John Tjaarda van Sterkenburg

    The catalyst for this new car was Briggs designer John Tjaarda van Sterkenburg, a Dutch immigrant with exceptional talent for car design whose background included coachbuilders Locke and Company and a stint with the original GM Art and Colour Section under the legendary Harley Earl.

Tjaarda came to Briggs with a portfolio of advanced streamliner designs that he had been developing at GM using the Sterkenburg name. Many of the designs were rear- or mid-engined and when Briggs assigned him to the Lincoln project he dusted off these sketches.

Edsel saw the preliminary proposal and gave an immediate green light to the project, which was developed in secret at Briggs to keep old Henry and his henchmen from interfering. Although originally planned as a rear-engined car it soon became clear that a good number of off-the-shelf Ford bits would have to be incorporated if the car was to come into production at a rational price. Edsel finally told the old man of the project and a front-engined V-12 with typical Ford transverse springs, mechanical brakes and so on was the final result. But Tjaarda got his way in several important areas including the handsome and memorable streamlined styling and the clever integral body/frame construction.

The Zephyr caused a sensation, not unlike the Model A Ford at its introduction, and the public acceptable of the "baby" Lincoln saw production figures leapfrog past its big brother to nearly 15,000 cars in its first year of 1936. By 1941 the larger K series Lincolns were gone altogether, replaced by the Zephyr, the long-wheelbase Custom sedans and limousines and the classically lovely Lincoln Continental.

John Tjaarda was a designer and Inventor. His major car design that sold a lot of car was the Lincoln Zephyr. He also held Patents on the constant velocity universal joint and unibody construction. He worked for Fokker as an engineer, flew for Holland during WWI and was a pilot for KLM before he immigrated to
the United States. His first car the designed was a rear engine car. He later designed a more universal car that if you took out two windows and shortened the wheelbase, as/is the Volkswagen bug. Porsche had visited Briggs automobiles (where John was head of R&D) one summer and copied his design. Few people know this, and fewer believe it.

It is perhaps ironic that many of the most desirable and sought-after cars were instigated by Edsel Ford, whose name has come to be synonymous with failure because of the postwar model named for him. Recognizing in the midst of the Great Depression that the classic K Lincolns were destined to go the way of the magnificent Marmon, Peerless and Stutz cars, Edsel Ford was intrigued with the new streamlining trend, exemplified by the impressive but unsuccessful Chrysler Airflow.

He was impressed with a concept put forth by the young Dutch-born John Tjaarda, who was employed by Briggs Manufacturing Co., which supplied bodies to both Ford and Chrysler. Tjaarda had designed what he considered the ideal car. It was streamlined, had a unitized body and was relatively easy and inexpensive to produce. He showed his sketches to Edsel Ford, who authorized him to proceed in secrecy, lest the project by torpedoed by the very conservative senior management at Ford (mainly Edsel's father, Henry) and at Briggs.

The result was the Lincoln Zephyr, introduced in 1936. Unlike the Chrysler Airflow, the much more beautiful Zephyr was an immediate hit, selling more than 17,000 in 1936 and over 25,000 in 1937, records for Lincoln.

Some auto historians say Ferdinand Porsche was influenced by Tjaarda's early work and that some of Tjaarda's concepts were incorporated into the Volkswagen Beetle. And the first proposal Tjaarda made for the Zephyr was a rear-engine, unibody design. This was a little too radical to be sold to Henry, so Edsel opted for a more conventional front-engine, rear-drive configuration.

Bob Gregorie was a leading Ford designer and had worked on refinements to the well-accepted Zephyr. Edsel asked him to design a more formal "personal car" based on the Zephyr. Gregorie came up with the first Lincoln Continental, a car which, with a few touches added by Edsel, is considered along with the "coffin-nose" Cord to be one of the most beautiful "modern" cars ever put into production.

The Continental was conceived as a personal car for Edsel Ford, but public reaction to it was so enthusiastic that it was put into production in late 1939.

The first Continental was light in weight and powered by a 292-cubic-inch V-12 engine, which provided very good, smooth performance. The body style was revived after Word War II with a different grille that most think is not as elegant as the first. But '46-'48 Continentals are also much sought-after by collectors.

