Up close with one of the world’s rarest coach-built Ferraris
As ‘Thomassima II’ comes up for sale, here’s the time TG went to see ‘Thomassima III’
When is a Ferrari not a Ferrari? When it’s a Thomassima III. The history of the world’s most famous car manufacturer is littered with fascinating footnotes, and Enzo Ferrari’s intense desire to win and his entrepreneurial seduction of the world’s rich meant that few Fifties and Sixties Ferraris were the same. There was another factor: the area around Modena teemed with carrozziere, artisans and body fabricators who routinely worked curvy miracles with steel, aluminium and whatever was lying around.
Photography: Matt Howell
This feature was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Top Gear magazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
And then there was Tom Meade, a Californian émigré and proto-hippie whose love affair with Ferrari began after he spotted a 500 TRC in an LA garage. When the owner told him what it was and where it came from, he vowed on the spot to go there. Easier said than done. With $50 to his name, he hitched across the US to New Orleans, and talked his way into a job as mess boy on a Norwegian freighter. Thirty-five days later, Meade arrived in Stavanger, headed to England, where he bought a motorbike, and set off across Europe with a friend.
The duo spent six months sleeping on the roof of a Majorcan hotel, before Meade finally made it to Italy. He settled in Rome for a few months where, among others, he was introduced to the film producer Dino De Laurentiis, and wound up as an extra opposite David Niven in the 1961 film The Best of Enemies. Eventually, he was directed to Modena and rode there on a Vespa.Advertisement - Page continues below
Arriving at the Maserati factory after hours, Meade talked his way in, chanced upon race director Guerino Bertocchi, and blagged a guided tour. When he spotted a forlorn old racing Maserati, Meade somehow persuaded Bertocchi to sell it to him for $400. It turned out to be a 350S, raced by former Silver Arrows F1 driver (and future Le Mans winner) Hans Herrmann in the 1957 Mille Miglia, later fitted with a V12 engine, and raced at several other notable events. Priceless provenance now, but it didn’t mean much in 1961. A local farmer agreed to let Meade store the car in an outbuilding, and while rebuilding it, Tom was introduced to a friend of Bertocchi’s, the coachbuilder Luciano Bonacini. For a time, he slept on the floor of their workshop, before upgrading to a haybarn beside the car.
The body on Tom’s rescue project was in poor shape, so Bertocchi introduced him to Modenese fabricator Medardo Fantuzzi, the artist responsible for the legendary likes of the Maserati A6 GCS, Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, and indeed the very car Meade was restoring. Fantuzzi warmed to the charismatic young American, and effectively took him on as an apprentice. “It was an adventure. Nobody cared about making money, beyond food and rent. It was cars, cars, cars, and to hell with everything else,” Meade reflected later.
He began buying and selling Italian exotica on behalf of wealthy American contacts, and is said to have owned two 250 GTOs back when they were just another old sports car, along with numerous other contemporary Ferraris. He also helped design and build the lovely 250 Nembo Spyder at Neri & Bonacini. Enzo Ferrari himself met Meade at the Modena Autodrome, and gave him the royal seal of approval.
By the late Sixties, he had accumulated enough engines, chassis hardware and cash to begin working up the ideas in his head. The resulting cars – the Thomassima I, II, III and IV, the name meaning “the maximum from Thomas” – are rare-groove Ferraris, even by the standards of the time. The first, and most poorly documented, used a Ferrari 250 GT chassis, but was apparently lost along with countless other art and literary treasures when the River Arno flooded Florence in November 1966. Thomassima II took its inspiration from Ferrari’s 1967 Daytona 24 Hours-winning 330 P3/4, using US muscle-car tropes to boost the delicate strength of the original. Meade and his team of moonlighting Maserati and Ferrari engineers used a marine plywood buck to hone the car’s shape. Underneath was a tubular spaceframe chassis, and a 3.0-litre Ferrari V12 borrowed from a 250 GT was mounted at the rear.Advertisement - Page continues below
The third Meade car, Thomassima III, is the one you see here, a gullwinged full-size Hot Wheels mostro powered by a Ferrari V12, with an exhaust system like spaghetti. It was displayed at the 1969 Turin motor show, and caused such a sensation that it made the cover of Road & Track and prompted America’s current affairs ratings juggernaut 60 Minutes to send a crew to Modena to film a segment on its creator.
“There were times when he had a ton of money and times when he was broke. But whatever was happening, there were various cars, engines and components he would never part with,” his son recalls now. Meade’s wanderlust saw him spend much of the next two decades in Thailand and Bali, living on a dollar or two a day, before returning to California in 1993 to look after his ailing mother. He was working on a new carbon-fibre-bodied creation powered by the V12 from Ferrari’s Nineties 333 SP endurance racer when he passed away in 2013, aged 74. A Ferrari footnote, maybe, but he leaves behind a unique automotive legacy.Advertisement - Page continues below
Tom meets Enzo Ferrari