The Italian Swallow

Andrew Miles recalls an Italian-American design highlight from the creative heyday of the Latin carrozzeiri.

All images (c)

The late and prolific Tom Tjaarda left behind an amazing legacy of work; take at look at Richard Herriott’s obituary to him from June 2017, but for me there is one unusual, yet standout design I knew nothing about. That is until Matteo Licatta and his Roadster-Life website introduced a conceptual one-off from the hand of Michigan born, but Italian based sculptor, the Rondine.

Pronounce it Ron-deen -ay and to these eyes, this car is as pretty as a peach, as distinctive as any Ferrari whilst offering a symphony of speed that only the Hirundinidae can deliver. For the Rondine is underneath a Chevrolet Corvette C2. And here’s an unusual twist; General Motors’ Bill Mitchell commissioning Pininfarina to give the bodywork a good scrub up and tailor a new suit which made its Paris Motor Show debut in 1963.

As if the Corvette requires any form of introduction, but the Rondine, with that sharp suit of fibreglass adds a divine lightness to the form. Whereas the Corvette might be described as beautiful yet brutal, the Swallow, its Italian translation, captivates with far more subtle arrangements – a violin to double bass or indeed swallow to bald eagle.

Evidenced by the pictures, the design stage appears to have suffered some teething problems, that initial prototype having flowing lines until we meet the B pillar which resembles a birds broken wing. Subtle it ain’t. Fortunately, further revision proved far more satisfactory where we conclude with an obvious Corvette shape adopting far more elegance, a visual lightness along with softer, more feminine charm. My heart soared like a high flier.

Viewed from head on, that split bumper and those eyebrows are perhaps the cars most unglamorous, showing a borderline aggressive stance. One can easily imagine lesser cars swerving away from this owl-like stare, as the Rondine bears down on the freeway or dashing through the Dolomites. The grill carries with it an inverted beak-like stature; capable of tearing the flesh one moment, gently easing away the next.

Allow the eyes to caress along the flanks though; delight in those slightly longer overhangs from the original which lend the Rondine an avian, almost hovering aspect to its demeanour. That now silver B-pillar allowing the curved rear screen a touch of the volant. Ostensibly difficult to engineer, the simpleness of the flow is quite delightful. The air must positively swoop away to the tail.

Ah, the tail end. This part of the Rondine is where the true name lies. Tjaarda gave the car a swallow tail, an elongated fan but no feathers here. The angles have their straightness but also contain elements that lift, just like our feathered friends. Whether these shapes contain any aerodynamic properties is immaterial for the overall effect is exceptional. As if the swallow is hunting flies, on the wing at high speed. And all this whilst parked in a hall or on the grass at external shows.

Those tail lights, cast by an expert in origami look too sharp to touch. The thin, chromed rear bumper adding just enough of a flash of dexterity to proceedings. Masterful, beautiful, a soaring expression of freedom. An American Italian blend that would be perfectly acceptable as the real Corvette for me though perhaps not tough enough for those ‘Vette die-hards, I suspect.

The turquoise paint is another personal delight. Picking up light and dancing enigmatically with it, I can’t help but wonder how its looks would alter should the Rondine be darker, like a swallow? Would the menace be too strong, as in a normal Corvette? Would the overall shape then hang too heavy, flightless and earthbound? Or would the character alter altogether, losing any nuance that Tjaarda built up so lightly – who can say?

For the Rondine was a true one off. Shown, admired and put away for safe keeping. That is until 2008 when Pininfarina decided to sell off some of the silverware, the Rondine making a cool $1.8M at the Barrett-Jackson sale in Scottsdale. Winning bidder, collector Michael Schudroff actually prefers to show the car, rather than hiding it from view. Jolly well done, sir although I doubt many of our readers will ever set eyes upon this dart.