The Lincoln Continental originated as a factory customized 1939 Lincoln Zephyr convertible coupe. The Zephyr started life as a "concept car," designed for Ford Motor Company by Briggs and that company's stylist, John Tjaarda.

Tjaarda's concept car, the Zephyr Sternberg, was conceived as a rear engine four door zedan. The rear mounted engine permitted the hood to slope downward at a radically steep degreee of curvature. This design would have afforded the driver of the car to have an excellent view of the road ahead of the car. Marketing research done by Ford revealed that a rear engine car would encounter buyer resistance, so the production Lincoln Zephyr of 1936 and 1937 were fitted with front engine V12s. But the curved front end of the Sternberg was retained on the first two years of production of the Zephyr. The 1936 and 1937 models had their bodies built by Briggs for Ford.

The Zephyr Sternberg served not only as the inspiration for the Lincoln Zephyr, but the style was literally lifted intact by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and was employed in the original "People's Car," the Volkswagen Beetle. I have seen VW Beetles with a 1940 Ford grille and modified "hood" that look very much like a 1936-1937 Zephyr coupe-sedan.

Convertibles were not included in the first two years of production of the Lincoln Zephyr. However, there was at least one prototype convertible sedan that was built using a 1937 body. Ford took over the body production starting with the 1938 Zephyr and included a convertible sedan and coupe to be added to the sedan, coupe-sedan (two door sedan), and the coupe.


At the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition (1933-1934), Ford displayed a concept vehicle called the Briggs Dream Car, a rear-engine car with unitized body designed by John Tjaarda of Briggs Manufacturing Company, Ford's major body supplier.

Tjaarda based his design on aero- dynamic monocoque designs and models he began working on in 1926, called the Sterkenberg Series, which he refined in 1930 while working for Harley Earl. In 1932, he was hired by Briggs as chief of body design in their new in-house design center. Briggs had just bought out LeBaron, Inc., and became Detroit's largest independent body producer.

John Tjaarda (say "charda"), 1897- 1962, was born in Holland of a titled family in the Sterkenberg area. He trained in aeronautical design in England and served as a Dutch Air Force pilot before emigrating to US in 1923. He worked first on custom bodies in Holly- wood, then pioneered in monocoque streamlined designs while working for Duesenberg and Harley Earl.

Tjaarda and others were inspired toward aerodynamic car design by initial work started in 1921 by Austro-Hungarian engineer Paul Jaray, who began testing car models in aircraft wind tunnels. Hans Ledwinka used Jaray's data to design the streamlined 1933 Tatra 77 built in Czechoslovakia, a car 20 years ahead of its time.

The Tjaarda Dream Car bore an uncanny resemblence to the 1932 inexpensive rear-engine small car developed in Germany by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche for the NSU Company called the Type 32, or Kleinauto, which in 1933 was already on its way to becoming the Volkswagen Beetle. On the other hand, Porsche's design owes a lot to Tjaarda's Sterkenberg Series of the late 1920s.

Chrysler picked up on aerodynamic research in 1927, prototyping a design in 1932 which resulted in their infamous Airflow design of 1934.

Ford, in 1933, had begun annual styling changes (pioneered by Chevrolet in 1928 and causing the demise of Ford's Model T). Ford authorized development of the Briggs Dream Car to fill its need for a "small" Lincoln, and indeed, the design was patented in 1935 and became the prototype for the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.

The Zephyr was designed by John Tjaarda and Howard Bonbright, both of the Briggs Manufacturing Company, for Ford, under the supervision of Henry's son, Edsel, and Eugene T. (Bob) Gregorie (b. 1908), head of Ford's first internal styling department (which was initiated by Edsel in 1935). The Zephyr, however, looked quite different from the 1933 Dream Car because its engine was moved to the front and a "prow" added by Gregorie. The Museum of Modern Art later called the Zephyr the first success- ful "streamlined" car in the US.

