Spaghetti Western: Rondine Coupe

| 30 Sep 2014

When General Motors sent a Corvette chassis to Pininfarina in 1962, the result was the sensational Rondine Coupé. Mick Walsh salutes Tom Tjaard's sleek masterpiece.

For any car to stand out at the 1963 Paris Salon, it had to be something really special. The prestigious French event, staged for its second year at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre, was rich with dazzling new designs from both sides of the Atlantic. The home industry had little fresh to offer, but the show-stoppers heralded the dawn of the mid-engined supercar with ATS and Ferrari 250LM prototypes, while America proved that it could do super-chic as well as anyone with the sharp Buick Riviera. But visitors walked by all of these – past the radical Chrysler Turbine and the stylish Chapron Le Dandy – for a glimpse of a turquoise beauty on the Pininfarina stand. There, making its debut and its only show appearance, was the sleek Corvette Rondine, an elegant coupé that dressed American fuel-injected brawn in the sharpest bespoke Italian steel suit. No Corvette ever had such class, from its long, pinched profile to the hand-stitched leather interior. Minimal details, with slimline bumpers, a quick-fill petrol cap, push-button doorhandles and pop-up headlights, merely enhanced the Rondine’s beauty. The dashboard retained the production model’s jet-age pods, but leather tops and headlining – plus a special teak-rimmed steering wheel – added to the Rondine’s well-groomed style. 

Like many styling studios, Pininfarina rarely credited its designs to individuals, but with time the Rondine’s crisp form became associated with a young Michigan-born recruit, Tom Tjaarda. “I’d been tempted to Europe by an offer from Ghia,” he recalls, “but they were having a tough time, so in the early ’60s I started looking around for another job. It was a close thing whether I’d stay in Italy or return to the US, but a friend provided a contact at Pininfarina and I joined in ’61. It was totally different to Ghia, where Luigi Segre encouraged competition among designers. The emphasis at Pininfarina was on getting the job right. Sergio followed each project all the way through and wouldn’t let anything go out of the door until it was correct. The atmosphere was much more relaxed and I could immediately see why they were so successful.”

The Rondine – correctly pronounced with three syllables, Ron-di-née – began with a Corvette Sting Ray chassis sent over from America and a simple brief to create something different. Although Tjaarda had no direct links with the iconic 1963 production Sting Ray, GM design chief Bill Mitchell had returned from the 1960 Turin show with photographs of the Ghia IxG dragster concept. This car, insisted Mitchell, with its sculptural, all-enveloping body featuring a long bonnet and streamlined canopy, should inspire the look of the new Corvette. 

That 950cc Innocenti sensation was the work of newly employed student Tjaarda: “It was a great time to be working in styling. The Rondine project was completely open, with no market research. I just started sketching with a view to giving the Sting Ray a European look. Once Sergio was happy with the drawings, I’d begin work on a quarter-scale model made from emerwood. Early on I had an idea for the colour, a metallic quartz with a touch of red just to catch the sun. You focused on one project from start to finish at Pininfarina, so I was still actively involved when the full-sized model was being built. The basic shape stayed the same, and the only change was an increase in the number of bars in the grille. Sergio also had his own ideas about the colour and eventually chose the dazzling blue that became the car’s signature finish.”

The Rondine’s public debut was scheduled for the Paris Salon in October, where it caused a stir. ‘Beautifully simple, and unconventional without being garish,’ reported The Autocar on the metallic turquoise coupé. ‘A real head turner.’

Tjaarda was not present at the unveiling, but was rightly proud of his first full project for the illustrious Turin firm: “Pininfarina didn’t like its designers going to press days because they were afraid we’d talk to journalists or the opposition, but I did see it later on a general public day.”

Although the project’s gestation was smooth, from early sketches to finished prototype, the dramatic reverse-rake angle of the rear screen was discussed at length. “My first design study had a much higher tail, with headrests that integrated more with the screen,” explains Tjaarda, “but the smoother, lower final profile really accentuated that reverse rear window. The first design also featured an electric motor, so that the screen could move up and down. ‘Pinin’ and Sergio were never really happy with that feature, which is why a new, revised rear window was made later. It was an easy job to convert it.” 

The only feature that he wasn’t happy with was the wheels: “They were quite like a stock GM design, but I felt that the car deserved something better. They looked cheap.” In fact, although the wheels use stock Corvette centre hubs, their 24-spoke design, with triple-eared spinners, is unique to the Rondine. They were hand-made at Pininfarina. Amazingly, the Rondine remained locked away at the factory after its 15 minutes under the Paris Salon spotlights. “I think Sergio was disappointed that more contracts didn’t develop with General Motors,” adds Tjaarda. “To our surprise, it was Fiat that took the most interest in the design.”

When work started on the Fiat 124 Spider, it was Tjaarda who was called upon to translate the Rondine’s style into a compact two-seater roadster: “That was one of the toughest challenges of my career. The Rondine had a sleek wing profile – with long overhanging nose and rear – so compressing that into a stubby little sports car was quite a task. I remember producing drawings for weeks trying to get the balance right. Sergio came over and said ‘we can’t have you spending a lifetime on this, so start working on the full-scale model’. The original plan was to have pop-up headlamps like the Rondine, but it turned into a completely different proposition when we changed to road headlights.”

Tjaarda became a coupé specialist during his four years at Pininfarina, with a succession of crisp, clean-looking designs that all have his signature look. These included two Fiat 2300 concepts – the cabriolet Speciale with bizarre targa-like top and the Lausanne Coupé – as well as the Italian firm’s twist on the Mercedes-Benz 230SL, which was shown at the ’64 Paris show. His last project was the Ferrari 365 California, which carried through various features from the Rondine, such as its swallow tail, slim bumpers, plus pronounced front and rear overhangs.

Tjaarda never drove the Rondine while he was at Pininfarina but, 45 years after creating the car, he finally got behind the wheel when the coachbuilder decided to sell off some of its collection. One-off show cars were making huge money across the block in America, so Pininfarina sent the Rondine to Barrett-Jackson’s auction extravaganza at Scottsdale in January 2008. 

Tjaarda was invited to attend: “At the sale, I was then told that I couldn’t drive the car across the ramp for insurance reasons, so I was instructed to ride in the passenger seat. Just before we were about to motor up the ramp, a young lady in a glamorous white dress and with a cigarette-holder asked me to get out. I’d come all the way from Italy for the sale, so I politely refused and stayed in the car. A bit of a scene developed, and eventually they invited me to swap with the driver just to calm the model down.”

After feverish bidding, the gavel came down at $1.7m to Connecticut-based collector/dealer Michael Schudroff. “I had no intention of buying the car,” he recalls, “but my wife and I just adored the Rondine when we saw it. The story that it had been locked away all those years appealed, but most of all it was the knockout styling and beautiful detailing. I loved the idea that it was a Corvette with Italian styling, with unique features such as the steel body and leather trim. Only the bonnet is glassfibre. The rear treatment with those beautiful lights is wonderful, while the front lamps only pop up a little compared to the production car. Everything is hand-made.” Back on the East Coast, the Rondine joined an impressive group of coachbuilt show cars including another Italian-American creation, the 1955 Lincoln Indianapolis Boano: “The Rondine didn’t run, so we sent it to a top Corvette specialist to sort, but only the belts and hoses were changed. It was very important that the car remained original. The Rondine is far better to drive than a standard Sting Ray. It feels fantastically tight and, with the steel body, there aren’t any of the creaks and rattles you get in the regular model. I think the weight is about equal and it certainly shifts with that 360bhp motor, but you have to respect those original ’60s tyres.” The Rondine instantly became a star turn at selected events and won top awards at Pebble Beach in ’08, plus Best of Show at the Greenwich Concours. Thanks to all those years untouched in storage, the Rondine is still wonderfully original – right down to the US Royal white-line tyres – and Schudroff isn’t interested in detailing it. The Rondine’s 3670 miles remain a mystery, though, because Schudroff has hardly driven it, and Tjaarda doesn’t recall the car being used. “When you think about it, that’s only 78 miles a year,” says Schudroff, “but I’ve heard that Pininfarina executives liked to drive it.”

With its stunning Latin looks and spectacular Corvette performance, it’s easy to imagine the Rondine being borrowed for a cruise down Via Roma in Turin – or a weekend blast with a beautiful mistress to a secret villa in the hills.