But there was another element to this tale (tail?), for Tjaarda used elements from the Rondine to sculpt the Fiat 124 Sport Spider’s shape, launched at the 1966 Turin show. Not quite as defined as the Rondine, yet the hallmarks are there to see on what was one of America’s favourite imports well into the 1980s. Hard to believe now that Fiat had a Stateside presence for nigh on twenty years with the Spider and probably next to no-one realised the swallow connection, which is a bit of a shame.

As was the rejuvenated Marchionne 124 spider, neé Mazda MX-5, a handsome enough two seater but destined not to fly high. Gone from the market before you could say it’ll never work this new partnership could never have had the original prototype’s grace or temptation. A one off for a reason: fly fast and high, Rondine.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

16 thoughts on “The Italian Swallow”

  1. Good morning Andrew and thanks for bringing us a car I’ve never seen before. My goodness, it really did need that large curved rear window. The original treatment looks very abrupt:

    This, however, is just lovely and the colour is beautiful:

  2. It’s an insane amount of extremely complex compound curves, I’d say nobody but the Italian could’ve done it.

    Also, considering Tjaarda, there’s a line going on from the Rondine over to the 365 California before it lands in the 124 Spider. Like the XJ6 can be seen as an E-Type coupe with a truncated tail, the California and the 124 can be seen as a Rondine with a truncated tail. The California is one year later than the 124, but I see the latter as more cohesive and resolved.

  3. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. It´s not often I get to call something utterly beautiful. The side profile is gorgeous and it´s so light. I think the little crisp fold over the rear wheel went on to be a part of the Fiat 124 Sport Spider. The sculpting on the bonnet and its relation to the lamp and grille (the front grille) is also well handled. This is gestalt.

    1. Every time you use that word, Richard, I have to go and look it up again! Now that I have, I see what you mean, so thank you. It is a fabulous car in a gorgeous colour. Turquoise seems to suit certain shapes; I once had a Mercedes W111 coupe in this shade and it worked beautifully…until I discovered the underlying rust at any rate.

    2. Sorry – Dr. Pretentious strikes again. It´s a handier word than the English translation, something like “the design as a whole”. I used to have always look up “ontology” and it went from being obscure and off-my-radar to being as profound a concept as one can. Organising a library and the contents of a fridge are both ontological problems. I have ontology for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

    1. Dare I say that I prefer the actual production version of the spider?

    2. Interesting. And such a great thing to make!

      It seems the front end of the regular 124 was productionalized after Tjaarda left Pininfarina, and I’d say they made a “prettier” effort without him. On the other hand Tjaarda’s version looks like a million bucks while the regular car looks for what it is, a contender to the MGB and in the same cost bracket as the MGB.

    3. Yes – really interesting to see it, but a bit droopy and shelf-like at the front. I still quite like it, though – it’s got a bit of an Alfa-Romeo ‘jolie-laide’ vibe about it.

    4. The problem as I see it here is that we have collectively developed a visual relationship with the 124 Spider as was, so while Tjaarda’s original thinking makes a good deal of sense from a creative perspective, we already have developed a sense of what a 124 Spider looks like – and for the most part are quite happy with that vision. Therefore this refashioning, while entirely logical viewed in context, appears jarring. Our sense of equilibrium has been subtly altered.

    5. I should also add, that while the Rondine is a lovely thing, whatever one might have to say about the C2 Corvette, there was absolutely nothing shabby about the way it looked.

    6. Hello Eóin,

      I’m not sure – think that the 124 Rondine’s front is too tall (and too narrow?) to pull off that shark-like design and all those components, such as the half hidden lights.

      I can’t help seeing the Morris Marina ESV:

      Okay, a bit of an exaggeration.

      Tjaarda did a nice Alfa Romeo version:

  4. Another great insight into a car I’d never heard of, thank you Andrew. I like it, but not test keen on the rear end. Think the rear quarter bumpers are too deep and not sure about the fins. Wouldn’t say no to one in my virtual garage though 🤣

  5. Thanks from me too Andrew as I had no knowledge of the car until I read your article.

    It looks gorgeous to me however I have to admit to being slightly confused with regard to the first picture and its relevance. Something to discuss when we next meet on Zoom!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: