever made. And it would have a new life. I agreed to Fantuzzi’s terms and settled into his shop. That’s how I came to learn how to design and build aluminum bodies, from the master Fantuzzi. After a couple of months we decided I would sleep on top of his office, on a mezzanine floor room, on my cot, on the right hand side as you walked in the front door.

“What a sweetheart he was. He was the sweetest man I ever met. He was my mentor and I was his protégé, the BSA motorcycle being the ‘open sesame’ to it all –without it I would have never accomplished what I set out to do. He showed me everything I know today about how to create beautiful car bodies. Years later, when he was in his 80s, he was killed as he fell out of a tree, picking pears –a tragic loss of an wonderful man. He was one of the most famous designers for racing sports cars in Italy. The most beautiful Maseratis were of his conception.

“At the Maserati factory there was a second 350S out back and I bought it for $80. It was a prototype for the 450S V8 which is worth between 7 and 8 million dollars today. I realized that these cars were just left around the place like that, as the junkman wouldn’t take them. There were too many different kinds of metals in them. And it was too expensive a process to dismantle them. So I bought the cars for the value of the junk metal.
(above: Maserati 450S, 1956)

“I was the only one so mad, mad, mad for Masers as this time. Out in the back of the factory, in a swampy field, there were about 30 cars left out to rot, an automotive graveyard, with grass growing through the cars’ bodies. Among some of them were the 1958 ‘Eldorado’ Tipo 420M, a V8 Maserati Indy car. I was a blessing in disguise for them, saving many of these cars from a grim fate. I bought a mid-engine Maserati ‘bird cage,’ too, for about $30. 

‘Birdcage’ was an apt name for the car as it had the most complicated of all spaceframes. The combination of that chassis, with a four-cylinder twin-cam, became one of Maserati's most famous models. But at the time they were disposable; the factory wanted them gone and I wanted them to restore.
(above: 1958 “Eldorado” Tipo 420M, a V8 Maserati Indy car)
(above: Maserati Tipo 60 “Birdcage”)

“Eventually I rented a bedroom apartment in Modena for $8 per month. But that was overpriced even for that time. However it was right on the Aeroautodromo and I had cars stacked up in garages there. At that excellent locale I was able to see all the Ferraris, the prototypes, being tested. I became friends with the drivers such as Chris Amon and Michael Parkes. The circuit was eventually demolished in 1975 and the site redeveloped as a public park to honor Enzo Ferrari.”


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