PS: John Tjaarda's son Tom (b.1934) re-located to Italy in 1959, where he worked as a car designer at Ghia, designing the DeTomaso Pantera and the Ford Fiesta (1977), and later at Pininfarina. He established his own small automotive design office, Dimensione Design, in 1984.

Carroll Gantz - Industrial Designers Society of America


In 1939 Designer John Tjaarda placed a one-piece plastic top on a 1939 Plymouth convertible sedan. This “see through” idea titillated automakers and the general public. Bright openness without the wind and noise was very appealing, but the early materials lacked rigidity. Plastic was primarily a colorful decoration. Suddenly the impetus to develop Plexiglas strong enough for a B-17 bomber made more sense than for a novel car top! Besides, commercial auto production stopped in early 1942.


Norman Devaux acquired the Cord 810/812 dies and jigs, and the result was the 1939 Hupmobile Junior Six. Not surprisingly, the Junior Six looked uncannily like the Cord 810, the principal difference being a slightly altered grille and the exposed headlamps located between the fenders and the hood.

Hupp management liked the car but wanted something more distinctive. John Tjaarda, who had styled the Lincoln Zephyr for the Ford Motor Company, was engaged to give the "Hupmobile-Cord" a different face. He rounded the hood and designed a new three-piece grille, creating a model called the Hupmobile Skylark.

Unfortunately Hupp was on the ropes. The beautiful Skylark had dried up demand for its other models, and it had almost no cash flow. At this point help appeared when Graham-Paige president Joseph Graham approached Hupp with an idea: Graham-Paige would build Hupmobile Skylarks and sell them back to Hupp. In return, Hupp would give Graham access to the Cord dies so that Graham could use them to build a similar car of its own.

Hupp agreed, and production of Hupmobile Skylarks was moved to the Graham-Paige plant in Dearborn, Michigan. The Graham-Paige version, virtually identical to the Skylark, was called the Graham Hollywood.


Introduced in 1936, the Lincoln Zephyr was a study in contrasts. Begun as a wildly experimental concept by Dutch-born John Tjaarda that anticipated the rear-engined Tatra 77, it wedded at fairly sophisticated 267 cubic inch (4.4-liter) V-12 engine to a rather mundane chassis, complete with transverse leaf spring suspension and beam axles front and rear. But, largely due to Edsel Ford’s influence, the Zephyr was a good-looking vehicle that offered the right amount of luxury at a price that was less than half what Lincoln charged for its essentially dead-in-the-water model K.

The Zephyr was successfully launched, and it was even able to win the grudging acceptance of the European press and automotive establishment, at least for its leading edge bodywork. Edsel Ford made the segue to what was to become the Continental after an off-hand conversion with the chief stylist E.T. "Bob" Gregorie. Speaking of potential future projects, Gregorie mentioned the Zephyr V-12 and the availability of space in the old model K facility. With Edsel’s encouragement, Gregorie is said to have come up with the lines of the Continental convertible in about a hour by putting a piece of tracing paper of a blueprint of the Zephyr and then sketching in changes.

In this manner, the hood grew longer and lower, the front fenders got longer and, of course, at the rear, the shorter trunk was accompanied by an integral, exterior-mounted spare tire. When Edsel Ford saw the sketch he was ecstatic and ordered Gregorie to proceed without any alterations.

After viewing a scale model, Ford is said to have commented, "Let’s not change a thing. I wouldn’t change a line on it." He also made it clear he wanted a running version of the new car in the garage of his winter home in Hobe Sound, Florida, in time for his March 1939 vacation.

With that kind of order from the boss, Lincoln workers began scurrying to hammer together what they believed to be a one-off custom job for the "big guy." The Lincoln craftsman assembled the unnamed car by hand and it was delivered to Florida on time. Within a couple of weeks, Edsel cabled back to Dearborn that the new styling was so well-accepted by the monied set that he could sell a thousand of them.


Tjaarda also designed the Cortez, which was built between 1947-1950 in Dallas, Texas by North American Motors.


The story of the Zephyr, like that of all great concepts, begins with an individual and an idea.  The idea was that of aerodynamic design, and the individual was John Tjaarda.  Born in Holland, Tjaarda was educated in England, and studied aerodynamics under Dr. Alexander Klemin.  Tjaarda served as a pilot instructor in the Royal Dutch Air Corps, and worked as an engineer for Fokker Aircraft.  He came to the United States in 1923, where he first did custom auto body portfolios for affluent Hollywoodites.  At Locke & Company, he worked as a coach designer on the Pierce-Arrow, and for a short time on the Duesenberg.  Over the years, John had developed his own idea about aerodynamically clean body designs.  He referred to his new designs as the "Sterkenburg series," a name taken from his Friesland family home, the Tjaarda van Sterkenburg estate.  The original design concept working sketch, called the Sterkenburg C-3, was drawn up in 1926.  The "C" stood for "carcass" which was Tjaarda's term for a unit body construction.

In 1930, Tjaarda met and went to work for Harley Earl at the newly formed Art & Color Studio of General Motors.  For the upcoming Chicago World's Fair, Earl held an in-house design contest.  From this competition came the classic V-16 Cadillac, but the also-rans were Gordon Buehrig's Cord 810, Phil Wright's Silver Arrow, and John Tjaarda's forerunner to the Zephyr.  Harley Earl showed very little interest in Tjaarda's design.  After several tries at obtaining financing to produce the new design, John accepted an offer to work for the W.O. Briggs Company.

By 1932, Model K Lincoln production had fallen off to the extent that Charles Sorensen advocated closing it down.  Briggs had been a major supplier to Ford, and wanted desperately to retain the Lincoln business.  They hired Howard Bonbright, a close personal friend of Edsel Ford, to head up a new Ford Policies and Relations Department.  John Tjaarda was given the green light to secretly develop a new design for presentation to the progressive-minded Edsel Ford.  Briggs believed in the unit body design concept, but wanted Edsel to champion its cause to Sorensen and the senior Ford. 

"Cast-Iron Charlie" and "Ol' Henry" did not accepted new ideas very well.  The development at Briggs continued under wraps on the fifth floor with frequent visits from Edsel.  The security problem was complicated by the fact that Briggs was also currently building parts for Chrysler.

Three proposals were prepared for the new unit body Lincoln.  The first was a rear-engine car which resembled a large streamlined Volkswagen Beetle.  (The VW Beetle was not yet in production.  It is likely, however, that Dr. Porsche borrowed from the Sterkenburg concepts for his Peoples Wagon.)  The second unit-body design was similar in appearance to the first, but with a more conventional front engine and standard drivetrain. 

The third design draft was of a convertible coupe which incorporated basically the same lines as the previous two sedan designs.  This convertible coupe design would ultimately become the Zephyr Continental.  The unit body concept held much promise for Lincoln.  It might, indeed, enable Lincoln to produce a large luxury automobile for far fewer dollars.  A full-size prototype, complete with rear-mounted V-8 engine, was constructed.  This wooden mock-up was introduced to the public at the Ford Exhibition of Progress in New York City during December 1933.  The car then toured the United States via Lincoln-Ford dealers, and ended up in the Ford Rotunda at the 1934 world exposition held in Chicago.  Called the Century of Progress, this World's Fair had opened in 1933.  It stretched a half-mile along the Chicago shoreline of Lake Michigan.  Emphasis was on the application of science and industry in everyday living.  Ford marketing personnel mingled with the crowd and ask questions of prospective purchasers in an effort to obtain the public's opinion of how successful a new streamlined Lincoln automobile might be.  Edsel had done a good selling job on Henry and Sorensen, but Ford engineers held out for the more conventional front-engine design.  As it turned out, the public seemed to agree with them.

The Sterkenburg Series was not alone in the race to streamline the automobile.  Walter Chrysler had commissioned two Trifon Special prototypes in 1932.  These would become the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows.  Alexander Klemin, Tjaarda's former professor, was brought to the United States to do the analytical equations on the design for the new unit body Chrysler Airflow.  It was over these equations that Klemin and Tjaarda had disagreed years before.  Tjaarda disliked complicated mathematical calculations, and used a method which he referred to as "guessomatics."  As it turned out, Klemin over-stressed the Airflow, which resulted in a heavy and somewhat sluggish automobile.  On the Sterkenburg design, Tjaarda managed to guess pretty accurately.  The result was the large and lightweight unit body chassis design which became the Lincoln Zephyr.  Some areas proved to be too lightweight.  One example is the forward floor plates, which should have been of heavier gauge steel.  However, better drainage of water seeping in through dried windshield gaskets might have accomplished considerably more in preserving these floor panels.  It is rare to find a Zephyr or Continental without rusted-out or partially rusted floor plates.

Marvin E. Arnold - Lincoln & Continental Classic Motorcars: The Early Years



For more information please read:

Marvin E. Arnold - Lincoln & Continental Classic Motorcars: The Early Years

Carroll Gantz - 100 Years of Design

Biographies of Prominent Carriage Draftsmen - Carriage Monthly, April 1904

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

Daniel D. Hutchins - Wheels Across America: Carriage Art & Craftsmanship

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

Michael Lamm and Dave Holls - A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design

Nick Georgano - The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile: Coachbuilding

George Arthur Oliver - A History of Coachbuilding

George Arthur Oliver - Cars and Coachbuilding: One Hundred Years of Road Vehicle Development

Hugo Pfau - The Custom Body Era

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Car

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Era

Richard Burns Carson - The Olympian Cars

Brooks T. Brierley - Auburn, Reo, Franklin and Pierce-Arrow Versus Cadillac, Chrysler, Lincoln and Packard

Brooks T. Brierley - Magic Motors 1930

James J. Schild - Fleetwood: the Company and the Coachcraft

John R. Velliky - Dodge Brothers/Budd Co. Historical Photo Album

Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 1

Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 2

Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 3

Dennis Adler - The Art of the Sports Car: The Greatest Designs of the 20th Century

C. Edson Armi - The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities

C. Edson Armi - American Car Design Now

Penny Sparke - A Century of Car Design

John Tipler - The World's Great Automobile Stylists

Ivan Margolius - Automobiles by Architects

Jonathan Bell - Concept Car Design

Erminie Shaeffer Hafer - A century of vehicle craftsmanship

Ronald Barker & Anthony Harding - Automobile Design: Twelve Great Designers and Their Work

John McLelland - Bodies beautiful: A history of car styling and craftsmanship

Frederic A. Sharf - Future Retro: Drawings From The Great Age Of American Automobiles

Paul Carroll Wilson - Chrome Dreams: Automobile Styling Since 1893

David Gartman - Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design

Nick Georgano - Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work

Matt Delorenzo - Modern Chrysler Concept Cars: The Designs That Saved the Company

Thom Taylor - How to Draw Cars Like a Pro

Tony Lewin & Ryan Borroff - How To Design Cars Like a Pro

Frederick E. Hoadley - Automobile Design Techniques and Design Modeling: the Men, the Methods, the Materials

Doug DuBosque - Draw Cars

Jonathan Wood - Concept Cars

D. Nesbitt - 50 Years Of American Auto Design

David Gartman - Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design

Lennart W. Haajanen & Karl Ludvigsen - Illustrated Dictionary of Automobile Body Styles

L. J. K Setright - The designers: Great automobiles and the men who made them

Goro Tamai - The Leading Edge: Aerodynamic Design of Ultra-Streamlined Land Vehicles

Brian Peacock & Waldemar Karwowski - Automotive Ergonomics

Bob Thomas - Confessions of an Automotive Stylist

Brooke Hodge & C. Edson Armi - Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays

Gordon M. Buehrig - Rolling sculpture: A designer and his work

Henry L. Dominguez - Edsel Ford and E.T. Gregorie: The Remarkable Design Team...

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl (Design Heroes Series)

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl and the Dream Machine

Serge Bellu - 500 Fantastic Cars: A Century of the World Concept Cars

Raymond Loewy - Industrial Design

Raymond Loewy - Never Leave Well Enough Alone

Philippe Tretiack - Raymond Loewy and Streamlined Design

Angela Schoenberger - Raymond Loewy: Pioneer of American Industrial Design

Laura Cordin - Raymond Loewy


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